Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Could California’s vote for a ban on same-sex marriage help the gay marriage movement?

Despite the passage of Proposition 8 in California on Nov. 4, or possibly because of it, gay marriage has become a hot-button issue across the nation, and the discussion seems to be gaining momentum.

Not two weeks after the vote a newly established movement called Join the Impact coordinated protests in cities across the nation. Columbia’s own protest garnered a crowd of more than 100 in freezing weather including young and old, gay and straight, some new to the movement, some veteran advocates for gay rights.

Since then the issue has received a lot of attention, much of it from the mainstream media. Newsweek’s most recent cover story, by Lisa Miller, contested conservative interpretations of scripture that condemn homosexuality, suggesting that the condemnation comes from “custom and tradition,” not directly from the Bible. Reactions to this article elicited attention from Politico and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, further spreading the discussion.

Meanwhile, the gay marriage movement continues to plug ahead. Some members have called for a ban on the Sundance Film Festival, which is held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Supporters of Proposition 8 own some of the theaters where the films are played. The Iowa Supreme Court today will hear a case brought by gay couples suing for the right to marry. Join the Impact is calling tomorrow “Day Without a Gay,” and pushing for a “nationwide strike and economic boycott.” Marc Shaiman’s mini-musical “Prop 8: the Musical,” staring well-known actors such as John C. Reilly and Jack Black, has been on the Funny or Die website for about a week and has been watched nearly 3 million times.

I don’t know whether or not the gay marriage movement has garnered more support since the vote for Proposition 8, but they have to be pleased by the attention they are receiving. The passage of Proposition 8 may have given them the publicity they needed to assert the issue on a national platform.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's not enough to be informed...

A common theme in all areas of my journalistic training is the theme of omnipresent information, thanks to the internet's buffet of websites and blogs dedicated to news. Perhaps citizens no longer require journalists to provide information, only to filter it. "Aggregate or be aggregated," as one research fellow recently put it.

Anyone seeking to be "informed" in this past election could certainly fill their treasure-chests with prolific information on the candidates, their families, their stated positions on the issues, their unstated positions, their past mistakes, acquaintances, and hypothetical cabinet picks, not to mention data on polling, projections of electoral math and statistical breakdowns of demographics and ideologies across the nation.

And voter turnout was high, thankfully. Because if you know everything there is to know about every candidate and issue, if you could wax philosophical about health care plans, tax cuts, and war strategies but you sit at home on election day, I would argue it doesn't really matter what you know. You must act.

Let's not forget that election day is not the only day to act; it is certainly not the only day where citizens of America can or should participate in their democracy (ok, republic, but you get the idea).

I was moved to write this post by reading a book called Governance in Dark Times. The author, Camilla Stivers, references philosopher Hannah Arendt. Read, digest, and be moved.

Dark times, in the end, are not the consequence of monstrous events, which are 'no rarity in history.' They emerge from the loss of the political 'world that lies between people,' the space where different people come together to speak about shared concerns and hear what each believes to be the truth. Such speech* lights up a public world, where people are joined not in agreement but in commitment to struggle with important issues. Without this light, Arendt argued, people retreat into separate, private worlds, asking no more of politics than their rights and the freedom to pursue private interests.

*don't let the word "speech" fool you. Arendt is talking about participation in a public sphere that is not limited to talking.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Do we get it?

I mentioned in the last post that we at the Missourian have been constantly evaluating the nature of our election coverage and goals for that coverage.

One of the questions we addressed was, how do we cover the race aspect of this race? We certainly made an effort to represent every social group who had a particular "stake" in this election, and one of those social groups was obviously the black people of Columbia.

Let me just say that I'm not sure that I got it until last night. And it wasn't because of careful, widespread Missourian coverage that the true history of this moment hit me. It was because of a 3-minute conversation I had with a 25-year-old student right after President-elect Obama gave his acceptance speech. What she said, word for word, is below. I have nothing else to say; just think about it.

I’m speechless. It hasn’t really sunk in, but I feel like I can do anything, as an African American woman… Since growing up, everybody’s like ‘oh you can be president, you can do whatever you want to,’ but in the society we live in, we know that that’s not a hundred percent true. Well with Barack Obama becoming president, it’s true. You can do anything. You can be president. You can run the greatest country in the world and have skin like mine. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. And, I don’t know, I feel the hope that he talks about. I have hope for my future, as a college student about to graduate in six weeks, I feel like America’s moving in the right direction, that I can go out into the world and do what I want to do, change the world.

Monday, November 3, 2008

the unemotional journalist

Balanced election coverage has been a major topic of discussion in our newsroom lately. We strive for "balanced", or fair and unbiased, coverage of the various races, but what does that mean? This is especially tricky in the presidential race.

Both presidential candidates have passed through Columbia in the past two weeks, so let's compare the coverage.

John McCain came through on October 20. We were notified the week before, but not given a specific date or time. The morning of the day he arrived we were still speculating about exactly when he was coming in and what he was doing. Later that morning he flew in, had lunch at a barbeque joint, and left. A handful of people went to the airport to see him land; maybe 150 stood outside the restaurant where he ate with some business owners and prominent Republicans. He's made speeches in other towns in Missouri, but they are usually outside of the area our paper normally covers.

Barack Obama held a rally at Mizzou this past Thursday, which we knew about at least four days in advance. An estimated 40,000 people attended the rally, according to the campaign.

My editor dispatched as many reporters as he could to both visits. Six or so reporters went to the airport to see McCain land and to interview the crowd. Then they followed him to the restaurant and interviewed the crowd there. When he left, they went in and interviewed the waitress who served him.

More reporters covered Obama. About 20 of us succeeded in getting media passes, some stayed in the media section, others roamed the crowd to get feedback. Several stories, including one on his speech which I co-wrote, made it online and into the paper, along with video and audio clips of the crowd.

Was our coverage fair? More reporters covered Obama's event. There were more column inches on Obama, more links on the website. On the other hand, there was more to cover. Obama appeared at a scheduled event open to the public, whereas McCain ate lunch basically unannounced in a closed venue. Some argue that that shouldn't matter.

As the discussion continues, I, for my own part, am not sure what I think.

I am squarely supportive of one candidate, I intend to vote for him, and when talking with family and friends, I'm unabashed in conveying that preference.

But I'm a journalist. I tried to sit in the media pen at Obama's rally and be unemotional. I was, at times, unsuccessful.

What is our role? We are citizens, we vote, we have opinions, often strong ones. And we try to provide fair, unbalanced, biased coverage. Is it possible? I'm certainly in favor of unbaised coverage, but I'm also wondering where our humanity is allowed to reside. If I have a political bumper-sticker on my car, will people no longer trust me to be a fair reporter? Is it that I am allowed opinions, but I just can't let people know what they are?

Again I have questions and no answers.

For those who missed the link above, here's the story on Obama's Speech

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Is context what the people want?

For three reasons I've been thinking about the context of news stories lately. For one, I've gotten to know a Research Fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) here, and his research shtick (if I may be so bold as to sum up complicated research questions in one sentence) is figuring out how to give readers context with the stories they read, rather than just the latest.

Second, in my tentative research project (for which I am currently working on a literature review), I discuss episodic vs. thematic news stories, specifically during a crisis. The issue: when we just stick to telling people what is happening minute by minute without a longer history or explanation, are we depriving them of necessary context? Do they even want it? Do we care if they want it or not? A good example: four weeks into the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the news media captured photos and video of the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad. It became such an iconic image suggesting victory that news coverage dropped pretty dramatically shortly thereafter. News stories in that week took one event out of the context of the whole war and many people thought we had already won.

Third, I just finished a story about the Supreme Court after attending a "debate" at MU's law school, held between two very distinguished lawyers, one of whom is arguing a case before the Supreme Court next Monday. Instead of simply covering the story as an event, I tried to package the issues they discussed in such a way as to give readers some idea of the larger context of the story: what issues the Supreme Court will likely have influence in, how the elections may influence the Court, who is on the Court, etc. I take no credit here, the speakers covered these topics in a mostly clear and accessible kind of way. It helps that I'm a bit geeky about the Supreme Court, having read a number of books about the history and the current justices in my spare time.

The thing is, I'm not sure people care. I haven't gotten any reader feedback, but while writing and editing (and editing and editing) the story, I discovered that it's very difficult to distill such complex issues into a news story that the paper wants to run. Make it too complicated, and there's concern people won't read it.

There is a tension here: I want to give people the bigger picture, more context, more information, but I'm not sure they want it, will take the time to read it, or will even understand it. It's a big question. Lately my posts have been ending in big questions, ones I don't have the answers to. Maybe no one in the field does.

Here's the story: Supreme Court, and a sidebar on the issues.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Civility: at odds with journalism?

I have recently noticed a strong cognitive dissonance between some of the things I am required to do as a journalist and how, in the past 25 years, I have been brought up to act.

Let me say that I have a copy of Steven Carter's Civility on my bookshelf. I read the book in my first year of college for an introductory political science class. I couldn't tell you exactly what's in it.
But I can tell you that when I did read it, it planted a seed in my brain about civility and how often the people in our society demonstrate a mind-numbing lack of it. I worked behind the counter of a downtown coffeeshop for nearly seven years, and I could light your hair on fire with stories of how uncivil people can be, particularly in situations with strangers.

I'm afraid, and I think Stephen Carter would agree, that there is a dearth of civility in American society, despite our claims of having a civil society.

Well, I think I have been brought up to be civil, and since that class in political science I have certainly been aware of my triumphs or shortcomings in the area of civility.

These past two weeks I have been on a story where I could and probably should have been decidedly uncivil in my attempt to reach a source who refuses to talk to me, despite the fact that she is in public relations for a big company and it is her job to at least talk to reporters, even if she won't disclose any information.

My editor advised that I start calling her office every 15 minutes to let her know that I will not go away.

Let me tell you that my civility alarm certainly went off at that suggestion. For one thing, she nor her company have done anything wrong, nor are they obligated to talk to me at all. And although the story is a matter of public interest, it is not a matter of public safety, money, or anything else that the public is entitled to information about.

The situation reminded me of a pet peeve of mine: I can't stand the thought of people hounding hotel personnel in order to get a room upgrade, or a refund, when they really have nothing to complain about. I know there are people out there (some I could name) who make it a point to complain about anything to anybody in order to get free stuff.

So I'm left with this internal conflict: reporters are supposed to get stories, track down sources, convince people to talk to them. Yet I want to be civil. Where's the balance? Where do I draw the line?

If you have advice, I'd love to hear it.

[This is why I want to go into government reporting, because I'm absolutely fine with hounding public officials who aren't keeping up their end of the political bargain.]

Friday, October 24, 2008

Good Comic Fun

Anyone who hasn't seen the long string of Saturday Night Live skits impersonating the presidential candidates, their running mates, and the president, I encourage you to look them up.
I've included the latest, definitely a favorite. This rather silly post will soon by followed by a much more serious one on the Supreme Court, but in the meantime....