Occupy this front page — why professional journalism needed the tents at OWS to tell an important scholarly story

The #occupy movement camps are beginning to face eviction pressure in cities like Toronto. I thought it was useful to think through why those tents mattered to a public discussion about economic inequality.

Let me preface by making clear that my point is not to argue in favour of or against this form of activism. In fact, I think the tents were  inevitable. From what I’ve read of those whose area of academic study explores the effects of neo-liberalized global capitalism on economic inequality in democratic societies, Occupy Wall Street movement = no-brainer.

But what about those who haven’t read that sort of academic scholarship?  How do we teach publics about abstract academic ideas well outside their everyday understanding of how things are supposed to work?

This is my area of interest — how difficult scholarly knowledge gets translated (or not) to wider, non-scholarly publics through mass media.  Thinking critically about how journalism works (from my decades of practice and teaching of it) and how journalists are taught to think about the craft, I would argue the tents in parks across North America matter. They create a tangible, concrete conduit — an event — through which abstract academic ideas could later flow.

Here’s a few rules of thumb (very generalized, of course) about mainstream daily journalism production conventions that the tents were able to capture better than the latest peer-reviewed journal article on inequality in democratic society.

1. Journalists cover events. Journalists in the daily mills aren’t really all that great at covering non-events. A random, catchy fact that assaults our preconceived ideals of a free, democratic society (such as the fact that 1% of the population in the U.S. own so much wealth relative to the other 99%) is a good start, but doesn’t make for good pictures on its own. There are so many reasons why your pitch can get shot down in the daily meeting.

The problem is both structural and conventional newsroom practice.

Roughly speaking, in the daily news system, big ideas that aren’t really time-sensitive are lower in the news hierarchy than time-sensitive stories.

Ideas that challenge the status quo and aren’t all that time sensitive are tough to get into daily print or broadcast, save for the pccasional stance of  columnists on the opinion pages who might tackle them for “analysis” (often without many citations or acknowledged expert opinions). Thus, difficult ideas can be entertained as “just opinion” and are not presented as truth or fact.

[BTW, big ideas that aren’t really time-sensitive and feed right in to the status quo are called features that end up on the life pages.]

Most everything else in journalism is created by fact-gathering predicated on a stopwatch:  news. This is the place where serious matters of the day are purportedly presented objectively (i.e., without bias) as the result of the professional (read: “neutral”) judgment of journalists. They believe you need to know this story, period. And this stuff is “true” because it “happened” (usually today, or some other news hook that made it important for you to see).

Without a triggering, time-sensitive event, the scholarly evidence undergirding OWS  has no routine way by which to get into the national news (or the international segment). There can arguably be something more urgent, pressing, important to cover.

Yet, from an academic’s point of view, the empirically-observable, long-term effects of globalization, free trade and other neo-liberal economic policies (whew) are ‘facts’ that the public, ostensibly, needs to know. Unfortunately, these outcomes moved at glacier-like speed relative to everyday car accidents and house fires. They don’t pass journalistic muster easily as “a story”.

But here’s another important point:  since this story hasn’t been covered well incrementally, the public hasn’t been gaining incremental literacy in these ideas. The journalists don’t necessarily follow critical perspectives on capitalism as a beat (labour beats have been disappearing while entire networks exist to cover the daily machinations of Wall Street and Bay Street).

We’ve been losing expert voices within journalism to whom these critical ideas would seem routine. We have only been hearing one side of the story of capitalism for a very long time now.

And this widening gap of economic inequality has been that unique rabbit – ‘neaking up on us.

Then came OWS and the 99 per cent. Boom.

2. An external event helps journalists skirt allegations of bias.  Journalists aren’t stupid people, so it frustrates me when people stereotype the media as such.  But  journalists often engage in professional practice without deep understanding or knowledge of the stories they cover. Investigator naivete is a convention of practice. Why?

In the modernist, liberal-pluralist conceptions of democracy and the free press, the press ain’t free unless it originates from an outsider, disinterested position. This translates, in practice, into a topic having to appear to be approached with complete impartiality (denoted by complete unfamiliarity) by an “outside observer”.

That’s why most journalists are taught to believe any journalist can cover any topic at any time. It’s largely true (and it’s largely done that way), but the result, one must admit, is a rather shallow, if accurate, reflection of reality. And shallow yet accurate narratives are easier to generate if  they fall in line with the large, encapsulating, status quo narratives most of us believe to be true.

Forget that other sciences predicated on observation of the social (such as ethnography) tossed that sense of ‘a white-coated, tabula rasa’ observer out the window DECADES ago. Daily journalism remains an atheoretical, non-reflexive craft firmly entrenched in the modernist ideals of positivistic inquiry.

Further, journalism is particularly sensitive to outside accusations of even the slightest appearance of bias or partiality. As a result of this ongoing scrutiny, it is seen as better inside newsrooms if the reporters don’t know too much about about a particular group they’re about to explore as Outside Observer.

Knowing too much about THEM makes you at risk of being too much aligned with THEM and THEIR THINKING. Hence, the tradition of regular beat shuffles in newsrooms. Years of contact-building and relationship-building get handed off to someone else who will start from relative scratch to, eventually, know what you know.

God help you if you openly identify with any group (or are unavoidably identified by markers like gender or racialization). Reporting from that deep, insider perspective risks being pushed aside as “activist” journalism or agenda-driven journalism — lesser forms to “neutral” journalism.  There’s no such equivalent anticipation of a bias, however, if your deep knowledge or identity fits in line with the status quo.

What if you started out naive but became expert? Deep expertise in a subject, acquired through front-line journalism experience alone, can still pose a problem if no one wants to hear your view from that standpoint.

Such was the experience of former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He had years of war correspondence under his belt when 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war occurred.  He then became one of many public figures sanctioned at work for raising a perspective that was not pro-war at that time. As he told Democracy Now, Hedges knew he was on thin ice:

But yeah, the stance was — and I knew what I was doing. I had been [at the NYTimes] 15 years. It was a kind of career suicide. But I felt so strongly that this was a mistake, and there were so few of us that had that kind of experience, in particular, in the Arab world, that I had a kind of duty to speak out.

Hedges left the Times and became a long-form book author and scholar/philosopher of sorts. He published deep analyses about the state of contemporary democracy and the American liberal class. He now ends up in media as an “expert”. We’ll come back to him a little later. On to the next rule of thumb:

3. Tents in a park is a Day 1 story… but persisting in tents creates conditions by which we can stamp down our cognitive dissonance as journalists and citizens – and begin to acquire new knowledge.

It took awhile, but tents put income inequality on the front page. Yes, the mainstream media “got it wrong” on the “why’s” at first. A lot.  The facts were all mushy. Much of the coverage was received by those in the movement and those in expert positions as, frankly, insulting. There was a whole bunch of hippy-dippy/commmie-pinko stereotyping going on.

Sometimes, the vocal tone of the reporters was enough to offend. [If you couldn’t hear it yourself, the way The Royal Commission on the Status of Women was “neutrally reported” in the 1970s in Canada is likely more obvious an example of how ideological bias of relative privilege seeps into journalists’ lives. Check out the voice of the reporter in this clip.  Judge for yourself if you could tell from the ‘objective, neutral’ reportage of Gordon Donaldson that he had no opinion over the prospect of coming home to a cold kitchen.]

I once read a great quote from a family psychologist whose name I can’t recall. When attitudes are hostile, facts are unconvincing.

It came to mind when I listened to pro-business “colour-commentator” Kevin O’Leary’s language and tone toward Chris Hedges in the controversial CBC clip in which the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist attempts to skool a hard-nosed capitalist about OWS.

It is good to keep in mind that we’re talking about pretty adolescent, bullying-type behaviours. Yet these are pretty universal conventions of communication that we, as humans, put up as barriers to reasoned democratic deliberation when we’re trapped in cognitive dissonance.

You make no sense to me, ergo, you must be a nutbar.

Such stances don’t lend themselves to productive dialogue. Yet it is reasoned, democratic deliberation and dialogue  which we, as journalists, are fundamentally supposed to facilitate. 🙂   Thus, I believe journalists need to be educated in the use of intellectual tools to both recognize and transcend cognitive dissonance as part of routine practice.

What is needed is persistence and resilience until minds open. But it is tough if the gatekeepers themselves don’t think the public needs to know.. and communicate that bias through tone or body language while supposedly delivering “neutral” information. [O’Leary was found in violation of the CBC’s standards of practice, by the way].

4. The Tents brought those who know together with those who need to know. Eventually.

The Day 1 story is the tents, the cops, the ‘conflict’.  Day 1 stories are the polar opposite of rocket science, intellectually. They’re easy, if you’re quick. You don’t have to be all that smart to get ‘er done. Just paint by the numbers and don’t deviate much from what the other media are saying.

The first folos were predictable, sometimes even painful.  They, too, follow a routine.

The easiest of these is a ‘deep story’ about life on the front line. You go and interview those on site, aiming for that ‘human interest’ angle in which you can build a series of  ‘colour quotes’ (heavy on emotion/personal experience) into a package.

When it turns out that not everyone on site is well-versed or faces personal hardship, huzzah! The status quo suspicion that this is all meaningless is confirmed. The easy ‘human interest’ story was easier to pin on the  ‘ridiculous children of privilege occupying with their ipods in hand’ story. It isn’t the brave story from the non-dominant point of view.

Over time, and depending upon the news outlet, the stories got a little bit better. By then, the journalists had spent more time interviewing scholarly experts. Journalists themselves become better informed in the process.

Perhaps one could summarize knowledge translation as a two-step process.  The scholars primarily teach the reporter about why people are occupying and what it all means…  which, the reporter, in turn, summarizes or encapsulates for her viewer/reader. Longer-form media (such as current affairs programs, magazine length work and other mainstream opportunities that last longer than 3 minutes) get on the story by this point (and longer-form typically requires a deeper intellectual capability on the part of the reporter, too).

I tend to minimize the false starts and stubborn ideologues and look, instead, for where the knowledge makes a break for it.  Like Leonard Cohen wrote, there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

The endgame is what matters here for anyone interested in pushing scholarly evidence out for public consumption (and internalization). As the protests wore on, the level of discourse in the media, and the amount of coverage circulating, was going up.

5.  Final rule of thumb:  OWS isn’t perfect. Neither is democracy. Neither is journalism. Neither is this blog post.

No effort to communicate is ideal. Try to look past the negative reasons for dismissal. Try to think creatively and with empathy about why people would make any effort to communicate an idea.

Try to learn from this moment in history.

Humans are social, interactional beings. None of us likes to feel marginalized or ostracized for expressing what we see from our perspectives and standpoints.Women, as one example, find themselves subject to a particularly awful brand of abuse for taking a position in the digital world.

We (even as adults) tend to go with the flow and keep our mouths shut in order to belong to the bubbles of community in which we find ourselves.  Even journalists do this. Perhaps especially journalists. Our professional ideology presumes every adherent is a champion of the underdog, speaks truth to power and represents the fullest of publics. We see ourselves above accusations of racism, sexism or any other ‘ism’ that pervades our culture and our time. We’re the objective ones. We believe this, even if basic, careful, quantitative content-analysis evidence suggests we’re not.

In conclusion…..

When people complain to me from either side about what they’ve read about #occupy in the media, I query the media they sourced. I remind them that not all journalists or media are created equal for #ows or any other story.

If they question my identity and bias based upon what I know about these topics, I tell them the story about ‘unbiased’ journalists like Chris Hedges, whose deep knowledge about war zones in foreign countries made him prescient about the run-up to Iraq. I tell them how that deep knowledge pushed others in journalism to go with the status quo, bend to public pressure and reject his insights (against Iraq) as a biased (thus, non-journalistic) point of view.

And I tell them that my interest is working to find ways to make deep journalism the status quo within journalism education. And that I’m still figuring that out (so don’t rush me).

Journalism doesn’t equal knowledge.  Journalism produces information, primarily accounts of everyday events.  Journalism is a means by which to access some facts that you may, or may not, accept.

Scholarly inquiry is different. Scholars produce knowledge. A solid, academic training in critical thinking is the training by which we take something that feels unfamiliar and dangerous and weigh it — outside of ourselves — to test its potential for internalization.

And a solid training in critical thinking is a great basis for journalism practice. Through critical thinking and exposure to difficult ideas, we grow and transform as individuals and professionals.

Using journalism to gain knowledge about #ows and the world it represents can work – much like peeling an onion. You start at the surface, and work your way deeper and deeper.

If you have deep knowledge or expertise, it is constructive to point others to fine examples of quality journalism, even if it is a few layers closer to the surface than you reside.  That way, novices can find a point of entry from which they might learn more.

And none of us — neither journalists nor citizens — become knowledgable about #occupy through journalism overnight, particularly if we have little exposure to the points of view expressed to have any empathy or creative ability to imagine the world from which they speak.  Most of us have trouble reading across into spaces in which we have a bias (or enjoy a privilege) because most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as bad guy oppressors or our successes as anything but merit-based.

Finally, using journalism to learn works only if you consult many sources, read deeply and read broadly across an anticipated spectrum of ideological positions.

And journalists should be reminded that true balance and fairness requires awareness of the full story on both sides.. and often that balance is impossible unless you’re fully expert on a story.  It is important to have the humility and personal reflexivity to remind audiences along the way how deep into the onion you and your experts are.

There are no “neutral” positions… only neutered ones.

Now is not the time for naivete or ignorance to prevail as a professional standard, particularly if it enables the dismissal and denigration of those who have something to contribute.  A professional standard that silences is not a professional standard of democratic journalism.

So, yes. I like the tents. They are symbolic. They represent big ideas most of us never get to hear outside a lecture hall.

The tents got an important dialogue between the naive self and the expert going. That’s why they matter.

So, when it comes to this story, we should all be “on it”.  We should all be curious.

Happy digging.

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