Monday, August 20, 2012

Sexism vs. Journalism 101

In this cybersec drama [1, 2, 3, 4, 5] a journalist and her editor accuse a critic of sexism, describing the criticisms as yet another example of men talking down to women in technical fields. Is there any merit to the sexism claim?

Probably not.

The critic (Chris Soghoian) accused the journalist (Quinn Norton) of "bad journalism", not technical inadequacy. Attacking her writing was his point, not a sly way of attacking her technical qualifications. Any criticisms of technical information was to demonstrate flaws with journalism, not the other way around.

Moreover, the criticism is true. The editor (Ryan Singel) defends the original story as “good journalism”, but he’s wrong. That story has some clear journalistic problems. It is a one-side piece with flowery language without any objectivity.

Journalism has clearly defined standards. These standards apply regardless of content, whether it is a royal wedding, a pop star overdose, an outbreak of war, or an encrypted chat website. News editors, journalism professors, and other journalists can recognize these standards in writing, and point out the flaws, even if they don’t understand the technical content.

Take, for example, the seventh sentence in the original story:

“But as little as two years ago such a site was considered to be likely impossible to code.”

This sentence has four obvious journalistic flaws. The first is that there is no attribution (who “considered” this?). The second is that it’s “glowing” or hyperbolic language (“impossible”). The third is that it uses weasel words (“likely”). The fourth is that it’s a sweeping generality. Any one of these flaws makes the sentence bad journalism.

This sentence sounds made-up, as if the writer morphed what somebody actually said into something the writer wish they had said. Removing the attribution and converting it to the passive voice means that we no longer know who said it, and thus, can’t verify it. I am a technical expert, I know that sentence is false (Cryptocat could’ve been created with decade old Web 2.0 technology), but my point is that even non-technical journalists can detect something is wrong. When journalists read sentences like that, their “spider sense” starts tingling.

Sure, writers make mistakes, but that’s what editors are for. The story’s editor (Singel) admits to reading the story in-depth. He should’ve caught this sentence. He should’ve corrected it. Thus, this is not only an example of bad journalism, but of bad editing.

If this were the only offending sentence, then it’s excusable. It’s something the author and editor might’ve missed. But it’s not the only example. The original critic (Soghoian) points out many more such sentences. Moreover, it’s not any individual sentence so much as the whole piece.

The editor (Singel) points to the author’s (Norton) “thoughtful, informed, well-sourced pieces” on #Occupy and #Anonymous to support his claim that the author (Norton) is a good journalist. I disagree. I’ve long criticized those pieces for their flowery language, for being partisan without even the pretense of objectivity. The author (Norton) does indeed have some keen insights in those pieces, but I can’t imagine anybody calling those pieces “good journalism”.

The author (Norton) defends herself by saying that her pieces aren’t traditional journalism but “long form, literary non-fiction”. While it’s true this means she’s excused from certain standards like the “inverted pyramid” format, it doesn’t excuse her from the other standards. She still can’t twist information to conveniently fit the story. She should still avoid weasel words and sweeping generalizations. “Literary” doesn’t mean flowery, glowing language. Even by the standard of “advocacy journalism” there are problems with her lack of objectivity.

The point of this blog post is to bring the discussion back to where it belongs, whether the original post is “bad journalism” as its critic (Soghoian) claims. I’ve attempted to lay out my case in a way that can easily be disproved by simply finding independent journalists, editors, or professors who will go on the record saying this isn’t bad journalism. If you can find such independent people to attest to that piece being good (or at least, not bad), then we can discuss whether the sexism charge has merit. But if independent journalists agree that the piece is indeed bad journalism, then the sexism charge is obviously baseless.


Michael Foukarakis said...

Well said. I would add that journalism is not only for editors and journalists to judge, but perhaps more importantly, the target audience. Or those that still possess critical thinking, anyway. :-)

Anonymous said...

I hadn't seen any of this drama prior to this. I started reading the articles you posted in order, and it wasn't until Singel's post that things got weird. I read absolutely no sexism in Chris' original critique. It would read exactly the same had everything been gender neutral or even switched.

To me, as someone who's been around online since the early 90s, this smacks of a common thing I've seen online: man (Single) sees chance to defend woman, and in doing so injects perceived sexism into the mix, gaining attention of said woman. His post should never have been published on Wired as it's awful and in poor taste; the equivalent of shooting off an angry email right after an arugment; the very moment we're the least rational. And he just happens to have a platform available at his fingertips (apparently without editorial oversight) to air his grievances.

Perhaps Norton felt like she was singled out for being female, but I'd also state that Gregory Evans feels singled out for being African American...