Paul Farhi of the Washington Post has a nice piece on the ridiculousness of anonymous source identifiers in the news–with a little input from me. The origins of such “explanations” of why anonymity was granted began appearing really after the wake of the bad information in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War. The idea was to let readers in a bit more as to why such decisions were made. However well-intentioned, the limits are obvious; you can’t grant anonymity and provide enough clues to place a name with a quote. Still, there could be some usefulness on shedding a little light. However, as Farhi humorously illustrates with true examples, the explanations end up sounding, well, dumb. And that is at best. At worst, these identifiers are misleading. I’ve discussed this in my book, but it is always tricky. Journalists need, in some instances, to be able to use anonymous sources, leaving us readers out in the dark. But they are also overused or used in ways far from the normative base of providing the public with information it needs to know. I am glad to see Farhi take up the issue, and I hope others follow as well.

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Back to Jayson Blair

I had the pleasure of being on the local NPR program St. Louis on the Air to discuss the new Jayson Blair documentary A Fragile Trust. The show is archived here. The documentary is a look back at what happened with Blair and the New York Times told through interviews with the chief figures at the paper. We hear a lot from Blair himself explaining, as best he could, what happened. Looking back at Blair from the perspective of a decade on, it is notable just how idiosyncratic Blair’s hijinks were, but yet, as I argue in a new Journalism Studies article, he continues to be invoked as a symbol of bad journalism in situations that have nothing to do with what he did.

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New Article in JOMEC

Image Thank you to JOMEC for publishing my article “Journalistic Change in an Online Age: Disaggregating Visibility, Legitimacy, and Revenue.” This was a piece that grew out of a question I posed to a wonderful AEJMC panel in 2011 with C.W. Anderson, Seth Lewis, and Wilson Lowrey on the changing face of journalism. Listening to them talk, I was struck by this thought about how, roughly speaking, the connections between audience numbers, advertising revenues, and credibility seemed increasingly loose compared to the past. This is a broad idea, I know, but the thought stayed with me and blossomed into this article in JOMEC, which is open access and free to the world. What I argue is that to consider journalism as a public activity, we must attend to three things (characteristics): visibility (can it be seen?/is it seen?), legitimacy (is it understood to be correct? or socially valuable?); and revenue (can it generate funds, either from direct or indirect sources?). Yes, these are connected, but in complex ways that should be carefully explored and not merely assumed. This is the framework, and I invite others to think with it, make corrections, etc. I hope it provokes some new thoughts about journalism. JOMEC, by the way, is a wonder new open access journal put out by Paul Bowman and the fine people at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media, and Cultural Studies

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On the Other Side of Tenure

I am happy to announce that I have been promoted to Associate Professor with tenure by SLU. I even have the business cards to prove it. This comes at a time when tenure remains under attacks as antiquated and irresponsible. But I view it as an opportunity — or even a responsibility — to further my research by taking chances that would have seemed too risky as an untenured professor. With that cryptic comment, I am looking forward a year-long sabbatical to dedicate myself to a couple of new writing projects. I am sure updates will follow in this space as the work progresses.

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On the Radio

I had the opportunity to talk about CNN’s misreporting of an arrest in the Boston Marathon bombing on CBS Radio’s Overnight America with Jon Grayson (listen). I try to highlight the dangers of making mistakes on air now with Twitter ready to pounce on and amplify such sloppiness. It also gets to the danger of vouching for unnamed sources–reporters and their outlets are caught when officials and other news outlets go against what sources say, leaving the original reporter with only the defense that their source is well-placed and sticking to his or her story. It’s precarious and, as I think it was for CNN, damaging.

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New Journal of Communication article

Just who does Jon Stewart think he is? Or, perhaps, just who do journalists think Jon Stewart is? It is really the second question that guides a study newly Imagepublished in the Journal of Communication. I set out with Jason Peifer, now at Ohio State, to make sense of all the hubbub surrounding Stewart’s role in the Rally to Restore Sanity and his support of the Zadroga bill on The Daily Show. What we found was, on the surface, confusion as to whether Stewart was metamorphosing into some sort of political activist. He remains, of course, a satirist first and foremost, but these twin actions drew a lot of attention to Stewart. What is more interesting is not just the individualized assessments of one comedian but the larger question of what we called discursive responsibility. Stewart represents the extension of mediated voices able to talk about current events–a role traditionally reserved by journalists. Journalists had come to terms, for the most part, with the clownish Stewart, but the more serious Stewart–the “earnest” Stewart–opened up new conversations about who should speak, and how they should speak. We draw quite a bit on earnestness as an interesting discursive stance; in a normative sense, journalists rarely ascribe to earnestness as a value. And yet here is Stewart dropping, however momentarily, his buffoonery to be serious and earnest. In the end, this episode becomes about setting boundaries about how one should speak in public.

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A Must Read Report

I was at a dinner party last week and was chatting with a former high ranking official in the Clinton White House (anonymous, naturally). We got talking about what I teach and he launched into the singular worry: Who will produce the news in the  future? In the 90s, the White House merely collected clips from a handful of national news outlets, and pretty much got a handle on the mediated conversation that was taking place nationally. It is a pointed question, and one with no simple answer and a lot of speculation.  But what I should do is direct him to the new Tow Center report Post Industrial Journalism by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky.

This is an important document at an important juncture for journalism. It lays out a cogent, carefully considered argument about journalism that scales from the specifically concrete (CMS systems hindering innovation) to the conceptual broad (what journalism in the future will have to do).

My main reason to recommend this report is that it does something rather magical: It avoids the extremes of gleefully stomping on the ghosts of print or ruefully waxing nostalgia for the good old days. In a word, this report is realistic. Advertising is not coming back (nor is there ready replacement), and digital formats are not going to just pick up the slack (not for years, anyway). It is sober, basing its argument on the need for hard news in a way that connects with the concerns expressed above by the former White House official.

Another attribute I really enjoyed was the authors’ comfort with an argument I have been making lately: we are moving from a homogenous news environment in which newspapers, television, and magazines basically coalesced each into a standard format with similar output, shared norms, and the like, to a heterogenous media ecosystem (to use the report’s language) in which we will have a variety of formats with different types of journalists following different rules and making money in different ways. This is hard to grasp really.  We are so comfortable with “the press” or “journalism” standing for something cohesive. In a section titled “The End of Solidarity,” the authors note:

Perhaps the most salient change in the next seven years will be the continued
weakening of the very idea of what constitutes news, and thus what constitutes
a news organization (p. 116).

They make the point elsewhere:

Journalism is instead moving from one to many, from a set of roles whose description and daily patterns were coherent enough to merit one label to one where the gap between what makes Nate Silver a journalist and what makes Kevin Sites a journalist continues to widen. (p. 110)

There are many problems confronting journalism right now–and rightly many opportunities. But this very disintegration of how we think of journalism as a unified field–the shift identified in the report’s title as “post-industrial” journalism demands our attention as it unfolds around us. Now, go read the report.

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