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Archive for the ‘Politics & Public Policy’ Category

Five years ago if someone had described an ongoing effort to unseat a sitting president — complete with salacious allegations about collusion with hostile foreign nationals — would any of us have believed it?

Five years ago if someone had described a leading political candidate under active FBI investigation — with the director of the FBI issuing an unprecedented public comment in the lead-up to the election — would any of us have believed it?

Five years ago if someone had said that a grassroots campaign with a passionate following involving a long-term U.S. senator would be undermined by no less than the Democratic National Committee — would any of us have believed it?

Five years ago if someone had said that a foreign power would stage demonstrations on American streets for and against our presidential candidates — while unleashing bots, hackers and fake news on social media — would any of us have believed it?

With each scandal-of-the-day rocketing out of newsrooms at breakneck speed, it is difficult to step back and appreciate how downright bizarre the past four years in American political history have been. Taking the long view while in the midst of the fray isn’t easy — but it’s a necessary step if we want to learn anything constructive from one of the most contentious periods in modern American history.

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As Social Critic readers know, there has been no blow-by-blow effort to dissect news of the ongoing Trump-Russia investigation. The reason? Doing so relies too heavily on speculation. Until special counsel Robert S. Mueller III weighs in, the jury remains out. Of course, that hasn’t stopped a bifurcated mainstream media from leaving little doubt in the minds of their respective readers and viewers as to how guilty — or innocent — President Trump is of Russia-collusion allegations. Caught between the competing partisan wings of the American media, one can expect that from time to time key “dots” will fail to connect in the public mind. This is one such time.

The first under-reported development centers around the revelation that FBI Director James Comey, according to the Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, made use of a Gmail account to transact FBI business. This is relevant not simply in the context of whether or not classified information may have been conveyed over a Gmail account — which Comey denies — but because the Russian “hack” began with phishing emails.

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Journalism is in the midst of a slow-motion crisis.

When I was in journalism school, students learned how to write using the “inverted pyramid” approach. The inverted pyramid is a style of writing that dates back to the days when paper real estate — in a print newspaper — was limited. Editors who wished to make room for breaking stories needed the option to lop the bottom of the story off with minimal risk of omitting critical details. The inverted pyramid calls for the most vital aspects of a story to appear at the top. This allows editors more flexibility while recognizing the fact that not all readers make the page jump to continue reading an article that concludes elsewhere. As a result, it was important then — as it is now — to lead with the most relevant details. A properly crafted story lede (introduction) encapsulates the basics: Who?, What?, When?, Where? and Why?.

In the Digital Era print real estate isn’t the limiting factor it once was. But there are indications the digital medium has shortened readers’ attention spans. It is of vital importance, as a result, to impart key facts “up top” — if only because web viewers are likely to skim content and move on.

Something, however, has changed in the way a lot of news organizations craft and promote stories. Call it sloppiness — lax editing — or journalistic “spin”. Some of the most controversial stories to appear in mainstream media are prefaced by misleading headlines on social media — titles that don’t square with a complete read of the content. Misleading headlines on social media posts are far from the only problem, however. Take, as an example, two contradictory narratives: Person/institution “X” and person/institution “Y” disagree over who did what or why. What should a responsible journalist do with this unwieldy story line? The answer is to disclose the ambiguity very early on  — to make clear to readers that a situation is in flux and/or that key aspects of the story are in dispute.

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