Storytellers R Us: separating signal from noise

My few, fleeting seconds of fame occurred on March 12. Anyone flipping to that page of the 2007 Freedom Forum First Amendment calendar will see a quote from me:

Without journalists, others without a sense of the journalistic mission — such as unscrupulous advertisers and political charlatans — will be telling the stories.

That appeared in a commentary I wrote for Editor & Publisher almost two years ago.

Boy, has figuring out who’s a credible storyteller changed.

Nowadays, everyone’s got something to say — or show. That’s what the Web has given us: a platform to offer information about anything to anyone for any reason. Blogs. MySpace. Friendster. YouTube. Everything anyone wishes to tell the world (and perhaps shouldn’t) gets posted as stills, video, audio and text.

It’s not just those “unscrupulous advertisers” and “political charlatans” I should have accused of muddying the waters of clarity. Wherever a significant number of eyeballs converge, piranhas who seek to prevaricate or obfuscate can be found. Even the “news” media constantly feed their Web sites minute by minute without, perhaps, sufficient reflection before they post.

Some people provide information to make money; some provide it to connect with others for reasons noble or ignoble; some provide information to try to make sense of others’ information (or mis- or disinformation). Presumably the journalistic mission lies somewhere in the last.

But there’s mucho grande noise surrounding any useful signal emitting from those asserting such a mission. Even as I read with interest what my colleagues post in the online communities I inhabit, I wonder: How much of our work is noise rather than signal? Do we shoot from the hip too often?

Or do we defend ourselves as proud bearers of the mission of the late David Halberstam? In today’s Buffalo News, David Shribman wrote of Halberstam:

Halberstam himself had power, influence and wealth. But he used them in the service of his twin passions: to understand the world he inhabited and to tell the truth about the world he saw. At a time when journalism is losing so much of its soul, it was a twin tragedy to lose one of its greatest avatars. [emphasis added]

As I reconsider the issue of who will be telling the stories worth hearing, reading or seeing, I return to the basic questions I was taught in my early newsroom days. When supposed storytellers are pushing their blandishments at me, I ask:

• What are their qualifications?
• To what audiences are they appealing?
• What motives have they not revealed?
• What is the purpose of their storytelling?
• Do their arguments make sense?
• What do they offer to suggest they are credible?
• Am I encouraged to think for myself?

Defining who’s a journalist and who isn’t won’t be resolved anytime soon. Am I one? I think so. Got the background. Got the motivation. I’m pure of heart (okay, okay, you can laugh here).

But if someone’s reading my posts and is not asking these questions of me, then I’ve got ’em by the short hairs. It’s not just “question authority” anymore; it’s question anyone with an online bully pulpit who wants to tell you how to think or behave or believe.

Even me.

xpost: 5th Estate

Categories: Media/Entertainment

9 replies »

  1. The hardest balancing act is how to execute on the principles you articulate here in a world where pretty much nobody else is willing to even try. Signal is the fool in the Kingdom of Noise.

    If you don’t do it, you’re part of the noise. If you do it … well, you’re still overwhelmed by the bluster.

    I think this is somehow related to a basic ethical debate – Kant or Mill? You’re offering an approach, I believe, that’s analogous to Kant – always do the right thing, period. A lot of others out there are clawing tooth and nail with nary a pretense about doing the right thing – they do whatever they can to effect the right OUTCOME. This is an approach that assures a lot of noise in the system.

    But it’s understandable – somebody’s shooting at you, there’s an instinctive impulse to shoot back. And in doing so you become part of the widening gyre.

    Brilliant thoughts, as always. I’m probably more guilty than I’d like to admit of contributing to the noise. Need to find a footing where Kant and Mill would agree….

  2. Ultimately, everyone proceeds from the center of their own influence–themselves. The questions they ask are thought up with this idea at the core: “How can you impress me? How can I believe what you say? Are you agreeing or disagreeing with me?”

    I think the fundamental flaw in today’s discourse is that, where we once started with facts and built our opinions around them, now we start with our own opinions and beliefs and selectively cherry-pick facts to justify what we believe.

    We’re so latched on to the values we grow up with that it becomes nigh-impossible to move us from them, and we build our own cultures and realities to hear and see only what we want to hear. How else can you explain Faux News? It’s built explicitly to provide news designed for a specific audience–right-wing males, usually white.

    Everything should be questioned. Digest noise from as many sources as you can and parse it for the signal. Like Joss Whedon said, you can’t stop its truth.

  3. Very good points, all. The key in getting heard is a credible narrative—telling the story in a way that makes sense of the facts. But I fear that the narrative each of us has fixed upon is what we often continue to tell again and again, with an ever-diminishing portion of facts needed to shore it up. That’s when the noise ratio tends to go up. We may be heard, but in such a case what we’re saying may not be worth hearing. More facts, say I, here in the reality-based community.

  4. Thank you, Robert and Martin.

    I tell my opinion-writing students that they cannot reason people out of a position those folks did not reason themselves into in the first place.

  5. In the end, all truth will be filtered through opinion. I write for a consumer Web site, so the articles will be tilted to support the “little guy.” I don’t deny it–there are too many media vehicles that support the glories of corporatism as it is. We need more voices that speak for people affected by life’s everyday troubles.

    Does that make me less “truthful?” Perhaps. But I would rather be honest about my beliefs than dissemble under some fake shroud of “objectivity.”

  6. What you describe is part and parcel of what we call “interpretive journalism.” There’s no such thing as objective – you have a perspective and so long as you’re up front about it people know what they’re getting. Reading a pub that takes a progressive advocacy stance is fine. Reading one that does so while pretending to be neutral – that’s NOT acceptable.

  7. I’ve always thought of myself in the spirt of E.D. Morel, the Anglo-French accountant who, in the course of his work (he was a liaison between Lloyd’s shipping and Leopold of Belgium) that the spin on stories out of the Congo were wrong. Morel spent the rest of his life putting out the West Africa Gazette on a shoestring, begging for money and sometimes going hungry. Almost accidentally, he also invented universal standards of human rights. Not bad for a guy NOT trained in journalism.

    I don’t use “interpretive journalism” to describe my work so much as “civil journalism”. I’ve picked my area of expertise, and stick to it. Unlike the corporate journalists, I don’t pretend to know shit about anything but my narrow field… and invest my energies in correcting — or highlighting — what I think is an overlooked area. I don’t presume to think I’ll change U.S. Mexican relations, or change all our misconceptions about that country, but I am the “go to guy” for some “major” sources now.

    Do I have an agenda? Yes, but whether it’s nobility or a prediliction for being a reclusive crank is beside the point. Am I accurate and trustworthy? That’s for the readers to decide.

  8. Thanks for your comment. Your last graf points straight to the heart of the matter: Am I accurate? Am I trustworthy?

    Sooner or later cases will hit the U.S. courts to decide who should be protected under “shield” laws, etc. We’ll probably find out then whether credibility really counts in the eyes of the law.