"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More Meta-Journalism

So I had the pleasure and the privilege of watching Jay Rosen at SXSWi today. With exquisite timing, his topic was "The Psychology of Bloggers vs Journalists". In some ways his talk missed the mark of our recent multithreaded feud.

The talk was immensely interesting, though. Apparently the journalist/blogger feud runs deep and dark in the more mainstream press areas. Jay claims that each group defines itself in opposition to the other; journalists as professionals who have been trained to neutrality, bloggers as casual and emotional and impulsive. He has some great examples.

I feel a need to take exception to this one, though:
I’ve said that bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal “other.” From the blogger’s side, the conflict with journalists helps preserve some of that ragged innocence (which is itself a kind of power) by falsely locating all the power in Big Media. Here’s another blogger in Columbus, talking about the same newspaper editor:
Note to Ben Marrison: If you want to pretend that you, as a professional journalist, are somehow better than political bloggers … because you are less biased and less lazy then you might consider actually NOT being both lazy and biased while writing online rants for the world to see.

Don’t you know that’s OUR job?
We can be lazy and biased. For we are young and irresponsible. You are supposed to be the grown-ups here. This keeps at bay a necessary thought: we all have to grow up… someday.
No, Jay, see, that was sarcasm.

And this is why, though the talk was first rate, it doesn't help us in our quandary. Because in the climate world, it's us science-aware bloggers who are holding the candle for the traditional journalistic value of evaluating the truth.

See, while false balance is what tipped me over the line (as far as science journalism goes, I am a genuine replacenik - I feel that the needs of the field simply aren't being served by existing institutions in a remotely adequate way) explicit false balance is not the problem. The problem, as with so much else these days, is with the press being incapable of challenging substantively incorrect statements. For instance, the he-say-she-say of the recent congressional hearing was duly, if unenthusiastically reported by all concerned (myself included). But there really is a story here. John Christy's testimony was at the very best egregiously and systematically in error. This falls under the old journalistic purview of challenging bunk.

I have heard the suggestion that the press challenging bunk just serves the perverse process of lodging the bunk in susceptible minds. This may be true in the case of isolated bunk. But we are looking at a bunk tsunami, and the press seems absolutely obsessed with finding little bugs on the other side (a Grist article being a recent cause celebre, for God's sake) and not pointing to the Mothra sized problems on the side of the so-called skeptics, whom most competent reporters on the beat know to be, for the most part, charlatans.

Yet, based both on the anecdotal evidence of my own ears and the polling evidence I have seen, most of the public doesn't know this. And it's not this or that article that is good or bad. It is the totality of the impression they have. Our complaint then is not with any individual reporter, but with the institution of the press in North America. (There is a different complaint entirely to be leveled at the British press, by the way.)

So the irony is that it's the bloggers demanding that journalists do the hard work of verifying public claims in climate science, and as I understand it, in other areas as well. This turns Jay's version of events on its head. We bloggers aren't offended by the voicelessness of the press; we are offended by the ballslessness of it. The view from nowhere is constantly capitulating to the view form somewhere, to the point where a good slice of the public is happily and habitually swallowing the most egregious lies. An objective voice isn't our problem; the fact that the objective voice actively refuses to be objective when one side is shamelessly manipulating them is our problem.

Sure, you can say, Tom Yulsman did a better job than the Grist article he critiques did. He verified with a competent scientist that there was no way the gigantic Japanese quake had anything to do with global warming. Kudos for that. An excessive article on Grist is thus put to rest. Now will Tom, or someone like him, put the same kind of effort into investigating Christy's testimony to congress as he does into a bout of excess on an activist website?

I will be happy to see such a thing but experience tells me I probably will not.

I remain a huge fan and supporter of Jay Rosen's, but perhaps not quite as much as before. I think his talk of the "view from nowhere" is crucially valuable. But I think the due diligence of the professional journalist that he defends in this very clever and insightful but in the end oddly symmetrical piece, is not actually what we see. Surely not every blogger is a champion of claim testing and truth telling, nor is every champion of claim testing and truth telling on the blogger side. Far from it. But on the whole, the demands for rigor do not seem to me to be mostly coming from the conventional press.

I did corner him in the hallway and attempt to raise this with him. He seemed distracted and in a hurry so I didn't get much out of him. He acknowledged my point without really addressing it in as much depth as I'd have liked. I hope he takes it up at some point.

I should point out that ThingsBreak has outlined a sort of a truce at Keith's and John Fleck finds it attractive. I'm not sure I'm buying it as it stands - I don't think I agree with TB's take on it. But I'm struggling to capture my thoughts of the day in response to the firehose of input from South by Southwest, so I won't have much more to say about it than this for a while.

Moderation is off. Have at it, but recall that Blogger does not allow for editing comments. I reserve the right to erase any comment containing attacks ad hominem or language that could reasonably be expected to enervate opponents more than is necessary to make the substantive point.


Anonymous said...

MT, if you ask me, the main difference -- perhaps the only difference -- between the mainstream print press and blogging is the former expects each piece to be a relatively finished whole, while blogs are a much freer format more suited for 'developing' stories with loose ends, short scribblings, and stuff. I'm sure there are pros and cons to each format, but keep in mind that the issue of format is really orthogonal to the issue of substance. And in the end, truth itself has no intrinsic format.

Meanwhile, instead of indulging in meta-journalism, meta-meta-journalism, or meta-meta-meta-journalism (yo dawg), I prefer to simply ditch all this stuff and try to do some investigative reporting instead. Apropos are Anna Haynes's links to two journalism manuals, and I intend to closely study at least one of them and put it into practice.

-- frank

Anna Haynes said...

But Frank, re meta-meta-meta, if the lever MT is pushing on can move, it helps communication to make a lot of progress. It's worth doing, esp. by him since he is rather superbly suited to express this stuff. Your&my highest&best use lies elsewhere.

my 2c though - the journofolk do like to frame it as amateur vs pro, rather than as knowledge domain expert vs parachuter-in.

Recent classic view from a member of the pro camp: where non-pros (citizen journalists) can contribute, is by providing raw information for the pros to assemble & analyze.

Anna Haynes said...

s/express/assess & express/

EliRabett said...

The Mims article on Gist and Yulsman's response to it is an affirmation of everything Eli and thee have been saying. They just haven't figured it out yet.

manuel moe g said...

[Part 1 of 2]

[Guilty again of using your comments section to work out my thoughts, with no thought given to how foolish I look. I respect your comment section, even as I pollute it. ;-)]

Bloggers: when your viewpoint is irrelevant, it is pretty easy to silently sneak away, lick your wounds, and fade into total obscurity.

Journalists: because you have staked out a career (paid or unpaid), you have to stick to your guns even if your viewpoint is irrelevant. Your individual voice prevents you from doing a 180deg turn of your description of an event, even if new information warrants it.

Scientists: a career under the expected strict discipline of making your current viewpoint consistent with the best currently available facts - if not this then loudly announcing your own irrelevancy and giving the names of the current specialists. (Works better in theory than in practice - the famous story of Fermi thinking a fission chain reaction was impossible, but just the tiniest hint of a doubt led him to work out the successful experiment - famous because having your beliefs susceptible to modification from a self-initiated long chain of reasoning is _so_ rare and the mark of a great man.)

manuel moe g said...

[Part 2 of 2]

I was thinking about this because I feel I may have given too much credit to the journalists you criticized. Their work displays a pattern of:

* unwillingness to radically revise their position even in the face of facts that warrant it.

* if a blogger dare question (or even threaten) the status of a journalist (think Joe Romm with KK), that journalist can *never* agree on *any* position with that blogger, even if the facts are on the blogger's side. And the journalist may even try to argue the opposite of the blogger, even if it makes the journalist look silly and shrill because the blogger has the facts on his side on this particular point.

* total credulity in taking the opinion of the privileged and powerful about what is the bounds of "reasonable" debate, even if the facts suggest otherwise.

[I think I drift into being too unfair here...] All these points make it unlikely that a journalist will be a friend to truth and an enemy to duplicity. Because we do not have many example of journalists being "big" people (generous to critics). Because journalists typically have to "borrow" their elevated status from publishers, so they must jealously guard their position at all times, and meticulously attend to their outward popular appearance.

These can be used as "tests" to gauge the likeness that a particular journalist will be susceptible to improvement of their thinking and judgement about a topic. Some fail miserably, so any cajoling will be like whipping a dead horse.

Am I off base here?