26 September 2018 – This is NOT a news story!
Last week I spent a lot of space yammering on about how to tell fake news from the real stuff. I made a big point about how real news organizations don’t allow editorializing in news stories. I included an example of a New York Times op-ed (opinion editorial) that was decidedly not a news story.
On the other hand, last night I growled at my TV screen when I heard a CNN commentator say that she’d been taught that journalists must have opinions and should voice them. I growled because her statement could be construed to mean something anathema to journalistic ethics. I’m afraid way too many TV journalists may be confused about this issue. Certainly too many news consumers are confused!
It’s easy to get confused. For example, I got myself in trouble some years ago in a discussion over dinner and drinks with Andy Wilson, Founding Editor at Vision Systems Design, over a related issue that is less important to political-news reporting, but is crucial for business-to-business (B2B) journalism: the role of advertising in editorial considerations.
Andy insisted upon strictly ignoring advertiser needs when making editorial decisions. I advocated a more nuanced approach. I said that ignoring advertiser needs and desires would lead to cutting oneself off from our most important source of technology-trends information.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into that subject because it has only peripheral significance for this blog posting. The overlap with news reporting is that both activities involve dealing with biased sources.
My disagreement with Andy arose from my veteran-project-manager’s sensitivity to all stakeholders in any activity. In the B2B case, editors have several ways of enforcing journalistic discipline without biting the hand that feeds us. I was especially sensitive to the issue because I specialized in case studies, which necessarily discuss technology embodied in commercial products. Basically, I insisted on limiting (to one) actual product mentions in each story, and suppressing any claims that the mentioned product was the only possible way to access the embodied technology. In essence, I policed the stories I wrote or edited to avoid the “buy our stuff” messages that advertisers love and that send chills down Andy’s (and my) spine.
In the news-media realm, journalists need to police their writing for “buy our ideas” messages in news stories. “Just the facts, ma’am” needs to be the goal for news. Expressing editorial opinions in news stories is dangerous. That’s when the lines between fake news and real news get blurry.
Those lines need to be sharp to help news consumers judge the … information … they’re being fed.
Perhaps “information” isn’t exactly the right word.
It might be best to start with the distinction between “information” and “data.”
The distinction is not always clear in a general setting. It is, however, stark in the world of science, which is where I originally came from.
What comes into our brains from the outside world is “data.” It’s facts and figures. Contrary to what many people imagine, “data” is devoid of meaning. Scientists often refer to it as “raw data” to emphasize this characteristic.
There is nothing actionable in raw data. The observation that “the sky is blue” can’t even tell you if the sky was blue yesterday, or how likely it is to be blue tomorrow. It just says: “the sky is blue.” End of story.
Turning “data” into “information” involves combining it with other, related data, and making inferences about or deductions from patterns perceivable in the resulting superset. The process is called “interpretation,” and it’s the second step in turning data into knowledge. It’s what our brains are good for.
So, does this mean that news reporters are to be empty-headed recorders of raw facts?
Not by a long shot!
The CNN commentator’s point was that reporters are far from empty headed. While learning their trade, they develop ways to, for example, tell when some data source is lying to them.
In the hard sciences it’s called “instrumental error,” and experimental scientists (as I was) spend careers detecting and eliminating it.
Similarly, what a reporter does when faced with a lying source is the hard part of news reporting. Do you say, “This source is unreliable” and suppress what they told you? Do you report what they said along with a comment that they’re a lying so-and-so who shouldn’t be believed? Certainly, you try to find another source who tells you something you can rely on. But, what if the second source is lying, too?
That’s why we news consumers have to rely on professionals who actually care about the truth for our news.
On the other hand, nobody goes to news outlets for just raw data. We want something we can use. We want something actionable.
Most of us have neither the time nor the tools to interpret all the drivel we’re faced with. Even if we happen to be able to work it out for ourselves, we could always use some help, even if just to corroborate our own conclusions.
Who better to help us interpret the data (news) and glean actionable opinions from it than those journalists who’ve been spending their careers listening to the crap newsmakers want to feed us?
That’s where commentators come in. The difference between an editor and a reporter is that the editor has enough background and experience to interpret the raw data and turn it into actionable information.
That is: opinion you can use to make a decision. Like, maybe, who to vote for.
People with the chops to interpret news and make comments about it are called “commentators.”
When I was looking to hire what we used to call a “Technical Editor” for Test & Measurement World, I specifically looked for someone with a technical degree and experience developing the technology I wanted that person to cover. So, for example, when I was looking for someone to cover advances in testing of electronics for the telecommunications industry, I went looking for a telecommunications engineer. I figured that if I found one who could also tell a story, I could train them to be a journalist.
That brings us back to the CNN commentator who thought she should have opinions.
The relevant word here is “commentator.”
She’s not just a reporter. To be a commentator, she supposedly has access to the best available “data” and enough background to skillfully interpret it. So, what she was saying is true for a commentator rather than just a reporter.
Howsomever, ya can’t just give a conclusion without showing how the facts lead to it.
Let’s look at how I assemble a post for this blog as an example of what you should look for in a reliable op-ed piece.
Obviously, I look for a subject about which I feel I have something worthwhile to say. Specifically, I look for what I call the “take-home lesson” on which I base every piece of blather I write.
The “take-home lesson” is the basic point I want my reader to remember. Come Thursday next you won’t remember every word or even every point I make in this column. You’re (hopefully) going to remember some concept from it that you should be able to summarize in one or two sentences. It may be the “call to action” my eighth-grade English teacher, Miss Langley, told me to look for in every well-written editorial. Or, it could be just some idea, such as “Racism sucks,” that I want my reader to believe.
Whatever it is, it’s what I want the reader to “take home” from my writing. All the rest is just stuff I use to convince the reader to buy into the “take-home lesson.”
Usually, I start off by providing the reader with some context in which to fit what I have to say. It’s there so that the reader and I start off on the same page. This is important to help the reader fit what I have to say into the knowledge pattern of their own mind. (I hope that makes sense!)
After setting the context, I provide the facts that I have available from which to draw my conclusion. The conclusion will be, of course, the “take-home lesson.”
I can’t be sure that my readers will have the facts already, so I provide links to what I consider reliable outside sources. Sometimes I provide primary sources, but more often they’re secondary sources.
Primary sources for, say, a biographical sketch of Thomas Edison would be diary pages or financial records, which few readers would have immediate access to.
A secondary source might be a well-researched entry on, say, the Biography.com website, which the reader can easily get access to and which can, in turn, provide links to useful primary sources.
In any case, I try to provide sources for each piece of data on which I base my conclusion.
Then, I’ll outline the logical path that leads from the data pattern to my conclusion. While the reader should have no need to dispute the “data,” he or she should look very carefully to see whether my logic makes sense. Does it lead inevitably from the data to my conclusion?
Finally, I’ll clearly state the conclusion.
In general, every consumer of ideas should look for this same pattern in every information source they use.