Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Two good columns by Jack Shafer

Newsbooks:The triumph of a journalism genre

The scoops found in the newsbooks indicate that the competitive pressure of the daily deadline buries as much potential news as it unearths. David Corn tells me that sources on Capitol Hill often won't disclose inside information about what's happening todaywhich every reporter is asking them aboutbut these same sources will be more forthcoming about last week's events, which are no longer the hot subject of the moment. By standing outside of today's news cycle, newsbook authors can recognize patterns and make connections that escape beat reporters filing four or five pieces a week.
Maybe I’m missing something but the same argument can be made in defense of the best bloggers. They add context and offer analysis that is often missing from stories written on deadline.

Having Climbed Out Onto a Limb That Cracks …How should a newspaper crawl back?

So, why are newspapers so hesitant to acknowledge their flawed work? Among other things, no journalist ever got a raise for saying, "I got it wrong." The whole incentive structure encourages journalists to deny or otherwise obfuscate the mistakes and miscues they and their publications commit.
I think there are three forces at work here. The first derives from David Warsh’s concept of “explanation space”:

the lofty region where short-term causal explanations of events are forged.
This is where journalists compete with others in the guild. Admitting errors undercuts their competitive position.

The second comes from the hold that sources have over reporters. Warsh again:

What is important to understand is that beneath the glitz, newspapers actually operate as favor banks, to use novelist Tom Wolfe’s phrase from Bonfire of the Vanities. That is to say, newspapers are forever paying favors forward, in expectation of reciprocal acts of kindness from players yet unknown, accepting deposits of information and emphasis, making grants of credit and blame.

Newspapers reward their culture heroes and presidential favorites, penalize those with whom they disagree, further the activities of which they approve and ignore those which they do not, hoping all the while that the intricate web of transactions actually is in the black over time. No accountant could ever hope to make sense of it. That’s what they pay publishers and editors to do
When a story goes wrong, it is often because reporters relied on the wrong sources. Revising the story means challenging those sources or portraying them in a bad light. This is hard because the reporter may still want those sources in the future.

Newsweek’s Susannah Meadow copped to half this charge in a recent media panel on the Duke lacrosse case.

Later, in response to a question about why the media seemed to assume the players were guilty, Meadows made this comment: “You had a public official [Nifong] who said, ‘I am sure!’, and say it to your face. We expect our public officials to know what they’re talking about.”
As noted before, crime reporters need the DA’s office to do their stories. Hence, they grant prosecutors much more credibility than most other officials. Can you imagine Evan Thomas quietly accepting a Rumsfeld pronouncement and then explaining it away by saying “we expect our our public officials to know what they are talking about”?

One last factor is the issue of worldview and explanation space. Important stories are written and published as part of a grand narrative. Journalists remain convinced that the big story is true even if some of the details are wrong. (Dan Rather, “fake but accurate”.) So why correct “trivia” at the risk of obscuring “the big picture”? This tendency has also been on ample display during the Duke lacrosse case.

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