Why MSM Journalism is Dying
Update: Missing link as noted by commenter WDS now supplied.
Update 2: Again TPM, this further demonstration of the APs journalistic collapse. Mistakes happen. Mistakes repeatedly pumped over the wire, material signficant ones like inflating the cost of a health care plant that would cover on the order of 40 million uninsured…that could cost lives, and is, on any reasonable interpretation of the timeline, a willed choice.
I believe in reporting. We have never needed real journalists, MS or alternative, more than we do now. But what Ron Fournier and, presumably, those who placed him in this position are doing to one of the most significant formerly journalistic shops of the last century is a disgrace — and one that is impossible even for the friends of old-school media to defend.
The APs McCain operative/Washington Bureau Chief takes it on himself to present as news what he heard when Sandra Sotomayor and Patrick Leahy said something quite different from Mr. Fournier’s perception.
Just two thoughts before the bile rises too high in my mouth:
I teach in — right now I run — the graduate program in science writing at MIT. While we cover what we think of as the big tent of science writing, we emphasize the core of journalism that lies at the heart of any story one might hope to tell. By that we mean the research, the reading, the talking to people, the checking of one’s facts; the checking of one’s explanations — after all, one of the reasons science writing exists as a separate beat and path of study is the need to figure out how to transduce technical knowledge into clear and non-distorted lay presentations — and above all, reality testing one’s interpretations, one’s judgment.
That is, just to give a trivial example, press releases from MIT’s news office and a bunch of other places hit my email inbox all the time, often several a day. Each of them reports some new discovery, usually tied to a publication or a conference presentation. The good news offices know not to oversell, but always, if something has risen to the level of a press release from an institution or a journal, then the implication is that whatever is being touted is a big-ish deal at least.
But is it? Sometimes. Most often, not so much. Not that the results being publicized are trivial, but there is usually no or little context given to place just how significant or how novel a given discovery may be. And that’s where a good science writer must do some work, if she or he sees a possible story there at all. Literature searching, talking to both the principals on a paper and others in the field — whatever , simply the basic reality check any journalist covering any beat has to do, in the form appropriate for the material being covered.
Just to give an example, a release touting this story hit my email at noon today. It’s interesting — a report on work that may lead to practical advance in the formulation of the adhesives — glues — used in surgery in place of traditional sutures (stitches) and staples.
The key early paragraph of the release, the so-called “nut graf” read like this:
MIT researchers aim to change that with glues tailored to specific tissues. In a recent issue of Advanced Materials, they identified for the first time how one kind of glue material bonds to tissue and how that adhesion varies depending on the tissue involved, from the intestine to the lung. They then showed how by adjusting certain properties of the materials it was possible to create a range of adhesives optimized for specific tissues and applications.
As far as factual claims go, this seems right on. It says what the team was trying to do, and it states that their work has advanced to the point where it can be published in a relevant journal, and that this work addresses three significant issues in the field. Sounds good so far.
The rest of the release, and at greater length, the story posted on the MIT website, details what the team actually did. The MIT news office is, as you would expect, quite careful, so they do not oversell in the body of the piece, though one could say that there is a little bit of walking back the implied promise of MIT researcher potentially changing “all that.”
But the essence of the rest of the report is that the researchers have established their core idea in a rat model — and there is no mention anywhere of competing work or other approaches to the stated problems of current surgical glues.
So is this a story? If so, what kind? A 250 word front-of-the book/science-news-blog piece? Five hundred words with a bit more context on the state of play in such technology? As an element in a 3,000 word magazine feature about technological approaches to the healing process after surgery? Others?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t until I’d done some…what’s the word for that again?…oh yeah!: reporting. All I have here is a fact: a lab at MIT is publishing a particular set of results.
We spend a lot of time in our program working with our students to understand the difference between facts and stories, and what you have to do to make sure that the story you ultimately tell is a good –and valid one.
And then you get some bozo like Ron Fournier, who decides from a position of extraordinary power — he’s the guy for all those hundreds or thousands of surviving newspapers that don’t have a Washington bureau — that this reporting jazz is just so old-school. Much better to say what you think your sources might have said than do anything like a real story about any of the genuine questions one might have about the appointment and confirmation of any Supreme Court justice. (See this Daily Kos guide to Media Matters’ coverage of the failure of Fournier and his ilk to do that work.)
What can I say? This latest from Fournier just leaves me gobsmacked. In a month or two, I’ll be standing up in front of seven more graduate students who really want to talk about science in ways that can engage the public, and I’ll be telling them about the hard (and poorly paid) work they will have to do in order to achieve their goals — and I’ll have to try to tiptoe around the fact that so many of the most well established figures in journalism have forgotten that the core of the activity is reporting. They should be ashamed of themselves, though I know full well that were the self-awareness required to experience that emotion present in Fournier and his herd of ilk, then we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place.
My only other thought is that I remember when the AP stood for something, specifically for fast, aggressive, and as near as uninterpreted story-gathering as possible. I’m old enough so that my student newspaper still had an old fashioned wire service terminal in the newsroom, complete with the little bell that rang when the AP thought they had a big story coming over the transom. I still recall our then editor, Francis Xavier Connoly, reacting with utter disbelief, checking the date to make sure it wasn’t a hideous April 1 prank, when for the second time in little more than a month that bell dinged to alert us to the death of a pope. We had then a sense of the AP wire as a link to an ocean of fact, some very strange (the “strangubation” story out of Michigan), some sudden (where are you now, John Paul I) and everything else besides.
Now we have Fournier, and his dog whistles. It’s a loss the scale of which only grows as other reporting institutions fall into oblivion, and what makes this one so infuriating is the degree to which it is so thoroughly self inflicted.
Image: Yoshitoshi Tsukioka, “Akashi Gidayu writing his death poem before committing Seppuku.” c. 1890.