Thursday, May 10, 2007

Howie Strikes Again

This is going to meander a bit so bear with me, or not. Your call.

The New York Times ran a story Wednesday about a course at Stony Brook University that is designed to teach people how to judge news.

This is a wonderful idea, timely as we drown in an information flood of newspaper stories, online and in print, TV news, commentary, blogs, forums and more. Underlying the premise of the course run by Howard Schneider, former editor of Newsday, is that people use news more than they realize and need to be better educated, more critical readers, or just better readers, to understand what is going on in the world.

It's not wise to be trapped in one or two ways of finding information. We need to be open to all kinds of information without giving up our franchise of good reporting leading to well-produced stories that inform people otherwise too busy to find things out entirely by themselves.

Let's start with blogs. I'm a big fan of them. Or rather, some of them. Because to say that I like blogs is like saying I like newspapers but make no distinction between the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal (as presently constituted.)

Let me restate: there are a number of excellent news and commentary blogs that are worth reading. Just this morning, as I'm watching the Gonzales hearing, The Washington Post gets getting credit for a story about a ninth fired U.S. attorney. But I read about this attorney first, and days ago, at Talking Points Memo. Just as I read more and better explanations of economic matters and documented problems with projections and promises about withdrawal dates and progress reports in Iraq at Eschaton.

But in just the last few days, I've seen one of my favorite folks, Sree Sreenivasan, get banged around on some of my favorite blogs because part of what he is quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times rubbed some people the wrong way and the piling-on began. It reminds me of that "never let the facts get in the way of a school story" comment we mockingly use in newsrooms. Utterly aside from whether he was quoted accurately, it's pretty clear he was saying one thing that, out of context, sounded like something else.

At the same time, some of these very same blogs have been at the forefront of challenging administration misstatements and keeping print reporters honest. Let me note that to confuse drive-by comments, of unknown origin, with what the blogger has written is as bad as confusing the content of letters written by the local gadfly to the editor with that of a staff columnist. It ain't the same, and we should differentiate in how we refer to them. ( Just as we ought to distinguish between "Christian" leaders and rightwing/evangelical or other specific terms when we're reporting on religious-political matters. But that's another discussion for another day.)

Then there's TV. If I were running The Washington Post, I wouldn't let another reporter go on "Hardball," at least not since Chris Matthews attacked a Post reporter as a "liberal" and challenged her on that basis. We've got a former political operative--who fawned all over George Bush in his flight suit--who won't let anyone else talk attacking an objective reporter. What's wrong with that? Everything.

What this NYT story tells me is
a) We may get smarter readers out of a class like this, one that teaches people how to think about what they're reading and not simply slap liberal or conservative labels on stories, to recognize opinion masquerading as fact and maybe, just maybe, value genuine reporting.
b) We're going to have to do better in print, not cede ground to everyone who complains but not relinquish our true role in order to have friends, of any political persuasion.

Here's part of that NYT story. Telling Bogus From True: A Class in Reading News

.....It was one small moment in the course on news literacy, a semester-long lesson on how to be an informed consumer of news, how to navigate with appropriate skepticism the ever more crowded — and confusing — spheres of print, broadcast and Internet journalism. The course is unusual in that it is aimed at all students, not just aspiring journalists.

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