In defence of theory – a reply to Mr duFresne’s review of Intro

It seems that Dominion Post columnist Karl duFresne and I are destined to cross keyboards for some time to come. We first clashed in August-September 2007 in a debate about the state of journalism in New Zealand and the old chestnut of objectivity in journalism.

Now I find I have to challenge him once again. This time over a fairly damning review of the journalism textbook Intro.

I have no real interest in defending every word and full-stop in the book, but a couple of inaccuracies and the general tone of the review do need some comment. my particular beef with Karl is the disdainful voice he adopts when talking about “theory”.

When “too much” theory is barely enough

Karl is annoyed that the latest edition of Intro seems to devote a great deal of space to “theory” with little relevance to New Zealand journalism. He laments the demise of the more practical earlier editions. Kiwi journalism education is supposed to be eminently practical, which is a testament to the “number 8 wire” ethos of the nation. Karl writes in the review posted on his blog:

The reader gets bogged down in a theoretical swamp within the first few pages. In a chapter entitled What is News?, Tully discusses the ideas of the American philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky and the sociologist Herbert Gans. The theories of these academics, who view the media as a propaganda tool manipulated by the rich and powerful, more properly belong in media studies texts than in a book that professes to be a practical training manual for budding journalists. They are views that many working journalists would vigorously dispute and they deserve no more than a footnote here.

Well, I’ve just re-read Jim Tully’s first chapter and it’s not a “theoretical swamp”. Indeed the ideas of Noam Chomsky get a page-and-a-half (barely more than a “footnote”). Jim’s given a clear explanation of chomsky’s observations about journalism and economic power. The opening section on news values is straightforward and clear. It would seem to me also to be fairly essential for young journalists and a good place to start the book. My observation would be that there are more relevant and up-to-the-minute books than Manufacturing Consent [1988] to draw upon for these arguments. The political economy of news is given a very light once-over here. It certainly does not drown the reader in unintelligible academic meandering as Mr duFresne implies.

Let’s face it, it is difficult to have a discussion about news values and not mention some academic work on the subject. In part this is because busy journalists in busy newsrooms often don’t have the time, or inclination, to reflect on what they do. They prefer to believe that some how journalism is instinctive – news “sense” is something you either have, or don’t have.

If this process of natural selection is right, then there would be no point in journalism schools because natural-born journalists would gravitate to the newsroom and demonstrate a strong nose for news. A nice theory and one that some out-of-date senior reporters and editors cling to; but it’s not how things work in the real world. If it were so, then organisations like Fairfax Media would not need to introduce an internship scheme, at a great cost, to work with j-schools to identify and nurture talent.

Then there’s Karl’s assertion that many “working journalists” would “vigorously dispute” Chomsky’s views about the propaganda model. And many more might agree. The point is, in order to dispute this view, they must have formed one of their own – that is they have a “theory” of the news media and its social role in the world that they use as a mental map of the world of journalism. All that this highlights is that there are theoretical arguments that occur everyday and that journalists are involved, even if some would deny that they have any time for idle theorising.

This is where I also must part ways with Mr duFresne in relation to the value of media studies. Anyone who’s familiar with my own battles with the media/cultural studies influence on journalism education will know that I do not leap to their defence lightly. There is in fact a three-corner tussle going on in the “practical versus theoretical” argument. The theory-deniers who believe that the school of hard-knocks is all that a reporter needs in the way of education; the media/cultural theorists who think that journalism is just about shorthand and the inverted pyramid and the scholarship of journalism school which argues for a distinct flavour of intimately entwined theory-and-practice. The first two groups actually complement each other – one from ingorance and one from professional greed.

My own position is that journalism scholarship is what is needed – journalism education and the study of journalism do have a distinct disciplinary place in the academy. It is legitimate for doctors of journalism (of which I am one) to study journalism as a set of social practices; as a series of inter-connected institutions; as a location of power (the Fourth Estate argument, etc); as a form of labour; as a profession and as a key link in the chain of ideology and politics that makes up the public life of any society and as a genre of writing that stretches from the prosaic to the highly creative. However, the study of journalism is also inter-disciplinary (as is journalism itself). Journalism scholars have an uneasy relationship with media and cultural studies; but there is inevitably some common ground.

It’s amusing, in this context, to read that Karl is also quite capable of dissing one of New Zealand journalism’s cultural icons who has straddled the industry-academy divide with some distinction:

Even Jim Tucker isn’t immune to the gibberish fostered by university media studies faculties. In an otherwise generally down-to-earth section on news writing – one of the few chapters lifted largely intact from the previous edition – he lapses into media studies-speak, talking of news as a “discourse” involving “semiotics” (signs) and “the rhetoric of narration”.


Be fair Karl, this is just mean on your part. I’ve just read the chapter and Jim’s treatment of semiotics is only two paragraphs in a 50 page chapter that is full of practical advice and examples of news writing styles. In constructing the paragraph quoted above, Mr duFresne has resorted to the worst type of journalistic crime: selective quoting and taking things out of context – distortion by omission.


Because to treat Jim’s chapter fairly would undermine Karl’s point: that pointy-heads have taken over and are perverting the delicate minds of the young, who in an ideal world would come to the newsroom with some shorthand and basic news skills, but an otherwise empty head. These neophyte recruits could then be inculcated with the values of the old-school and not tainted with any fancy notions of theory.

As an aside, what’s wrong with talking about the “rhetoric of narration”? Jim uses it without attribution, which is problematic, but isn’t journalism a form of rhetorical speech? Isn’t one aim of journalism persuasion? Yes it is, but the theory deniers would rather just “do” than acknowledge the “doing”.

Isn’t journalism story-telling? Yes it is and it needs to be explained as such. Any news story beyond the most basic factual incident is a narrative. It’s construction depends on many factors; some under the control of the reporter and some influenced by outside factors. Even a simple account of a police round story is a narrative constructed with certain social values firmly in mind and front and centre in the copy.

No eggs, no omelette

Trying to make good journalism without some “theory” is like trying to make an omlette without breaking eggs. It ain’t gonna happen. To paraphrase a song from one of my favourite bands, Wet, Wet, Wet:
“There’s theory all around us. It’s everywhere we go.”

Are you a Christian? Then you have a theory of the creation myth and Heaven etc. Are you an aetheist? Then you have a theory that there is no God. Are you a journalist? If so, you have a theory of what is and is not news.

I must say I’m a tad disappointed at the lack of intellectual curiosity among some Kiwi journos I’ve met. Even fairly senior ones. I’m even more disappointed with the intellectual dishonesty of the theory-deniers. This is no more than attacking the player because you don’t want to play ball. It’s the usual trickery – fall back on this idea of some mythical “Golden Age” in journalism and then blame academics for the problem.

If you think there ever was a Golden Age, or that somehow ex-journos who now teach journalism are to blame, you should probably read Neil Henry’s fantastically disturbing book American Carnival. The subtitle is “Journalism under siege in the age of New Media”.

Of course, if you don’t like “theory” you won’t bother. Henry is a pointy-head professor of journalism. Never mind that he was for many years a foreign correspondent for the prestigious Washington Post newspaper.
Read the chapter called Freak Show, you’d see what I mean.

If you don’t trust academics (even ex-jouros) perhaps Flat Earth News will be more to your liking, written by Guardian journalist Nick Davies. No, the pointy-heads get in the way again. Academics from Cardiff University provide the data and some of the research that makes this book another explosive condemnation of the current state of journalism.

The news media is in a mess today. There’s confusion about the role of so-called citizen journalism and there’s the ever present threat of advertorial masquerading as news. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No amount of gazing into a half-full beer glass and remembering how is “used to be” will change that, Nor will blaming the hackademics. The theory-deniers are just crass and self-serving.

So it’s a shame that Karl singles out a couple of words in Donald Matheson’s chapter on new media as if the whole piece is riddled with jargon and unexplained concepts. The academic “buzzwords” (Are there none in practical journalism?) appear once. The text is not “replete” with them and when the offending terms (“disaggregated” and “disintermediated” [p.16]) are used there’s actually an explanation of what they mean.

Karl is also irritated that “Politics and ideology intrude repeatedly” in the textbook. I don’t really understand why, because both intrude everyday in practical journalism. News and journalism are totally imbued with both politics and ideology. Every decision taken to use or disregard a certain piece of information; every story choice (what’s in and what’s out); even the choice of news angle or framing of a story is a decision taken in circumstances in which ideology and politics intrude.

This is inevitable because journalism does not occur in some sort of hermetically-sealed eco-system where natural instinct rules. It takes place in the messy and chaotic real world where the power of the shareholders is just as real as the power of presidents and elected officials. Journalists who are not aware of this, or who perhaps choose to ingore it, or believe that ignorance is bliss, are just as prone to the hidden influence of ideology and financial pressures. Journalists who actually understand this and who can critically reflect on their own practise as reporters will do a better job.

These are not “esoteric views” of “minimal relevance” to journalists. they actually help to explain the social reality of journalism and the news media. So it’s a shame that Karl believes that putting the debate about the state of the news media in front of students is less useful to them than practical advice. Surely we need both and we need to get the balance right.

If we need informed and educated journalists as the gatekeepers of the future (and there’s a whole world of controversy around this notion that today’s young reporters will have to contend with as they mature and advance in the industry) then surely giving them an overview and some theoretical tools to help them think out the issues is just commonsense.

This is actually a view that is clearly expressed in Intro. In fact it begins in Jim Tully’s third chapter, “Gathering News”. Here Jim quotes a number of leading New Zealand journalists on the attributes of a good reporter. I wonder if Karl merely skimmed this, or didn’t read it:

  • David Fisher: “…a strong news sense, a genuine enjoyment of people and the desire to tell their stories…a determination to persist…the depth and breadth of his or her inquiries.”
  • Catherine Woulfe: “Persistence, vision, empathy and wisdom. Being able to read people and documents and pick out the interesting bits…”
  • Yvonne Martin: “They are the ones with passion for their work and finding the truth.”

Hardly the voices of pointy-headed academics; Jim Tully then goes on to list a few more:

  • Intelligence – To make sense of this increasingly complex world, journalists require intelligence and the ability to analyse
  • Initiative -…a self starter who can generate ideas and work with minimum supervision
  • Scepticism -…They shouldn’t accept anything they’re told without wanting to check it out and assessing the motivation of the source
  • Flair – …Flair can transform a story from mundane to the sublime
  • Resourcefulness – Good journalists must often think quickly, sometimes laterally to get the information they need. They must be flexible and able to adapt to the unexpected
  • Assertiveness – …firm in their pursuit of information and answers and determined not to back down
  • Integrity – …accurate, fair and honest; not allowing one’s prejudices and biases to distort a story; honouring confidences
  • Breadth of knowledge – The good journalist reads widely and takes a keen interest in current affairs and the world generally.

What’s to disagree with here? All of these attributes – those thought of highly by key professionals and Jim’s sensible additions – are necessary. More importantly, all require some theoretical and critical thinking capacity. How can a reporter read widely and take a keen interest in the world and not encounter “theory” in some form? How can a reporter develop the skills to have empathy and integrity without some understanding of theories of ethics and ethical behaviour?

In Karl’s purely practical world, the ready-formed journalists (straight from the womb or the kiln) might have some instinctual thirst for knowledge, but I’d rather put my money on someone with a good education. Someone who’s intelligence and natural curiosity of have been nurtured and focused in a course of study that has both theoretical and practical aspects.

I’m quite proud of the fact that we have some theory papers in the journalism major at AUT. We balance that with excellent skills-based training. But we are a university. You wouldn’t train a doctor in surgery without giving them some theory of disease, anatomy and so on. You wouldn’t trust an economist who didn’t understand the theory of markets or money.

I think it would be a dereliction of duty to send journalism graduates out without some understanding of the industry they’re about to enter. A theoretical understanding of news values; ethics and the law of contempt; the business of the news and the impacts of digital and social media on traditional news are vital to today’s journos.

Journalism is an intellectual pursuit. Journalists make decisions every day in the newsroom based on their understanding of journalism and news – that requires some theoretical modeling in their heads, even if they’re not conscious of it.

My argument is simple: I’d rather the people collecting and writing the news were conscious than unconscious.

Objectivity: once more into the breach!

Finally, I can’t let this go without another little burst of energy in the “objectivity” debate. Here’s Karl’s view of the two key chapters in Intro where this is discussed:

Tucker also challenges the notion of objectivity that has underpinned New Zealand news journalism for much of the past century, boldly asserting that it has been “exposed by media academics as a sham”. But he doesn’t really develop this provocative argument, and the journalism student is left unsure – as in the 2004 book – whether objectivity is a value to be aspired to, as most editors would almost certainly argue, or to be disregarded. Tully, too, tackles the issue of objectivity but doesn’t seem to come to any firm conclusion.

Jim Tully’s chapter on objectivity is thorough and balanced. He notes that the notion of objectivity has a long history, but that it is also problematic. He does also make his position clear:

As for objectivity, it is at best a goal because no news story can be free of all subjective elements. [p.305]

This is a reasonable position and it acknowledges the in-built social and ideological biases that we all have, including the highly-objective Mr duFresne. No journalist is free from their own internal belief system. The problems with objectivity arise when these beliefs are so internalised that the holder is in denial and thinks that these views are somehow natural and universal. For me the key issue is that too few journalists and editors actually challenge the assumptions they make about the world.

Jim also points out that the debate about objectivity is important for journalists and students; primarily because it is so fraught and open to interpretation. Readers of Intro are invited to make up their own minds in an open way:

The old lines between fact and opinion have become increasingly blurred as journalists are called upon not to simply inform but also to answer the question, what does it all mean?…

Some would even argue that objectivity is not even desirable because a complex world requires knowledgeable journalists who explain, interpret, even advocate from a point of view…

The debate over objectivity cannot be ignored by journalists as the implication are profound…

So long as New Zealand has news media that maintain an aura of neutrality, the debate will continue.

This is right and important for journalism students to understand. It’s a shame that the nuances are lost on the reviewer. Karl would rather not have this debate – he prefers to stick to the old (un)certainties that support his ideological position and allow him to attack those who he disagrees with as somehow living in a disconnected ivory tower. There is no clear cut position on objectivity anymore. The world has moved on and continues to shift. J-schools have to keep up with this, not pretend it’s still the 1950s or 1970s.

And Jim Tully’s right, the debate will continue, as it did earlier this year when the New Zealand Herald campaigned against the Government’s Electoral Finance legislation in its news pages. This was a disturbing trend for some, others approved whole-heartedly. Unfortunately Mr duFresne would have us artificially shield our students from such controversies. I would rather encourage them to form a view and to argue the rights and wrongs of the coverage given to the story by the Herald and other media.

If they get to debate these issues from all sides – as they do in my classroom and others around the country – they will be able to defend their own actions in the future when they are caught up in a controversy about the power and ethics of the media and in discussions about press freedom.

Theory informs practice. Practice and critical reflection informs theory. The denial of this dialectic leads to fosilised thinking, decay and senility.

8 Responses to In defence of theory – a reply to Mr duFresne’s review of Intro

  1. Kim says:

    I posted this over at Karl’s site but will add it here as well.

    I’m still reading Intro but if I can just weigh in with my own experience. After a decade at the sharp end of journalism – financial wire service journalism where killing off the president (as someone once nearly did when Bush senior collapsed into – and threw up into – the lap of the Japanese prime minister) can send world markets into a freefall – I hungered for more theory about what I did. So I completed a post-graduate degree at Macquarie University – a hotbed of cultural studies, loathed by such practical journalism adherents as Australia’s John Henningham.

    Far from turning me against journalism, I’ve found that that study has made my practice stronger. So I don’t see what harm there is giving students a little understanding via Intro of the responsibility they have as journalists – and the impact they can have. Intro is after all, just that, an introduction to a career that should be a continual quest to consider, inquire, probe, provoke – in both the journalism you do and also how you do it.

    As to Karl’s comments on statistics , I feel that journalists really do have to get over wimping and the “I can’t do numbers” whinging. So many stories without the relevant statistics are merely a clutch of anecdotes. And in the last Intro did anyone ever try to wade through the statistician’s bit? It wasn’t easy going; I thought Grant did a a great job.

  2. Kim, I agree with you about the stats chapter. It’s difficult – in the sense that statistics is difficult – but it is also logical and if you follow the examples and exercises you might actually learn something practical.

    Then again, the practical aspects of stats and maths are built on a foundation of theory that goes back thousands of years.

    Go figure!

  3. Sorry, it’s a bit gauche commenting on your own blog posts, but I do like to keep EthicalMartini’s browsing folk up-to-date.
    I thought it might be worthwhile drawing your attention to David Cohen’s piece on the National Business Review site where he blogs “This is not a blog“.
    Cheers David.

  4. the dude abides says:

    Still with Karl Du Fresne, but a slightly different topic. Over the last couple of days he has provided a neat object lesson on the differences between new and old media. On Monday, he posted a blog which claimed that the Dom Post collaborated with the Kahui family in a “pseudo-event” — jargon for a kind of brand-enhancing publicity stunt — at the twins’ grave. The next day, he climbed down and posted a correction: the newspaper, which Du Fresne actually contributes to, pointed out that this was old-fashioned reporting on the part of its journalist and photographer.

    The greater point is this: had Du Fresne submitted that blog as a newspaper column, no editor or sub worth his salt would have run it without checking that its basic claim stood up. But on the internet we can all say what we like. The full story here:

    I don’t agree with him that Greenpeace protests qualify as “pseudo-events” either, but that’s another story.

  5. Hey dude, yes I saw this on Karl’s site. I didn’t have the heart to comment – felt it was like slapping a baby. You make a valid point and it’s a bit funny, though embarrassing for Karl.
    Oh well, we all make mistakes – in journalism and the blogosphere they’re very public.
    You can see my recent climbdown here.

  6. […] can read my previous posts on this topic from here and here. Blogged with the Flock […]

  7. […] I know, I did point this out to Karl several months ago, here, here, and here too; so I won’t re-hash those arguments. Suffice to say everyone, including […]

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