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August 13, 2007

Bloggers as Reporters

Kay worries that journalism is being taken over by "a group of people with no ethics or reporting training whatsoever who understand how to write blogs and get them read." In other words, bloggers! What's weird, though, is what good reporting bloggers actually do, particularly as compared to many of those with "ethics" (?) and reporting training. Case in point is Glenn Greenwald's impressive, substantive, and long interview with Michael O'Hanlon, in which he digs beneath the original 1,400 word op-ed to, well, report out the actual facts of the O'Hanlon's trip. And the answers are deeply revealing.

After Glenn gets O'Hanlon to explain that the trips was organized by the Department of Defense, that the meetings were put together by the Department of Defense, and that the participants in the meetings were largely chosen by the Department of Defense, we get this gem of an exchange:

GG: Given that some of the claims in your Op-Ed are based upon your conversations with Iraqis, and that the Iraqis with whom you spoke were largely if not exclusively ones provided to you by the U.S. military, shouldn't that fact have been included in your Op-Ed?

MO: If the suggestion is that in a 1,400 word Op-Ed, we ought to have mentioned that, I can understand that criticism, and if we should have included that, I apologize for not having done so. But I want to stress that the focus here was on the perspective of the U.S. military, and I did a lot of probing of what I was told, and remain confident in the conclusions that we reached about the military successes which we highlighted. But if you're suggesting that some of our impressions might have been shaped by the military's selection of Iraqis, and that we might have disclosed that, that is, I think, fair enough.

Gotta love that "in a 1,400 word op-ed." I mean, a disclaimer could have taken up a good two or three percent of that! And yet those reporters, with all their training and ethics, saw no need to mention nor emphasize how fundamentally compromised O'Hanlon and Pollack were. What are they being taught?

Meanwhile, I can't tell you how many of my journalistic mentors have told me that the utility of reporting is that you can always find someone else who knows exactly what you need to know. This search for expertise-once-removed is fine, but considerably inadequate if you're not simultaneously developing your own, independent, expertise, with which you can evaluate the answers given by your sources. I was reminded of this by a recent post of Kevin Drum's on the lack of workable alternatives to objective reporting. "Who gets to decide whether an issue is still debatable?" He asked. "The reporter? But most reporters aren't subject matter experts."

That's true. They aren't. But there's no reason they shouldn't be. In her post, Kay worries about the future of journalism school. I hope that every journalism school in the country dies out, and that a J-School degree becomes worse than useless for this profession. It's time our newspapers began demanding expertise, rather than earnestness. If you want to be an economic reporter, you should have some training in economics. If you want to do health policy, you should have to demonstrate some fluency with the policy issues involved, and the relevant research. So far as I can tell, the problem in journalism is that there are far too many trained reporters, and far too few researchers, and experts in their subject matter. Kevin wants an alternative to objective reporting, and I'm willing to offer one: Expert reporting. Will it be perfect? No. But it will be better than what we have now, and far closer to the actual meaning of the word "objective," which is supposed to denote the dispassionate analysis of facts, not the innocence of babes.

August 13, 2007 | Permalink


Amen. I've never understood why Journalism should be a major degree program in the liberal arts. It's like making Novel Writing a separate degree program instead of keeping that subject as a part of English.

Posted by: David W. | Aug 13, 2007 12:40:59 PM

I don't see any reason why journalism training should be devalued on this basis. If you want reporters to be trained in the areas they cover, that's great, but it doesn't lessen the importance of training in journalistic practice, and ethics. I've found that while journalists without expertise are more prone to not ask the right question to to mix up some facts, those with expertise but not formal journalism training seem more likely to lead their pieces to conclusions that suit their own more informed biases, probably because, in addition to not understanding journalism, they're more inclined to think they know what the real answers are and have more analytical training that they hate to let go to waste. I don't think they're better than the others, on the whole.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 13, 2007 1:04:25 PM

If you want to be an economic reporter, you should have some training in economics. If you want to do health policy, you should have to demonstrate some fluency with the policy issues involved, and the relevant research.

Why does economics require training, but health policy simply require fluency? I agree with the general point, but it should be applied similarly across fields-- formal training in fields would be very beneficial in most areas-- definitely health policy.

Posted by: wisewon | Aug 13, 2007 1:09:52 PM

Sanpete does hit on something that could be a hazard of "expert reporters," if you consider this sort of thing a hazard:

Journalism requires "buy in" regarding the stories being covered or that statements being reported. When a journalist is covering a policy forum or discussion involving the 27-year-old analyst, a politician, and a PR spokesperson for the relevant corporate interest group, a "good story" depends on having a reporter who believes that all of the statements during this forum are very profound and interesting. An "expert reporter" would be more likely to approach covering the event with an attitude of, "you are all idiots and I don't have time to listen to these ignoramuses pontificate about stuff they know nothing about." We have very set ideas about what is "a story" and what deserves to be covered and how it should be covered. "Expert journalists" might or might not provide "better" coverage. The reason they won't become commonplace is that they dissent from the very premise that the stuff being covered and quoted is worth covering and quoting.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 13, 2007 1:22:07 PM

the problem in journalism is that there are far too many trained reporters, and far too few researchers,

Exactly. An example of bloggers doing the work, and researching the length and breadth and depth of a situation (as opposed to parroting only the superficial, in-the-moment soundbites pertaining thereto) is my own interest in, and writings on, the food safety issue. There were so many dots all waiting to be connected, so much history, precedent, related stories, and probable cause to be presented, yet no news reporters seemed willing or able to tackle all that. So I did.

That's what I was taught to do in journalism school, by the way. Back in the late 70's/early 80's. I honestly don't know what has happened to the discipline since then, but I do know that UF now calls it Mass Com, so perhaps there's a clue there.

Posted by: litbrit | Aug 13, 2007 1:23:28 PM

One more thing: during my time at UF, a degree from the College of Journalism and Communications required a "minor" in English, Marketing, Economics, or one of a number of other disciplines. So one would not only learn how to write for the news, but also gain a decent and focused education in one or more specific subjects. (I had two minors: English and Theatre). The school turned out no journalists who were just journalists, though I can't speak for its policies now.

Posted by: litbrit | Aug 13, 2007 1:28:20 PM

I don't know that journalistic training is entirely irrelevant, but I do think more expertise is called for. For example, journalists shouldn't ever report on statistics without taking at least one course in statistics. Ever. Maybe they can put statistics classes in journalism schools. Science reporters should probably have majored in science--perhaps with a double major in journalism (which I know at NYU, at least, is required to be a double major) or with an undergrad in science and a year or two of journalism school.

Posted by: Isabel | Aug 13, 2007 1:36:56 PM

I think Glenn Greenwald proves differently.

It doesn't really take an expert in the field to be able to ask probing questions or conduct an in-depth interview. You just need to be a news reader. I frequently wonder if news anchors, pseudo-journalists/pundits, and reporters ever even READ THE NEWS, when they aren't jaw-jawing on "Hardball" or filing stories at WSJ.

Take a look again at GG. He's an attorney, not particularly schooled in foreign policy, yet he is clearly a voracious news reader. It forms the backbone of his brilliant column archive.

Greenwald went straight to the heart of the issue, asking O'Hanlon: Who invited you? Who arranged your tours, your briefings, your neighborhood visits?


Greenwald simply did basic journalism, and, lo and behold, it worked.

The "new journalists" aren't practicing journalism at all; they're practicing advocacy and political activism. There's a difference. They know it.

But because the media is a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of defense contracting and entertainment empires now, journalists either tow the line with the CEO, or they're back in school looking for a different line of work.

The very best bloggers are taking the place of journalists because journalists have abdicated their jobs to them. So, when I see Joe Klein and the rest of the whiners or blowhards complaining about it, I just shrug. People will seek the news and get it where they can, if they are "news readers." If they want to keep their jobs, maybe journalists should start doing them.

Posted by: Brighid | Aug 13, 2007 1:43:07 PM

I think it depends largely on why you are a journalist, or why you want to be. I get the strong impression (correct me if I'm wrong, of course) that you were interested in politics from a wonkish perspective first and reporting second, and a career as a reporter is more reliable and less ethically compromising than one as an activist or politician's advisor or whatever. And that's fine, but some people get into journalism first and a subtopic of it second, because they like to write and deal with people in the way a reporter gets to, and being a reporter is the way to get paid for it. For them (us), a journalism degree gives us a start on being ready for practically any writing job.

Also, you seem to be making the assumption that quality writing is common, or at least a matter of putting in the effort, but that seems pretty dubious. A two-year master's program to learn the reverse pyramid format is overkill, but we've seen enough horrible writing to know that something more than the freshman English is needed.

I dunno, maybe I'm just playing devil's advocate here. I double-majored in English (with a focus in creative writing, to be even more useless) and political science, and I'm now a journalist, and most of my reporting is across a range of topics in a certain geographical area. Most of what I learned about journalism was from an editor at my campus newspaper. (An exceptional one; I know I didn't do as good a job teaching the reporters when I was editor as she did for me.) So not only do I not do the kind of reporting you think needs a certain kind of training, I don't even have the kind of training you're complaining about.

Posted by: Cyrus | Aug 13, 2007 2:06:03 PM

O'Hanlon is a shill scudge.
GG is someone I almost idolize.
O'Hanlon KNEW what he was facing in GG
And still did it...fairly openly and apparently truthfully.

O'Hanlon needs to go to my (proprietary)
'No-harm Farm' where he can do no more damage
I am impressed that he had the courage and moral compass to venture the lair of Glenn Greenwald.

Maybe there's an personal epiphany in there somewhere....like maybe with the pony?

Posted by: has_te | Aug 13, 2007 2:08:15 PM

It's time our newspapers began demanding expertise, rather than earnestness. If you want to be an economic reporter, you should have some training in economics. If you want to do health policy, you should have to demonstrate some fluency with the policy issues involved, and the relevant research.

Ditto that amen in #1. I said the same when I rejected getting a j-school M.A. after college, and I believe it even more after watching the press stumble over its shoelaces these past few years. Just to cite one example, in 2000, a little economics expertise applied to the Bush tax plans -- see, e.g., Paul Krugman -- would have done a heck of a lot of good.

Posted by: Greg Greene | Aug 13, 2007 2:25:50 PM

Any occupation in which someone totally uneducated in the field can excel (Glenn Greenwald is mentiond above) is an occupation of fluff. The great old style reporters learned the craft by doing (and listening). Students interested in journalism used to work on the college paper, not necesarily major in journalism.

I can change my opinion on this, but someone will have to quantitatively show me how a 4 year journalism major instils some unique capabilities in the individual. I haven't heard it yet. I've asked.

Posted by: Mudge | Aug 13, 2007 2:52:24 PM

Expertise can help, but it's not a panacea. The real difficulty is the pressures on journalists. Research costs time and money and that's not good in today's world.

There are specialist articles about my subject that I read and am depressed by, but wouldn't be better unless I or someone else in the field wrote them. They aren't the majority though.

The main problem is articles that the Editor in Chief should have been able to see the deficiencies in and send it back. The ones it wouldn't take an expert to spot. The press releases copied verbatim into the story, etc. It is pressures on time and money that stop that happening.

Posted by: Meh | Aug 13, 2007 2:55:16 PM

I agree. Let's replace objectivity with expertise.

After reading DeLong's blog for years now, I don't know how anyone with less than a graduate degree in econ can dare to write a word. He'll tear you apart if you make a booboo, and rightly so.

Posted by: chris | Aug 13, 2007 3:11:55 PM

I've never understood why Journalism should be a major degree program in the liberal arts.

The whole 'J-school' thing barely exists in the UK, particularly at the undergraduate level. There are a few masters' degrees in the mechanics of newspaper and magazine journalism, that are aimed towards subs, designers or editors as much as they are writers.

Now, I have to admit that I don't know what J-school teaches. But I do know that the traditional route upwards was a kind of apprenticeship, where you'd establish your beat, learn your sources, earn your bylines by fact-checking or other spade work. In that sense, I'm sympathetic to Meh's position: consolidation and budgetary pressures make investing in personnel seem less critical when you can get pseudo-journos to do the job.

In a better world, Walter Pincus would have half a dozen 20somethings shadowing him at work.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 13, 2007 3:32:22 PM

I agree that journalism in this country would be vastly improved if more reporters and editors understood what the fuck they were writing about. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a requirement that you have to know anything about anything to write about it. And it occurs in all types of stories, from stories about policy to stories about the arts.

A good example: A.O. Scott was hired by the New York Times to become their chief film critic, in spite of the fact that he had published no more than a handful of articles (and it may only have been one) about film. He was promoted over Dave Kehr, a fine critic who was being considered for the job, who has written about film for decades, and whose knowledge of film is truly staggering.

My particular beef, though, is reporting on social science, which often is disgraceful. I've read countless articles written by people who clearly have no idea how to evaluate a study: no idea of how to evaluate the methodology, statistical significance, possible sources of bias, etc. As we've been discussing in another thread, the NY Times published an article yesterday written by someone who apparently doesn't understand the difference between the median and the mean.

One of the most embarrassing examples of social science reporting in recent years was a front-page article in the NY Times touting a study produced by one of the hackiest wingnut think tanks (I think it might have been the Heritage Foundation). It was a study claiming that abstinence-only education was effective, and it was given super-respectful, uncritical treatment. This in spite of the fact that the study had numerous statistical and methodological flaws, that the principal investigator did not have a Ph.D. or any special expertise in the subject, and that the results of the study directly contradicted pretty much every decent study that had ever been done on the subject.

It's impossible, of course, for reporters to become in-depth experts in everything, but jayzuz, they should at least pick up the phone and call some real experts before buying into this kind of horseshit.

The weird thing about the journalism profession is that the higher up you go, the less "expertise" is required. Most pundits don't know jackshit about anything, yet they feel entitled to pronounce up on every subject under the sun. But having expertise is a real strength. Ezra is such an excellent journalist partly because he has a truly impressive command of an extremely complex subject, health policy. And one of the reasons Paul Krugman is a national treasure is that, unlike every other op-ed columnist I can think of, he has a deep knowledge of an important subject, economics.

You can still be a great journalist and not be an "expert," though. I think Digby is a great journalist, for example. And I.F. Stone, the classic lefty muckraker, had no special training in any subject (in fact, I don't think he even graduated from college). Yet he was one of the greatest journalists of all time. Basically all he did was read government reports, but he had the brilliance and the stubborn persistence to spend hours and hours poring over that stuff, thereby picking up on the clues everyone else was missing, and sniffing out huge stories that were going unreported everywhere else.

Overall, though, I think more journalistic expertise would be a good thing. I know that a few years ago Columbia's j-school program was being revamped so that students spent one year taking journalism classes and the next year taking courses throughout the university, with the goal being that the student choose a concentration and become an expert in a particular subject. I'd be curious to find out how that's working -- it sounded like a great idea.

Posted by: Kathy G. | Aug 13, 2007 3:37:52 PM

I'm not for killing all the J-schools, since journalism will almost inevitably require more technical training in the Internet era. As a young, non-j-school-trained Web editor, I'm stunned at how little experience fellow journalists, even those my age, have with working with the Internet, and j-school would be a good place for people to learn basic to complex A/V and programming skills. More Web-savvy journalists and even hybrid journalist/programmers like Adrian Holovaty would be fantastic.

There'll be a role for j-school. Like it or not, newspapers do need to churn out reams of competent copy about everyday life, and j-school is fine at giving people the basics. The problem of expertise, I think, has more to do with hiring practices than training. That the Tribune Company hired Jonah Goldberg to replace Robert Scheer makes me think that even if you sent out legions of young journalists with wicked training in all sorts of important specialties, it wouldn't actually matter because they'd get stuck copyediting the well-placed idiot of the week. Think of how long Krugman got crapped on; he had to stick it out until everything went to hell before people realized that maybe he was kind of good at his job.

So, yeah--if we trained people in various fields of expertise, we'd probably just end up with a bunch more good bloggers. Which is fine, obviously, but it wouldn't really fix the problem you're addressing.

Posted by: whet | Aug 13, 2007 3:51:02 PM

As a recent j-school graduate, I did find my early reporting and journalism-specific courses to be kind of unfulfillinf. I actually ended up switching from a news-editorial track to media studies, approaching the media from a critical/academic standpoint. In the end, my education was what I made of it. Although, to some extent, that's kind of how it is in any field.

I do have one defense for the j-school, though, in the area of photojournalism. The process of photographing trying and often delicate events requires a pretty specialized ethical code if it's to be done well and with tact. Building an educational space to formulate that is still important.

Posted by: Drew | Aug 13, 2007 4:21:31 PM

Current educational theory touches on the idea that some aspects of expertise are transferable to domains outside the expert’s specialty. Expertise is understood to be more than just specialized knowledge. It is also heuristics/algorithms/strategies for solving certain classes of problems and - most importantly – for assessing and acquiring knowledge that is still missing.

Both Greenwald and Krugman began their journalistic endeavors writing about subjects which dovetailed highly with their considerable expertise. This afforded them the clarity and authority to note mendacity, incompetence and self-dealing of others within their specialist areas. Once they had begun following those patterns, it was probably easier for them to seek and spot them in other areas.

Posted by: karounia | Aug 13, 2007 4:29:30 PM

If we expect high school teachers to be knowledgable in the subjects they teach, though a curricular combination of content and instructional design, why would we expect less of a journalist. You have both subject/science and craft/art in both disciplines. Of course, there are those who do not believe education is a discipline. Perhaps, journalism isn't a discipline either.

Note. I believe Greenwald credits his trial experience as contributing to the success of his interview of O'Hanlon; for knowing how hard to push and when to back off, as well as his ability to interpret what O'Hanlon said, in the context of the way he said it. Greenwald waltzed that witness masterfully.

Posted by: mk | Aug 13, 2007 5:11:38 PM

There's a lot of focus here on questions of journalists being more informed, and I agree, that's sometimes an issue. Still two things seem to be missing here in terms of what needs to be valued: an ability to write, and an ability to think. If you ask me,as someone says above, why Glenn Greenwald is a good example of someone doing reporting from a different background, it's that his legal training emphasizes writing and critical thinking, which seem key. Add to that the fact that Greenwald is thoroughly bright, and it seems likely that he's be fine no matter what he chose to do.

And that's kind of the bigger point here. I agree that University's moving to an emphasis in training linked to professionalization - Business schools, j-schools, health professions including medical schools to some degree - has been a problematic trend. Liberal Arts training is key - I still believe - because it emphasizes thinking over profession, making one more of an all around useful person, rather than a (hopefull) well trained specialist.

But still. Journalism schools teach writing, something that I found immensely helpful during my year at Newhouse (and also photography, as someone else mentioned), and some lessons about ethics and repsonsibility. Saying we don't need J-schools may be provocative... but it's meaningless if what people push for, as indicated here, is for substituting one professional expertise for another. I'm in favor of anything that teaches people to write well and think critically. Beyond that, I'm not sure I understand how it would help to take people whose career will involve writing into studies that don't focus on that, first and foremost.

Posted by: weboy | Aug 13, 2007 5:30:50 PM

Still two things seem to be missing here in terms of what needs to be valued: an ability to write, and an ability to think.

Absolutely. In which case, we're dealing with a technē that's teachable and transferable. It's critical thinking, research skills, and also a willingness to recognise and cite those with expertise in a field. But what's also necessary to teach is the understanding that stuff takes time and work.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 13, 2007 6:03:16 PM

Let's replace objectivity with expertise.

Let's have both, sometimes separately if necessary. The seeking of fairness/objectivity is a very useful discipline, especially for reporters. It actually helps bring understanding you probably can't get otherwise.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 13, 2007 7:11:51 PM

I think there is something to be said for Greenwald's exceptional abilities. Not all bloggers are near his level, indeed, the vast majority aren't, but unlike in the newsroom, he's promoted because a majority find him intelligent and superior, instead of some editor and assorted cronies.

Posted by: Glenn Fayard | Aug 14, 2007 12:43:06 AM

As a professional journalist myself, the only things I think journalism school is good for are teaching technical skills and getting a foot in the door. If you can't write well, you shouldn't be going to journalism school anyway. Everything else directly to do with journalism can and should be learned on the job - each publication has its own style and practices.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Aug 14, 2007 5:54:33 AM

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