Tuesday, February 22, 2011


I read Blur by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel primarily for the subtitle: How to Know What's True in the Age of Information Overload. Kovach has been chief of the Washington bureau, the editor of the New York TimesAtlanta Journal-Constitution, and directed the Nieman Fellowship program at Harvard University. Rosenstiel was a media critic for the Los Angeles Times, chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek, and a press critic for MSNBC's The News with Brian Williams. Together they bring more than 80 years of journalistic experience to the book, their third.

They point out something that every astute consumer of news recognizes: even as the number of newspapers have declined, the number of other "news" sources—cable TV, blogs, websites, tweets, and more—has exploded. At one time, the newspaper's editors acted as gatekeepers to filter and vet the stories people would read; that function is much less significant today. Today news consumers have to vet the stories the stories they see on CNN, the Daily Kos, Reuters, MSNBC. Indeed, virtually every story. How do you tell what is reliable. How do you determine what facts (or whose opinions) to trust?

Kovach and Rosensteil point out there are four kinds of journalism. The journalism of...

1. Verification. The traditional reporter's attempt to obtain the truth about an event and "puts a high value on completeness: answering questions that the facts of an event may suggest and attempting to put these facts in a complete context so that they can be understood as they happened."

2. Assertion. The reporter simply passes along what were once the raw ingredients of journalism—the rumor, innuendo, allegation, accusation, charge, supposition, and hypothesis—directly to the audience. The reporter is a conduit, an enabler for sources and newsmakers.

3. Affirmation. This is opinion—or propaganda—masquerading as journalism. The practitioners are strongly ideological, often demagogic. They cherry-pick their facts, ignore alternative viewpoints, and appeal primarily to people who already agree with their views. They are not interested in looking for the truth because they already know it.

4. Aggregation. This is a benefit (or curse) of the internet age. It becomes embarrassingly easy to obtain stories from a variety of sources on a single topic. The stories may all follow the same ideological line—it depends on the aggregator—or they may offer a more complete picture with added details.

To become a more conscious and careful news consumer, the authors suggest we ask six basic questions about stories:

—What kind of content am I encountering?
—Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
—Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
—What evidence is presented, and how was it tested of vetted?
—What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
—Am I learning what I need to?

Two weeks ago, I was exposed to more cable news than I'd ever seen during an extended period. I found it superficial, unsatisfying, and often inadequate. Blur articulated my feelings. While the book is filled with interesting stories and good advice, I am skeptical that many Americans will take their suggestions to heart.

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