A masterpiece of obfuscation

The first paragraph of this TV news story from St. Louis is a masterpiece of Orwellian doublespeak and passive voice:

FERGUSON, MO (KTVI) – A shooting in Ferguson has tensions riding high between residents and police. Saturday afternoon, a police involved shooting occurred at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield. A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.

Here’s how the first paragraph should have read instead:

A Ferguson police officer shot a teenager at the Canfield Green apartment complex in the 2900 block of Canfield on Saturday afternoon.

Why is that so difficult? Why did a simple one-sentence lead turn into four kludgy sentences?

The answer is simple: The KTVI reporters, like most mainstream media reporters, presumably have a close relationship with the police department and don’t want to experience pushback from their sources. As I wrote months ago:

This unwillingness to offend powerful sources was named years ago by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky as “sourcing” … Obviously police departments are also on that list of official sources, which explains very well why police who make enormously embarrassing mistakes often vanish from headlines, leaving only an object (the “suspect”) and the action that mysteriously happened (“shot” or “killed”) without any apparent cause.

This kind of nonsense will only stop when these journalists receive pushback just as strong or stronger from communities affected by these so-called “police involved shootings.” Journalists ought to be in the business of telling the truth, not obfuscating it on behalf of powerful interests … as the New York Times did for years by refusing to use the word “torture” to describe, y’know, torture. Jay Rosen has some good thoughts on the NYT’s recent recanting of their policy.

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The most exciting news I’ve heard in months

Glenn Greenwald is creating a new journalism operation from the ground up thanks to funding from Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay. Word is that all profits from the operation will be reinvested in the new organization. According to Omidyar, Greenwald had been working with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill to develop a new online media organization anyway; Omidyar’s funding will enable them to go much further.

I expect a lot of breathtaking scoops and advocacy journalism from the new organization; I also expect a lot of condescending “yes well they’re not real journalists” statements from the establishment press.

When Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, I publicly wished for him to run the Post as if it were a nonprofit, prioritizing good journalism over profits, kind of like the Texas Tribune. Bezos has said that he’ll make no changes at the Post, which is a shame because their columnists are the worst. But occasionally the Post does publish some groundbreaking watchdog journalism, so maybe Bezos will be encouraging more of the same.

Even though it’s neither widely duplicable or sustainable, the trend of independent-minded rich guys buying into journalism might be good when it comes to the type of journalism Greenwald specializes in. But don’t expect any cutting-edge investigative reports on, for example, capitalism and full employment. Bezos and Omidyar may be seriously concerned about the health of modern journalism and the First Amendment, but they are both businessmen with profits to protect. I expect we’ll see some Democracy Now! type reporting on human rights and freedom alongside some Wall Street Journal type reporting on corporations and unions. But who knows? Greenwald, of all people, may be able to convince Omidyar to keep his hands completely off the journalism side of the operation.

The NYT has no idea if student scores can be used to fairly evaluate teachers

I’ll probably be addressing news media coverage of the Chicago teachers’ strike more than once (for obvious reasons), but I was particularly struck by this egregious example of “he said-she said” reporting in the New York Times today:

Eager to improve Chicago’s schools, Mr. Emanuel has taken several steps — among them pressing the school board to rescind a promised 4 percent raise — and made numerous demands that have infuriated the Chicago Teachers Union. He wants student test performance to count heavily in evaluating teachers for tenure, even though the union insists that is a highly unreliable way to assess teachers. And with Mr. Emanuel intent on shuttering dozens of poorly performing schools, the union is pressing him to agree to strong provisions to reinstate teachers in other schools when theirs are closed. (emphasis added)

That’s the whole paragraph. NYU professor Jay Rosen described the “he said-she said” phenomenon very well:

“He said, she said” journalism means…

  • There’s a public dispute.
  • The dispute makes news.
  • No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
  • The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the reporter declines to make use of them.
  • The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

So the clashing truth claims in this story are “Student test performance is a good way to evaluate teachers” versus “Student test performance is a highly unreliable way to evaluate teachers.” Reporter Steven Greenhouse makes no attempt to assess these two claims and leaves the truth of the matter entirely up to the readers’ judgment.

But among the principles of journalism is the idea that journalists ought to enlighten their audience – to “balance what readers know they want with what they cannot anticipate but need.” Readers want to know what lies at the heart of the dispute between Chicago officials and Chicago teachers, but they don’t know which side of the dispute is making more accurate claims.

There are numerous educational experts out there who could have commented on this dispute for the NYT. For example, Joseph Martineau of the Michigan Department of Education argues that some forms of long-term value-added accountability models may lead to “identification of effective teachers/schools as ineffective (and vice versa).” The title of W. James Popham’s essay “Standardized tests don’t measure educational quality” (Microsoft Word document) sums up his perspective.

I found those two articles with a quick Google Scholar search — surely similar resources lie at the fingertips of New York Times reporters, so why not use them? Instead we are left with these two competing claims, and readers are likely to decide that the stakeholders they already agree or empathize with are telling the truth. But good journalism is not about rewording the claims of powerful interests; it is about verifying those claims — and challenging them when necessary.

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