In conversation with Glenn Frankel: Principles, ethics, and practice of journalism

10 Oct

On February 5th, 2007 Lisa Nowak, an astronaut with NASA, was arrested on the charge of attempted kidnapping. Nowak had apparently driven 900 miles, from Houston to Orlando, to confront and allegedly kidnap her ex-boyfriend’s new love interest. Three days later, when I met Mr. Frankel for the interview, the story was still usurping substantial amount of time on most news channels. The news channels were not only reporting ‘breaking’ details about the saga, they were also hosting panel discussions with ‘experts’ – ranging from psychologists to ex-astronauts – to try and help the ‘American public understand’ why Nowak might have snapped.

It is partially to understand the same – why stories of allegedly diaper wearing astronauts become ‘news events’ – that I met with Mr. Frankel.
Mr. Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, and former editor of the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. He worked for over 27 years at the Post in varying capacities including working as foreign correspondent covering South Africa, Israel, and United Kingdom. In 2006, Mr. Frankel joined the Stanford faculty as a ‘Visiting Hearst Professional in Residence’ in the Department of Communication, where he now teaches journalism students.

Mr. Frankel is highly perceptive, articulate, and intelligent. He is also somebody who cares deeply, and has thought carefully about the ethics of journalism, the role of journalism in society, and the factors influencing what gets reported, and how it gets reported. In the three hour long conversations that I have now had with Mr. Frankel, he has maintained a dogged, and unwavering stance about the key elements and importance of what he thinks are the principles of good journalism. He believes that you have to be fair to be accurate, and that you have to report about everything – the events, the characters, and the context.

We started our conversation with talking about ‘Episodic’ coverage in news. Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University, in his book, Is Anyone Responsible?, uses the term, ‘Episodic’ to articulates one of the ways in which news is ‘framed’ – Episodic framing refers to a style of reporting in which events are reported independent of larger context. ‘Episodic’ framing is in contrast to thematic framing which generally refers to a style of reporting in which some attempt is made to provide background context or ‘theme’. “Episodic framing depicts concrete events that illustrate issues, while thematic framing presents collective or general evidence.”

Iyengar, and since then many others, have found that television news routinely uses ‘episodic’ framing. Taken in conjunction with the finding that subjects shown episodic reports are less likely (than people exposed to ‘thematic’ coverage) to consider larger societal elements responsible for a particular problem (be it crime or poverty), we can begin to see the larger impact of presentation decision on people’s perception.

The larger unstated point here is about the medium. Each medium not only has its own constituency, its differing monetization methods and the constraints imposed on it because of that, its audience, its limits on what it can present and not present, but also its temptations, and ease with which certain things can be done, and not done. So the importance of ‘strong’ visuals in television, and the “need to be the first”, has meant the ascendance of adrenaline-pumping, helicopters with search lights, kind of ‘live breaking event’ ‘episodic’ reporting on television. “You sort of defined the most essential part of how television functions – it is constantly looking for the visual, sort of the simple narrative; it is looking for the visceral impact story. It has no particular interest in themes. It is only interested in grabbing you at what you see,” adds Mr. Frankel.

The other threat of the dominance of ‘episodic’ coverage, and dominance of visuals, according to Mr. Frankel, is that it is so much easier to manipulate television. “The feeling is that if you came up with the visuals, if you came up with the sound byte, and you came up with the stage, you are going to be on the Evening News.”

Mr. Frankel almost always makes it a point to present the ‘escape hatch’ from the negative attributes that emerge from traits of a medium or something else, and the escape hatch is almost always found in following the principles of good journalism. “Medium do effect the message and it is naïve to think that there is no spillover but yes the important thing is good journalistic approach and it doesn’t matter what the platform is,” Mr. Frankel argues. “All platforms have their pitfalls. Some stories lend themselves better on one platform than the other but nonetheless it’s not a question of platform – it is a question of sensibility, of commitment to content.”

Talking about the Internet, Mr. Frankel adds, “Web is an enormous potential resource- it has all kind of contextual material, all kinds of ways of filling in, and newspapers are slowly finding out what links can do for you and are beginning to use them to offer some background, interpretation and things. And that’s enormously promising. Technology gives you enormous opportunity. But, Technology is just that – it’s a means to an end. If it’s not used by people to understand the value of providing people a larger context, it won’t be used for that. It won’t happen. I guess what I am saying is that the same basic sensibility that dictated how to provide information to readers in 1972 is still there – you still have to have that if you really want to get readers the information they really want and help public get more informed. It is the same process you have to go to and the same understanding that you have to have. If you don’t have that – you will have the sort of episodic ‘quick hit’ phenomenon and the stories about the jealous astronaut in the diaper going to kill her boyfriend’s lover. It still takes the sensibility to understand what you need to provide.”

“And that’s, for what it is worth, we try to teach here. We give people training across different platforms but what we are really offering people is a solid grounding in what journalism ought to be.”

The principles of good journalism, the ‘sensibility’, according to him, transcend medium and time. “You know journalism in some ways is still the same. I was a foreign correspondent in the 80s and then I went back in 2002 for one more round. I was at the London Bureau and I did that for three or four years. The platforms are changing rapidly but you know the fundamental thing that I did everyday in 2005 was very close to what I did in 1983. Now that’s only 22 years, and that is only one slovenly journalist, but what I am saying is that the fundamental thing that I was doing then I think is the same fundamental thing a journalist was doing in 1945 or 1925; he is trying to give important information, trying to find out what they don’t want you to know.”

The biggest disservice that the ‘episodic’ format has done is that it doesn’t allow people to see relationships, and see the linkages that exist across time and across events. Journalists – jour comes from the French word for ‘day’ – across board sometimes seem preoccupied with assiduously cataloging reports about the daily events. Mr. Frankel, after acknowledging the truism, brings the discussion back to that ‘escape hatch’ and how good journalists should approach reporting. “What good journalists are supposed to do is see the relations within events. Yes to report out the event but – to use the analogy of building a wall – there is one brick and there’s another brick – as you are analyzing and sort of putting the bricks in place you gradually see the wall and you see a social phenomenon and you need to describe that well and you need to write about it.”

The beauty of the good journalistic method is that it is ground up and it takes specific events and slowly constructs a theme, a theory, a phenomenon, a trend, according to Mr. Frankel. Narrating his experience of covering South Africa in 1985, he illustrates how a functioning ‘ground up’ method looks in reality. “Covering South Africa in 1985 and going to say one township where kids are battling with police and police are shooting, and going to another, and seeing things replicating themselves, and gradually making connections and seeing that actually there was an uprising with a capital U, and to understand where that uprising may go. As I went from place to place, I could see that there was an important new phenomenon taking place and that I needed to understand it, I needed to analyze it for my readers, and I had to be very knowledgeable about it – I saw it at many, many places, talked to many, many people about it including academics, and got raw information and pulled out whatever analysis I could from people whose job it was to understand these things. That’s what good journalism is about and there are a lot of bad journalists and not just on TV.”

He surprisingly ended the quote pointing out, “So the episodic is the easy fall back option,” –perhaps seeing it from the perspective of the journalist – and his expectation of what a journalist should be doing. And indeed, episodic reporting is virtually painless for the journalist except when it involves standing in Gail force winds to present a report on hurricanes.

Research takes time, and it requires you to talk to ‘many, many’ people. And that work you put in to understand an issue and the work you then put in to pass on that understanding to people is the essence of good journalism.

There are multiple types of frames in news, and we have covered one –episodic/thematic -but another important one remains. It matters if the journalist focuses on the individual rather than the sociological, and the environmental. It matters whether we spend more time analyzing, and understanding the people, rather than the system.

Mr. Frankel, like in our previous conversation, bristles at the suggestion that covering individuals somehow makes reporting too subjective. Chaste, a contributor here on Spincycle, has correctly argued that morality doesn’t exist in tired half-explanations of flawed men in important positions, but in grounded analysis of how they have caused harm. Hence when we report ‘personal profiles’, we introduce subjectivity into morality, and into the broader themes. We simultaneously make it harder for people to find ‘blame’ and assign ‘blame’ correctly. We make the system less accountable.

Mr. Frankel, only half agrees with what I say, if that. Instead he argues that good journalists can do both – that is they can cover the individual and the context. And I get the sense that he believes that good journalists should do both, that one is not quiet complete without the other. “If we dwell on people, if we focus our journalism on people – we run the risk of missing certain important things, and about being critical about certain things. Good journalists do both – good journalists bring you fully formed human beings that you can visualize in front of you and understand and they are extremely critical of the phenomenon they have put in place. You take the example of ‘The Looming Tower’, by Lawrence Wright, about the making of Al-Qaeda. He gives you a pretty good sense of who some of these guys were, their family lives – but you know you don’t fall in love with them. But you do get a much better understanding of who they were. Events are driven by people. Wright even explains the social movements of political Islam mostly through telling the stories of the individuals and how they interact with the politics. It affected them and they affected it – I think it is a great narrative technique – it is not the only one.” The narrative technique that Mr. Frankel rightly observes in Wright’s book is known as the ‘Coleman boat’ in Sociology. The technique refers to the macro affecting micro affecting macro progression.

“When you are humanizing people – when you are writing about the Bush administration, when you are describing about their family life – what’s the purpose of that and how effective is that in concealing more than what you are revealing. What are wonderful narrative writers doing occasional small things as Post reporter [name not clear] did about Bill Frist’s family or John Negroponte and his five adopted Honduran kids – that’s gives you an insight into his mind and into his thinking, into his values and what he does. And even though it tends to be a piece that’s fairly sympathetic to John Negroponte it is still a very valuable piece. Doing that piece doesn’t take away from we wrote about Abu Ghraib and whatever John Negroponte and all of his predecessors were up to. I think we have to learn about everything.”

It is a naïve hope – to learn about everything, more so to teach ‘everything’ to the apathetic multitudes. The audience not only has little interest, but also limited time, and limited cognitive capacity. By focusing on the individual and some leader’s dog, one runs into the danger to confusing people – especially the majority who pay scant attention to politics. They need to know how each of the different stories needs to be weighed to produce a reasonably good understanding of what is going on. And if a journalist feels obligated to run that personal portrait, cues should be left for the reader so that they can peg the story –accurately- in a broader understanding of the topic. Mr. Frankel grapples with it a little tangentially. Conversation is always an exercise in parallel narratives. “That’s a good point. You know where it came was the run up to the Iraq War because we had lots of stories and we had some critical stories but it was such a huge flow of stories that we weren’t giving the readers any roadmaps to what was really important and what they really needed to know and keep an eye on or worry about. You know the defense of many editors after the Iraq War – we had that story. We ran it on that X date just didn’t get any traction. Probably we didn’t get any traction because we didn’t put it out in the front page, make it a big deal, and keep at it in the same way deciding that this was the most important thing that we needed to keep writing about. It got lost in the flow of stuff. And you are right – if we give the reader all this material and don’t give them signposts and sort of emphasize what we think is really important then how is a reader supposed to sort it out.”

From exhorting about the principles of good journalism, Mr. Frankel quickly moves on to being a realist defending infotainment when we switch topics, and start discussing the increasing prominence of ‘soft news’ items, especially on the web. While he was critical of the preponderance of entertainment on web portals, he argued that some entertainment was essential.

“All journalism is a compromise and especially American journalism. Mainstream American Journalism is an effort to entertain as well as inform because it perceives that you cannot do one without the other. If you are a publication like New York Review of Books with a circulation of 150,000, that is one thing, whereas if you have a publication which has 1.7 million customers you have to cater to a very broad church of interests and ambition and demographics. That’s the great joy of writing for a place like Washington Post – you are writing for a really large audience.”

“The Washington Post more or less invented the modern Style section back in the 60s with Watergate and all that. They sort of added this section with gossip and celebrities. Washington Post front page was seen as the deadliest front page in American journalism. And then we had ‘Style’ – we had the beauty and the beast. That’s the balancing act. And I think both are important.”

“When I was working as a Deputy National News Editor at the Washington Post, it was during the time of OJ Simpson and many of my colleagues didn’t think that the OJ Simpson story needed to be out there on the front page. It was sleazy. I disagreed. I felt that the themes would emerge – this was the story that America was focused on – and that we didn’t have to be National Inquirer to want to put that story on the front page. And actually serious themes did emerge about women, about race, celebrity, DNA evidence- many, many American themes. It was actually a struggle to that story on the front page. A lot of my colleagues were never comfortable with that story because they thought it was frivolous and pandering to the audience.”

I am unsure where the ‘compromise’ ends being a compromise and instead becomes a Faustian bargain. I am sure Mr. Frankel is concerned about it too for he frets over what he sees are these ‘get to know a celebrity’ blurbs that now find space on the Washington Post digital homepage. He is also concerned whether good serious journalism will be able to sustain itself in this era of rapidly multiplying options, and drastically different monetization. He says that “Another thing that we have at Washington Post- and it may be a theory that might be proven wrong shortly – If we do really good journalism as a brand for good journalism, if we provide good journalism, tie together things and give you a perspective on how the world is changing and if we are able to do that – we will prosper and survive. That’s a theory I have always believed in and I am really having some doubts about it. That in spite of what we hear about the crisis about dead tree journalism – that if someone does good enterprising journalism and reveals important surprising facts about how the world works that the journalist would survive and that somebody would pay for it, people want that information and will reward those who provide it. My whole career has been based on the belief in the relationship between good journalism and financial success.”

Glenn Frankel writes – [Corrigendum]

1) near the top you say I did three foreign assignments for the Post—actually it was four because I was London bureau chief on two separate occasions—1989-92, 2002-2005. Toward the bottom you quote me as saying: “The Washington Post more or less invented the modern Style section back in the 60s with Watergate and all that…” I suspect what I really said was “along with Watergate and all that…” Watergate had nothing to do with the Style section. I was arguing here that while Watergate is the Post’s most recognized claim to fame, the invention of Style was equally important as a ground-breaking journalistic innovation that gave the Post a unique identity. Also, Style was invented in the late 1960s, Watergate happened in 1972.