Four takes on a poll: a case study in the use of voice

How you express yourself has implications for how users react.

In yesterday’s Argo webinar on voice, opinion and objectivity, we discussed several blog posts, asking two main questions:

  1. Where does the post fall on a scale from “straight” (written in a non-controversial, just-the-facts style) to “assertive” (clearly making or assuming an argument)?
  2. What effects might that choice have on users’ reactions to the post?

We kicked off the discussion by examining four approaches to the same story.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg released the results of a poll of likely voters in this November’s midterm elections. Posts about polls are almost perfect for our purposes, because it’s possible to read so much into them. There’s no “objective” reading of a poll – there are the banner top-line findings, then all sorts of murky findings that are subject to vastly varying interpretations. Any of the findings you choose to emphasize can reveal your particular biases, preferences, and interests. Here are four different treatments, along with my analysis of their effects: Continue reading

Voice, opinion and objectivity: An Argo webinar

I had a nuanced conversation today with the Argo bloggers and NPR’s Mark Memmott about the effects of different ways of couching perspectives and information. I’m posting the slides and a teensy bit of summary here now, with more context to come later.

Quick summary: I opened the conversation by saying that I didn’t intend to use the word “objectivity” much in relation to the conversation. To the extent I use the term, I talk about it as an ideal applied to a method, rather than to particular material. (I wouldn’t say a particular post is “objective,” but I might say a journalist pursued information in a rigorous, objective fashion.) I’ve taken inspiration on this point from Rosenstiel and Kovach’s Elements of Journalism, which clarified the distinction:

The call for journalists to adopt objectivity was an appeal for them to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work.

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The objectivity reading list: 5 takes on perspective in journalism

"Objectivity" by Sol LeWitt

As Joel alluded to on Friday, one of the most interesting digressions in our day-long workshop for the West Coast Argo-bloggers last week was our discussion of the doctrines of objectivity. This has been a long, ongoing conversation with room for plenty of nuance, and I hope we can advance that conversation a bit here.

Joel linked to a thoughtful post by Ed Yong asking whether science journalists should take sides. I want to pull together a quick reading list that I think might provoke some good thoughts: Continue reading

The View From Nowhere

I left our Argo West Coast Blogger Summit in San Diego today extremely energized, motivated and ready for what’s next. But one of the things that stuck with me in a slightly uncomfortable way was the notion that there is still a fair amount of angst over what constitutes ‘opinion’ vs. ‘analysis’. And should anything but ‘straight reporting’ be considered verboten for you as a capital-J Journalist.

So, I get back to my hotel room and the first tweet I see is one from NYU professor Jay Rosen, who’s railed against what he considers to be the illusion of objectivity a good deal in the past as this concept of a “view from nowhere.” It seems, it’s come up again in a blog post written by Ed Yong titled, Should Science Journalists Take Sides?, in Discover Magazine.

Yong pulls no punches and leaves no doubt where he comes down on the debate,

If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

Yong’s post is a good read that obviously doesn’t put the issue to bed. But I do hope it adds just one more data point for you as you find your own style and voice.

The wit & wisdom of Marc Ambinder

I found out this week that the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder is leaving to head up the White House reporting team at National Journal. I haven’t given Ambinder much love on this blog yet, but he employs several techniques I think any blogger could really learn from. More on that later. For now, I wanted to pass along five of his posts on journalism – with a special focus on bias, perspective and analysis – that I thought were particularly valuable: Continue reading

First take on Weigelgate

In my world, the trending story of the minute is the departure of blogger Dave Weigel from the Washington Post this past weekend. If this doesn’t ring any bells for you, here’s a quick-hit summary courtesy of Howie Kurtz:

David Weigel, who was hired by The Washington Post to blog about conservatives, resigned Friday after leaked online messages showed him disparaging some Republicans and commentators in highly personal terms. [...]

Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti said Weigel had called and offered to resign Thursday evening and he accepted on Friday.

“Dave did excellent work for us,” Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said. But, he said, “we can’t have any tolerance for the perception that people are conflicted or bring a bias to their work. . . . There’s abundant room on our Web site for a wide range of viewpoints, and we should be transparent about everybody’s viewpoint.”

The Washington Post has been well out in front of other newspapers in hiring bloggers who blur the line between reporter and columnist. Dave Weigel was one of these hires. They’ve mostly held off on attaching any label besides “blogger” to the growing roster of WaPo bloggers that includes Weigel, Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein. In this case, Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander says the fuzziness of that role has damaged their standing in the eyes of readers. Moreover, the incident threatens to bring the Objectivity Wars back into the forefront of the discussion over the future of journalism.

I’m going to sidestep the Objectivity Wars for now and highlight one response to Weigel’s departure that I found particularly astute:

I want to push back just a little on the idea [...] that some kind of blog-reporter ethos is dumbfounding institutions like the Post because it’s such an unpredecedented challenge to traditional newspaper ideals of objectivity, while at the same time confuting the stereotype of blogging as mere pontificating about other people’s work. Blog-reporter ethos appears to consist of

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

I submit that this is just magazine-journalism ethos with the addition of cat pictures. If you think about what good long and short-form journalism looks like at a decent magazine, it looks like the bullet-points above. I’m not just talking about ideological organs. The writer who sells to Harper’s or The National Geographic or even Runner’s World is going to tend to show a personality and take a definite perspective, while at the same time doing fresh reporting from primary sources, whether human, documentary or physical. The writer will make sure to include a substantial account of challenges to her perspective, if only to knock it down later.

I think Jim Manzi – the author of this passage – is spot-on. As I’ve suggested before on at least a couple of occasions, great journo-blogging shares an awful lot of characteristics with great long-form journalism. I think that’s why magazines such as the New Republic, Time, Wired, and the Atlantic Monthly have been way out ahead of newspapers like the Washington Post in developing high-profile voices in this arena. We grant long-form journalists more leeway to draw conclusions and adopt perspectives, partly because they have more space with which to sound out a variety of views and present nuance, and partly because it becomes harder to maintain the appearance of neutrality with every word one writes.

What the Weigel story makes very clear is that we haven’t yet settled on our expectations for journalists in this new environment. Are they Sewell Chan or Seymour Hersh? Do we treat them, in other words, like magazine reporters or like newspaper reporters?

The pat answer, of course, is that we treat them like bloggers. But I think that unwillingness to discuss boundaries or set expectations is what got the WaPo into this mess in this case. This is something I want to discuss with each of the Argo editors, with one guideline front-and-center: There are a number of overlapping concepts here  - ideology, fairness, snark, neutrality, partisanship, bias, objectivity, analysis, perspective – and it’s important to keep in mind that all of these things are related, but each of them is distinct.

Tomorrow I’m going to participate in an event at the Newseum with one of my favorite journalism ethicists, Poynter’s Kelly McBride. I suspect Kelly’s got some terrific thoughts about how Weigelgate might shape our thinking. If I’m right, I’ll try to capture some of those thoughts to share with you.

The rise of analysis

Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein was musing today about what was driving the success of organizations like NPR and the Economist, who’ve seen solid growth in an otherwise troubling time for the news industry. In his musings, he delivers what I’d call a spot-on assessment of the market opportunity online:

My grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That’s left a lot of publications that either aren’t used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren’t suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.

Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That’s also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it’s hard to really break through in it unless you’re willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there’s actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that’s fundamentally what they’re doing. It’s not quite newsgathering, and it’s not straight opinion, though there’s occasionally opinion in there. It’s analysis. It’s how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.

I’d quibble with bits of this. (Not quite newsgathering? Tell that to Sorayya Sarhaddi Nelson or Laura Sullivan.) But I’m completely on board with his description of the unmet need in journalism right now.

There’s a bit of subtext here worth teasing out. Although he’s putatively talking about the rise of NPR and the Economist, Klein could just as easily be describing his own meteoric ascent to the Washington Post, where his blog is one of the site’s most popular sections. The Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU included his blogging of the health care reform process on a list of the top 80 works of journalism from the 2000s. “He is a new paradigm,” Post editor Marcus Brauchli said, “one we would very much like to replicate.”

“As a blogger, he has more latitude than reporters to reach conclusions,” Brauchli added. “It’s inevitable we will employ more people who have that ability.”

You don’t need to read between the lines to understand that Marcus Brauchli is looking for Ezra Klein 2.0. And it’s not hard to understand why. In a future post, I promise to dissect some of Klein’s blogging techniques that I think really work. But for the moment, I just want to underscore his emphasis.

For several of the Argo topics, I think solid analysis will trump even breaking news, both as a hook for an audience and as a way to keep them engaged. If you don’t want to take my word for it, take Nick Denton’s:

We can take ownership of a story even if it isn’t a strict exclusive. In case of both Tiger and Peaches, other sites (the porn star’s site and Reddit, respectively) carried the original material. But we added context and packaged the stories up. [...]

When remotely possible turn news into explanation. Straight how-to and why stories — such as Kotaku’s excellent Farmville guide — obviously resonate. But you can turn a news story into an explainer, as Lux did with the sexting scandals.

Public broadcasting has built its reputation on offering context. Ezra Klein (and, unbelievably, some of the Gawker bloggers) have really advanced the art of doing this in the blog format. We can learn a lot from them. More on this soon.