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.