13 June 2007

Fournier's "Accountability Journalism"

Jim Romenesko has posted an "AP house newsletter on Accountability Journalism" by Ron Fournier.

It's good stuff. I'm all for it. I also think it's doomed. It's putting the cart before the horse. Fournier offers a four-point "how-to" to hold public officials and leaders accountable by assuming that the structural and infrastructural requirements to practice "accountability journalism" are already in place at the AP. This is made clear in the introduction to Fournier's piece:

We have unmatched resources and expertise in every state to report whether government officials are doing the job for which they were elected and keeping the promises they make.
Is "unmatched" the same as "required"? What are the required resources and expertise to hold leaders accountable? Does the AP really have what it needs? Do AP journalists? Can they execute Fournier's four points without significant changes in leadership, culture, training and technology at the AP?

Fournier doesn't mention internal AP shortfalls preventing any of his suggestions and instead sounds confident that everything is in place. So, here are his four points - in green with short quotes - along with my thoughts (in black).

FIRST, we follow up.
After filing a story that you think puts a big issue to rest, put a reminder in your calendar six months out. "Check on X." Did the bill/executive order/jury verdict/committee vote/election result live up to its promise? Has the desired result come to pass? Is the new system working, and if not, who is accountable?
Never file a story "that you think puts a big issue to rest." Three things happen.

1. No one believes you. You can't "put a big issue to rest" in a news story. It's the height of journalistic arrogance.

2. It smacks of "journalism as lecture" instead of "journalism as conversation." In fact, if you think you've put the "big issue to rest" how open are you to questions, corrections or reader feedback?

3. You've already set the narrative bias for any follow-up. If you've put the "big issue to rest" then you've already identified "a plot with antagonists and protagonists." You've removed any ambiguity. More than likely, your follow-up will build on this narrative based on the same cause-and-effect relationships and set characters who act in set ways.

Here's a better idea. Before you file a story, put the reminder in the story (as well as on your calendar). What are the metrics you'll use to determine "success"? When will you follow up and how often? How will you report on the players who imagined, planned, approved and executed the "new system"? File a "big issue in progress" story rather than a "big issue put to rest" story. If you can't commit to follow up on a big issue in the story, then is it really a "big issue"?

SECOND, commit yourself and your leaders to the truth.
Why not devote a small portion of every government-and-politics story to accountability journalism? Reward the truth-tellers, expose the liars and help readers navigate the squalls of spin.
Know. Your. Bias. Be a Custodian of Fact practicing a Discipline of Verification. Confuse this truth-telling with "Gotcha! Journalism" or "Point Scoring" and you're toast. Recognize that this emphasizes being right and conflicts directly with being first. Accuse someone wrongly, or pass on false accusations, and your credibility suffers. Will your current correction policy win back what you've lost?

Fournier makes a number of references to Katrina. I'm not sure that's wise. Want to know where I go, who has my trust as a truth-teller, about what happened during Katrina? FactCheck.org (not AP). Want to know where I go to check up on the "truthiness" of the current crop of Presidential candidates? Yup, FactCheck.org. Does that tell the AP anything useful? Not really. It's just one person's preference. But since it's my preference (and my blog), I thought it worth mentioning.

THIRD, make broad use of your sources.
Quality sources can help you identify areas where government is failing, where leaders are lying and where the truth is distorted or hidden. They can help you sharpen your analyses. Their opinions can give you confidence in yours (more on your opinions later).
The relationship between journalists and their sources is the most confusing, complex, opaque and frustrating aspect of the news for readers, viewers and listeners. I like what Rosenstiel and Kovach recommend from The Elements of Journalism, "Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information." I'm not sure this coincides with Fournier's advice on how journalists should interact with their sources. As a reader, I would prefer AP journalists follow Steve Buttry's advice. I do know that the way Fournier recommends journalists interact with their sources, I'd rather not be one.

I also think that Fournier's advice makes an interesting contrast with Brad Delong's recent post:

Jay Rosen should have listened to Brad DeLong and Susan Rasky's First Rule for Sources: Know Your Customers:

Nieman Watchdog > Commentary > Twelve things economists need to remember to be helpful journalistic sources: 1. Know your customers. Is the journalist... looking for a broadcast soundbite, for two paragraphs of context, or help in understanding... [the issues]? Is she on a tight deadline?...

If the journalist is looking for a particular quote, figure out whether you want to be the person who gives that quote--and if not, get off the phone. If the journalist is looking for two paragraphs that can be dropped into the story as "experts say the real issues are..." give the journalist your best two paragraphs quickly. If the journalist is looking to educate him or herself, you can have a conversation--but at the start reserve the right to approve whatever quotes they want in the end to use, so that you can be sure that they are quotes you are comfortable giving.

If not--well, then, the journalist will play you like Jim Rutenberg played Jay Rosen. It's not "them's the rules." It's the interviewee who sets the rules. It's "I let Rutenberg turn me into a sock puppet, and I'm unhappy."

THE FINAL POINT is the one driven home by Katrina: Write with authority.
We can be provocative without being partisan. We can be truth-tellers without being editorial writers. We can and we must not only tell people what happened in politics today, but why it happened; what it might mean for our readers and their families; and what it might reveal about the people who presume to be our leaders. Sometimes, they’re just plain wrong.
I agree. So I'll end this with this quote from The State of the News Media (2005):
To adapt, journalism may have to move in the direction of making its work more transparent and more expert, and of widening the scope of its searchlight. Journalists aspire in the new landscape to be the one source that can best help citizens discover what to believe and what to disbelieve - a shift from the role of gatekeeper to that of authenticator or referee. To do that, however, it appears news organizations may have to make some significant changes. They may have to document their reporting process more openly so that audiences can decide for themselves whether to trust it. Doing so would help inoculate their work from the rapid citizen review that increasingly will occur online and elsewhere. In effect, the era of trust-me journalism has passed, and the era of show-me journalism has begun. As they move toward being authenticators, news organizations also may have to enrich their expertise, both on staff and in their reporting. Since citizens have a deeper range of information at their fingertips, the level of proof in the press must rise accordingly. The notion of filling newsrooms only with talented generalists may not be enough. And rather than merely monitoring the official corridors of power, news organizations may need to monitor the new alternative means of public discussion as well. How else can the press referee what people are hearing in those venues? Such changes will require experimentation, investment, vision and a reorganization of newsrooms.
Your thoughts?

UPDATE: I had initially identified Fournier's how-to in the 2d and 3d paras. as having 3 points. I corrected this.

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