In the minutes and hours following the Boston bombings, the media erupted with news, rumors, speculation – just what we’ve come to expect in this instant-access, instant-posting age. Truest to form was the knee-jerk maundering from the usual operators, who posted the rankest kind of rumors as fast as Twitter would permit. (No links to those, on purpose.) How do they live with themselves?
We’ve seen this again and again in recent times. Recall how a member of Congress was declared dead in the Tuscon shootings (by NPR and CNN, no less)? Recall the frothing BS that came immediately after the Newtown shootings? In retrospect, media creators — professionals and non-professionals alike — did some soul-searching after both of those.
It may be having an impact. After the Boston violence for the first time in my memory, I saw a knee-jerk response that moved in a gratifying direction: a host of cautions, including from media people, for all of us to wait for actual facts rather than rushing to judgment. These kinds of warnings were not unprecedented, of course – I and some others have been urging people to take a “slow news” approach in such situations – but I was struck by the large number I saw in the immediate aftermath of this event.
The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple cataloged some of the Twitter warnings. One of the best came from his colleague, Ezra Klein: “What we truly know right now is this is horrible. But be careful about retweeting things people think they know.”
I’ve been hearing this kind of thing lately from students, too. They know better than to believe what they hear and read, especially when it’s close in time to a major event. Slow news means taking a breath.
Of course, several hours later the media were looking for new news. I expect (and am already starting to see) a raft of speculation about suspects, motives, etc. It’s too much to ask news media to behave well for more than an hour or two. I’ll take that much, gladly.
Here’s one knee-jerk response we can almost guarantee, however. Law enforcement and national security people will seize on this to push their ongoing agenda to create a surveillance state where civil liberties are mostly a thing of the past.
My thoughts are with the victims and their families. Whatever we learn about who did this, much less why, let’s remember the human cost of this violence.
Meanwhile, as “consumers” of news, let’s recognize our individual obligation in these circumstances. Take a slow-news approach. Keep clicking the Refresh button in the browser. But wait for verified facts before you come to any conclusions.
(Corrected to fix misspelling of Eric Wemple’s name; ouch, sorry.)
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New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan tackles her paper’s unwillingness to use plain, accurate language in an almost hard-hitting post, “‘Targeted Killing,’ ‘Detainee’ and ‘Torture’: Why Language Choice Matters”. She asks editors about these choices and gets, sorry to say, mushy answers. She concludes:
When news organizations accept the government’s way of speaking, they seem to accept the government’s way of thinking. In The Times, these decisions carry even more weight.
Word choices like these deserve thoughtful consideration – and, at times, some institutional soul-searching.
By my reckoning, the Times could do a bunch more soul-searching.
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A New York Times editorial about newly confirmed CIA director John Brennan gets tough on Brennan and his allies regarding torture:
(A)t his Senate confirmation hearing in February, he appeared to be one of the few people (apart from maybe Dick Cheney and some other die-hard right-wingers) who thinks there is some doubt still about whether the Bush administration tortured prisoners, hid its actions from Congress and misled everyone about whether coerced testimony provided valuable intelligence.
The editorial writer might have added another large group of quasi-deniers to this list: the news media, including the New York Times’ own news pages, which for years have refused to call torture what it is.
In fact, the editorial links to an article the Times ran a day earlier. This piece, by Scott Shane, discussed a Senate report about U.S. practices. But while it edged closer to honesty than what we’ve seen before, Shane and his editors went into all kinds of contortions to avoid a simple, declarative statement on the topic. Look at the language.
- “…so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding…”
- “…Democratic critics of what they call a morally and practically disastrous experiment in torture…”
- “…Republican defenders who say the report is biased and fault President Obama for banning coercive interrogations…”
- “…brutal interrogations…”
- “…enhanced interrogation techniques…”
- and so on.
At one point, the article comes close to telling the literal truth, when it calls the Senate report
by far the most thorough examination of how the United States came to use nudity, cold, sleep deprivation, stress positions, wall-slamming and waterboarding, methods it had long condemned as abuse or torture.
The Times news pages have demonstrated utter journalistic cowardice for years on this topic. After 9/11, when the Bush administration insisted that it was employing “harsh interrogation techniques,” the Times joined the vast majority of major American news organizations that adopted this Orwellian language to describe techniques that are, in fact, torture by any rational definition — and which the U.S. has officially prosecuted as torture when used by others.
The Times’ behavior in this regard has been particularly reprehensible given the feeble excuse offered by the paper after a Kennedy School study made clear news organizations’ hypocrisy. The newspaper said it would be “taking sides” to use the correct language, unaware that channeling Orwell was itself taking sides.
The Times editorial page found its spine a while back. As the Brennan editorial shows, the editorial writers are allowed to call torture what it is, with none of the evasions the news page editors have insisted on for all these years.
As the Shane story this week makes apparent, the news sections staff members are beginning to recover their collective spine. His piece comes after a December article about Zero Dark Thirty, the movie that all but endorsed torture, when the Times referred to “CIA torture” in the headline, though the story itself bent over backwards not to follow suit in a direct way.
Someday the New York Times — America’s best and most important newspaper — will re-declare independence from whatever fear or calculation led it to be so cowardly for so long. May that day come sooner than later.
, New York Times
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The Washington Post says it’s ending the ombudsman’s job, formerly occupied by an independent full-time person, and replacing it with a “reader representative” post, staffed from inside the newspaper and reporting to the editor of the editorial pages. Publisher Katherine Weymouth writes, in part:
The representative will not write a weekly column for the page but will write online and/or in the newspaper from time to time to address reader concerns, with responses from editors, reporters or business executives as appropriate.
Beginning Monday, you may send questions or complaints to email@example.com. We know that media writers inside and outside The Post will continue to hold us accountable for what we write, as will our readers, in letters to the editor and online comments on Post articles.
In short, while we are not filling a position that was created decades ago for a different era, we remain faithful to the mission. We know that you, our readers, will hold us to that, as you should.
Faithful to the mission? Really?
First, an employee won’t be independent in any way that matters.
Second, the editorial pages of the Post have distinguished themselves — the op-ed columns in particular — as a bastion of mediocrity in recent years. The editor, who has no influence in the newsroom anyway, is hardly the right person to put in charge of this post — and in my own experience he’s been unwilling to correct even this blatant error in a Post editorial.
Finally, it’s not enough to say that media inside and outside the paper will hold it accountable if the organization isn’t really interested in being accountable.
(By the way, I can agree with Weymouth on at least this: The ombudsman’s traditional role makes no sense in a digital world. What does? Here’s what I told the New York Times, at the paper’s request, when it was considering how to move ahead imagining in this role.)
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This package of files (Mediactive Lesson Plans – a zip archive of about 18MB) is for teachers who want to help their students become more media literate in this digital age.
The package includes:
- Lesson plan documents (Word format)
- PowerPoint presentations
- WordPress files that let you easily create a WordPress.com site based on Mediactive. (Here’s a screenshot of what you’ll see after importing the file into a new WordPress install:
The lesson-plan project was created by Kristy Roschke, a former high-school teacher who’s now getting her PhD at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication; and Josh Sprague, who came up with the idea of creating a WordPress version. Huge thanks to both of them!
I hope you’ll find these useful — and that your students will, too. And please let us know how we can improve these teaching aids.
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Journalism you simply aren’t seeing in the traditional media anymore: Bill McKibben’s “Global Warmings Terrifying New Math“ is telling truth to a society that doesn’t want to hear it. Our grandchildren will loathe us for this and other thefts from their future, and they will be right.
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In a clear example of the asymmetry of power that now exists between Facebook and just about everyone else on the Web, check out the way The New York Times has handed a huge gift to the social networking giant: The Times is requiring that anyone who wants to be a “verified commenter” — and with that a higher form of commenting privileges — must a) have a Facebook account; and b) use that account for identity verification.
This is vastly, vastly better for Facebook than the Times. Given Facebook’s tendency to track what people do online whenever possible — something you can take for granted in this case, given the attractive (for marketers) demographics of Times readers — the company will gain deep insights into what these people read and buy.
What does the Times get? A bit of extra convenience, nothing more.
News organizations that use Facebook for login to comments and other features are unbelievably short-sighted. Which, of course, is absolutely nothing new.
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I published Mediactive a little over a year ago. The project, including the sale of publication rights in Japan, is in the black financially. And I’m ready to try some experiments as I move toward version 2 of the book and website.
Barry Eisler, who published his latest thriller, The Detachment (highly recommended) with Amazon, suggested I try this: Cut the price, temporarily, to 99 cents — and watch what happens. In his case, the book rocketed up to the top of the Kindle sales rankings.
So I’ve done that. For a limited time, the Kindle version of Mediactive is just $0.99. Obviously I’m not going to move to the top sales spot. But I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.
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It’s time to change the role of the news ombudsman. Two new posts/columns from the people who are best known in this job today prove it.
The most recent was a head-scratching query from the New York Times’ Public Editor (aka ombudsman), Art Brisbane — asking whether the Times should be telling its readers when sources don’t tell the truth. Brisbane, a friend, has taken a lot of heat for this, and I’m one of the people who’s disappointed that he would even ask this question. (He later said people misinterpreted what he was asking — and he’s not totally unreasonable about this — but from my perspective he invited the misinterpretation. Sorry, Art…)
His post followed by days an even odder piece from the Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, who wondered if the organization was innovating too rapidly. Answer: Of course not; one of the Post’s biggest problems is that it’s not innovating fast enough.
These pieces highlighted how strange the ombudsman’s job has become, and why I think it needs to be updated in this networked age. Here’s how I’d change it, and I hope both of these men will consider at least adding some of these ideas to their portfolio. There would be two main approaches: aggregation and conversation.
The best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls. I would stop writing my own critiques, and then:
- Make it a core part of my role to aggregate every responsible critique of the organization’s work that I could find;
- Call bullshit when the critics are wrong; and thank them when they are right;
- Encourage the best critics cross-post on my page.
- Strongly encourage newsroom staff to participate in these debates. UPDATE: Brisbane got a reply from the Times’ editor, Jill Abramson, and replied to that; good to see…
- Ask readers to flag mistakes of fact and analysis, and put the corrections (easier with facts) into a database with or without the cooperation of the newsroom
- Create a robust, open forum about the organization’s work.
In other words, I’d stop trying to be the go-between and overseer of what matters in the effort to bring media criticism inside the organization. It’s obvious — look at how the NY Times buries Brisbane’s work on its website; you can barely find it without a search — that the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.
They have a great role to play, in fact. But they should use the ample resources of the blogosphere, coverage by other news orgs (which occasionally, though not nearly often enough), and social media to bring attention to the paper or whatever kind of organization they are.
To have someone in this role implies a news organization that isn’t afraid of its own shadow — where people welcome criticism rather than dreading it. I hope some forward-looking editor/publisher does this. John Paton comes to mind.
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The New York Times’ Gail Collins offers some sound advice in her column about the latest presidential campaign: “Ignore Iowa.” She writes:
Perhaps this would be a good time to point out that the Iowa caucuses are really ridiculous.
I tend to agree with Collins’ general point. The caucuses are unrepresentative, quirky and even idiotic. What disappoints me about her column, however, is the utter lack of self-awareness it demonstrates.
On the Times’ Politics web page, an aggregation of articles from the past several days (but mostly current stories), you will find no fewer than seven pieces from Iowa. See where I’m going? Of course you do: Collins is dissing the event that her own newspaper has helped make such a national production.
The column Collins could have written would have made all of the good points of the original. It then would have gone one step further: to urge her bosses and colleagues to stop being among the chief promoters of the absurdity.
, Gail Collins
, New York Times
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