Wednesday, January 9, 2013

more reporting, less generalism, more beats, less objectivity

I thought this post at Naked Capitalism did a good job of pushing back against the kind of blog pessimism that I myself regularly partake in. It shows how the platinum coin idea-- on which I am agnostic, other than to point out that some of the outrage is funny, given that all human perceptions of value are made up and socially conceived-- began on blogs and spread into the national media consciousness over time. Very cool data presentation and tools in that post. For all of my pessimism I still think that there's a lot of room for smart political journalism.

How to do it, if you're a young writer on the come up? I don't have any advice for how to make money, but I do have a few ideas about what would be valuable.

1. More reporting. I know this gets trotted out a lot, but it happens to be true. There are a ton of people (like me) offering opinions, analysis, commentary, etc. What I think can really distinguish someone coming up is actual reporting-- interviewing, going to the scene of events, etc. Obviously, this is a lot of work, easier said than done, and still requires contact with old media for practical purposes. There's a lot of places you can't get access to and people who won't bother to talk to you without media affiliation. But if you want to make a direct impact on the stories that matter, that's the most direct path. Also, reporting doesn't mean giving up on commentary. I would point to Adam Serwer and Dave Weigel as two guys who, from different political backgrounds, do a good job of synthesizing reporting and commenting. Which brings us to point 2.

2. Abandon objectivity, maintain fairness. Again, this is a well-worn idea, but still important. Looking at Serwer and Weigel, you're talking about two people who don't make many bones about their ideological commitments. That's not a failure to be appropriately professional as journalists; it's instead an acknowledgement that they are human beings with human biases and beliefs. As others (such as Jay Rosen) have pointed out repeatedly, the illusion that any reporter can maintain perfect objectivity actually makes bias more dangerous, because it creates a false sense about what the news is and compels journalists to ignore their own natural inclinations in one direction or another. What's important to remember is that you can be evenhanded without being objective; that is, you can do your best to represent what the arguments of each sides are, without pretending that you don't have an opinion or that both sides are equally accurate. If you're a journalist, you're gathering facts. If you have a functioning intelligence, you're going to generate an opinion on those facts. Don't pretend otherwise, just make sure that you understand and present the strongest possible arguments for the other side.

3. We don't need more generalists, so have a beat. This one does strike me as good advice for employment and professionalization, actually. There are plenty of generalists out there writing about whatever strikes their fancy. (Like me!) To distinguish yourself in a crowded landscape, it helps a lot to have a specific focus and to know what you're talking about. Make sure you have a strong grasp on the basic contours of your beat. Going to school helps a lot, because school (it's true) is still the best way to learn things, eduhacking nonsense aside. Develop contacts within that field. Find fresh angles. If you want to remark on a larger controversy, relate it to your field. Good examples of people who have developed a particular niche and work it consistently are Dana Goldstein, who writes brilliantly on education, and Dave Roberts of Grist, who writes about environmentalism and climate change.

Taken altogether, I guess I'm saying "be like Mike Elk." Elk is a great labor journalist whose work appears in In These Times and The Nation. I don't agree with everything Elk believes, but I am in great agreement about his primary focus, which is unions and labor. Elk is an honest-to-goodness old school reporter, someone who gets interviews and follows leads and pursues neglected stories. He does it all without hiding his pro-labor sympathies and with an interest in getting the facts right. There aren't nearly enough people on the left doing the kind of work he does; there's lots of opportunities to be had there, although probably not a lot of money.

I am 100% willing to cop to this post being a lot of boilerplate. But I think it's important boilerplate. (And read Mike Elk.)

4 comments:

Brett said...

As others (such as Jay Rosen) have pointed out repeatedly, the illusion that any reporter can maintain perfect objectivity actually makes bias more dangerous, because it creates a false sense about what the news is and compels journalists to ignore their own natural inclinations in one direction or another.

It helps foster the myth that there is this thing called The News, which presumably speaks in the voice of Walter Cronkite.

Freddie said...

Exactly so.

Brendan said...

I basically agree with you, but I think you're giving short shrift to the semi-anonymous ranks of newspaper and newswire reporters who actually do a huge amount of the fact-gathering on which other writing is based, and who are very much focused on narrow beats. Maybe that's not quite what you're writing about, though.

Freddie said...

That's a fair point. In the past I've complained about how Deadspin simultaneously makes fun of sports beat reporters while relying on them for so much of what they talk about.