Saturday, September 5, 2009

What's the link between virtual discussion, civic engagement?

Just skimmed over the recent report on The Internet and Civic Engagement from The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project (available here). Interesting stuff about how civic engagement generally and online posting about political issues are correlated. It definitely will require a deeper read.

I'm especially interested to see if it sheds any light on something that I think is a critical, but under-rated, aspect of the whole issue surrounding online civic engagement: the question of causality.

In other words, are people who are just naturally inclined (for whatever reason) to become social/political activists using the Internet as one more tool to communicate, the way earlier generations of activists used newsletters, phone-trees, mailing lists, etc.? Or, does the ability to build communities of interests around specific agendas (political or otherwise) using interactive online communcation really lead people to become engaged in civic matters when they otherwise would not have done so (if the online tools weren't there)?

I've tried to explore some of this in my own research and the evidence I've seen on it is kind of mixed, but leans toward the first of those approaches; i.e., that people tend to be civic activists first. Joining social networks, discussion forums, and the like is just a natural progression for them, building on their innate interests to become involved. Despite the ease and efficiency of becoming "virtually engaged" in civic matters, the Internet isn't creating large-scale civic engagement out of nothing as some of the "cyberutopians" predicted it might back in the early days of its development.

There probably isn't a definitive answer here, and in fact there may be causal influences both ways -- that someone with a mild tendency to be engaged who participates in online civic engagement strengthens that natural tendency, which makes them even more inclined to become more engaged virtually. In other words, a feedback loop develops.

Like I said, it will be interesting to read the Pew report more thoroughly to see if it says anything about these issues. If anyone has any thoughts or ideas about this or suggestions for other research in the area to look at, I would be interested to hear them.

PS: Thank you to Len Witt at for his post about this, which led me to it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Torn between two approaches to reading assignments

This is an interesting read, about the idea of letting students choose what they want to read -- even comic books as middle-school-level "literature" vs. assigning them the "classics." The story does a good job of setting out the pros and cons.
In my view (not the story writer's) the disadvantage is an inevitable dumbing down of the classwork. But, on the plus side, at least they are reading something. If students are not reading at all in the assigned-book model, is that even worse than reading lower-grade material?

Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like
NYT Week in Review Aug. 30, 2009

Saturday, August 8, 2009

What I learned in Boston

Just returned from four days at at annual convention of Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), held in Boston this week (Aug. 5-8). I've been a member of AEJMC since 2003 and attended every convention since then. They're always great fun, reconnecting with friends/colleagues from around the country whom I've met at prior conventions and establishing new friendships as well.

Here are a few ideas or recurring themes that seemed to stand out from some of the sessions I attended.

The two ideas about the future of newspapers that appear to be reaching a consensus are (1) that editors finally seem to "get it" in terms of the industry being in a new situation that requires a different apporach to doing journalism; and (2) that there is no single approach that is going to solve the industry's problems (or even a clear path to one).

Several times I heard top editors, from well-known and respected news organizations such as the Boston Globe, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Miami Herald and Christian Science Monitor say that what the industry is embarking on is an era of experimentation. Some experiments will succeed, others will fail. Until they're implemented and allowed to run for a while, there's no way of telling which way these innovations will turn out.

What's heartening is to hear editors talk this way. Newspapering is an industry that historically has been averse to innovation. But editors who recognize that there's no turning back the clock are now open to the idea of trying things that a decade ago would have been unimaginable, such as the Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach papers combining their efforts on certain stories rather than using depleted staffs in inefficient, competitive ways.

Newspaper leaders also seem to recognize that audience contributions to the news mix are desirable and invaluable. During a session involving four top editors from the Boston area, talk turned several times to story comments, with a range of opinions from the editors including some positive assessments. The value that newspapers can add is aggregation, filtering and guidance to the worthwhile elements in the glut of audience-created content.

And journalistic innovation is happening outside of the legacy news organizations as well, of course. The conference featured a well-attended session on non-profit models for journalistic coverage which, while also not a panacea, are one of those experiments that may bear fruit. Several times I heard discussion about the need for those interested in journalism today to be "entrepreneurial;" staff reductions from legacy organizations create opportunities for those with good ideas to fill the gaps left in the coverage.

Among educators, the debate over teaching basics vs. teaching modern technical skills rages on. Even though knowledge of certain media production software (for publication design, Web design or audio or video editing) is a part of many modern jobs, it's unclear how much classroom time should be devoted to software training vs. nuts-and-bolts such as grammar, newsgathering and ethics. One clear message is that all communication programs need to have multimedia convergence incorporated thoroughout their curricula, since it touches all aspects of communication work.

For their part, some of the editors said they want to see students emerge from college with a better understanding of how the world works. That includes a better general understanding of the impacts of modern communication technology, and how it affects the world and the way people communicate with each other. This was something the editors rated as more important than knowing how to use a particular piece of software.

They also said the most valuable characteristic of a new journalist is something that can be developed but not really taught (as a piece of instructional content). This is that the best journalists have an innate sense of curiosity and desire to find out everything they can about the world around them.

That's one point on which there was consensus.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

What the "birther" controversy says about fact, opinion and verification

I find it amazing that the President Obama birth certificate controversy has gained such traction that it's still in the news nearly a year after it was first raised.

When it first came up during the election campaign, I discounted it as a weak attempt at a campaign smear by the far-right wing-nut, tinfoil-helmet crowd. I still think that's what it is, although instead of having the goal of undermining Obama's election, the purpose has become undermining his credibility.

Of course, what's put it back in the news is exposure on some national news programs, notably Lou Dobbs of CNN. Jon Stewart's recent send-up of the whole thing was terrific; my favorite part was when Stewart pointed out that CNN's most recent point-by-point debunking came from Kitty Pilgrim while she was filling in on Dobbs' show!

Of course, another part of the controversy is how CNN has stood by Dobbs, as illustrated in comments by network president Jonathan Klein to blogger Greg Sargent. (And, many thanks to @jayrosen_nyu for the Twitter post that led me to Sargent's piece.) In the article, Sargent writes that Klein told him Dobbs had presented “a few conversations with people representing a wide range of opinions.” (My italics added for emphasis - jr.)

Klein's statement is seriously flawed, on this fundamental account: what the "birthers" say is not, repeat NOT, a matter of opinion (and I'm flabbergasted that the head of a major news network can't tell the difference). Let me illustrate the difference for him.

The following are statements of opinion:
  • "Obama has done a terrific job in his first six months in office getting the country back on track."
  • "Obama's first six months have been nothing short of disastrous, and I fear for what the next several years will bring."
  • "Obama's health care plan is the fix we need now to a system that's gone way off the rails."
  • "Obama's health care plan will do nothing other than make a bad system worse."

The problem comes -- and this is evident in the birther controversy, but other areas of political discourse as well -- when people put the words "I think..." or "I believe ..." in front of some unsupported hypothesis or factual statement of dubious accuracy or authority, and justify it by calling it an opinion. Some examples, including one ridiculous one just to make the point:

  • "I believe the world is flat and the Sun revolves around it." (Debunked by every bit of scientific evidence known to humankind.)
  • "I think the mayor is a corrupt thug who takes bribes." (Either he is, or he isn't. Saying you think it doesn't make it true, any more than saying "I believe ..." in the previous example makes the world flat. And putting "I think" in front of it doesn't give you any extra leeway in expressing it in a public forum. You'd better not report such things about the mayor in any venue unless you can produce the evidence, preferably from a legal source such as court records.)
  • "It's my belief that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen."
Jonathan Klein may label that third statement an "opinion" in the context of defending Lou Dobbs' right to have people with "a range of opinions" on his show (i.e., those who believe that statement and those who don't). But that is NOT an opinion. Based on thoroughly researched evidence, it is an incorrect factual statement with the word "belief" in front of it. Klein may as well defend Dobbs' right to bring people on the show offering the "opinion" that the world is flat. The statements are functionally equivalent.

What this illustrates about flaws in our general discourse is the following: under the guise of "everyone is entitled to express an opinion," a great many people spew false facts and various conclusions based on flawed evidence and bad logic, vigorously defending their privilege to make such expressions. But that doesn't make these "facts" and conclusions valuable contributions to the public sphere; rather they serve to clutter it and make political discourse more confused and cumbersome.

This should not be construed as an attack on free expression or the right of people to hold and express opinions; as a journalist and journalism instructor I absolutely respect and support those rights. But I am trying to make a point about the importance of verification in the process, a quality generally associated with traditional media who still (as near as I can tell) operate under the mantra of "try to get it first, but be sure to get it right." In the free-range expression of the mediasphere that doesn't follow this mantra, a great deal of information unburdened by context, support or verification poses as "fact." It's how things such as the "birther" controversy get started, and gain traction.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Limits of Citizen Journalism

A breakfast conversation with my wife prompted me to some observations about the limits of citizen journalism.

The following is one part disclosure/one part necessary background to understand the situation: My wife, Missy, is a citizen journalist. She blogs under the auspices of our local paper, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle and also contributes to a hyperlocal site that covers our community of Webster, NY.

Our morning ritual includes reading the morning paper -- in print -- over breakfast. (Admitting this probably says more than I should about our age/generation.) An ongoing story that the paper has been covering in another local town (Greece, NY) concerns trouble in the police department there. A couple of officers have lost their jobs and been convicted of crimes; the chief has been suspended as part of an investigation into the hiring of these officers and his handling of the situations surrounding them.

So, as I read an update about this the other day, I looked across the breakfast table and asked Missy: if this were happening in Webster, would you be writing about it? Despite being only halfway through her first cup of coffee for the day, she just looked back with an expression that said: you're kidding, right?

In other words, as a citizen journalist, she wouldn't go anywhere near such a story. And I doubt she's alone. Missy has certain assets make her a very capable citizen journalist -- including a background in public relations that makes her very adept at collecting information and composing stories, and 25 years of marriage to a journalist/journalism professor that influences her ability to recognize stories (news judgment). If any citizen journalist could delve into such a community "trouble" story, it would be one with her skills and background. But she wouldn't, because she doesn't see that as her role or function. I think most citizen journalists would approach it the same way.

Which brings me to my point about limitations: if it weren't for the trained journalists, getting paid by a major organization (Gannett, in this case) who show up for work each day ready to tackle the "tough stuff" that falls outside of the umbrella accessible for citizen journalism coverage, we wouldn't hear about a great many of the police scandals and other vital news of our local communities. Citizen journalism can provide many benefits to community coverage by increasing the number of ears and eyes monitoring comings and goings and putting information about them out there. But there are certain stories it's just not going to touch.

On one level, this is not a startling observation; even the staunchest advocates of citizen journalism say they see it as a supplement or complement to traditional news organizations, rather than a replacement for them. But here is why I think it's a pertinent observation nonetheless: as news consumers have been caught up in a series of "next new things," from freely available text news on the Web to multimedia presentations to aggregation (e.g. Yahoo! News) to blogs to Twitter, newspapers have slid further and further down the list of "must" media in people's lives.

It almost doesn't matter that the citizen journalists themselves -- and the advocates and experts who promote and evaluate and research citizen journalism as a practice -- always carefully include the disclaimer "this won't replace traditional journalism." I say that because the people who really matter -- the audience -- don't get that drift. The heart of the financial crisis surrounding traditional newspapers is that too many people (and this might include some of those experts and advocates) see them as falling somewhere along a spectrum ranging from "optional" to "irrelevant" when it comes to regular news consumption; an ever-declining number of people see them as "irreplacable."

Almost 40 years ago* Joni Mitchell sang "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone ..." Will we be saying that about professional coverage of local news at some point in the not-too-distant future?

*"Big Yellow Taxi," 1970

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Social media's ties to journalism

Here's a link to another interesting article about linkages of social media and journalism, which appropriately enough came to be via a Twitter feed from my friends at AEJMC.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Jumping in to Social Media

In the beginning was the Web. Then came blogs, and Facebook, and lately Twitter. No question about it, social media is changing the face of communication and journalism.

That's why I've taken this page, which was a static listing of information about my work, and started using the blog features built into it for their intended purposes. My intention is update it with some frequency with observations about this changing milieu. (The depth of that intention and the frequency remain to be determined; right now the intention is strong to keep the frequency both regular and often ... but that's easier to say in July than to do in October.)

Actively engaging myself with these tools so that I can better teach about them is why I've also started a Twitter account (@JackRosenberry) and become more pro-active about regularly updating and using my LinkedIn account. I'll probably join Facebook as well, although I haven't to date.

So, let me start with a link to something I recently read that I see as a terrific summary of the current state of journalism education with regard to convergence. It's a column for the July 2009 AEJMC newsletter by Jane Singer of the University of Central Lancashire/University of Iowa, who's done a lot of work on digital journalism and convergence that can be found here. Many thanks to Jane for providing something that, in my view, is a really concise and cogent blueprint for how we should be preparing students for a converged environment.