Tuesday, February 22, 2005

inspirational reading for journalists

  • It Ain't Necessarily So: How the Media Remake Our Picture of Reality by David Murray, Joel Schwartz, and Robert S. Lichter

    This critical take on media coverage—primarily of science, health, and social studies research—makes a lot of good points about how researchers distort the truth by presenting only part of a story. Sometimes this is surely unintentional, other times it may be shaped by reporters' biases to fit a story into a mold, such as evil villian (i.e., a company) foiled by do gooder (i.e., researcher, reporter, environmentalist).

    The book has a somewhat conservative, anti-environmentalist bent: for example, it criticizes reporters for uncritically relaying evidence of global warming, whereas most complaints about media coverage of climate change say reporters give too much creedence to doubters who are outside the scientific mainstream, in the name of "balancing" the article.

    One of their points that stuck with me was to avoid ad hominem attacks where reporters cast doubt upon a person—say, by noting that a doctor has received money from a pharmaceutical company—without actually dealing with the content of the person's claims. This is important for me to remember, as it's a tactic popular with leftists, whose politics I'm steeped in. (The next book on the list uses this tactic too much, for example.) I thought of this point about ad hominem attacks when reading an interview with movie director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness in The Believer where he criticizes Michael Moore:
    Q: Can you give me an example of what you would call gratuitous meanness or creulty in a film?

    TS: Sure. Fahrenheit 9/11. Wolfowitz wetting his comb. [A clip in the movie shows Paul Wolfowitz, preparing to go on camera, ungracefully wets a comb in his mouth and then runs it through his hair.] There was absolutely no purpose in including that scene except to humiliate him.

    And Moore also spliced together clips of Bush saying "Iraq" and "Al Qaida" to parody the link his administration made between the two, but if he wanted to be honest, he could have just used actual quotes from Bush or Cheney making such a link. Anyway, despite any biases of the authors of the book, they have important points to make about pitfalls to watch out for and ways to round out stories.

  • Trust Us We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

    I've only just started this, but it seems good. It details how reporters rely too heavily on press releases and PR people for their stories, and how PR people are adept at getting their clients' voices into the media by hiring third parties—paid spokespeople who either are experts in a field or pose as such.

    The book uses the "follow the money" kind of critique critcized in It Ain't Necessarily So. It's OK to follow the money, but you have to follow through and show first the amounts are significant and timing right to actually affect things, and second you have to examine the people's actual claims, too. You can't just stop with casting doubt.

    We'll see how that book develops. Anyway, it's already made me more wary of press releases.

  • The News about the News: American Journalism in Peril by Leonard Downie and Robert G. Kaiser

    These guys know of what they speak: these editors at the Washington Post are veteran journalists who interviewed a bunch of other veteran reporters about the state of American media. It's depressing how many problems there are, and the authors trace them all back to one thing: Money. As media companies shifted from being privately to publicly held, and as they then became parts of larger conglomerates, the drive for continuous profit—at rates far exceeding what other industries expect—at the expense of quality has seriously damaged journalism.

    But it's not like the problems will go away if we ignore them, so I usually get more energized than down when I read these things. Most reporters have no special knowledge of the area they're writing (or talking) about, they have no time to delve in deep and dig up stories or develop expertise, and they tend to uncritically regurgitate the words of government officials, politicians, and press agents. And this is just the newspapers. TV is abysmal. They actually show canned material made by PR firms, but not identified as such. And instead of actual reporting, TV is dominated by full-time blatherers who shout opinions, and whoever is loudest or most charismatic tends to win. I watch so little TV that I thought I wouldn't want to read the chapters on it in the book, but I was fascinated by how much worse TV has gotten over the years, and also made me face the fact that the picture most Americans have of the wider world is that mediated through television.

  • Backstory: Inside the Business of News by Ken Auletta This collection of articles, mostly from the New Yorker, takes on roughly the same theme as The News Behind the News: money and the increasingly business culture of news. The stories take a more detailed look at certain newspapers and networks. I'm looking forward to the one on Fox News, especially after watching Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism and being shocked but also not knowing how much to trust the documentary. Some of the stories are poorly organized and I got lost in the details. It would take a very dedicated reader to keep track of all the names of editors mentioned in a story about the New York Times, say, who he has probably never heard of before and never will again. What Auletta brings that's special is access: apparently he talked his way into numerous newsrooms and was able to observe top editors in action and talk candidly with their underlings about the news business. The pieces here are stories, with fleshed out personalities and plots that pulled me along even when the details of who said what when weren't inherently fascinating.


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