prof. e.

Mass Communication, [multi]media, methodology and much, much more!

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

The News Media Bubble

Posted by prof e on April 26, 2017

Politico, a left-leaning web magazine, just published an essay about the bubble in which journalists live. According to the authors the bubble is not just geographic, but also ideological. According to Politico, the media bubble served to insulate journalists from the people and issues that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump. For most journalists it was not an issue of whether Hillary Clinton would win, but by how great a margin. Was it perhaps because they didn’t understand what was happening across the country? According to Politico,

Nearly 90 percent of all internet publishing employees work in a county where Clinton won, and 75 percent of them work in a county that she won by more than 30 percentage points.

Another essay, this one by pollster and statistician Nate Silver, (the golden boy of recent electoral race coverage), makes the argument that the national media were the victims of group think leading up to the 2016 Presidential election. Silver’s essay spends some time reviewing a premise introduced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki’s thesis is that networking theory, applied to information flow, can yield superior results given certain conditions. Whether the crowd is professional journalists or citizen journalists, the idea is that collective wisdom is superior to the wisdom of any one member of the group. That is fine if the conditions are met. If not, group-think, an idea popularized in the 1970s by Irving Janis, leads to poor judgement and low-quality decision-making. According to Janis,

the more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups. (https://web.archive.org/web/20100401033524/http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/faculty/macdonald/GroupThink.pdf)

Both articles point to a serious problem for national media coverage of politics. More than ever, national journalists are more highly educated, more liberal, less religious, richer, younger, more urban, and much more likely to live in communities with like-minded neighbors. The liberal, coastal, elite journalist is becoming the norm when it comes to national media coverage, and that is a problem for the future of the industry. Some have argued that this trend has led to an erosion of trust and created a credibility vacuum where fake news and lies can thrive.

This was not always the case. Journalists have not always been so out of touch with the audience that they serve. The failure of local and regional newspapers is a significant contributing factor. According to Politico, labor statistics are a clear indication of the trend.

In late 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term, these two trend lines—jobs in newspapers, and jobs in internet publishing—finally crossed. For the first time, the number of workers in internet publishing exceeded the number of their newspaper brethren. Internet publishers are now adding workers at nearly twice the rate newspaper publishers are losing them.

As news shifts from local newspapers and local reporters who reflected their communities’ values, to national news organizations located in major metropolitan centers on the coasts, it has becoming increasingly likely that the news that we’re consuming on social media and television is out of touch with mainstream values and main street sensibilities.

 

Another theory that may be useful to understand what is happening is Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence theory. According to this theory, unpopular ideas are pushed to the margins, where they slowly lose favor and spiral downward to eventual silence. We’re fine with this if it’s a bad idea, one that does not deserve to be sustained. But what about when an unpopular idea is silenced because those in authority don’t want to give it a hearing? What about unpopular ideas that are banished to the margins because groupthink has created a hostile climate for those kinds of ideas? What if the lack of ideological diversity in our newsrooms creates an echo chamber that drowns out dissenting voices?

Conservatives have consistently accused the national media of having a liberal bias, and that appears to be supported by these essays. But I’ll close with this quote from the Politico article…

Resist—if you can—the conservative reflex to absorb this data and conclude that the media deliberately twists the news in favor of Democrats. Instead, take it the way a social scientist would take it: The people who report, edit, produce and publish news can’t help being affected—deeply affected—by the environment around them. Former New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent got at this when he analyzed the decidedly liberal bent of his newspaper’s staff in a 2004 column that rewards rereading today. The “heart, mind, and habits” of the Times, he wrote, cannot be divorced from the ethos of the cosmopolitan city where it is produced. On such subjects as abortion, gay rights, gun control and environmental regulation, the Times’ news reporting is a pretty good reflection of its region’s dominant predisposition. And yes, a Times-ian ethos flourishes in all of internet publishing’s major cities—Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Washington. The Times thinks of itself as a centrist national newspaper, but it’s more accurate to say its politics are perfectly centered on the slices of America that look and think the most like Manhattan.

Something akin to the Times ethos thrives in most major national newsrooms found on the Clinton coasts—CNN, CBS, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, Politico and the rest. Their reporters, an admirable lot, can parachute into Appalachia or the rural Midwest on a monthly basis and still not shake their provincial sensibilities: Reporters tote their bubbles with them.

 

Advertisements

Posted in ethics, journalism, media effects, media industry, new media, politics | Leave a Comment »

Picking a Fight

Posted by prof e on February 19, 2017

President Trump crossed a line and ruffled a lot of feathers the other day with a tweet that called “the FAKE NEWS media” … the “enemy of the American people.” Admittedly, President Trump and journalists are both suffering a crisis of credibility. According to a recent poll of registered voters, it is a statistical tie when it comes to who they trust to tell the truth (45% to 42%, +/- 3%).

But as we consider who’s winning this war of attrition, let’s be clear about two thing; 1) the press plays an important and essential role in our democratic process as a check and balance on power (see earlier blog posts here and here). And 2) Presidents throughout history have had adversarial relationships with the press. Nearly every US President has a quote (or two or three) that captures their frustration with the folks whose job is to hold them accountable.

This should come as no surprise. Any administration trying to advance its agenda will be annoyed when journalists challenge their assumptions, ask difficult questions, and hold their feet to the fire. In response Presidents have deployed various tactics to take their message directly to the people…bypassing the traditional media whenever possible. FDR had his fireside chats, Trump has his Twitter account, and every president has used the bully pulpit, e.g., the State of the Union address, to speak directly to the American public. (Regarding press conferences there’s even discussion about which news outlets are called on and whether the President is taking or not taking questions from certain media organizations based on their ideological leaning.) 

On a related note, leaks of classified information about the President and his staff  by members of the intelligence community (aka the “deep state”) have raised questions about anonymous sources and journalistic ethics. The NSA, CIA, FBI and the DHS have staff who appear to be willing to share inside information with members of the press when they uncover either illegal or unethical behavior that could put the nation at risk. The challenge for the press is to ensure that their inside sources are not selectively leaking information to further other, less noble, goals.

Back to the point of this post. Early on in his campaign President Trump decided to pick fights with the Washington establishment, with the intelligence community, and with the press. All three can do this administration great harm if and when they decide to punch back. But it may be the press who wield the strongest blow. In the words of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

#NotTheEnemy

 

Posted in journalism, politics | 9 Comments »

Alternative Facts and Rogue Tweets from Alt Federal Agencies

Posted by prof e on January 27, 2017

Journalists have their work cut out for them. With public faith in journalistic credibility at an all-time low and a combative White House that uses social media to circumvent traditional news channels, journalists are facing new challenges that have the potential to either make or break the industry.

A democracy depends on an information electorate, and information, for most of our recent history, has been the responsibility of a free and fair press. Newspapers, magazines, television networks, and internet websites have been the backbone of the journalistic enterprise in recent decades. Investigating and exposing corruption, reporting without bias, holding those in power to account…these are the responsibilities of a profession that is recognized and protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But more and more news consumers are turning to alternative sources of information, including social media and internet websites that frequently traffic in a different type of information.

Not all information is created equal and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain the value and credibility of the barrage of information that vies for our attention. Take for example the estimates of the size of the crowd attending the Presidential Inauguration. Competing claims, some with photographic evidence, were made by partisan sources and reported by journalists…facts and “alternative facts” if you will.

On Facebook the other day I followed a link to a report of a catastrophic pipeline rupture. A photograph was presented as evidence, calling into question the safety of the Dakota Access pipeline. But the article falsely represented a photo from 2010 (taken in Texas) as a current photo from a Pennsylvania spill by the company connected to the Dakota Access project. Regardless of whether you support or object to a pipeline near this Native American community, this is not journalism.

You may have seen the eruption on Twitter from various “alternative” governmental organizations after President Trump ordered a suspension of the official social media accounts. While these rogue accounts may be just that…actions of government employees acting on their own initiative on their own time…it is also possible that they are simply fake accounts created by partisans who are participating in a grass-roots resistance to the new administration.

As such they are newsworthy, but not for the same reason they would be if indeed they are actually the work of federal employees. According to one blog,

For now, at least, most of these unverified accounts seem to be pushing positive agendas: the climate change facts that many of them tweet are unequivocal, and the planned march of scientists on Washington promises to raise legitimate concerns about scientific progress in the United States. But a dejected left-wing and liberal group should remember that these accounts are emotionally gratifying, not edifying. Embracing such gratification without critical analysis veers close to the Trump administration’s embracing of “alternative facts” — lies that suit the narrative you’d prefer.

Disclaimer: the above quote is from The Verge, a website that has a mixed record as a credible source of news/information.

 

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, new media, politics, social media | 1 Comment »

Time for a New Theory of the Press?

Posted by prof e on January 12, 2017

Four Theories of the Press, published in 1956, was an attempt to explain the role of journalism in the modern world. Each of the four theories are established on the essential values and norms held by governments and citizens who consider the press an essential component of governance. Values that we hold dear are “normalized” by our policies and behavior. Governments, media corporations, and individuals all play a crucial role in determining which values are advanced over competing values.

Recently I came across a blog post from February, 2007 and a comment that I wrote in response. The blog is no longer being maintained, but my comment seems somehow relevant in lights of the current issues plaguing the profession of journalism. Here is the comment as posted nearly 10 years ago…

Press models have never been very good at describing the real world…and even less so now that access to vast quantities of raw, unfiltered information is the norm. Never in the history of communication has there been such unrestricted access to information…and access to the means of production. However, as we all know, information alone does not make for an informed public.

However, there are signs that the investigative reporting role of traditional media is in for a dramatic upheaval. Memogate was just one example of how the collective intelligence of the masses trumped big media. The Consumer-Generated Media model that makes Wikipedia a qualified success is being applied to a particular role played by journalists commonly known as whistle-blowing. Wikileaks.org is a website designed to give a voice to dissidents and critics of oppressive regimes…but may also be equally helpful at exposing corruption within democracies and Fortune 500 companies. One of the most important roles of the press in the Social Responsibility Model is that of watchdog…and now they have the potential to add hundreds and even thousands of eyes and ears of citizen reporters who already have access to closed systems. Sure there are a host of potential landmines…but if you believe that “information wants to be free” you have to believe that this is going to shake things up. This could get interesting.

I think we can agree that things have gotten interesting.

While watching President-elect Trump’s press conference yesterday I couldn’t help but think that the role of the press has never been more in question, and at the same time it has never been more important. In front of a room full of journalists, Trump declared CNN to be “fake news” and BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.” Just two days earlier Meryl Streep called for public support for the “principled press” to serve as a check and balance to the Trump presidency.*

Journalists are not only trying to figure out how to respond to an aggressive and combative President-elect, they are trying to rebuild credibility that is at an all-time low. At the same time they are divided about whether BuzzFeed’s publishing of the Trump oppo-research file helped or hurt the cause of journalists everywhere. One might argue that if you accept BuzzFeed’s rational for their decision it makes journalists unnecessary.

Which takes us back to the point of the blog comment above…the growth of citizen journalism, the explosion of social media, and an ever-more partisan press have created a perfect storm that makes the Social Responsibility function of the press much more difficult…if not impossible.

*For the record, I support the “principled press”…the challenge is figuring out who they are.

 

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, politics, regulation | 2 Comments »

Free Speech for All in a Fact-Free Era?

Posted by prof e on December 2, 2016

Overheard in a newsroom: “What is journalism even supposed to be now? We reported the facts, but they didn’t matter.” In case you didn’t hear, “post-truth” is Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. Here’s how they define it on their website. post-truth

The challenge for journalists, and really anyone who get to the bottom of things, is sorting out fact from fiction, reporting from commentary, and bias from perspective.

The problem with the newsroom quote above is that too many “journalists” DIDN’T report the facts. Or when they did, they didn’t put the facts in proper context. Added to that is that reality that nearly anyone can become a de facto journalist thanks to the wonders of modern digital media and social networks. Given a place to stand and a megaphone, the most strident voices have suddenly found themselves with the ability to sway opinions…even, perhaps, influence elections.

If it seems that this blog is stuck on this topic (see recent posts about fake news and fact-checking), you’re right. But this is important…and if we don’t get this right we’ll have to live with the consequences. What consequences you say? Well, for starters how about a future where ideological conflicts spill over into the streets…where discourse and discussion give way to hate-filled rhetoric designed to alienate and subjugate the opposition?

Unfortunately some of the proposed solutions may turn out to be worse than the problem. Giving social media platforms a reason and permission to edit users’ posts is a dangerous and slippery slope. Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithm and a team of editors deciding between fact and fiction, bias and perspective? We’ve already witnessed the failure of that approach earlier this year.

Recently Twitter booted accounts from those connected to the alt-right movement for “harassment and ‘hateful conduct,’ which includes “non-consensual slurs, epithets, racist and sexist tropes” and “behavior that incites fear about a protected group.”  This led the editors at Slate to ask if Facebook or Twitter might possibly ban President Trump. Twitter responded that it wouldn’t rule it out. As Slate said, “That’s a tough line from a company that once declared itself the ‘free speech wing of the free speech party.’” (BTW, the click-bait headline for this post might have been: “Twitter considers banning President Trump!”)

So where are we now? Some of the ejected Twitter users have moved to a new platform that promises greater freedom of speech. Gab.ai is, according to the New York Times, the far right’s “new digital safe space.” It’s much too early to tell if Gab has any legs, but if it does it will likely do little to advance dialog and understanding between those contending for the future of our country. Amanda Hess of the NYTimes sums it up nicely, “It’s the next logical step after all the blocking and muting on Twitter and filtering and unfollowing on Facebook split America into two social media realities. Where there once was a bubble, now there’s a wall.”

Posted in 1st amendment, ethics, interactive media, journalism, politics, regulation, social media | 1 Comment »

The Sky is FALLING…And You Won’t Believe Who’s Responsible!

Posted by prof e on November 23, 2016

misleading-fake-news-sitesThere’s been a lot of discussion lately about the potential danger of fake news. Apparently we’re a lot more gullible and susceptible to misinformation than anyone imagined, and IT IS KILLING DEMOCRACY! Okay, that conclusion may be overstating it a bit, but the number of media and political analysts who are wringing their hands over the outcome of the recent election seems to be growing. And seeking an explanation (or scapegoat), some are pointing the finger at fake news.

The proliferation of satire, fake news, clickbait, propaganda, and commentary masquerading as news is undeniable. While there have always been people with an agenda spreading lies and hearsay, the dynamics have changed in recent years. Social media platforms provide opportunities to people who, before social media, had to work a lot harder to gain an audience. For those familiar with Ryan Holiday’s “trading up the chain” approach to media manipulation, this should come as no surprise.

There have been quite a few excellent summaries of the issue. Some have questioned whether media platforms like Google and Facebook bear responsibility (here, here, and here); others have reported on specific case studies (here, and here), and efforts to combat (or at least categorize) the growing number of questionable sites (here). A new report from Stanford suggests that we have a lot of work to do while MediaShift proposes a role for journalism programs.

I have a few suggestions of my own.

  1. In a world where anyone can be a source of news, what we need is for everyone to behave like a journalist when confronted with new information. Remember the motto of skeptical journalists everywhere: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out!” We need more skepticism and less single-source research.
  2. For those of you who prefer social media for your news…because it’s free, quick, and often fun…remember that you get what you pay for. Unless you read in-depth from multiple and diverse sources you can’t consider yourself an informed consumer of news.
  3. Learn about confirmation bias and make a commitment to discovering your own vulnerability. Until we take a long, hard look in the mirror we have no right to point out the bias in others.
  4. And finally, don’t share anything on social media unless you’re willing to vouch for its accuracy and authenticity. That rule alone will do wonders to improve the overall news IQ of our democracy.

Posted in 1st amendment, ethics, journalism, media industry, new media, politics, regulation, social media | 1 Comment »

Looking for Someone/thing to Blame

Posted by prof e on November 10, 2016

Sorry, but this is another politically-themed blog post. I know that many of you have seen and heard enough after 18 months of political campaigns, debates, and negative ads; all of it adding up to what will likely be remembered as the most contentious election cycle in history.

But I need to take one more opportunity to discuss the role of the media in our democratic process. Our system of government depends on the participation of an informed electorate. Access to reliable information from non-partisan sources is essential to ensure a that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish” (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). According to Martin Baron, executive editor at the Washington Post, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning democracy?” (NYT)

I received an email today with a list of recommended articles. whichoneHere’s a screen shot of two of them. I don’t know Max Read or Mike Masnick, but one of them is, apparently, an idiot. But seriously, they can’t both be right…unless they are. It is certainly true that social media has been a game changer for political campaigning, and Donald Trump and his surrogates have been incredibly effective. But it is also true that there are many other dynamics that explain the outcome of this race.

There is a growing sense that the election this week was revolutionary. The fact that most of the reporters, commentators, pollsters, and pundits were caught off guard by the outcome is remarkable as well. Some have speculated that journalists seem to be more out of touch than ever with rural folk in the country’s heartland (what some dismiss as the flyover states) and that could have something to do with it. Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post claimed that most journalists just didn’t get it, weren’t listening, or were unable to comprehend the depth of support for Trump.

Now that the dust is settling…or at least we hope it’s settling…there is a lot of debriefing, navel-gazing, and yes, finger-pointing going on. For those in the media looking for an explanation there has to be something or someone responsible for this mind-boggling outcome. One place receiving special scrutiny is social media, and more specifically, Facebook. According to Will Oremus at Slate and Damon Beres at Mashable, Facebook’s inability or unwillingness to police its Trending news and news feed for fake news is leading many Facebookers astray.

According to Beres, While it’s obviously impossible to define how exposure to certain articles, video or photographs impacts an individual’s life, it’s downright cynical to suggest it all has zero effect.

Beres goes on to cite a study by PEW Research that suggests that “20 percent of Americans have changed their views on an issue because of something they’ve seen on social media.”

Like I said, there will be plenty of finger-pointing in the coming days, weeks and months. Some of them right now are being pointed at Facebook and other social media platforms. One thing is clear…social media is a force to be reckoned with.

Posted in journalism, media effects, politics, social media | 1 Comment »

The Cubs and Indians Gave Us a Much-Needed Break

Posted by prof e on November 4, 2016

mlb-2000-ws-trophy-590The seven-game race for the MLB championship was a much-needed break from this year’s ugly race for President. Thankfully the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians gave us a welcome diversion from the bare-knuckle politics that have dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Winning a major-league championship is a big deal, and winning after a 108-year drought is even bigger.

So let’s take just a minute to reflect on the state of nation, and media, the last time the Cubs won the World Series (in 1908).

  1. Yellow journalism was still the norm…and the Spanish-American war had just ended 10 years earlier.
  2. The wild west was slowly being tamed. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were killed in Bolivia just a few weeks after the Cubs won the World Series. And the State of Colorado had only been a state for 32 years.
  3. It was an election year, and William Howard Taft was running against William Jennings Bryan. Taft, the Republican, won. Women were allowed to vote in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, but not elsewhere.
  4. Human flight was taking off (pardon the pun). Wilbur Wright demonstrated his plane in Europe for the first time in 1908.
  5. Model T’s were available from the Ford Motor Company in any color you wanted, as long as you wanted black.
  6. Émile Cohl makes the first fully animated film, Fantasmagorie.
  7. Journalist Edward R. Murrow was born.

 

(Credit: http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-11-03/what-world-was-when-cubs-last-won-world-series)

Posted in journalism, politics, sports | Leave a Comment »

Private Lies Exposed

Posted by prof e on October 12, 2016

A journalist’s job is to find and report the truth. Assuming for a moment that “the truth” exists and can be found and identified as such, journalists still face a plethora of challenges as they go about their work. For starters, the truth can be inconvenient. Thanks to Al Gore, the inconvenience of truth is now forever linked to a particular issue; global warming. But every issue has its inconvenient aspects. For example, a journalist may uncover a fact that runs counter to her personal values or beliefs. Or, a discovery may reveal a truth that defies simple explanation.

Of course a truth revealed can also be terribly inconvenient for the news maker. Celebrities, politicians, and others in the public eye are constantly trying to manage their public perception…which is often at odds with their private reality. Last week’s revelations from Wikileaks and NBC/Access Hollywood have been very inconvenient for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively for obvious reasons. The leaks, while damaging, do not break new ground but rather reinforce existing concerns about Clinton’s propensity for lying and Trump’s sexist and demeaning behavior towards women.

In each case the public figure is damaged when the private self is suddenly revealed. This is, of course, most pronounced when the public and private selves are substantially at odds with each other. The greater the difference, the more pronounced the conflict when the private self is exposed. This kind of hypocrisy, of which we are all guilty on some level, can derail a public figure when it spins out of control. The public demands authenticity, or at least something closely resembling it, from their leaders.

Journalists are often the ones who have the dirty job of pointing out hypocrisy wherever and whenever it exists…even when it is found in “their” candidate…or themselves.

Posted in ethics, journalism, media industry, politics | 13 Comments »

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

Posted by prof e on October 4, 2016

truthmeterMass media are essential to the process of democracy. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” only works if the people know what’s going on…and the media provide the primary channels for that information. Of course the implication is that the mass media do their jobs in a responsible way, avoiding partisan bias and manipulation by outside interests. The brunt of this responsibility falls on journalists. Whether they work for newspapers, TV networks, or internet websites, reporters who cover the political beat are the eyes and ears of the American electorate. Ideally they report what they see and hear without speculation or conjecture.

In a political season such as this, journalists must be particularly careful when covering candidates who use every trick in the book to manipulate the media and advance their message. When candidates stretch the truth (often to the breaking point) journalists in a live reporting situation must make an effort to call out the error.

But fact checking candidates and their surrogates can be tricky business. While partisans may think that every statement by their political opponents is a flat-out lie, it is seldom that clear-cut. Journalists must have enough command of the facts to catch the easy calls, and the aid of researchers, aka fact-checkers, to parse the more difficult cases. This is not easy. NBC’s Matt Lauer was heavily criticized for pushing back too hard when interviewing Hillary Clinton for the Commander-In-Chief Forum, and NBC’s Lester Holt was criticized for fact-checking Donald Trump but not Hillary Clinton in the first presidential debate last week.

Fortunately journalists, and the public, have additional resources at their disposal. Independent fact-checking organizations have stepped up to provide non-partisan, independent fact-checking of politicians and other news-makers. Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter is one example. Here’s a short (light-hearted) video that explains how it works.

Posted in ethics, journalism, politics | 6 Comments »