Author Archives: Aaron S. Veenstra

Separating the forest from the trees in the age of Trump

by Aaron S. Veenstra

Last year’s Academy Award-winner for best picture, Spotlight, received justifiably widespread acclaim for its portrayal of the indelible role of enterprise journalism in maintaining a society in which the weak may confront the strong.

Specific to its dramatization of journalism, there are two key insights that are easy to lose track of in the film’s narrative. The first is that, while presented and celebrated as a story of heroic journalism challenging and taking down a corrupt institution, it’s more a story of journalistic failure than anything else. The story of systemic abuse of children by Catholic priests wasn’t just something that “everybody” knew about, which tends to be the short version of the backstory. Rather, it’s something the Boston Globe knew about years before the early 21st century reporting that ultimately became “the story.”

This is a key plot point that occurs more than once in the film – victims and their advocates hesitant or unwilling to trust the news organization that dismissed them in the past.

That lack of trust is intimately related to Spotlight’s second big hidden element: the link between individual units and systems. This comes up in two important ways. Most directly connected to the trust question, the sources being interviewed by the reporters don’t see those reporters as being an almost entirely different group from the people who failed to follow up on their tips in the past. The only member of the Spotlight reporting team to have seen that previous information was Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who had been the Globe’s city editor.

And yet, all the reporters are told, “you” were sent this information years ago. The “you” in question here isn’t the individual journalists; it’s the Globe as an institution, from which they are inseparable and for which they are responsible. From inside the institution, it’s easy to object and say that was somebody else’s mistake; from outside, the institution is a forest, and the trees indistinguishable.

But if the public is too likely to see only the system, reporters’ bias pulls them the other way, toward episodic stories that too often don’t link together to tell the bigger story beyond the individual events. In Spotlight, the one person who sees this is the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber), now at the Washington Post.

What makes this more than just an interesting story note is seeing Baron’s name pop up in a piece about Post reporter David Fahrenthold’s tenacious pursuit of Donald Trump’s bogus foundation. Fahrenthold had begun reporting on Trump’s promised donation to veterans groups (this fundraiser was the reason he gave for skipping a debate right before the Iowa caucuses), which had not materialized, and which, like most of Trump’s promises, the rest of the campaign press corps had completely forgotten about.

This is a story worth digging into on its own, but Baron suggested going further: “The logic was that Trump had just tried to wiggle out of a charitable promise he’d made on national TV. What, Marty wondered, had he been doing before the campaign, when nobody was looking?”

These different reporting styles map reasonably well to the concepts of episodic and thematic framing in the scholarly literature. Too, an over-reliance on episodic reporting is probably as much to blame for the Globe’s failure as are the social biases that would keep Boston reporters from seeing systemic corruption in the Catholic Church.

Episodic reporting and the thought processes that lead to it allow an event to be a one-off, with baseline assumptions reset the next time the reporter encounters a similar pattern. It means presuming good faith on the part of those being reported on.

More systematic story-framing needed

The potential trouble here is obvious. Unscrupulous actors can and frequently do game this type of reporting. It is happening right now with coverage of Trump’s tweets. Coverage that simply repeats what he tweets, and makes the story the fact of him saying something, does not allow for examination of broader patterns in his statements that have slowly been picked up by fact-checkers, for example. This sort of thinking also permeates campaign coverage, and especially post-election coverage, that uses candidate characteristics to explain outcomes, rather than the broader, macro-level fundamentals that political scientists use to model elections. Many fundamental-based models suggested a narrow Trump win this year.

Although some of the individual stories in the Globe’s and Post’s respective reporting might be written in thematic frames that highlight general concepts over specific instances, this type of framing doesn’t fit the conflict as well as episodic framing fits the other side. Instead, this may be considered systematic framing, occurring across stories and manifesting through linkages used to explain truths that can’t be found in a single event.

As Fahrenthold put it regarding his systematic pursuit of Trump Foundation information: “The point of my stories was not to defeat Trump. The point was to tell readers the facts about this man running for president. How reliable was he at keeping promises? How much moral responsibility did he feel to help those less fortunate than he?”

Any individual story about Trump stiffing a charity doesn’t and can’t answer those questions, in the same way that any individual story about a pedophile priest doesn’t and can’t answer questions about the extent of the problem or the systematic cover-up being run by the Church. These are complicated stories that are, by nature, not reportable in disconnected, single articles. More than that, they’re stories that can’t be expected to emerge simply from an amalgamation of one-offs pieces.

They need context and connection, a tie consciously made by the reporter, and used to illuminate the bigger truth for the public — that is, they must understand that the forest is made of trees.

Media bungle Steubenville rape trial verdict coverage

“You think you could tell a rapist to stop doing what he’s doing? Do you, really? And he’s going to listen to an ad campaign to stop?” At the end of a heated exchange over guns and personal safety for women on his Fox News program, Sean Hannity asked that of his guest, Democratic strategist  Zerlina Maxwell. During the segment, Maxwell suggested that the best way to stop rape was to teach young men not to rape, rather than to arm all women.

Hannity’s statement reveals a telling blind spot. He inhabits a world in which there is no rape culture, only rapists, who are criminals. Criminals cannot be reasoned with or taught not to commit crimes; thus, the only way to stop them is by force, during their commission of their crimes. The response to the segment belies Hannity’s view, however. For her trouble, Maxwell was the target of numerous racially and sexually abusive messages on Twitter, many of which centered on her being raped.

The inability of the media and political figures to see or understand rape that isn’t what Whoopi Goldberg infamously called “rape rape” – that is, a violent, forcible sexual assault by a stranger in a dark alley – is nothing new. On March 17, it reached perhaps a new low, as CNN aired a segment lamenting the “promising lives” of two Steubenville, Ohio, teens convicted in juvenile court of raping an unconscious girl at a party. Anchor Candy Crowley and two correspondents, Poppy Harlow and Paul Callan, spoke at length about the terrible effects of the guilty verdicts for the two rapists, whose “lives are destroyed,” according to Callan. The report focused on their football accomplishments and good academic standing before their trial; conspicuously absent was any discussion of their victim, or any suggestion that the best way to avoid your life being destroyed by a rape conviction is not to rape anybody.

One reason why CNN so badly interpreted this case may be that, like so many real rape cases, it didn’t fit the narrow definition of the hypothetical rape rape scenario. These two young men were not the rapists that exist in Hannity’s mind, prowling the streets for unprotected victims to abduct and assault. Rather, they were two young men who had no concept of consent because no one had ever taught it to them. As David Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote: “Throughout this trial, the two defendants and a parade of friends who wound up mostly testifying against the defendants expressed little understanding of rape – let alone common decency or respect for women. Despite the conviction, the defendants likely don’t view themselves as rapists, at least not the classic sense of a man hiding in the shadows.” They grew up in a rape culture that privileges “good” men – successful athletes, good students – and denigrates “bad” women – those who express their sexuality, or drink. In rape culture, a rape conviction and a ruined life is not the just outcome of your own criminal behavior; it is a tragedy that happens to you against your will.

It is particularly disturbing that CNN would produce this kind of reporting. The role of Fox News and its personalities in our political and social discourse is no secret – Hannity’s segment is of a piece with past Fox material on guns and crime. But according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Fox was the second-least believable national news organization. CNN was the most believable cable news channel, suggesting that the reliance on opinion programming by Fox and MSNBC – confirmed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2013 State of the News Media report – has left CNN as the cable news viewer’s go-to source for straight news. For CNN to suggest that the conviction, rather than the commission, is tragic is a stunning reversal of this story, and it does a tremendous injustice to rape victims everywhere.

Not surprisingly, the rape culture that underlies concern for the rapists also prompted additional abuse for their victim. On the day the verdicts were announced, two teenage girls were arrested for posting death threats against the victim on Facebook and Twitter. Social media also played a role in the original crime, as pictures and video taken by onlooking partygoers were posted online. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all aired the name of the victim on March 18, potentially enabling a new wave of abuse. But if there is a silver lining to this episode, it is in the quick and sustained response to CNN and everyone else sustaining the rape culture’s infrastructure. Just two days after CNN’s initial report, a petition demanding an apology on Change.org has more than 189,000 signatories. Critical responses to CNN could be found from everyday Twitter users to the Huffington Post to the Poynter Institute. Social media provided a platform to quickly expose CNN’s coverage and to allow a broad coalition of reform-minded voices to come together and be heard, perhaps across interpersonal relationships that may never have supported an anti-rape discourse without this context. It is another reminder that the power of our communication tools lies primarily in how we communicate with them.

Veenstra, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University, is a leading researcher in the field of social media.

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The hidden story of Citizens United

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Editor’s note: This is a response to a story on the Gateway Journalism Review website written by William H. Freivogel titled “Election results show super PACs can’t buy Republican victories.”

The hidden story of Citizens United this year and for the next couple of years (assuming it’s still in place) isn’t at the federal level — there’s just too much campaign, party and party committee money in the presidential and senate races for the outside money to have a significant influence. But for state- and municipal-level races, it’s a different story. How much would it take to blanket a few state assembly districts in each state with enough money to flip a bunch of statehouses? How much would it take to overrun the judicial election process across some big states? How about replicating Proposition 13 in growing and purpling states like North Carolina and Virginia? Races like these have a lot less money in them to start with, which means that corporate cash could control a much more lopsided debate.

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