Tuesday, September 28, 2004

How To Fix Journalism

Maybe because I was a terrible journalist, I have all kinds of good ideas how to fix things. Not "The Profession of Journalism" as such. I don't see a solution for the perpetual J-school vs. experience argument. I don't know how to reduce the political biases of the people who choose to go into journalism. I don't really see how, beyond general cultural shifts, the profession can force journalists to be more interested in and educated about science, math, history and languages.

But I have some very practical solutions that editors could use to improve their stories and squeeze out bias even when it's not the kind of bias that they notice (i.e., left-leaning editors often don't notice left-leaning bias; the same is true, of course, for the few right-leaning editors).

STEP 1 DO NOT TELL ME THINGS THAT HAVE NOT HAPPENED. Today there was a headline on Reuters (which only give three top stories) 'Debates Provide Contrast' or something mealy like that. This is not true. The debate happens on Thursday night. Stop telling me what is going to happen and tell me what has happened.
I first really noticed this trend during the Gulf War, when it seemed as if 75% of the story was explaining what the reporter thought would happen next. On the first day of the air war, all the talk was of how the ground was was going to start. It was even worse in the Iraq war. There were all kinds of things actually happening: battles, advances, setbacks. But if you go and re-read the front-page coverage, you'd get much more speculation about the next step (speculation, I might add, that was usually wrong). Predictions are not facts, and so it's very, very easy for them to become 'spun' and biased. Eliminate them.

STEP 2: FOR GOD'S SAKE, CHECK YOUR NUMBERS YOURSELF. Today there was an article in the Wall Street Journal catalogue critic section that said that an average baby wears 4000 diapers. Let's run some numbers, shall we. A baby will live approximate 800 days until toilet trained (just to use nice, round numbers). The baby will not average only five diapers through that whole time. Even at the very end, just before little precious is ready to train, you are talking about one in the morning upon wakeup, one after morning meal, one mid-day or post-lunch, one afternoon, one dinnertime, one before bed. Doctors say that the child should be making water six times a day, so unless you get a double-up with other materials, that pushes the number to seven, which means not 4000, but 5600. But it gets worse, because most infants are much closer to 15-20 diapers per day ( my champion son has gone through 27 once -- there goes his college fund). So if you make the average for the first 300 days 15, you're up to 8600, and when you figure in little tricks like peeing after a diaper is only partially on after a change, and the lovely visit of Mister Rotavirus that we all get, well. Only a fool would count on less than 10,000 diapers. See, this did not require higher math. Just some common sense -- and I did it all in my head. [and yes, this week my wife goes back to work and I become Mr Mom for our six-month-old son and four-year-old daughter, so I'm thinking a lot about diapers.]

STEP 3DELETE LEADING AND TENDENTIOUS MODIFIERS. It would be easy to write a Word macro that deleted every instance of the modifiers "ultra," "arch," "extreme". These are useless cliches. You would probably have to do the "controversial" or "much-criticised" by hand, since there conceivably could be one or two instances in which these were useful, but I suggest automating.

STEP 4NO PASSIVE VOICE, NO UNSPECIFIC PARAPHRASE FAUX-QUOTES FROM 'EXPERTS' or "OFFICIALS'. News is about saying what has happened. Active voice, so that you can't get away from who did what to whom. Also, don't be a weasel and quote anonymous 'experts.' Weak. We all know it's a group of other reporters making crap up.

STEP 5PARTY AFFILIATION OF ALL ELECTED OFFICIALS AND RETIRED ELECTED OFFICIALS must be given even in seemingly unrelated stories. Regardless of what the story is about: officials run their campaigns on their images and their 'characters.' Therefore, when Congressman Snopes is caught tipping the cow, as it were, we need to know which party.

STEP 6 . NO PHYSICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF PEOPLE UNLESS THEY ARE FLEEING THE LAW OR IT IS RELEVANT TO THE STORY. Thus if Michael Moore were to catch and eat the Great White Shark now circling Cape Cod in its quest for Teddy Kennedy, you could describe Mr Moore's girth. But not in a story about one of his one-trick-pony films.

Ok, those are six rules. Since Journalists in my experience tend to be acquainted with twelve-step programs, I'll invite suggestion and contributions.

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