A Matter of Interpretation  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    
From AJR,   December/January 2011

A Matter of Interpretation   

Why an analytic approach is crucial for mainstream news outlets. Posted: Tue, Nov. 30 2010

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


When top New York Times economics writer Peter Goodman bailed in September to join The Huffington Post, he had an interesting explanation for why he was making the move.

"For me it's a chance to write with a point of view," Goodman told Howard KurtzGoodman told Howard Kurtz, then with the Washington Post, soon to make his own move to The Daily Beast. "It's sort of the age of the columnist. With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what's going on. This is a chance for me to explore solutions in my economic reporting."

Goodman went on to say that he planned to continue to rely heavily on facts and to steer clear of "ranting." But while at the Times, he told Kurtz, he found himself in "almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader."

That comment reminded me of the complaint I've heard over the years from expert reporters at USA Today who, because of the paper's strict sourcing rules, often find themselves forced to make points by quoting people who know far less about the subject at hand than they do.

More significant, Goodman's words underscore an important debate about the future of journalism in this age of transformation. Not the usual one about business models and paywalls and revenue streams, but a fundamental one about the actual stuff of journalism.

There's no question that the Internet has had a profound impact on the tone of journalism and semi-journalism. Not all of it has been wonderful: Witness the nastiness and ad hominem attacks that ricochet around the blogosphere and the comments sections.

At the same time, there has been something downright liberating about the emergence of so much lively, engaging, freewheeling writing, so much voice. It makes the traditional straightforward news story seem awfully vanilla.

The digital era makes traditional news coverage seem outdated for another reason. With instant access to information available for so many people, an old-school hard news story looks pretty silly the following morning. In a world where so much information is widely available in real time, it's imperative for news organizations to provide added value: analysis, perspective, context, narrative. And to make it interesting. Otherwise, what's the point?

A third factor that underscores the need for more interpretive reporting and writing is the nation's bitterly partisan political climate. In the face of a Wild West world where so many outlandish charges, many of them based on absolutely nothing, are cavalierly tossed around, the old he-said, she-said approach seems bankrupt. If you are giving equal weight to truth and nonsense, you really are in the stenography business. It's critical to take that next step and have the courage to reach conclusions conclusions based on facts, not the ideology of the journalist or the news outlet.

That's why the proliferation of fact-checking Web sites is so exciting. It's great to see journalists calling out politicians when they brandish utter and often pernicious absurdities.

But an interpretive approach and edgier writing are not without risks for a mainstream news organization. The snark of Gawker or Wonkette would not necessarily be a good idea for the New York Times. And the line between analysis and opinion can sometimes be hard to pinpoint.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Keith Olbermann.

Unless you've been spending serious time on Saturn, you know that MSNBC briefly suspended Olbermann when Politico discovered that he had made campaign contributions to three Democratic candidates. I had trouble working up much outrage over KO's alleged misbehavior since he and his fellow prime-time MSNBC hosts are in the partisan opinion business, not the journalism business. When you're spending an hour each night vigorously, if not shrilly, making the case for a political point of view, why is donating a few thousand dollars to the cause a sin, particularly when the owner of your rival on the right donated more than $2 million to the GOP cause?

Both MSNBC and Fox offer vivid examples for news outlets of what they don't want to become. The partisan approach has paid off handsomely for Fox and, more recently, MSNBC. But both are aimed at true believers who share the outlooks of the cable outlets. There are an increasing number of viewers and readers and surfers who want their views reinforced rather than their horizons widened.

A news organization that wants a large, general audience has to steer clear of the partisanship trap. It has to aggressively cover the news, and be willing to call out those who are playing fast and loose with the facts. But it has to hold everyone and every position to the same standard.

Do that, and the result will be provocative and informative journalism.

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