Tips for journalists from journalists

Some recurring themes from IHS’s Journalism & a Free Society seminar, in no particular order:

  • The value of newspaper reporting experience, to teach us the nuts and bolts of journalism, as opposed to simply writing fluffy opinion pieces.
  • To go or not to go to journalism school?
  • Intellectual honesty: recognizing your own biases and looking for contrary evidence
  • The importance of “going to the right parties”
  • The impossibility of objectivity in journalism (This is perhaps material for a later post, but I was surprised by the consensus among rational journalists against objectivity.  My initial thoughts are that objectivity as currently practiced – quoting Mr. Left and Mr. Right – is definitely problematic, but that a redefined objectivity could still be the ideal to strive for.)
  • Do the grunt work (making coffee, scraping ice off freezers, etc.)
  • The advantages and disadvantages of working for an ideological publication (e.g., being able to write the pieces we want to write and express the opinions we want to express, but closing doors to some mainstream publications)

Overall, the seminar was a great experience.  I’m inspired to really go after the job I want, and excited to start doing more writing. – and looking forward to catching up on sleep.


Economics in Action

I’m at the Institute for Humane Studies’s Journalism & a Free Society seminar this week at Bryn Mawr college.  So instead of writing about the news, I think I’ll comment on some lectures.

Today we had our first economics lecture by Nikolai Wenzel, an assistant professor of economics at Hillsdale College.  He talked a bit about economics, but most of the class was spent doing “the trade game.”  Professor Wenzel distributed brown bags, containing an item from a dollar store, to everyone at the lecture.  After we peeked into our bags, he had us rate our item from 1-5 (mine was a set of motivational stickers – Good job! #1! etc. – which I gave a 3).  In Round 2, he had us take our items out of the bag, look around at everyone’s else’s stuff, and then rate our items again (I then gave mine a 2, seeing better items ranging from calculators to candy to post-it notes).  In Round 3, we were allowed to engage in trade with the people sitting to our left and right (I declined to trade for an Eeyore figurine, and my other neighbor wasn’t interested in giving up his balloons; my stickers remained at a 2).  In Round 4, we were allowed to trade with anyone in the room, and I traded my stickers for those little umbrellas you put in fruity drinks, rating them a 3.

Throughout, Professor Wenzel calculated the total value of all the goods in the room as rated by their owners.  From Round 1 to Round 4, the value went up by about 50 points.  The conclusions?

– The subjective value of a particular product can differ among people.
– Freer trade (e.g., trading with everyone vs. just neighbors) increases “happiness” or subjective value.
– Trading also provides us with information (e.g., seeing other products out there, or seeing how your product fares in the market, may change its subjective value).
– Trading stimulates communication and friendship.

If we’re ever to convince people of our viewpoints, I think this is a great way to do it.  Another lecturer yesterday, blogger Megan McArdle, spoke about the importance of intellectual honesty – recognizing the downsides to your own argument, rationally engaging with the other side, and fighting confirmation bias (which makes us seek out evidence that supports our hypotheses and ignore evidence that doesn’t).  This is vitally important but difficult for many people, myself included.  And many other people simply refuse to engage with their opponents, viewing them with instinctive hostility rather than, as McArdle suggested, assuming that they may have something interesting to contribute (I’m thinking here of many cable news shows).  So things like “the trade game” – which actually allow us to see the consequences of our principles in action – are extremely valuable.

Plus, I scored a pack of 18 colorful little umbrellas – anyone want to trade?

A Liberal Arts Manifesto

This sentimental article, In Defense of the Liberal Arts, caught my eye.  I am currently finishing a philosophy degree in my university’s Arts Faculty, but I consider myself to be a scientific thinker and have become increasingly skeptical about the methods and subject matter of the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, Jon Meacham’s article doesn’t provide much insight into the benefits of a liberal arts education, except the broad claim that it nurtures creativity.  Students of liberal arts, he explains, have “a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected”; they may become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who define the future of our economy.

If training the creative entrepreneurial mind is the goal, however, a liberal arts education isn’t ideal; Meacham himself notes that expertise in Homer and Shakespeare has a questionable economic value.  Students could be taught to think creatively about the related subjects of technology, business, and economics, for example – the details of which are exceedingly relevant to economic success.

But I don’t mean to downgrade the liberal arts.  Reflecting on my own education – a blur of reading hundreds of pages and writing nearly as much – I have benefited in ways that will serve me in the future.  I have learned to understand alternative viewpoints; to see patterns and make comparisons; to clearly articulate my own ideas in writing.  More broadly, I have learned that the answers to life’s questions – whether philosophical or political, theoretical or practical – are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Questioning the benefits of any particular education is certainly valuable.  In fact, it might be useful to offer students a wrap-up course within their department, explaining major themes and take-away lessons.  The practical benefits of some courses of study may be more apparent than others, but I suspect that they’ll all retain their place in university culture – if only as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

New Year's resolution: Create more positive news

Amidst all the doom-and-gloom news, the holiday season seems to be inspiring a few uplifting pieces.

Just one example: 27 Amazing Miracles in Real Life.  27 readers describe the miracles in their life, from surviving cancer to microwave ovens to the Internet.

Whether you find this particular piece touching or just sappy, it’s certainly positive.  (It also illustrates the increasingly important role of readers in the creation of media content, but that’s a story for another day.)  But why don’t we see more of these uplifting pieces throughout the year?

There seem to be two possible reasons:

  1. That’s not what consumers want.
  2. That’s not the purpose of journalism.

I think news outlets can’t claim #1 unless they’ve actually tried focusing substantially on positive news – which most haven’t – so I’ll focus on #2.

What is the purpose of journalism?  Surely information and entertainment are two of its purposes.  Information can be simply for the sake of information, or to allow us to make better decisions as citizens, consumers, etc.  It may spur us to protest or to contribute money, to boycott a product or to head over to the mall for post-holiday bargains.  But on a broader scale, we can think of journalism as providing the context in which we live – explaining to us what the world is like, so we can make decisions and act accordingly.

If this is what journalism is all about, there is a desperate need for more positive content.  That could include pieces about innovation and creativity, outstanding achievements, or inspiring people.  It will communicate the idea that the world is, simply, a good place – a place where we can strive and succeed, find inspiration and happiness.  This doesn’t mean that all journalism should be “positive,” or that we should deny the reality of the terrible things that are going on in the world.  It just means that we should recognize the other side, as well.  And this would allow us to make better decisions as human beings – so we don’t feel lost and helpless in a sea of war and death, but able to see clearly both the bad and the good.