Thursday, October 25, 2007

Critics say the moon is bigger than an elephant

Journalists should consider reading this book.

"Critics say the moon is bigger than an elephant." Seems dumb -- the moon is clearly bigger than an elephant, the "critics" have nothing to do with it. Yet this construct is commonplace in newspaper reports like this one.

Civil liberties and privacy advocates and a majority of Democrats said the bill could allow the monitoring of virtually any calls, e-mails or other communications going overseas that originate in the United States, without a court order, if the government deems the recipient to be the target of a U.S. probe.

The paragraph above is in reference to the recent FISA "fixes" bill, the contents of which are public record. The text of what the bill allows is short and understandable and what "civil liberties and privacy advocates" say is exactly right -- that is precisely what the bill does.

The entire piece is mostly quotes from various sides -- none of which are vetted by the author in any way. This is pure stenography, know-nothing journalism where the "journalist" uncritically reports he-said/he-said without any verification of claims.

The "critics say..." construct is pervasive in media, but the logical follow-up -- "well are they right?" -- is rarely addressed, even when the statements are purely factual and verifiable. In cases where verification is tricky even the simpler "do they have any evidence?" or "is there any reason whatsoever to believe them?" is rarely asked or answered.

This construct is popular because:

  1. It maintains a false sense of "balance" by attributing all meaningful statements to someone other than the reporter who then cannot be accused of advocacy.
  2. It lowers the burden of what is reportable by moving from reporting the facts to reporting what some third party characterized the facts as.

According to The Elements of Journalism "objectivity" is not a goal but a method that relies on verification. Verifying facts is hard. Verifying the truth of statements is hard. So the game becomes merely reporting what is said, as if that is the story. In that case the only the verbiage of the quotes themselves need verification.

What people say is rarely in itself news, especially when the people in question are provably dishonest. McConnell in the piece above says that the NSA is overburdened with work, but he also said that FISA fixes helped lead to the arrest of terrorists in Germany then recanted when pressed. Given that the man lied to Congress is what he says to Congress still news? Bush says we don't torture. He also said there was no indication the levees would break. What he says is worth exactly nothing.

The Elements of Journalism is a tragic read. Clearly somebody out there still gets what journalism is about. Too bad few are practicing it.

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