September 2015 archive

John Oliver and objectivity

I had stumbled onto this clip from last Sunday’s John Oliver while eating at Starbucks this morning with my older son.

To grapple with Kovach & Rosenstiel’s ideas about objectivity (and, admittedly, to break up the theoretical with a healthy dose of the satirical), I decided to show it to the class.

While this played, I wrote four passages from Chapter 4 of Elements of Journalism on the board:

“In the original concept… the journalist was not objective, but the journalist’s method could be.”

“Objectivity is not the absence of a point of view.”

“The aim of objectivity [should be] a disciplined unity of method, transparently conveyed.”

The “neutral voice” of traditional journalism, “without a discipline of verification, often is a veneer atop something hollow. Journalists who select sources to reflect their own point of view, and then use the neutral voice to make it seem objective, are engaged in deception.”

Oliver clearly rejects the “neutral voice” — there is no “absence of a point of view” here.

I asked them what Kovach and Rosenstiel might make of Oliver’s methodology and presentation.

Is there room in their vision for this kind of satire? Is his method objective? Is there a “discipline of verification” evident? Are accurate facts “transparently conveyed”?

We talked far longer than I’d expected, but we had time to introduce some more traditional news writing conventions: the inverted pyramid and Asimov’s Dirty Dozen. Their assignment tonight is to reflect on these varied approaches to journalistic writing. What are the merits, the shortcomings, the implications of particular news writing styles? Which conventions do they think they might adopt for their own articles?

I can’t wait to read their ideas. I’ll share them here soon.

Where do journalists get their story ideas?

For their first blog posts, I asked students to consider how journalists decide what issues and events to cover.

We’ve talked quite a bit about what Kovach and Rosenstiel call the “awareness instinct” – this seemingly instinctual human desire for information. But we can’t be aware of everything — and we don’t appear to seek out an awareness of everything, either. So, what are the mechanisms by which we become aware — and in what ways are we limited? Do certain experiences and stories get marginalized or obscured? How might issues of power, audience, and (of course) the exigencies of the marketplace come into play?

We’re still working as a class to define “journalist,” so students took the question in different directions. Many of them reflected on their own work as student journalists covering issues of importance for their school community.

One student suggested that the apparent objectivity of our news media may perhaps be undercut by both individual preferences and the specificity of one’s lived experience:

If I were a professional journalist, personally I would only write things I know about or are interested in. For example, if you were to give me the task of writing about oil rigs, I would most likely decline because I know it would come out horrific. On the other hand, if you told me to write something on the topic of astronomy, I would without a doubt give a good and well-informed essay on the definition of pulsars.

I think that journalists are human and absolutely do this as well… [snip]

The point of being limited in what you find and what you can be aware of must also be taken into account. Sometimes articles can seem biased because of lack of knowledge or experience on a subject. For example, kids living in Ashburn won’t be able to write the utmost of accuracy when it comes to subjects like Ferguson if they’ve lived here their entire life. –Ilsa, 10th grade

Another student drew on Elements of Journalism to highlight a critical distinction between news writing and other creative work:

In our society, where information is constantly being shared, consumed, and critiqued, it is sometimes worthwhile to examine the ways in which journalists come up with their story ideas. In my experience, the journalistic creative process is slightly different from the standard creative process. After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that this is because journalists have to take into consideration the large public they’re writing for, and use the best method for interesting/appealing to a wide audience (think of the Theory of the Interlocking Public: citizens have varying degrees of interest in the stories shared by news sources. It is the responsibility of the journalist to market to the widest possible audience.) A second thing that distinguishes a journalist’s restrictions on the way that they produce content is their responsibility to the ten elements, or core principles, of journalism. When a journalist proposes an idea, it is his/her duty to fulfill the concepts of truth/veracity, objectivity (note – in this case, objectivity does not mean lack of bias, but rather a state of transparency and openness) and independence, monitoring of power, and loyalty to the public. –Katie, 8th grade

Katie went on to articulate a series of critical question she asks herself as she sifts fruitful story ideas from unnecessary ones as a student journalist:

Now that we’ve established loose guidelines for the journalistic creative process, we can move to the more focused idea of where they come up with their story ideas. For me personally, the process of devising an idea for an article began with the questions of, “Is this something that I would want to read, but that others would be interested in? Does this article satisfy a lack of knowledge/understanding in a somehow significant area? Can readers act on the information provided in this article (a ‘call to action’), and does this information somehow affect the way they choose to think and act? Is there enough information/potential sources of information to fill several pages with concrete findings? Is this article fun/interesting to the extent that readers will remember my points and arguments?” I found that all of my ideas at least partially came from an area that I felt lacked clarity/information, and most of them were directly involving my immediate community.

We’ll use these questions in class this week as a starting point for building a set of criteria for what the students cover as a staff — essentially, also a grading rubric for their story ideas. I’m excited to find out what they finally decide.


Student reflections on Kovach and Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism”

Both the middle school and high school sections have just finished reading two chapters of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “modern classic” Elements of Journalism. Given that this is a book written in response to a perceived crisis in the American news media’s credibility, I was curious about how the reading has affected their attitude toward the media they consume.

So I asked them.

I used our digital reading tool, Actively Learn, to insert this question into the end of “Chapter 2: Truth – The First and Most Confusing Principle”:

After reading this chapter, do you find yourself feeling more optimistic or pessimistic about your ability to find “truth” in America’s news media? Explain. 

Student responses ran the gamut. Some articulated a fundamental faith in the news consuming public’s ability to sift through the mass information made available electronically:

I feel rather optimistic about my personal ability to analyze content and find truth in the news. This chapter lays out the essential components, methods, and techniques necessary to providing journalistic truth. As a consumer of news (through a variety of sources) I trust in my ability to sort through facts and information in order to find truth, using the information provided in this chapter. -Sofi, grade 8

After reading this chapter, I find myself feeling optimistic about my ability to find “truth” in America’s news media because with the internet, there are more than enough people to follow the “sorting-out process” to unveil the truth. Even if the journalists don’t get it right, with the connected world, it is impossible for somebody not to. -Chasya, grade 9

One student was less sanguine, pointing out that there might not be practical ways to address the pressures preventing journalists from producing reliable content:

I feel pessimistic. Most of the examples that the authors gave of accuracy over truth, speed and orientation towards argument over accuracy, and of lack of accountability and fact-checking are examples I have seen myself. Journalism is in a crisis, and while the authors offer solutions, I don’t see how they would implement these opportunities.  -Shailee, grade 8

Others had mixed feelings, reflecting particularly on the 24-hour news cycle pressure.

I feel a little of both, half and half. In some ways, news media is an amazing place to get information. It’s easy, and a good amount of the time you can rely on the media to be accurate and truthful in the information they give out. But if you look at it from a different angle, news media is a terrible place to get your facts. If you can’t always rely on something to get information, why every try to? You may end up thinking you finally found something accurate, but later, too late, you realize that you should have never trusted that media source. I do not think that news media should give out information quickly with inconsistent reliabilities, instead I believe that they should slow down their rate in which they feed us the information we want and need, in order to allow themselves enough time to fact-check, and be more reliable, accurate, and truthful. -Eric, grade 7

My outlook on the news media after reading this chapter can’t truly be defined by one of two terms, but I think I’m leaning towards pessimism. With the new age, people are growing ever more opinionated and persuasive. With technology such as the Internet, one can spread their news to thousands instead of merely a few dozen, however, inaccuracies are frequent. Every journalist wants to be the first to get their story out there and available, yet this inevitably leads to faults. As proven by the two articles we read about Ahmed Mohammed, journalists can be extremely biased and incredibly convinced that their opinions are correct.  -Summer, grade 7

Another student echoed this issue of speed as the enemy of accuracy, pointing out as well that we tend to seek out sources that confirm our own biases:

Personally, I feel a mixture of both. Certainly, with the digital age’s accessible information, not to mention social media’s unique ability to correct mistakes in news, there is a definite advantage to seeking “truth” in modern American journalism. However, with the abundance of news sources that place speed above accuracy, prey on our inherent confirmation bias, and mislead us by cherry-picking which facts to use in an argument, it is very difficult not to feel at least somewhat pessimistic about my ability to discover “truth” in America’s news media. Either way, it is definitely (at least in my opinion) a positive step forward that this book has taken the time to acknowledge flaws in modern journalism and attempt to correct them/teach citizens how to be informed and conscious in their consumption of news. For example, I was reassured that, instead of simply noting the inability/unwillingness of journalists to define their concept of “truth”, this book delved into the question and created its own definition. -Katie, grade 8

I’m excited to see how students’ feelings shift as we get deeper into the text.

Edublogs’ global Student Blogging Challenge

All my English students — especially those in Truth in Media — are encouraged to register for this challenge. From the website:

The aim of the student blogging challenge is to connect student bloggers with a global audience while supporting teachers with their classroom blogging.

It runs twice yearly, starting in March and September, and guides the participants through blogging and commenting over 10 weeks.

Read more! Register!