Journalism Whitewash

One of the first things Dan and I agreed on about blogging is that we wouldn’t go after the “easy” targets like Krugman because that kind of “fisking” is already all over the web and we aren’t adding anything to the discussion that hasn’t been done before.

However, this “free pass” does not apply to journalists. In general, we believe that most journalists are uninformed about the topics that they write about beyond a superficial level and as a result often miss the entire point of the issue. There are exceptions, of course, such as Michael Lewis, who wrote the great books Moneyball, Liar’s Poker and the Blind Side about baseball, finance, and football respectively. Michael Lewis represents the pinnacle of journalism in that he inhabits and deeply understands the topics that he writes about and weaves together a gripping tale of individuals that illuminates rather than obscures his topics.

In 2007 I attended a seminar on journalism sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that I wrote about in this blog post. At the seminar I asked the journalists how they could compete against bloggers who wrote about a narrow range of topics that they understood exceedingly well while the journalists were mostly generalists who skimmed the surface and threw in “the human element”. Their basic answer is that the reader couldn’t trust someone like me because they don’t know my motivation but the journalist in the paper or through the official channel was a trustworthy professional by comparison.

While I thought then (and still do) that this answer is mainly bullsh*t it was a pretty thoughtful and effective answer on their part, because this cover of objectivity is better than trying to engage bloggers on their own terms who understand the topics that they write about (on good blogs, that is) far better than the journalist ever could.

The article above was in Saturday’s Chicago Tribune titled “NU (Northwestern) panel exonerates Medill dean“. The issue was that the DEAN (head) of the Northwestern journalism school recently changed the curriculum and summarized it in an article by saying that the students reacted favorably. However, subsequent research of the student body could not confirm this statement through notes or e-mails. The dean said that he should have kept notes and proof but that the sentiment was correct and thus he was exonerated.

What is strange is that the online link to the story that I link to above isn’t the same as the story in the paper; that is why I included a photo of the actual article. In the actual article in the print paper, a different professor at the Medill school says “if simply capturing the mood of unnamed sources is good enough to be used in quotation marks, then our standards as a journalism school are slipping.”

I agree with the last paragraph (not in the online version) and this goes right to the heart of their defense at the forum above; if the journalists can’t be trusted then we can see how they line up as generalist bloggers uninformed about their particular topics. I also find this whole dust-up to be rather astounding because Northwestern has one of the top journalism schools in the country and if their dean is unclear on these basic concepts I don’t know exactly what their degree is worth.

Give me a top journalist like Michael Lewis, some focused blogs (like this one), the AP wire and the Wall Street Journal (which is mostly pretty good) and you can be a pretty informed person. At least in my opinion…

Cross posted at LITGM

8 thoughts on “Journalism Whitewash”

  1. Give me a top journalist like Michael Lewis, some focused blogs (like this one), the AP wire and the Wall Street Journal (which is mostly pretty good) and you can be a pretty informed person.

    No way! You have to go to J-school to be a top journalist, just like you have to get a graduate degree in education to be a top teacher. Oh, wait…

  2. Journalism is not a profession and the J-school credential does not add value.Today’s lot isn’t better than the old journos who were apprenticed. The old breed at least had some exposure to real world,while they got their on the job training. They are now finding thru layoffs and buyouts what it means to compete against “amateurs” who at least can write about somes things with real authority. I think a genuine liberal arts education (is that available today?)might be much more valuable; it might bring some humility to these would be world savers.

  3. Whenever I am at a party or similar function with journalists, esp. editors or management types, I try to ask them, “What, exactly, do J-schools teach that wouldn’t be better learned by on-the-job experience under a mentor?” and have never, not once, gotten an answer that was factually credible and made any sense. Usually there is a very long pause and you can almost hear the mental gears grinding while they try to engage and give the mouth something to say.

  4. The merits of j-schooling are indeed debatable. What is certain, however, is that Carl and many other press critics have little understanding of how the news media works as a business.
    If readers and viewers wanted sheer expertise, they’d get it from analysts, academics and the few bloggers who know what their writing about. Or better yet, they’d go straight to the source data and other raw evidence, e.g. police reports, court transcripts, government accounting reports. If they wanted objectivity they’d watch CSPAN, not Fox or CNN.
    But as any publisher or broadcaster can tell you, readers and viewers crave simplicity, sensation and skillful narration. There are all manner of niches within that, but mass media can only stay mass by serving the lowest common denominator.
    It’s not that different from other businesses.
    I will insist that the burgers my neighbor cooks on his patio are vastly superior to McDonald’s. But I won’t pretend that the people who run McDonald’s are somehow unqualified or unprofessional.
    Carl, Jonathan and some other bloggers I can think would benefit immensely by trying their hand at journalism, even if only as an experiment. Learn by doing indeed.

  5. But as any publisher or broadcaster can tell you, readers and viewers crave simplicity, sensation and skillful narration.

    So either:

    – you consulted many publishers and broadcasters, and they are just brimming with advice for this blog, or

    -you’re trolling.

    Which possibility is most likely? Man, that’s a hard one.

  6. I get it. Anytime someone makes Jonathan look bad, they’re a “troll.” No wonder he stays so small minded. Looks like the Mission Statement of the this blog is: Create an environment in which Jonathan can at long last win an argument now and then. Virtual reality for feckless wingnuts. Well, I guess it keeps him off the street…

  7. “Negritude”:

    I edited the pseudonym in your final comment to make clear that you are the same commenter who posted on March 4 @ 7:56 PM. I also deleted a comment that you posted in another thread under a third pseudonym. You have a long history of sock puppetry and abusiveness. Don’t comment here again.

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