Thursday, March 23, 2006

Welcome Back, Harry, Ya Moron

Well, well; look who decided to show up. Hopefully the coma you fell into didn't kill too many brain cells, you blond bastard. Now howsbout you stick around, eh? You were supposed to be batting clean-up around here, remember?

Of course, for all Harry's political acumen, his awareness of the journalism industry and public service benefits are sorely lacking. His post below, oddly titled "Op-An" (does he mean "op-ed"? is he inventing the term "opinion-analysis?"), displays the reason I don't post about rules-based international political theory as it relates to E.U. nation-states: I have no f'ing clue what I'm talking about.

Harry's larger question, should opinion and analysis be in newspapers, is disappointing to hear, as a hard-working journalist. First though, I noted that Harry quotes a piece by Editor and Publisher in his post. I had no idea Harry regularly read the trade mag. Wow, really? Does Harry also subscribe to Romenesko? Does he peruse CJR? Does he have an email alert set up for every Jack Shafer missive?

Anyway, the question is a common one, but usually asked by those who insist in combing newspapers for a hint of "media bias." While that can be a tougher (and far more irritating) beast to tackle, Harry's wondering of the value of analysis in our daily papers is a simpler discussion. There are three major rationales for analysis like that provided by Harry in his post, or even a few steps beyond.

First, and most basic, some topics are simply too complicated for average Joes and Janes to understand. If an article were to note that certain budget items were cut and funding moved between various budgetary units, and not provide context or analysis of what that meant, I as a reader would be lost. I don't have a great head for numbers, and I frequently find myself skimming the first few grafs of number-intensive articles specifically to get to the analysis, so I can wrap my mind around the news.

Which leads to my second point, which posits the question: What makes for a skilled reporter? To be sure, writing ability is a large aspect. But what is accumulated as journalists gain expertise? The ability to analyze. Harry mentioned the Times offered a comparison for the new Supreme Court Justice so those who do not work closely with the Judicial Branch (all of us) can get an idea of who he is. Good reporters should aim to provide everything they know to their readers, without forsaking confidentiality, etc. If everyone in the Beltway is calling Alito "Scalito," that's a comparison the rest of the country deserves to know just as much, I'd argue. Sure, such a mention includes the nebulous notion of "opinion," as do sentences like "Rick Santorum is socially conservative" and "President Bush can be folksy during press conferences." Point is: The more reporters understand what they report, the more they can fill in the cracks with the knowledge they gain.

Thirdly, an analytically oriented reporter seeks out spin, and hates it. Sometimes reporters are forced to write fluff pieces or press releases (happens all the time during campaign reporting) but bad reporters hear spin and report it as fact. A good reporter reports the spin, but also illuminates the perceived reality. To make the point, imagine the White House decides to go on an environmental blitz, and loudly declares on the talk shows that Bush is a long-standing eco-friendly president. A lazy reporter would write down the quotes and file the story. But a smart reporter would give this bit of news a second look (another term for an analytical look) and might report something like, "...But the President's record to date belies the sudden push, as environment issues have not seen a prioritization in the past six years in this Oval Office." Shitty writing notwithstanding, this sort of analysis would be labeled by Harry as not belonging in the news article. But it's what the reader wants and deserves -- context and a deeper understanding of the issues.

Clearly there is a line to be drawn -- where is the division between that sort of analysis and outright opinion? There is no hard answer to this; good reporters are human beings constantly seeking to get better and locate that line. I think it's safe to say that most reporters will hew closer to a cut-and-dry reporting approach and as they grow comfortable with their surroundings will include more context and analysis. Frankly, without it, we could do away with reporters altogether and just have robots "write" our news articles. Hell, we could just run bullet points without context or analysis and leave it up to the reader to discern which end is up. But readers widely request newspapers to provide more in-depth analysis about the day-to-day policy making of their elected leaders (trust me) and as long as reporters and editors can find the balance between advocating a position and fleshing out their reportage, I say it's a good thing.


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