Context matters

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen's response to the The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication's statement about the Obama administration's purported lack of transparency is a must-read -- not because of what the Association, or Rosen, think about the Obama administration, but because Rosen's critique of the statement illustrates many of the problems with contemporary journalism.

Here's a taste:

What bothers me about this statement is that it is so thinly reasoned and badly researched.

Now let's look at this statement: Obama's Promised "Change" Lacks Transparency. It says that Obama's transparency agenda is a failure, that he is not accessible to journalists, and his claims for a new era of openness have not been met. Now, remembering that research is our strength, our brand, consider this: what is the evidence provided for Obama's failure? As I read the statement, a single piece of evidence is provided: Obama has not had very many presidential press conferences. That's is all.

Where are the figures totaling up the number of press conferences and comparing it to other administrations? Missing. Where is the data for the number of one-on-one interviews with journalists Obama has given, and the comparison to other presidents? Missing. Where is the consideration of the administration's argument that these interviews count as "openness" and "access" too? There is no consideration of that argument. It's like we didn't know of it.

Where is the recognition that "transparency" is an agenda that reaches far beyond the president's relationship with journalists to take in such factors as and the whole "open data" movement? Shockingly, it is absent. It's like we are ignorant of what transparency means. Where is the attempt to assess whether, apart from the number of press conferences, the Obama White House has been successful in making the government more transparent and putting its vast collections of data online? Missing.

Go read the rest.

Rosen's critique is aimed at an association of journalism professors, but the same flaws he identifies -- the lack of context and quantification, the extrapolation of broad conclusions from an excessively narrow set of facts -- plague much of the reporting you see every day about politics and policy. It applies to articles that tell you a politician raised $70,000 from employees of a company without putting that number in context, or that tell you how many earmarks are in a bill without telling you what percentage of the bill's cost the earmarks account for, or that tell you a program costs $3 billion without telling you that's less than one percent of the federal budget, or that tell you a politician proposes a tax increase without telling you who, exactly, would pay higher taxes as a result.

That kind of context is necessary not only in order to produce a news report that is useful, but in order to avoid producing one that is wildly misleading.

Jay Rosen
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