Friday, May 23, 2008

Keep opinion to self

MONTREAL -- What do people mean when they say they want journalism to be "objective"? Sometimes it's something about Dan Rather's eyebrows. Sometimes it's more about the newspaper's stubborn refusal to make clear in every lede that all swarthy foreigners are terrorists (except the ones from Mexico, who want to force you to speak Spanish in the Wal-Mart). And sometimes they demand that everybody just stick to The Facts.

When we rule out judgments and comparisons, though, we're ruling out some of the things that can actually make journalism interesting and relevant. So let me offer a better (or maybe just more reliable) test: How did you form that opinion, and why would it be relevant to what you're reporting? Here's our example:

FORT BRAGG --President Bush came to one of the nation's most patriotic events -- the annual homecoming of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division -- on Thursday to continue pressing his strategy in Iraq and urge Congress to pass a war funding bill that would give troops in combat "America's full support."

Adjectives by themselves are neither bad nor irrelevant. There's always a most populous county, a list of five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes, a massive change in public opinion (assuming you have valid and reliable before-and-after measures of same), indexed by population, pressure, or what-have you. The trouble starts when you get to things that you can't measure -- or that, when you set out to measure them, say more about you and your attitudes than about the object you're trying to describe.

Such a thing is "patriotism." You and I and the writer all probably know what it is, sort of, but we're likely to start disagreeing as soon as we get to the bundle of stuff we're going to measure to create our patrio-index. The source paper has indicated before that it considers "number of flags" a valid and reliable index of patriotism. I think that's pretty irrelevant and jingoistic, and you might think something altogether again (which might even be printable). So the first question for the writer is: How do you measure the "nation's most patriotic events": Number of flags? Number of soldiers? (Square root of (flags*soldiers))* 1.96? How do we take population growth into account?

More to the point, though, why is the writer's opinion about the level of patriotism in events nationwide relevant to the story? Any particular reason we should know that, any more than whether he prefers vanilla or chocolate ice cream?

Here's another anti-bias hint: Heds that don't have a direct relationship to some real-world event are particularly likely to be read as slanted. Here's the quoted paper on the story above:

Bush pushes forward in Fort Bragg visit

Raleigh (the originating paper) has:

At Bragg, Bush presses his Washington agenda

Fayetteville (where it really is a local story) has:

President Bush offers his thanks

See the difference? "Bush presses agenda" is rooted in there being a Bush, with an agenda, and something he's doing that we can summarize as "pushing" it. Similarly, if Bush is thanking someone, it's not hard to trace a relationship between "Bush offers thanks" and reality. What about "Bush pushes forward"? Well, he seems that he continued to "press his strategy in Iraq" and "railed against the idea of pulling troops out of Iraq before that country is politically and economically stable." Can the hed writer demonstrate some reliable way in which we can correlate those concepts with "pushing forward"? If not, is there some other way we can tell this institution from our friends over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

The reporter's editors should have talked him out of "most patriotic holidays." Other MCT papers should feel free to eviscerate the lede without notice. Hed writers, just stick to stuff you can recognize in the corporeal world.


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Crap. I didn't even know the 82nd HAD a Homecoming. How did I miss that?

Who do they play? The 101st? Is there a King and Queen? A dance? Limos and drinking?

6:34 PM, May 23, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

It'll all be in the yearbook.

9:44 PM, May 24, 2008  

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