Is New AP Style Good For Journalism?

Politico.com reported last week that the new head of the AP’s Washington Bureau, Ron Fournier, was changing the way the AP reports. Fournier is encouraging reporters to move away from dry, dispassionate reporting, and use instead the first-person and emotive writing. This is supposed to “cut through the clutter”, and keep readers from being caught up in spin and propaganda.

Fournier calls this “accountability journalism”, which he defends as new and exciting way for journalism to do its job, to provide its readers with the reality of a situaiton.

Fournier and other critics of the conventional press model, especially those on the left, have said that being released from the tired conventions of news writing is exactly what journalism needs.

By these lights, the mentality that presumes both sides of an argument are entitled to equal weight is what prevented the media from challenging the Bush administration more aggressively on the Iraq war and other issues…

A dispatch Fournier filed in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina began: “The Iraqi insurgency is in its last throes. The economy is booming. Anybody who leaks a CIA agent’s identity will be fired. Add another piece of White House rhetoric that doesn’t match the public’s view of reality: Help is on the way, Gulf Coast.”

Fournier cited the article in an essay titled “Accountability Journalism: Liberating reporters and the truth” he wrote for the June 1 issue of the AP’s internal newsletter, The Essentials, as an example of how to be “provocative without being partisan … truth-tellers without being editorial writers.”

The essay was preceded by an unsigned note declaring that “It’s AP’s goal this year (and henceforth) to make this accountability journalism a consistent theme in our coverage of public affairs, politics and government. 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.”

“Katrina was a good example of when the journalism community got it right, because it was staring us in the face,” Fournier, seated in the AP’s Washington bureau, told Politico.

“When George Bush stood up there and said that things were going fine in Katrina, I was able to write, ‘The president is wrong.’ That was pretty liberating. It was also a fact.”

News editors are split on the approach.

Craig Klugman, editor of the Ft. Wayne (Ind.) Journal Gazette, called Fournier a “true heavy-hitter in this business,” but said his newsroom has been split on the new format for AP stories, which some staffers consider “innovative,” while others don’t believe it’s “as cutting edge as the AP thinks it is.”

The day he was interviewed, the paper was running a piece of the AP’s accountability journalism – which seemed to Klugman a lot like enterprise journalism – on the front page. The article, by Sharon Theimer, began with the Fournier-esque lead: “Nuclear weapons? No way.”

David Bailey, managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (where Fournier worked as a reporter in the 1980s), said that since the departure of former AP chief executive Louis Boccardi five years ago, he’s noticed “a new philosophy” as the AP tries “to do more with dazzle and footwork these days than [stories] with real substance,” which is why he said it’s important the paper maintains an active wire desk to vet and edit the copy. “We almost never run an AP story as we get it on the front of the paper,” he said.

Steve Boriss, at Pajamas Media, does not like what he sees.

In an essay about accountability journalism that Fournier wrote last year, he outlined its four cornerstones. But each of the four begs the question “what’s accountability got to do with it?”

First, Fournier writes that accountability journalism means thorough follow-up. For example, he wants reporters to determine after the fact whether bills actually worked and to make sure promises were kept. This sounds good, but is this really a formula for accountability? For just about any program, those in favor will be able to produce arguments and statistics showing it worked, and those against will do the opposite. To which will politicians be held accountable?

Second, Fournier says that accountability journalism means that reporters should commit politicians to the truth. He talks about exposing lies, spin, and distortion. But let’s face it: absolute, out-and-out lies are a rarity. Politics is mostly about putting the best spin on statements to maximize the support of supporters, and minimize opposition among those normally opposed. Just about any statement from a politician can be dissected for spin and distortion, so just about any statement can be condemned for not being the truth. That creates a lot of competition for reporters trying to hold politicians accountable.

Third, Fournier believes accountability journalism is about making broad use of sources to identify government failures and where “the truth” is distorted or hidden. This is less of a principle than a tactic, and one that adds little to the notion of accountability. Since sources are often partisan themselves, we can expect each to provide opposite accounts as to whether politicians’ programs are working and the truth is being told.

So, we’re zero for three so far – three concepts that purportedly are about holding politicians accountable, but really do not and cannot.

Unfortunately, the fourth and final cornerstone is no better than the others – accountability journalism means reporters writing with authority. It is about reporters not being afraid to clearly state who is right and who is wrong. That is, in their own opinion.

Accordingly, we are back to where we started. Accountability journalism is about holding politicians accountable to the personal conclusions of reporters. It is about reporters getting the opportunity to call it as they see it, liberated from the need for equal treatment of all sides, weasel words, and even the pressure to accept politicians’ statements at face value.

Now, it’s one thing if individual newspapers suddenly decided that their reporters could express their opinions. After all, with the Internet, readers can now find a myriad of sites that more closely express their worldviews.

But it’s quite another thing for AP articles to take positions. It is rapidly becoming a monopoly source for the top national and international stories. It is a pooled reporting operation whose membership consists of virtually all the major papers, and has 3,000 of its own journalists and 243 bureaus in 97 countries. As newsrooms shrink, papers are outsourcing more and more of their national and international news to the Associated Press.

Should accountability journalism take hold at the AP, and their reporters provide their own views in their articles, one question remains. Who will be held accountable when we receive only one version of the nation’s top stories, and it is not much more than the opinion of an individual reporter?

There is certainly a danger in releasing reporters, many not experts in the field in which they are reporting, to inject their own feelings and personal politics into dispatches upon which the public relies to make their decisions. The primary goal of news is to give the public a factual description of events so that each person can make up his/her own mind regarding the issue in question.

But let’s not be too hasty. Has not a long-standing grievance with the MSM been that they do not sift through the clutter in order to give us the truth? They take at face value what known propagandists and liars feed to them (Hamas, Hizbullah), and in turn pump it into the news, contaminating it with staged footage that plays right into the hands of terrorists. Wouldn’t some ‘accountability journalism’ have been welcome at Qana in 2006, when all the major media outlets simply let Hizbullah orchestrate their shots? A journalist who would have written “In a grisly attempt to gain sympathy, Hizbullah ‘rescuers’ held corpses up for show and put on displays of false sorrow for the benefit of the assembled horde of photographers” would have been much closer to the actual truth than were the  reporters present that day.

Unfortunately, if reporters were allowed to put their opinion into dispatches, too often they would miss the truth because of their own worldview. Terrorists wouldn’t be scrutinized more harshly, they would be given even more of a free pass. Fournier’s new brand of journalism simply allows too much editorializing and bias into an already ideologically-driven media. Let reporting be reporting and opinion be opinion.

21 Responses to Is New AP Style Good For Journalism?

  1. E.G. says:

    This is an excellent example of newspeak. Upon reading “accountability journalism” I thought it meant that journalists will be held accountable, only to discover that none of the 4 cornerstones intends to hold journalists to any standard. Had I been a journalist I’d feel offended by such downgrading.

    RL Let reporting be reporting and opinion be opinion.
    Can’t agree more. Yet, at the same time, can’t keep suspecting we’re 20th century dinozaurs…

    But so is Fournier – only he’s a smart marketer. The sole advantage I see in this “new journalism” principles is the transparency. Instead of pretending to follow the “old” rules, the “new” guidelines openly state what’s actually the current reality. And it’s so nicely packaged! Christmas in July.

  2. E.G. says:

    oops. It’s Lazar I was quoting.
    Dinozaurial apology.

  3. scannerca says:

    E.G: The sole advantage I see in this “new journalism” principles is the transparency.

    Except that the “transparency” disclaimer will not be included with every item filed and most readers will be deluded into thinking this is “the news”!

  4. Bro B says:

    No one in their right mind should believe a single word a member of the media says. This new journalism just opens up the ability for corporations (who run the media anyway) to justify passing off propaganda as news. I don’t care what the opinion of any journalist on earth is, I don’t want to hear it. I just want facts. Journalists are a relay between events and the populace, not some kind of “truth” marketing system. Don’t try to make the news interesting, try to make it the truth. I am quickly coming to believe that there isn’t a single institution on earth with any kind of integrity, journalism being one of the more recent to trade in ethics for whoredom.

    Keep your opinions to yourselves.

  5. E.G. says:

    scannerca,

    Indeed.
    But that’s what “Change” stands for these days.

  6. Cynic says:

    Where did he get ‘change’ from? Obama?

  7. E.G. says:

    Cynic,

    Wasn’t there an Israeli political party named “Change” a few decades ago?

  8. Cynic says:

    E.G.

    Yes. SHINUI; and if you look closely at what they accomplished you can get an idea of what Obama and the media mean by change. Just turn the wrapping around.

  9. E.G. says:

    Cynic- QED.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    cynic, you didn’t tell the folks enough about the Shinu’i party. In the 2003 elections, they promised to make Haredim serve in the army. This is a popular cause which I too support. However, the party leader, Tommy Lapid, torpedoed the Tal Law which would have begun the process of getting Haredim into the army [besides the volunteer unit called the Nahal Haredi]. Lapid wanted a total victory over and humiliation of the Haredim, which he couldn’t get. So he shot down the Tal Law and no progress was made at all. On the other hand, when Netanyahu as finance minister reduced child allowances, many Haredim were led into the labor market to keep up their income. The Labor Party had previously agreed [1992] to equalize payments both to families where the husband had served in the army or agreed to serve in the future and to families [Arabs] in which the husband had never agreed to serve. This was bankrupting the treasury and Netanyahu stopped it.

    One of Shinu’i’s rare “achievements” was the horrendous, illegal withdrawal from Gaza. Lapid as a minister in Sharon’s govt had urged this policy. Now Sderot and the rest of the country are suffering from Lapid’s nastiness. Before the 2006 elections, Lapid’s faction lost in the party’s primary. So he set up a new party. Both old and new versions of Shinu’i lost and were totally excluded from the Knesset.

  11. E.G. says:

    Plus ça change…

  12. oao says:

    the structure of the political system in israel–proportional representation–created in 1948 to be representative of all political currents has been fractionalizing the country and producing small parties which end up being pivotal in coalitions way beyond their weight ever since. it is also responsible for producing corrupt leaders and permits govts which lost total support from the people to stay in power via corrupt deals.

    it destroys whatever democratic characteristics the system does have.

  13. Cynic says:

    Eliyahu,

    Just mentioning past failed political parties is enough without reliving the messes made.

    I’m having enough exciting times now with today’s stupidity without torturing myself assisting reruns.
    It’s not enough having to put up with politicians, we now have some in the medical world adding to the mess with this latest:
    Writing in the British Medical Journal, John Guillebaud (emeritus professor of of family planning at UCL) and Pip Hayes (a GP) raise the spectre of global population explosion, and suggest that the children of the developed world are a particularly severe carbon burden.

    Read it all and wonder at the results .
    Meanwhile the plainly necessary task of mouthing off about things one doesn’t really know anything about could be left to, oh, journalists, politicians – you know, scum.

  14. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu & Cynic,

    To the best of my knowledge, the first Change/Shinui party was launched in 1977. And indeed, suffice it to remind that it did not live up to the expectations it created. At least this was the point I wanted to make.

  15. E.G. says:

    Cynic,

    Difficult choice between cow farts (or Surf&Turf) and a 3rd child. Are these GP’s giving this precious advice to 3rd wives or only to Gore-scared mums?

  16. Eliyahu says:

    EG, since these docs seem so politically correct, most likely they wouldn’t think of offering such advice to Arabs [to have fewer children]. They probably think the Arabs are all living in poverty in their tents with their camels and using up very little oxygen due to lack of cars. This couldn’t be further from the truth but it would show how far removed the “scientists” are from empirical observation and deduction. Despite Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai, et al. having very high per capita incomes for their permenant, citizen populations, despite the BBC showing the staggering conspicuous consumption of the Dubai shopping mall, the politically correct academic still sees the Arab living in his tent with his camel, flies roosting on the eyes of his children and so on.

    by the way, yes, EG, the Shinu’i party was founded in 1977 and held seats in Menahem Begin’s cabinet. Lapid’s party was the lineal descendant of that first Shinu’i, with one character named Poraz as the survivor from that time. We’ve also had parties named Together, Center, Turning Point, etc.

  17. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu,

    My comment (unclearly) referred to UK Moslems.

  18. oao says:

    Lapid’s party was the lineal descendant of that first Shinu’i, with one character named Poraz as the survivor from that time. We’ve also had parties named Together, Center, Turning Point, etc.

    as i explained the structure of the israeli political system–proportional representation–was created in 1948 to allow representation of all currents at the time. over the years it has fractionalized the system, producing small, sometimes one issue parties with weight well beyond their size in coalitional mchinations. it has also produced corrupt politicians and the ability of govts which completely lost public support to stick to power. the latest generation of politicians is the product of years of this crap. and it has destroyed the security of the state to a point which, i think, it is irreversible.

  19. [...] was running a piece of the AP??s accountability journalism – which seemed to Klugman a lot like …http://www.theaugeanstables.com/2008/07/25/is-new-ap-style-good-for-journalism/Over the top – guardian.co.ukFor every plot, seen from the angle of Hugo's style, was infinite. [...]

  20. Dave says:

    “Accountability journalism?”

    Bullshit. It’s just another attempt to dumb down the newsroom and faminize the language. Don’t tell us what happened, there little reporter. Tell us how what happened makes you feel.

    Crock of shit is what it is.

  21. [...] first is a fascinating discussion about AP’s new “accountability journalism” approach, seen with a skeptical eye by [...]

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