The “Elements of Journalism”

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Journalism is a practice largely influenced by those who learn the craft on the job. Despite its well-established impact on communities, there’s a very old debate about whether or how much formal training should be required.

In 1988, ABC anchor Ted Koppel said that “”journalism schools are an absolute and total waste of time.”

Into that fray, the Elements of Journalism has served a breezy foundation for modern journalism. The book, written by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, was first published in 2000, then revisited in 2007 and most recently in a third edition from 2014. I read it once many years ago. I returned to it again, after a conversation I had with Rosenstiel, and found it a helpful resource.

Below I share my own notes, though I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in journalism best practices. I bought copies for the editors at my own organization. It’s an easy and effective read.

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What is newsroom objectivity?

(This is an expansion of this thread)

When is a news organization being fair to a range of good-faith perspectives, and when is that newsroom retreating from a moral responsibility? When is a reporter taking a partisan stance and when is it a stance for justice?

With the rise of the social web in the last 20 years, this reevaluation of journalistic principle has been frequently described through the lens of newsroom objectivity. It reached a fever pitch in 2020, resulting in an important dialogue on objectivity and “moral clarity” in newsrooms.

This concept was the topic of a session in November 2020 during the virtual 12th annual Klein News Innovation Camp unconference I help organize. I’ve revisited the conversation, and I want to share what I took away.

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Notes from Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Talking to Strangers’

The social human species evolved to default to truth when encountering each other. That works well more than it doesn’t but in complex society it results in many unintended consequences.

That’s the heart of Talking with Strangers, the 2019 book by journalist-public intellectual Malcolm Gladwell. That year, I saw Gladwell speak about his research informing the book. Though I got a copy of the book then, I only just got around to reading it.

Like many others, I enjoy Gladwell and admire the journey he’s taken as journalist, extending into longform narrative nonfiction to push forward our understanding of the world. Below I share a few short notes for myself in the future.

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Hold firm your beliefs, let your opinions change

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Hippasus was a student of the Greek philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras 2,500 years ago.

Pythagoras, whom you may know for popularizing a theorem that is today named for him, taught that all numbers could be expressed as a ratio of two whole numbers. This seems obviously wrong to us today.

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Newsroom objectivity and “moral clarity” are not in opposition

(This is adapted from a Twitter thread)

No, newsrooms don’t need to throw out “objectivity’ as a principle. Yes “moral clarity” should mean something for news organizations.

This thread comes from my own experiences, plus this helpful conversation I had during Klein News Innovation Camp with Alexis Johnson, Tom Rosenstiel and Wes Lowery.

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Will the world be a better place to live in the future?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

In 2018, Harvard psychologist and pop intellectual Steven Pinker wrote a book that made a lot of smart people very mad. He argued that, on the global whole, quality of life was continuing its trend of getting better for humans. It was the continuation on a theme from a book he wrote in 2011.

His argument was that we are so (understandably) focused on the immediate pain, suffering and injustice of the day that we feel heartless to zoom out and acknowledge broader trends. Diseases are eradicatedGlobal poverty is downLife expectancy is up. As Pinker often put it: We remember stories about airplane crashes but we ignore stories of airplane takeoffs. (In fact, there’s a movement among journalists to respond to that last point.)

Those aren’t trivial accomplishments for the world. Yet many intellectuals waved Pinker off as an overly-optimistic privileged pollyanna who went beyond his expertise. 

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A few quick personal finance lessons from Morgan Housel’s ‘Psychology of Money’

Finance is no science. It involves the tiny actions and feelings of millions of people.

Finance writer Morgan Housel published a tidy book last year called the Psychology of Money that does a fine job communicating the concept. I quite liked it, so I’ve shared a few quick takeaways I got from the book. Consider buying your own copy.

Here’s a 2018 blog post he wrote honing the topic.

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What is my news, media or content business worth?

As the web has brought down the upfront costs of launching a publishing business, there are plenty of them. This means I’ve been asked to join several conversations about how to decide how much one of these are worth.

I’ve been involved in several conversations over the last few years in which publishers (those with no full-time employees to those with several dozen) have sought advice or discussed the topic. I suspect I’ll have other conversations like them in the future, so I thought I’d just share some of the advice I most commonly give and have seen take place.

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Notes on ‘Stuff of Thought’ by Steven Pinker

Language is a manifestation of human thought. So it’s an effective tool to understanding how we perceive the world.

That’s the premise of the 2007 bestselling book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. His prodigious collection of popular books blending linguistics, thought and human nature have made him both a celebrity academic and a frequent source of scorn.

I appreciate his contributions and regardless of popular perception, I’ve enjoyed working through his catalogue. Below I capture some notes from finally getting through this one. Find 2007 reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian.

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Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

For a couple of years in college, I spent a few days a month working at the Belmont Stables in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. It’s just a dozen or so stables built in 1936 to house police horses on perhaps an acre of land.

I was under the tutelage of Ike Johnstone, an imposing, grandfatherly, gregarious kind of man who made you work for his respect. Ike, whose son played in the NFL, effectively ran the stables, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and operated his Bill Picket Riding Academy — a summer camp for mostly poorer Black kids from North Philadelphia.

Ike, who is Black, hosted horses for a handful of mostly Black families — offering a kind of opportunity and access that always seemed a point of pride for him. Despite that healthy Black riding community he fostered, Belmont Stables was unrelated to the Fletcher Street Riding Club that is most associated with mixing social justice and Black horse riding in Philadelphia.

“Plenty of Black cowboys if you know where to look,” Ike told me once.

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