Journalists on the wrong side of history when it comes to social media

April 26, 2019

In the last week or so some fairly senior journalists and journalism academics have launched a defence of mainstream reporters and reporting by suggesting that most, if not all, criticism of journalists is coming from a Trumpian perspective. This perspective has appeared in several tweets by senior journalists and it has been given a more ‘respectable’ form in a column by ABC talking head Michael Rowland.

In a piece published on the ABC News website Rowland lamented that he – and other reporters – have been on the receiving end of some insulting and even abusive tweets.

Now, journalism isn’t exactly the profession for shrinking violets.

If you cover the brutal game of politics you have to be particularly robust, but the level of muck being hurled around on Twitter at the moment would test the toughest of souls.

Personally speaking, I have noticed a huge increase in abuse and petty name-calling since the election campaign began.

The free character references I’ve received have often been quite inventive.

He wasn’t the only member of the journalistic elite to give voice to such views. Academic and Nine commentator (she’s published in what we used to know as the Fairfax mastheads) Jenna Price went into bat to defend Patricia Karvelas who also copped some flack over an incident on Insiders the previous weekend.

Social media has become an incubator for hatred of journalists, led by President Donald Trump after learning from the best, the troll armies of President Rodrigo Duterte, says senior research fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti.

Chris Uhlmann takes his complaint against the cultural Marxists a step further. He claims we are worse than the far-right. His former ABC colleague Leigh Sales has also publicly attacked what she calls “far left bias” against the ABC in general and her program in particular.

Far Left Fury

This is a misleading claim that attempts to delegitimise progressive critiques of the mainstream news media by lumping all critics of journalism into one ideological pigeon hole.

How would Leigh Sales – or Chris Uhlmann for that matter – identify someone as “far left”. They wouldn’t know from any position of nuanced reading or understanding; all they have to go on are their own prejudiced and stereotyped views from a position of privileged elitism.

However, what really annoyed me was this tweet from Miriam Cosic who has been a journo for a while and who also makes much of her postgraduate qualifications in philosophy.

Miriam got upset with me when I described this thinking as “lazy”, but it is intellectually lazy. There is a world of difference between a progressive left critique of journalism and the news media and Donald Trump’s Fascistic demonization of journalism he doesn’t like.

However, I guess these same ‘very fine’ people might dismiss my views out of hand. After all, I am a fully paid-up card-carrying life-long member of what Chris Uhlmann has derisively labelled the “post-Christian left”.

Chomsky, not Trumpski

I think there are two distinct political positions on media criticism, and it is wrong to conflate them.

One is certainly a neo-Fascist view that has been thoroughly discredited but that is espoused by Trump and his supporters and originated with the Nazi regime’s propaganda trope of the Lügenpresse or “lying media”.

The other is diametrically opposed to this and, as a form of shorthand, I’m going to call this the Chomskyian view.

The Chomskyian view is based on a long history of progressive, left-wing and anti-capitalist critiques of the news media and it is summarised rather well in Chomsky and Herman’s classic phrase about the “manufacture” of consent.

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman described the media in capitalist society as a propaganda machine. They were right then and the same holds true today.

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

The problem for the ruling class and its media allies is that the machine is breaking down and they’re fresh out of spare parts.

I’ve tried before in IA and in many of my other recent writings, including this book and this journal article, to explain the important differences between a Trumpian view of “fake news” and a more sophisticated analysis of journalism, journalists and the news media that situates the whole “fake news” discussion into an historical and theoretical context which is known as the political economy of communication.

I’ve also written about media issues extensively in IA, including here, here, here, here and here. I also wrote a long review of Katharine Murphy’s pamphlet, On Disruption in which she defends the News Establishment’s approach to the disruption caused by social media.

Here’s one takeaway from that piece:

Murphy raises the important question of the relationship between a media ecology that has begun a descent into what she accurately describes as ‘a febrile, superficial, shouty, shallow, pugnacious cacophony of content, where sensation regularly trumps insight’, and the demagoguery of Trump and his European imitators.

Murphy asks us rhetorically:

‘Did we, the disrupted media, somehow create Donald Trump? Did we enable him?’ 

However, she struggles to provide a coherent answer.

I think the collapse of the old certainties in the news media and the failure of the News Establishment to effectively reflect on its mistakes certainly gave strength to the Trumpian view that the news media is the ‘enemy of the people’.

However, let’s be clear this is a talking point of the Alt Right and its enablers. It is not a view shared by progressive critics of the News Establishment.

A direct attack on democracy and active citizenship

I have no problem with journalists defending themselves on Twitter, but the common tactic from the News Establishment has been to shy away from directly responding to serious critics and, instead, to focus on the minority of idiots who make vile threats.

I want to be clear; I do not support threats of violence, racist, sexist or homophobic abuse against reporters, but I don’t mind a bit of hard-hitting sarcasm.

The world has changed over the past 20 years and as we’re constantly told by the very same Establishment figures when they’re trying to gouge subscriptions from us: engagement is the new normal. There is no going back, social media has changed the journalistic landscape forever.

The problem is the News Establishment wants engagement on its terms. Engagement for them means we take out subscriptions and become unpaid sources for them or allow them to scour material from our social media feeds to pad out otherwise thin reporting.

What the News Establishment definitely doesn’t want is an active Fifth Estate undermining its authority or its cosy relationship with the rich and powerful.

I would go so far as to suggest that the pushback against their serious critics on Twitter reveals the truly anti-democratic nature of their thinking and their true ideological position.

At least that’s how I’ve interpreted this tweet from ABC reporter Matt Bevan.

Maybe he was joking, or at least maybe that’s what he’d say if challenged, but I think it’s telling.

Twitter provides a platform for what we might call ‘monitorial citizenship’, that is the ability for ordinary people to talk directly to the powerful.

This is upsetting for the News Establishment because, for the past 200 years or so, they have been the principal gatekeepers. Journalists were in a privileged position of mediating between the rulers and the ruled.

They were treated to a rare glimpse inside the halls of power – the first Press Gallery was established in the Palace of Westminster in 1803 – in return they were expected to massage the more brutal pronouncements of the powerful and provide for the “manufacture of consent”.

The News Establishment has played a supporting role ever since; agreeing to keep some secrets to protect the State and legitimising the consolidation of the two-party system.

It was his observation of the Westminster gallery that prompted this acerbic jab from Oscar Wilde:

“Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it…But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated.”

Until recently, Establishment accounts of political machinations were not open to direct challenge. The public had to pretty much accept as gospel whatever the journalists wrote.

Now that has changed and now amount of whining from the News Establishment is going to put that genie back in its box.

The monitorial citizen is here to stay.

The monitorial citizen in a democracy is described by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson as a person outside of the dominant political structure who feels a responsibility to monitor what powerful institutions do, and to get involved when they feel power is being abused.

Schudson is no “post-Christian” leftist. He is a respected, bespectacled professor and himself aligned with the most News Establishment New York establishment, Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet he is able to see what many of our own – vastly anti-intellectual in outlook – news media refuse to see or are willfully blind to.

The power of the News Establishment is waning; monitorial citizens are taking to social media to clapback at the mistakes, misjudgements and misleading inferences that mainstream reporters make routinely.

The inestimable Mr Denmore summed it up nicely on his blog, The Failed Estate, in a piece called ‘All media is social’:

The public isn’t stupid. Much of the criticism they are expressing on social media about journalists reflects a sense of frustration that the issues they are their families care deeply about (like climate change or stagnant incomes or our treatment of refugees) are not advancing.

Quite.

 


Full Nuremburg: Trump versus the Press

June 24, 2018

This week, after a quick stopover in Singapore, Donald Trump was keen to return to his favourite topic (beside his own greatness): his feud with the American news media. Political editor, Dr Martin Hirst, argues that journalists need to continue pushing back, or risk being swamped by Trump’s aggression.

[First published on Independent Australia]

ANYONE WHO’S HALF-AWAKE would know that Donald J. Trump has a very conflicted relationship with the American news media.

He loves Fox & Friends and is more than willing to sit down to be interviewed by his good friends on the Murdoch-owned network.

On his way back from the “tremendous” tete-a-tete with mass murderer Kim Jong-un, Trump did a one-on-one with Fox News. He hasn’t done a sit down interview with any other media outlet for over a year.

Despite the very controlled access, many U.S. (and Australian) news outlets were initially quite excited by the Trump-Kim PDA in Singapore. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the lipstick to wear off and the true piggishness of Trump to re-emerge.

Within 24 hours of touching down in the ever-deepening Washington swamp, Trump was up to his old trick of lambasting serious and critical journalism as “fake news”. Luckily, we have former journalist and current conscience-pricker Dan Gillmor to remind the shell-shocked American news media of their true purpose.

In fact, I was so drawn to this Trump tweet, I actually also retweeted it myself, with the appropriate commentary.

Yes, we’re all used to the Tangerine Fascist’s unhinged tweeting but, as I argued in July last year, we need to take Trump’s tweets seriously.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Supporters of the “ignore the tweeting” camp say that Trump is deliberately pumping out the outrage and confected offence in order to keep the media occupied and away from the more serious and nefarious plans he has to turn the United States of America into the Principality of Trumpistan.

On the other hand, there’s an argument that Trump’s tweets represent the “thoughts” of the United States President and should be taken seriously. His own staff are now also running with this line, arguing that President Trump is taking his message straight to the American people and needs to do this because the news media distorts his words and does not report the great things he’s doing to “Make America Great Again”.

As Trump himself wrote, nearly a year ago, his tweeting is “modern day presidential”.

Convinced yet?

Just take a look again at the last sentence in this week’s “fake news” broadside:

‘Our Country’s biggest enemy is the Fake News so easily promulgated by fools!’

Does this remind you of anything?

It is a not-so-subtle reference to a rallying call of his neo-Nazi supporters, who have adopted Trump as their Great White Hope.

This is very inflammatory language from the President, but it is also very deliberate. Trump is on record as saying he uses Twitter to make an end-run around a hostile media and to speak directly to his base in language that they will easily understand.

This is also clearly the reasoning behind his almost-daily tweeting about the Russia investigation being a “witch hunt”.

Nobody outside of his inner circle and his welded-on supporters actually believe any of this. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to just ignore Trumpers — they are heavily-armed, overwhelming angry white, and disenfranchised, and still capable of electing more Trump-like politicians to Congress and the Senate.

Trump’s base is increasingly limited to the hardcore – and quite ignorant – racist and conservative rump of the Republican Party, and a few Republican members of Congress, who are rightfully scared of decimation in the upcoming “mid-term” elections.

Trump needs the woke Nazis and the small but tight coterie of ordinary Americans who think that Mexicans are stealing their jobs, and that the European Union is most likely a George Soros-funded conspiracy to weaken America before it can become “great again”.

The Nazis are just cynical thugs with vague hopes that Trump would deliver them a racially pure homeland.

Trump has a history of appeasing them. Remember his disgusting support for the white supremacist cause following the Charlottesville murder of civil rights activist Heather Heyer by a neo-Nazi fringe-dweller, who weaponised his American-made car in August last year.

Fake News is the new “Lügenpresse”

Trump supporters began calling the critical mainstream news media “lügenpresse” during the 2016 election campaign. It became a feature of his campaign rallies to direct the anger of his supporters towards journalists in the venue, leading to exchanges like this from October 2016.

Rosie Gray is a White House correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, which will certainly be a target of the Trumper’s hatred — it carries some good journalism and has taken a consistently anti-Trump line editorially.

Gray interviewed Trump supporter and avowed white supremacist Richard Spencer following the incident she tweeted out from the Cleveland rally and he gleefully told her that lügenpresse had become a buzz word among the so-called “Alt-Right”.

The term has a long history in Germany, where it emerged in a government propaganda booklet during the dying days of World War One. The Nazis appropriated it after their ascension to power in the mid-1930s. It was a powerful weapon used to mobilise the Nazi party supporters behind anti-Jewish pogroms.

It is regarded as a taboo word in Germany today, but it is still used there by the hard-right nationalist parties. Trump has cleverly adapted it by using the term “fake news”.

He thinks this gives him plausible separation from the neo-Nazis, while dog-whistling them and gaslighting the more gullible members of his base.

He’s fooling nobody. The links between Trump’s use of “fake news” and the neo-Nazi chants of lügenpresse are blindingly obvious. Or at least they should be.

However, it seems that, to some extent, Trump’s constant attacks on the news media are working for him.

The strategy is designed to raise doubts in the public mind about the credibility of the news media. Trump knows that most of the critical reporting about him is based on extensive research and – often – interviews with some of his closest advisors. He is also a proven leaker in his own right, often creating the narrative thread that he then denounces as fake.

But Trump doesn’t have to disprove the facts; by simply throwing chump bait into the water, the feeding frenzy takes over, amplified by Trump-friendly outlets like Fox and the other conservative outlets, who either support him or see value in exploiting his presidency for their own white nationalist ends — think Breitbart and so forth.

These are indeed difficult times for the news media trying to cover Trump. However, there are lessons to be learned and past mistakes not to be repeated.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the news media needs to be aggressive in its coverage of the Trump White House and the many Trump surrogates – such as Rudy Giuliani – who do the rounds of the talk shows blowing smoke and covering for their master’s gaffes.

If journalists try to treat the Trump presidency as anything but abnormal, they risk giving him the control he craves. We saw the normalising of Trump begin to take hold during and just after the Singapore summit.

Headline-hungry reporters were offering their praise and hot-takes about peace on the Korean Peninsula; I was one of the few who held out against this by carefully parsing his media conference and pointing out the obvious anomalies.

The 60 per cent of Americans who instinctively know that Trump is a monster and underserving of his elevated position need to know they can rely on journalists to continue to pursue the stories of corruption, nepotism, cronyism and sheer idiocy that emanate from the Washington swamp under Trump’s watch.

The Mandarin Maniac is yet to go “full Nuremberg” (though we have seen the tiki torch rallies), but we might see something of it when he makes the inevitable rhetoric-heavy speech during the planned $30 million military parade that is being prepared for him on Veterans’ Day in November.

If “chaos is the new normal” then the news media has to cut through, stand tough, take Trump’s hits and keep asking the difficult questions.

Fortunately, there are a handful of brave journalists and correspondents who are willing to stand up for what’s right and show no fear.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.


Making Headlines: How Chris runs the country after gulping a ‘large Shiraz’

October 20, 2016

Reading the first few chapters of Chris Mitchell’s hastily written memoir Making Headlines, it’s easy to get the impression that the editor-in-chief of The Australian was not only editing what he unselfconsciously describes as the ‘best political paper’ in the country, he was also running the country from NewsCorpse’ Holt Street bunkers in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

It seems that Prime Ministers, Treasurers and leading politicians from both major parties were super keen to get Mitchell’s advice about policy pronouncements, Cabinet appointments and which hand they should use to wipe their arses.

Five of the 12 chapters are devoted to Mitchell’s recollections of his, and The Australian’s, relationships with Prime Ministers. Alongside his character assessments of them, Mitchell recounts numerous instances of invitations to Prime Ministerial digs – the Lodge in Canberra and Kirribilli House in Sydney – and secret and not-so-secret rendezvous with the PM to discuss government policy, Ministerial appointments and political tactics.

Read the rest of this entry »


Malcolm in a muddle:Media reform for the big end of town

October 20, 2016

The journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), is concerned that the government’s proposed media regulation reforms will lead to a loss of jobs in the news industry and less choice for media consumers.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 is currently before a Senate committee; but even before it has taken effect, the MEAA says the current rules that are supposed to ensure a variety of news ‘voices’ in the marketplace are not being properly observed.

The MEAA estimates that over 5000 jobs in the media industry have disappeared in less than a decade. According to the union’s submission to the Senate review of the Media Reform legislation, the government’s mooted changes favour existing providers, will entrench the near-monopoly power of existing players, and will see less diversity among news outlets, not more.

For example, last month, the so-called ‘consumer watchdog’ (actually a government lapdog) the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) approved NewsCorpse’ sale of Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper to the Kerry Stokes-owned SevenWest Media.

When the deal is completed next week, it will give Stokes a virtual monopoly over print media in Western Australia, it has created a mood of fear and apprehension among Sunday Times staff.

MEAA’s WA regional director Tiffany Venning says her members are ‘deeply disappointed’ with the decision. There were 37 editorial jobs lost at The West Australian in the lead up to this transaction being approved, and Venning says there is ‘considerable concern’ for the jobs staff at Sunday Times and its online affiliate PerthNow.

It’s no surprise that union members are concerned. The entire printing staff at the Sunday Times are about to lose their jobs. That’s about 100 people, some of whom have been at the paper their entire working lives.

Tiffany Venning told EM that out of the 60 editorial staff at the Sunday Times, ‘less than half’ are likely to have jobs once the merger is complete. Rumours crossing the newsroom floor at the Times are that as few as seven existing editorial staff are likely to make the transition.

In an interview with EM, Ms Venning described this as a ‘bloodbath’ that will see over 100 people unceremoniously dumped onto the already depressed WA job market. However, it is unlikely that either Kerry Stokes or Rupert Murdoch will lose any sleep over adding to the west’s unemployment queues.

The Sunday Times was one of Rupert’s first purchases when he began to expand his empire in the 1960s, but he is hardly the most sentimental billionaire on the planet. He needs to sell the Times to fund the purchase of a cartload of regional newspapers in Queensland.

The ACCC has expressed some ‘concerns’ about the American mogul’s proposed $36.6 million purchase of Australian Regional Newspapers from APN. However, the ACCC’s remit does not include being concerned about the further potential loss of journalism jobs in the Sunshine State; it is only interested in competition in the local news market.

Given that the regulator didn’t allow similar concerns to stop the Sunday Times deal, printers, journalists and sales staff at the 76 newspapers and 60 websites affected by the APN deal should probably start looking for another job.

As I have written previously in Media Sauce, the media owners don’t have to be so worried. For them it is likely to be ‘business as usual’ and it seems that they can carry on with the government’s blessing.

Read the rest of this entry »


An open letter to Sharri Markson

October 17, 2014

The Australian‘s media editor, Sharri Markson, caused a storm this week when her newspaper published an “undercover” expose of alleged left-wing bias in two of the nation’s premier journalism programs at the University of Sydney (USYD and the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS)

sharri

Ms Markson relaxing after a hard day of study From http://www.bullshit-blog.com/sharri-markson-undercover-university/

Apparently she’s planning a follow-up and today emailed a selected number of journalism academics and others to seek their views about journalism education.

Sharri Markson's email. Oops, it leaked.

Sharri Markson’s email. Oops, it leaked.

Our correspondent, Martin Hirst, was not on the list even though he’s been a journalism academic for 20 years and is a well-known critic of News Corporation.

However, in to ensure Ms Markson gets the widest possible cross-section of views he sent her the following email.
Dr Hirst is not confident that his views will make it into Monday’s Australian, so in the interests of transparency he’s agreed to share them with us.

Dear Sharri,
Thanks for your interest in a wide range of views about journalism education in Australia.

I realise you have not actually requested my views, but I thought I’d share them with you anyway in the interests of ensuring that you do indeed get a wide range of views.

BTW: I did tweet a question at you a couple of days ago about your consideration of the MEAA Code of Ethics in your undercover story.You were busy and might have missed it; please consider sending me an answer.

In the meantime here’s my responses to your questions

What do you think about media studies and its love of critical theory, post modernism and even post Marxist critical theory?

MH: There is actually a broad range of theoretical approaches in media studies, not all of them revolve around critical theory, post modernism or post Marxist critical theory and of course, media studies and journalism studies are distinct disciplines that do have some overlaps.

Many journalism programs also operate alongside PR and other communication disciplines and we encourage students to take courses in these subjects as well. We also encourage them to take studies in non-communication disciplines in history, politics, psychology, sociology etc, even sports science in some places. We do this because – like you — we value the breadth of knowledge and we know that the news industry needs people with some content expertise, not just a ‘journalism only’ degree.

Views among journalism educators in Australia range right across the theoretical spectrum from highly normative approaches that continue to value objectivity and fourth estate theories of the press; there are even libertarians among us and then there’s those of us who think that critical theory is useful (careful how you define “critical theory” it has a 100 year history and many variations).

For instance: do you mean Habermas theory of the bourgeois public sphere or McChesney’s approach to media regulation in America, or British cultural studies; do you mean Frederick Jameson’s postmodernity, or David Harvey’s “condition of postmodernity” or Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity”?

Postmodernism and cultural studies are not overly influential in journalism education, the “media wars” of the 1990s were the highpoint of postmodernism in media theory and since then things have actually changed.

If you check out the websites of the various journalism courses in Australia you will see that there is a great deal of variety in approaches taken. Some of us are indeed critical theorists and even Marxists (though out of the 100+ who teach journalism in the higher ed system I think you could count them all on one hand).

I am really the only one who frequently puts up a hand to say “Yes, I’m a Marxist.” I am in a tiny minority. I am pretty sure that Wendy, Jenna, Margaret, Matthew and Penny (along with just about all of the JERAA’s membership) would tell you that they are explicitly not Marxists. Chomsky’s not even a Marxist.

The approach that some of us use — among others — is what you might call a “political economy” approach (it is not the same as Marxism, though it is a materialist worldview) and it involves an examination of economics and social relations; in other words an examination of historical reality, similar in many ways to the methods of journalism.

Political economy examines the news industry and the practices of journalism from a grounded position of asking “what is going on in the world and how do we explain it?” Again, you would be familiar with this approach from journalism – it is what journalists also do; ask questions, seek verification and try to approximate the truth using several sources and methods of triangulation.

Political economy is also related to sociology – my PhD is in this field and so too are those of many other journalism academics.
At the same time I also use the work of an American academic (now deceased) called John C. Merrill.

Merrill is interesting in many ways — he has written extensively on the “dialectic” in journalism — as he see’s it the struggle between “freedom” and “responsibility” and how journalists cope with that. Dialectics is not a purely Marxist concept, it goes all the way back to Heraclitus and the idea of “flux”, you would know this as “nobody steps into the same river twice”.

Merrill was a very conservative libertarian and thus would actually share some political opinions with your ultimate boss, Mr Murdoch. He would also probably be a member of the IPA today. So you can see, despite my Marxism, I am not sectarian.

On the other hand, to balance this out, quite a few journalism educators are not very theoretical at all and would rather teach the inverted pyramid than critical theory. Where you might find consensus among us is that a balance of theory and practice is important; most would also say practice should probably outweigh theory in a journalism course and in most of them it does.

Does it [critical theory] have a place in journalism education or is it ruining it?

Of course critical theory (of many stripes) and other theoretical approaches have a place in journalism education and, far from ruining it, actually improve it. I have been involved in journalism education since 1993 and I think it has got better in that time because those of us who came into teaching straight from the newsroom (and if you care to check that is just about everyone of us who is teaching journalism today, despite your newspaper’s constant dismissal of this fact without checking) have gained qualifications in teaching (for example I have a Grad Cert in adult education) and also have postgrad qualifications (I gained my MA in Australian Studies while working as a daily journalist and my PhD while working as a lecturer).

Theory and practice go together and in a professional course of study, consider nursing for example – as journalism in a university setting is — it is vital that both be central to the curriculum. As academics we are obliged to consider theory and practice, it is the role of a university to do both and challenging orthodoxy is part of that.

We challenge the orthodoxy of thinking within the journalism and news business as well. One orthodoxy that we challenge is the perception fostered by your newspaper (among others, but mainly you) is the whole “those who can do/those who can’t teach” dichotomy that is constantly thrown at us like rotten fruit. It is a false proposition and no more than populist nonsense, so why do you continue to spout it?

Is it because it suits your ideological agenda, because it is not supported by the facts? We (journalism educators) are not “failed” journalists as your editor continues to shout about.

Has there been a shift away from the practical side?

No, there has not been a shift away from the practical side of journalism in our courses. Practical and applied journalism are central to the journalism education project and embedded deeply in our curricula. There is, of course, variation between schools, but in general all of us take great pride in being practical.

If you look at unit and subject offerings across the country you will see a strong emphasis on “learning by doing” which is a key pedagogy in journalism education. Nearly all of us run online publishing outlets for student work (I am doing a research project on this at the moment and looking at the application of what the Americans call a “teaching hospital” approach to journalism education; you are welcome to contact me to talk about this).

My own pedagogy — which I’ve used very successfully for 20 years — is “the classroom is a newsroom / the newsroom is a classroom”.

This is simple really – we simulate the newsroom environment in our classrooms to teach the practical aspects of journalism — students do a range of tasks from compiling stories as in-class exercises from materials we give them (e.g. Media releases, etc) which would be a common first-year approach; then in more advanced units in second and third year students would be given real assignments; i.e.. “Get out of the classroom and find a real story to cover”.

We teach interviewing, research skills, how to do an FOI, how to keep contact books, writing the inverted pyramid, writing features, writing for online, audio and video editing, radio presentation and even on-air broadcast techniques for television.

There are hundreds of examples up and down the country of journalism students writing of the student press or their local paper, running community radio stations, doing current affairs programs for community TV, and having their own online outlets.
Then of course there’s the internships and work experience at all the major news companies across the nation and some of the newer start-ups too.

So it is wrong to say that there’s been a shift away from the practical side.
However, we do have a strong emphasis on law and ethics and you might argue this is theory, but it is equally about practice – we teach this through case studies and visits to actual courtrooms too.

Should journalism training return to a focus on the practical side rather than the theoretical?

There is no conflict here Sharri, see previous answer. In my view we get it about right, there’s always room for improvement and there is change constantly. Like the news business itself, we both (journalists and journalism educators) have to adapt to change because it’s right in front of us.

I hope you find my comments useful; I’d be happy to talk if you want to clarify anything.
You can look up my publications list from here. And you will notice I’ve actually written a couple of very practical textbooks among journal articles etc that you might dismiss as “critical” or even “Marxist” theory.

Best wishes
Martin


Jahar – like a Rolling Stone

July 21, 2013

Jahar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone, July 2013

It seems to me that the ‘portrait’ of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone is actually quite appropriate. If you bother to read the article, the picture that friends and acquaintances paint is very close to the image on the front of the magazine.

I wonder how many of the vociferously complaining patriots have looked inside to actually read the article?

I also think that Rolling Stone’s justification for the story and for the cover image is sound.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS

The first par of this apologia is just boilerplate. No American publication could cover this event without first expressing sympathy for the victims. Perhaps the mistake the editors made was thinking that such a statement would be enough. But, at the end of the day, trying to satisfy or mollify the redneck patriotic sentiment of most whitebread Americans is a thankless, if not hopeless, task.
I also can’t help but wonder what the reaction would be if Rolling Stone were to put Trayvon Martin on the cover. He’s another young American male who fell foul of the system. He ended up dead, shot in the heart by a part-time security guard who has recently been acquitted of criminal responsibility for Martin’s death.

The right stuff

Janet Reitman’s portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is comprehensive and well-written. Just about everyone she’s talked to for the story — Tsarnaev’s friends and his high school wrestling coach — all express their shock and disbelief that the quiet, dope-smoking young American they knew could be the same Jahar who appears in this series of images, emerging bloody and bowed after his capture by heavily-armed Boston police and FBI agents.
It is also relevant to have a discussion about the moral and artistic merit of these photos, taken by a police ‘tactical photographer’. This one, in particular, makes Jahar look like a wounded 21st century Jesus figure.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the moment of capture by Boston police

By all accounts, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was an all-American, high school sweetheart and mother’s favourite son. His Chechen background, while obviously key to his overall personality, seems to recede in the background in Reitman’s piece. The picture we get from listening to Jahar’s many friends talking to Reitman is that he was almost too good to be true.
“He was smooth as fuck,” says his friend Alyssa, who is a year younger than Jahar. Girls went a little crazy over him – though to Jahar’s credit, his friends say, even when he had crushes, he never exploited them. “He’d always be like, ‘Chill, chill, let’s just hang out,'” says Sam, recalling Jahar’s almost physical aversion to any kind of attention. “He was just really humble – that’s the best way to describe him.”

Cara, a vivacious, pretty blonde whom some believe Jahar had a secret crush on, insists they were just friends. “He was so sweet. He was too sweet, you know?” she says sadly. The two had driver’s ed together, which led to lots of time getting high and hanging out. Jahar, she says, had a talent for moving between social groups and always seemed able to empathize with just about anyone’s problems. “He is a golden person, really just a genuine good guy who was cool with everyone,” she says. “It’s hard to really explain Jahar. He was a Cambridge kid.”

What’s not to like about this boy? the cover image seems totally appropriate. It screams out the contradictions in this young man’s life that saw him transform from the quintessential nice kid into someone capable of a cold-blooded act of terrorism.

The Wrong Stuff

It seems many Americans don’t want to know the truth about Jahar Tsarnaev and the hundreds of thousands of kids like him in towns and cities across America. If Jahar can turn on the society that he made his own and that made him welcome as a refugee and a citizen, then what’s to stop hundreds more from doing the same?
It’s much better, it seems, to demonise Dzhokhar Tsarnaev through the lens of the terror frame and to imagine him as a ‘Chechen’ with an ideological chip on his shoulder and as holding the devout (read ‘exrtremist’) views of his faith.
But that is not what Janet Reitman found. She reports that others in Jahar’s circle of friends had converted to Islam and that this was not seen as anything out of the ordinary.

A few years ago, for instance, one of their mutual friends decided to convert to Islam, which some, like Cara, thought was really cool, and others, like Jackson, met with a shrug. “But that’s the kind of high school we went to,” Jackson says. “It’s the type of thing where someone could say, ‘I converted to Islam,’ and you’re like, ‘OK, cool.'” And in fact, a number of kids they knew did convert, he adds. “It was kind of like a thing for a while.”

Yep, strange as it may seems to some of us, but this is a ‘thing’ now. When I was in high school I went to a Christian fellowship and I remember a tearful ‘coming to Jesus’ in the backseat of a friend’s car. I even got my own Bible. A few weeks later it was all over and I was back to being a fairly insistent non-believer. The only reason I went to fellowship was to get out of the house on a Friday night with money in my pocket, go into the Wagon Wheels hotel for an underage schooner and then try to pash one of the fellowship girls in the church graveyard.
I went on to become a level 7 aetheist and hardcore communist, but I never wanted to blow people up.
It seems that Tsarnaev expressed a certain amount of anti-American politics – such as not agreeing with its imperialist foreign policy – but that too, I would argue, is par for the course among that late teen age group. It is a time of rebellion, some of us never grow out of it, but most do.
What this episode really shows is that there’s no easy answers and that stereotyping is a foolish waste of time. But the reaction to the Rolling Stone piece is a little OTT. It is seen as being too sympathetic to the young man, but in tone and content it is not that different from a Boston Globe profile of the Tsarnaev brothers published in April 2013. There’s a fairly nice portrait of Jahar in that piece too.
Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

Jahar Tsarnaev from a Boston Globe video

A disturbing coincidence

There’s another disturbing link in this case that is another piece of the Tsarnaev puzzle.
It seems that the older Tsarnaev brother, Tamerlan, is now being implicated in the September 2011 murder of a small-time Boston drug dealer and two others.
That killing occurred on either the 11th or 12th of September and the link to ‘9/11’ is now being theorised as deliberate.
Conveniently, another Chechen, who lived in Boston and was a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is alleged to have confessed to police that he and Tamerlan were involved in the drug dealer deaths, though at the time neither was questioned.
Even more conveniently, the police who questioned Ibragim Todashev about Tamerlan, say he was shot and killed by them during a ‘disturbance’ and just at the point in an interrogation where he was going to confess to his and Tsarnaev’s involvement in the drug dealer killings.

Todashev was fatally shot by an FBI agent at his condo near Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida just after midnight on Wednesday.

He had allegedly turned violent as he was preparing to sign a written confession to his and Tsarnaevs involvement in the 2011 triple homicide, said authorities.

‘The agent, two Massachusetts State Police troopers, and other law enforcement personnel were interviewing an individual in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing investigation when a violent confrontation was initiated by the individual,’ the FBI said in a statement.

‘During the confrontation, the individual was killed.’

This is a more comfortable narrative for many Americans. It makes the point (true or not) that at least one of the Boston bombing perpetrators was already a crazy fucking terrorist two years before the marathon attacks.
That explains everything, doesn’t it?

One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

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