Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Trust but verify

To be a critic in the old days, you had to have a list of intellectual credentials as long as your arm and be employed by a newspaper or a magazine. Now, everyone's a critic, and media outlets themselves are in the crosshairs. The burgeoning world of the Internet is filled with people - some qualified, many not - who call themselves media critics. Their stock in trade is, in many cases, abuse, and their targets are the traditional media they'd like to replace.
Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun, January 14, 2007

A word in your ear, Nick?

Let me admit, straight off, that although I have two degrees, neither is in journalism or media studies or whatever intellectual credentials it takes to write a column for The Baltimore Sun. I am clearly not qualified to call myself a media critic. And I am not here to abuse you. How difficult your world must be these days, after you have no doubt spent years deciding what is and isn't news, and what criticism may be expressed and what may not. I can understand that it doesn't steady your nerves when those who are not ordained get it into their heads that media people can have unexamined assumptions — "biases" is the term sometimes used — that affect their news coverage.

You lay bare your hurt feelings when you write, "
Some media criticism sites are widely respected within the profession for their care in checking facts and balancing the comments of critics with responses." Please accept my sympathy. No one should have to accept scrutiny or, God help them, criticism from anyone outside their profession! Least of all a journalist. After all, only another journalist knows how tough it is — as one you quote says, "Traditional journalism has dug a bit of this hole itself, with that imperious 'We're delivering the truth to you every day' attitude,' he said. 'We all knew they were putting out what the reporter could cobble together on deadline.'"

That's bad enough for one media person to endure in a lifetime, but I can scarcely imagine your pain when what one of your interviewees calls a "self-appointed critic" isn't just going on about loose ends not tied up under deadline pressure, or even frauds like Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, but about slanted news. Everyone knows reporters are middle-of-the-road, split-the-difference, anti-extremist types, careful to give each side its due. How could anyone possibly imagine any contrast in tone between "older organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a 'national media watch group' that refers to itself as progressive" and "the Media Research Center, whose self-proclaimed conservatism dictates its denunciations … ."

Fortunately, as you note, there are real media watchdogs, a far cry from those unlicensed bloggers, to point out when newspapers go too far in, for example, shading stories to make illegal immigrants or minority-group killers look bad.
Florin's NewsTrust site aims to spotlight excellence. Funded by The Global Center, a nonprofit educational foundation established by Rory O'Connor, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, News Trust hopes to help support itself by offering media outlets its rating service, which would enable readers and viewers to rate stories based on criteria such as fairness, objectivity, factual evidence, clarity and relative importance.
Thank goodness for "professionally edited" sites! NewsTrust wants to make sure we don't overlook any of the media they've anointed for excellence: magazines like Mother Jones and The New York Review of Books; newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Observer; "TV sources" like Democracy Now, PBS, and BBC News; and wire services like Reuters, the Associated Press, and Agence France Presse. Only there's something about all those "top rated" sources — I can't quite put my finger on it. Not to worry at all, though, Nick. I'm one of those unqualified commentators on other Internet sites who are, in your words, "far less careful" than NewsTrust.

Oh, by the way, Nick … that word in your ear. The NewsTrust site spells its name with the words "bumped" — no space in between. Journalists are supposed to notice little things like that, and I can't imagine a copy editor on an excellent paper like The Baltimore Sun messing up your careful work. Please don't take this as criticism. I know you just had to cobble your piece together to meet a deadline.


NewsVeiws said...

''Unlicenced blogger'', I like that term.
To me it seems like Nick is expressing his discomfort with bloggers and blogging itself.
Big city ''dead tree'' papers (and their staffs) are worried about their futures.
Although it seems that he heard about Kathleen Parker's folly of attacking bloggers wholesale.
As you noted, he is wistful for the days when news, opinion and news AS opinion were the domain of ''big media'' only. Now mixing news and opinion can be done by almost anyone.
I compare it to those in the horse and buggy business a century ago.
They're hoping their stock in trade will last until they are ready to call it a career. And they're afraid it won't.
In a sense, they are now in the same boat as the rest of America.
They are afraid of being ''downsized'' and they won't be able to deal with it.

David said...

Nicely done. It seems to be true in every industry that people whose careers have been built on a particular business model and technology are mostly incapable of seeing the importance of a transformational technology. Christensen & Raynor explain the process very well in the book that I review here.

The level of emotion--often pretty vicious emotion--seems to be higher with the journalists than it was with the earlier examples. The big-steel magnates may have underplayed the importance of the mini-mill until it was too late, but I doubt if they made public comments about the mini-mill guys analogous to "losers in their pajamas."