Category Archives: journalism

It’s Complicated

I tweeted about this Smithsonian Magazine article about Buffalo Bill this week:

The headline for the article is pretty sensational: Murder, Marriage and the Pony Express: Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Buffalo Bill. But the subtitle undercuts that sensationalism: His adventures were sensationalized in print and the Wild West show, but reality was more complicated—and compelling.

Isn’t reality always more complicated than can be presented in even an extensive report? We mostly get short sound bites that provide little historical or social context. I thought about it when I listened to the Code Switch podcast talking about the Obama administration’s education legacy. The commentators mention Urban Prep, a charter school in Chicago often held up as an exemplar with 100% graduation rate. But that rate doesn’t take into account attrition. At about 7:46 in the podcast, they say, “It’s complicated.” Later in the program, one of the guests discusses the complicated web of home, school and poverty that makes educational problems so difficult to solve.

Real problems do not yield to easy solutions.

Paying for News

I woke up this morning thinking about yesterday’s post. I know I sounded whiney about Education Week’s paywall and that, as an education professional, I should probably be paying for a subscription, something I did for years when it was a print publication. Not sure why I stopped when life went online other than perhaps I felt like the proliferation of information meant I didn’t need to pay for my education news. Plus, in the early days, you couldn’t get a digital only subscription and I just didn’t want those weekly newspapers. Yet, I still include Education Week in feedly and can pretty quickly eat through my three free articles. And, digital only editions are now available.

My main complaint is that, when I want to link to an article, I run the risk of readers not being able to access the article if they also don’t have a subscription or have used up their free access.

And, I wonder when I, along with lots of others, decided that news should be free? Education Week is a professional publication that hires journalists to report on ongoing news as well as to produce reports on the general state of education. Supporting them with my subscription dollars may help ensure access to quality reporting and commentary.

It’s a conundrum but for now, I’m coming down on the side of paying. What side have others chosen?

 

I am fascinated by the story about the demise of The New Republic because I think it prompts so many different threads of thought about how technology is impacting our lives. It is a larger than life demonstration of the clash of old and new, past and future, that is playing out throughout our culture, including our classrooms. There are lessons here for educators, both the innovators and the traditionalists, about how to make change in a way that preserves the best of the past and takes advantage of the best of the future.

For now, I just have a few random thoughts after reading the lengthy article in the The New Yorker and the shorter piece in The Washington Post.

1. I had trouble getting through The New Yorker article. It was well written, engaging and informative, but my attention span seems to have shortened for long form essays. Have I been impacted by the 140-character trend? Or is there just too much distraction from email and social media?

2. I wasn’t prepared for how young Chris Hughes looks. He is over 30 years old but that still seems too youthful to take over the helm of TNR, which just celebrated its 100th birthday. He does sport a history and literature degree from Harvard. Startled by his photo, I suddenly realized that I am the older generation with more respect for experience and longevity than youthful enthusiasm. But, I was wrong, since Franklin Foer is only 37 and was 31 when he first became editor. The battle of past and future isn’t always defined age any more than the clash of digital natives and immigrants depicted in education.

3. At its core, however, this is a story about botched leadership. Leaders are expected not just to have vision but be able to communicate that vision to others and be open to their ideas and input, showing respect for that experience and longevity I mentioned earlier. The two leaders overseeing the debacle remain mostly unrepentant, a further demonstration of their lack of leadership. Hughes has lashed out at the writers and editors who left while Guy Vidra, brought in as the new chief executive, was a little more conciliatory but still defiant. Despite his protestations otherwise, this seems very much a clash of cultures and the inability of a successful businessman to admit that just being able to buy the magazine doesn’t mean you know best how to run it. Vidra’s comment that Gabriel Snyder better shares their vision and ideas is a sure sign that they think they know best. Only time will tell.

 

Digital Citizenship in Action

There is no place like Facebook to find lessons in how to navigate a world where “truthiness” abounds.  Tonight’s suspicious share revealed that it was the Syrian rebels, armed by Saudi Arabia, that were responsible for the gas attacks. The link went to the MintPress News website and two reporters were listed as the writers: Dale Gavlak and Yahya Ababneh. The article starts with the caveat that Gavlak was not on the ground in Syria but worked with Ababneh who did the interviews. We further learn that Gavlak is a writer for Mint Press who has freelanced for the Associated Press.

From there, the story has been picked up by other “news” sites including antiwar.com, inforwars.com, and Voice of Russia. No mainstream news outlets have reported the story. By the time it has made the rounds, Dale Gavlak is identified as “associated press reporter” and the reader has to scroll way down to find out that Gavlak has done some consulting for the AP but was not writing this article for the AP. In another version of the story, MintPress is now part of the Associated Press:

Gavlak is a Middle Eastern journalist who filed the report about the rebels claiming responsibility on the Mint Press News website, which is affiliated with AP.

Truthiness continues when identifying other sources:

Doctors who treated the chemical weapons attack victims cautioned interviewers to be careful about asking questions regarding who, exactly, was responsible for the deadly assault.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders added that health workers aiding 3,600 patients also reported experiencing similar symptoms, including frothing at the mouth, respiratory distress, convulsions and blurry vision. The group has not been able to independently verify the information.

The implication is that Doctors Without Borders is making the caution. Thus, a link to a well respected organization. Here’s the press release with no mention of cautioning interviewers.

A Google search shows this article as part of the “news” section at the top of the page with a link to the MintPress News website. It is the only version of the story, which should be a heads up to readers. It might also be telling that the Daily Kos deleted the article.

There is, of course, the possibility that the story is true and the mainstream news is simply taking the time to vet it before reporting. However, knowing their propensity for beating others to the punch, I would imagine that at least one of them would have hinted at it by now.

With more and more people getting their news from outlets like Facebook, the possibility for spreading truthiness grows. As Julie Andrews comments on the Unofficial Facebook Blog:

People are getting more breaking news than ever, sometimes as it happens, thanks to rapid-fire social networks such as Facebook. Often, such reporting is produced (or, uh, posted) by unofficial news sources (the reality is that anyone can report a sighting, an event, a comment heard), as the distinction between what is, and what is not news, grays.

I disagree when she suggests that this isn’t a death knell for the news:

To be clear, it’s not the news that is dying here — it’s the method in which news is delivered and received. Knowledge is and will forever be power. We just may not need to tune in to have someone read it to us much longer, no matter how fabulous their voice and hair are.

Knowledge only comes to those who can apply critical thinking to the news that gets posted by friends and families. If all you do is read the headline posted by your favorite uncle and then click like or share, you are becoming part of that gray area. Somewhere, Walter Cronkite is weeping.

Getting Some Perspective

It seems we cannot blame social media for the shoddy performance of news outlets last week. They’ve always done a poor job with breakout news, at least according to Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. His description of the reporting of John F. Kennedy’s assassination includes lots of similarities to the Boston bombing from identifying innocent people as suspects to declaring arrests when none had occurred.

The difference, of course, is the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives. Sabato points out that most people were at work or school when the shooting occurred and wouldn’t have had access to the news. So, they missed the initial erroneous reports. I think, however, that Sabato misses the more crucial difference: the people who heard the erroneous reports could only spread them so far…perhaps over the back fence or by telephone to a friend. They couldn’t tweet and retweet and like and share, editing along the way to fit into 140 characters, or creating their own false reports that were then picked up by the media as truth.

I think Sabato offers sound advice:

Media gaffes and goofs should not be easily excused, since commendable restraint — occasionally, simple silence — is the obvious remedy. There should be a penalty for a big error, even if it is only severe criticism.

A simple statement: “here is what we know for fact and here is what we’re still checking out” would help give viewers perspective as they navigate the chocking flow of information. It allows news outlets to have it both ways: report the hearsay but make sure everyone knows it for what it is.