[Repost] Good Journalism: You suck at the news. Stop it.

Note: I originally wrote and posted this article in January of 2016. I’m posting it again because I remembered I’d already written this halfway through writing another diatribe on journalism.

People talk about “the news” like it used to be better than it is now. That’s not the case. “The news” has always been at least semi-unreliable.

It’s Always Been Bad News

Sheets of news have existed just about since we invented writing crap down. Proto-newspapers were popping up in ancient Rome as government-issued bulletins. In the 1500s governments were circulating one-sheet news notices, and in the 1600s business people started putting these sheets of news together using the printing press.

The first newspaper in France, the Gazette de France, was established in 1632 by the king’s physician Theophrastus Renaudot (1586-1653), with the patronage of Louis XIII. All newspapers were subject to prepublication censorship, and served as instruments of propaganda for the monarchy. [Wikipedia]

Propaganda has existed for even longer, and circulating the news and propaganda go hand-in-hand. As soon as human beings starting writing crap down and handing it out to their friends, they were lying about what they were writing down to influence their friends. That’s just how people work.

Here’s some sources from Wikipedia: History of Propaganda | Newspaper | History of Journalism. Yeah, I know, Wikipedia is like the gold medal winner of lazy sourcing when it comes to things like this, but it’s what I have to hand and it all looks pretty accurate, so work with me here.

The term “yellow journalism” was coined all the way back in the 1890s. Yellow journalism is “a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. [Wikipedia]” Sound familiar? It might not, because we mostly call it “clickbait” these days, folks. Shoot, we were even doing listicles, those icky little list articles everyone hates so much, way back in the day.

And that’s not even mentioning the Spanish-American War, probably one of the more egregious examples of bad journalism I have to hand. The Spanish-American War was basically started by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, and if those names sound familiar it’s because they’re now synonymous with good journalism. Those guys? Invented yellow journalism as we know it. Then they used it to start a war.

So “the news” has always been garbage. The Internet didn’t make it bad, it hasn’t gotten particularly worse, people haven’t gotten dumber – it’s always been this way. This is just how people work. Guys, people thought A Modest Proposal, which was written in 1729 and was about poor Irish people eating their own babies to solve the problem of poverty, was serious. We’ve been falling for Onion articles since almost 260 years before The Onion was even founded.

That Doesn’t Mean There Isn’t Any Good News

Good journalists do amazing work all the time, and have been for decades. Probably centuries.

The Times invented sending out war correspondents during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the reporting done by those correspondents led to major reforms in battlefield medical care [Wikipedia].

William Thomas Stead pioneered investigative journalism (and tabloid journalism, the two kind of went hand-in-hand) in the late 1800s, and used it to break the Eliza Armstrong case, a sensational story about child prostitution in England that revealed the selling of children into prostitution and the blind eye that officials were turning to the practice, and resulted in the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. (He actually ended up in jail for his part in the story.)

In 1887, Nellie Bly wrote 10 Days in a Mad House for the New York World and broke the story of the horrific treatment endured by the patients of Bellevue Hospital, a New York insane asylum.

In the 70s, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post broke the Watergate scandal.

On December 16, 2015, ProPublica and the Marshall Project published An Unbelievable Story of Rape, some of the best damned journalism I’ve ever read.

Good journalism happens constantly. It isn’t even hard to find. The tricky part is that it’s often mixed in with bad journalism.

The News Is Actually Your Responsibility

I often hear people decry the state of the news, as though it’s fallen so far from its former, lofty origins, and this is bullshit. The news has always been heavily mixed with bias, agendas, propaganda and frequently, flat lies. That’s been the case practically since the inception of the newspaper, and that’s the case today.

Finding the “truth” is hard. It takes effort and practice, and even then, you’re probably not going to get the actual unvarnished objective truth. But if you work at it, you can often get the gist of things.

You have to read a lot of news. You have to read good journalism and bad journalism. You have to read right-leaning sources and left-leaning sources. You have to read liars and paragons of virtue. And then you average all that together and come up with something in the middle, that’s probably about as close to the truth as anyone who wasn’t actually there to see it happen is likely to get.

It takes time. A fair chunk of my morning is taken up with scanning various stories. It takes effort. I have a whole process set up for gathering news that involves probably a hundred different sources of information or more, all fetched by various social media platforms, websites and RSS readers. And it takes practice. When I first started out it took me hours to suss out the gist of a given story. Now I can do it in 15 minutes or so, because I know which sources to read and where to find them and who will be updating live in a trustworthy fashion and who checks their sources and who doesn’t and which sources will lie and sensationalize and which ones won’t.

And it’s on you to do all that. If you want to be informed, if you want good journalism, it’s on you to go find it, support it, and show it to people.

(Featured Image: Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men.”)

I am not a journalist & I’m worried about you if you don’t realize that.

Ok, look, People of the Internets, we need to talk.

Over the years, and more frequently recently, I have been accused of being a “bad journalist,” and – on a few notable occasions – had my “journalist integrity” called into question.

Guys. People. I am not a journalist. I’m a blogger. This is a personal blog. I bitch about Arrow and fangirl over The Flash and write long, detailed eddas about Batman. I am so, so not a journalist, and I have to tell you, I’m super worried about the people who stumble across my blog who don’t seem to realize that.

Now, a few years ago I enrolled in the local community college for a journalism degree, and until about a year, year-and-a-half ago my bios on various social media sites mentioned that I was a journalism student, so I’ll cut folks a little slack for the confusion. But since all of the “bad journalist” comments happened after people read something on my personal blog, I’m not going to cut them much slack. I feel like there is a very clear visual difference between my blog and the New York Times, so I’m pretty sure you should be able to tell right away that you ain’t reading the next Pulitzer winner when you visit my site.

Most of the snarky little “so much for your journalistic integrity” comments I’ve received over the years were obviously just trolling asshats who spotted the word “journalism” in my bio and didn’t read anymore than that, and those can be safely ignored. But there have been several people who, as far as I can tell, actually thought I was committing journalism on this website.

To those people I say, “Dude. No. Holy crap, no. Please, for the love of cute little dogs, go take a media literacy class. You are deeply confused.”

The reason I bring this up isn’t because I’m offended or upset by comments like that, but because I think it’s pointing to a larger problem in society. If people are genuinely mistaking me, on this website, for a journalist writing actual news, then is it any wonder that “fake news” and the complete inability to distinguish it from real news has become a problem?

If the idea of what constitutes “the news” or a “news website” has been so muddied that I’m being mistaken for one, then folks, we’re in some trouble.

I was initially going to write about how one tells real news from fake news, real news sites from fake news sites, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that those categories have gotten really blurred. How do you tell real news and real journalists apart from idgits with a blog like me?

You can’t use the topics a site covers. I said a few paragraphs ago that I write about Arrow and The Flash and Batman, but shoot, you can read all that in the New York Times, too. That’s what the entertainment section is for. And in between all the stuff about Batman, I write about current events and politics, which you can also find in the Times.

You can’t use the tone of my writing, because a lot of respected news organizations are now using the same conversational writing styles I use and mixing analysis and opinion in with their news, just like I do.

Reputation used to be a good qualifier, but with Trump and his fans and minions attacking reputable news organizations and pointing out propaganda rags like Breitbart and Lifezette as though they’re worthy of being called “news,” you can’t really count on that anymore, either.

So how do you tell what’s “news”?

I know for me it’s largely a matter of experience and reputation, tempered with a healthy dose of brand skepticism. I know that if I’m reading a story in any of my usual trusted sources – NPR, the New York Times, Propublica, the Washington Post, AP, Reuters, etc – I can safely assume that the story is legit and trust that if the reporter screwed something up, they’ll correct it. I know to fact check and find other sources for a story if I read it outside of my usual venues. And I know that if I’m reading something in a blog – like mine – that I can judge their accuracy by the sources they used, and if they don’t link to sources, I can discount it completely until further notice.

But none of that works if a person has been convinced that, for example, Breitbart is reputable and Snopes can’t be trusted. (I have spoken to actual people who didn’t believe Snopes.)

Here’s another problem I’ve run into: People can’t tell opinion from fact. A lot of “new media” organizations will mix opinion and fact into a story, and I’ve read enough of both to know the difference when I’m reading, say, Vox. But a lot of people have not. To add another layer to that, lots of folks have a problem distinguishing between opinion and analysis.

And that’s not even to mention the fact that most people just don’t read well. When I was in journalism classes, they taught us to write at an 8th grade reading level, because the majority of the reading audience reads at an 8th grade level. That goes a considerable distance towards explaining how I can write “journalism student” in my bio and end up with Twitter eggs complaining about my “journalistic integrity” after reading a post on my blog about video games.

I don’t know, guys, but I do know this is a problem we’re going to need to solve. I think we need to start teaching media literacy right from kindergarten. Otherwise things are just going to continue on this downward spiral of understanding, and I actually will be writing the news.

Featured image: Newspapers in black and white, by Jon S.

So Trump did a press conference today.

Holy balls, guys, I don’t even know where to start with Trump’s press conference. It was bizarre. Plus, I only caught the last half of it, so I’m gonna have to summon up the strength to watch the first half at some point.

You can watch it on CSPAN – for your sins if you’ve been bad – and read a transcript here.

Politifact has a great factcheck, which you’ll need, because about 90% of what I heard at the press conference was unmitigated BS.

Two things about the press conference stuck out to me.

The first was the dog and pony show over Trump’s “trust” that will “solve” his massive conflicts of interest. He brought out a lawyer – who, notably, works at a law firm that has won some prestigious awards in Russia, I’m just saying – to read off a prepared statement peppered with Trumpspeak that basically boiled down to “I’m not gonna and you can’t make me so neener neener.”

He had a table next to the podium where he stood, positively buckling with piles and folders of paper that supposedly laid out this big legal trust he’s put together. “Look at all this paper,” he said repeatedly, even having his pet lawyer refer to “all this paper.” I mean, it must be legit, there’s all that paper, right?

See, Trump thinks you’re an idiot. He thinks that’ll fool you. He thinks you don’t realize that was just reams of blank papers arrayed on a table because seriously, who trots out actual legal documents like that for a presser? No one.

Do me a favor and prove him wrong. He put on a song and dance for you. Don’t buy it.

The second thing was his spat over Buzzfeed news with a CNN reporter. You can watch it here. I just want to point out how hostile Donald Trump is to a free press, and how he punishes reporters doing their jobs. That’s our next four years, folks. That’s what he’s going to do to every press organization who stands up to him.

Brace yourselves. Support our press. We’re gonna need it.

Photo Credit: Screencapped from this video.

The Office of Congressional Ethics remains intact… for now.

Good news! This morning the House Republicans reversed course and dropped the Goodlatte amendment from their rules package for the 115th Congress, leaving the Office of Congressional Ethics a non-partisan and independent agency.

For now.

In a complete reversal, the House GOP moved to withdraw proposed changes they approved the day before to official rules that would rein in the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). Instead, the House will study changes to the office with an August deadline. (Washington Post)

Don’t take your eyes off ’em for a second, folks. This is only the beginning of the shenanigans we’re going to have to be on the guard against.

In case you forgot, this all started with a “secret” vote during a closed-door meeting of the House Republicans. If you’re curious how your Republican representative voted during that meeting, TPM has the rundown.

Meanwhile, shenanigans of a different sort are afoot. Several big news outlets reported this win as being due to tweets (1, 2) by PotUS-Elect Trump, which is – and I cannot put this bluntly enough – bullshit. House GOPpers were already backpedaling like mad before the tweets due to a switchboard-jamming flood of calls and social media backlash.

Be that as it may, news outlets insist on crediting Trump, which is, at best, a very generous reading of the situation. This tendency to credit Trump for stuff he didn’t have anything to do with is troublesome, because it’s going to leave an impression in people’s minds that he’s doing more than he actually is, that he’s right more often than he actually is, and that he’s more effective than he actually is. Which is gonna affect votes, people. I don’t know about you, but I cannot abide eight years of this guy.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post’s Plum Line had a couple of smart things to say about giving Donald Trump the headlines he wants:

Part of staying on top of this situation is going to have to involve holding the media accountable for how it reports stories. Hit up their social media channels when they’re doing it wrong, email them, cancel your subscriptions. Make yourself heard. We have to. If we want better government and better media, we have to be active, engaged and vocal about it.

In the News: Walter Scott, Donald Trump, Pizzagate & More

Brace yourselves, kids. Let’s take a look at the news.

In April of 2015 a South Carolina cop, Michael Slager, shot Walter Scott eight times in the back, killing him. Slager pulled Scott over and Scott ran on foot. Slager caught him, there was a scuffle, and Slager claimed Scott took his taser, so he “felt threatened” and shot him while Scott was running away. Except there was a witness video that seemed to show that not only did Scott not take the taser, but that Slager shot him, and then planted the taser and lied about the incident.

In case you haven’t heard this song before, Slager was a white cop and Scott was a black man. Residents of the area where Slager policed, North Charleston, have accused the police of harassment, racially profiling African Americans, and using tasers all the time without cause.

The case went to court, obviously, and the jury, made up of 11 white people and one black man, couldn’t return a verdict, so a mistrial was declared today. The prosecutors in the case will probably try to bring it to trial again, but they might also try for a plea deal.

As you might imagine, folks are mad.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump nominated Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Carson has accepted. This would be the same Ben Carson who thought the pyramids in Egypt were used for storing grain, and also the same Ben Carson who, less than a month ago, said he wouldn’t take a cabinet position because he didn’t have any government experience. So… yeah. That’s happened.

If you haven’t been playing along at home, NPR has a running tally of Trump’s nominations, with bios and information. It’s kind of a horror show.

Of particular note today is retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who is now our National Security Adviser. This guy is a raving conspiracy theorist who, along with his son, Michael Flynn Jr., pushed the fake news story about “Pizzagate.” You can read more about that here and here.

I mention all this because, thanks to the conspiracy theory, some dude went into the pizzeria in question yesterday, with a gun, to “investigate.” He even got a shot off. Fortunately, no one was hurt. That’s how crazy the “Pizzagate” situation has gotten, and Flynn’s helping it along.

That’s the guy advising Trump on national security. I feel safe, don’t you?

In other news, Al Gore went to meet with Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump today about climate change. Yep. That happened. I think that fills my daily requirement for surrealism.

To wrap up, here’s a few good reads:

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.