Sunday, August 19, 2007

Our problem, not the readers'

If you're a McClatchy journalist trying to meet the needs of changing audiences, I hope you make time to read Clark Hoyt's "Public Editor" columns in the New York Times. There are always valuable lessons to be had there.

That was true for me today, when I read his thoughtful piece about an NYT Iran story that occasioned considerable reader reaction. He makes a larger point about the role of context and perspective in reporting, but boils it down to a supremely useful observation I think we all should take to heart:

... there are special lengths that The Times — or any other news organization — must go to when dealing with an issue so protracted, so complicated, and so politicized [as war in Iraq]. It must take pains when reporting today’s events to add yesterday’s perspective. It must attribute information exhaustively to keep sources’ credibility and motives in view. And it must be willing to revisit old ground when new developments change the context.

The recent article demonstrates some of the pitfalls. I think it had avoidable problems that helped lead to the eruption of criticism ...
(emphasis added by me)

As Clark notes, that's true in epic issues like war and peace – and, I'd argue, in much of what we all cover every day, as well. Audiences bring different expectations to journalism nowadays. We can blame blogs and talk radio for distorting their percentions and perspectives – the "journalism of affirmation" problem – but in the end it does no good for us to pretend this is the readers' problem rather than ours.

"I was teaching, but they weren't learning" is axiomatically false. And so is, "I was editing but they weren't reading it right."

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