July 9, 2007

About the author — interpretation, intention, and the "historical" agency

An interesting juxtaposition on “journalistic disclosure” from today’s Rocky Mountain News, which excerpts competing views from the National Journal’s William Powers and CBSNews’ Brian Montopoli. First, here’s Powers, who, it’s fair to say, believes journalistic outlets should provide their readerships with biographical information on their reporters:

Every news outlet of any consequence now has endless space online to offer supplementary information about the people who report, edit, and produce the news. Who are they? Where did they grow up? What did they study in school? Why did they become journalists? Did they ever work in politics or volunteer for a cause? If so, when and where?

And here’s Montopoli, raising a litany of instructive counters:

I’m just troubled by then notion that journalists should be forced to reveal information like this about themselves.

For one, you have to wonder where it stops: Should someone writing on pork production have to disclose if they were ever a vegetarian? Should someone writing about gay marriage have to reveal their sexuality to all interested parties? One could argue that those issues are more relevant, when it comes to those stories, than where someone grew up, after all.

This is, for a number of reasons, a debate that should be of interest to any “news” consumer — and, in fact, pertains to the relationship between author and reader in any purportedly fact-based narrative exchange.

Because at its essence, what the debate over “disclosure” boils down to is a debate over the longstanding set of questions surrounding the notion of “objectivity” as 1) an ideal, or 2) its dubious functional semantic possibility, in a world governed by the linguistic turn.

First, let’s get questions of convention and expectation out of the way. Fact-based narratives purport to proceed from a particular intent: to provide their audiences with “facts” and, to a lesser extent, to provide a dispassionate framing of those facts so that what we’re left with is a narrative (rather than, say, a genealogy). And the conventional intent — what we as a society have come to expect the journalist’s intentions to be — plays an important role in how we subsequently interpret the speech act, rendered for us in narrative form.

One of the key observations of the linguistic turn, as I’ve noted on several occasions, is the recognition that “truths” are, by necessity, man-made; which is to say, because we use language to “create” the way we envision the world, we must necessarily use language to create and describe the truths that ground our understanding of that world.

In short, there are “things as they are” — what we might normally think of as truths (and which exist regardless of the desire of some agency to frame them); and “truths,” which are linguistic constructs meant to index things as they are from the perspective of human agency.

This is a rather innocuous observation, on its face — but one that has, nevertheless, been used by the unscrupulous, the uninformed, and the downright dull to “problematize” the notion of truth itself — the upshot of which is that, when marshaled incorrectly, observations about the linguistic nature of proscribing “truths” lead to a pernicious philosophical relativism, the idea being that if “truth” is man-made and “determined” by “contingency” (eg., situatedness) and “solidarity” (consensus), and tempered by “irony” (a pre-emptive awareness that those truths, as currently formulated, might be wrong), it can never be transcendent or fixed.

But this formulation confuses “things as they are” — which, of necessity, are not changeable (they can only become other “things as they are”) — with our desire to fix those things in language as (man-made) “truths.” Truth is fixed; “truth” — our attempts to describe things as they are in a way that is universally agreeable — is not, and is dependent, for its rhetorical effect, on the degree to which it is accepted.

From there, it is easy to see how the act of turning truth into “truth” can be manipulated — with a false or cynical consensus from a motivated interpretive community coming to stand in for “things as they are.” Similarly, things as they are can be summarily rejected — there is, after all, nothing beyond linguistic constructs to which we can appeal for a ruling, no metaphysical referee to settle disputes over competing “truths” — in favor of the kind of consensus view of truth that wills its own “truth” into being.

Coupled with all this is commonsense reminder that, even when we are writing narratives that purport to be “fact-based,” we are relying on the same kinds of “literary” (rhetorical) devices that are used for writing fictional narratives — making the appeal to intent, and the locus of the intent to which we appeal (the author’s? our own?) when interpreting, that much more important.

Which observations bring us back to the original question raised in the debate over journalistic disclosure: how does / should “objectivity” work with respect to fact-based narratives.

For Powers, the underlying assumption is that, if we have ample information about the author, we are likely to make more informed interpretations; for Montopoli, what we know about an author can actually distract from the information we’re receiving, given that we’d be likely to allow the historical author’s biography to (often unfairly) color the way we gauge his or her intent.

But what both Powers and Montopoli miss is that these competing viewpoints are not truly at odds from the perspective of interpretation.

Supplementary information of the kind Powers finds useful and Montopoli finds potentially prejudicial can be either helpful or distracting; which is to say, knowing things about the agency that is putting together a narrative can either aid in or detract from the successful completion of the speech act — the goal of which is to recover the author’s meaning.

Knowing that an author is gay, for instance, might shed light on why s/he reports a certain way on same-sex marriage initiatives: but the fact of the reporter’s sexuality only matters if it is tied back to what we believe to be his or her intent. A gay author whose rhetorical formulations seem to favor the arguments for same sex marriage over those against it will often be seen as “biased” because s/he is gay; while a gay author whose rhetorical formulations seem to favor arguments against same sex marriage — or even appears dispassionate on the topic — is often conceived of as a self-hating gay, or “inauthentic.” But this is only because we, as interpreters, have chosen to privilege biographical information over other considerations (cultural / institutional pressures to maintain or profess certain views, eg.) in determining what we believe to be the author’s intent.

But just as there is no essential policy view that determines gayness (or, say, blackness), as people like Professor Ric would have us believe, there is likewise no point of biography that proves determinative in shaping bias — though it is certainly useful to factor in biographical information when trying to determine an author’s meaning.

Which brings us back to convention and expectations: we, as the receivers and decoders of intentional narratives, are told that, in enterprises that use fact-based narrative (journalism; history; technical writing; etc.), because the journalist (or historian, or writer of the manual for your new microwave) is proceeding from a particular rhetorical convention — an appeal to objectivity or description (over, say, persuasion) — we need not concern ourselves much with certain ancillary considerations that redound to agency. That is, we are taught to take it on faith that journalists or historians or tech writers will follow the same conventions we expect them to follow, making it unnecessary for us to worry over their biography, or their historical situatedness, or the cultural dialogic in which they are producing their text, when trying to reconstruct their “meaning.”

This is what Montopoli is getting at when he worries that biography could be overdetermined in the process of interpretation — to the point where it biases interpreters against a good-faith conventional bit of journalism, one that strives for the objectivity that represents the form’s purported ideal.

Conversely, Powers worries that, without biography, we as interpreters are forced to rely on nothing but the journalist’s unstated fidelity to the institutionalized conventions of his profession — essentially, to trust in the good faith of the reporter.

But given that “objectivity” itself is linguistically impossible — or better, given that “objectivity” is, like “truth,” a man-made construct, and so not metaphysically attainable in pure form, always and necessarily muddied by the limitations of rhetoric and the vagaries of agency in capturing it — many journalists and historians (and maybe even a few technical writers) have abandoned the pretense altogether, and have become advocates rather than reporters.

Which would not be a problem, as I’ve noted before, if they weren’t still using the cover of the convention — an appeal to objectivity — to protect them from charges of bias.

In the end, biography won’t save us from bad interpretations; but neither will non-disclosure ensure that we are getting nothing but an objective rendering of the situation through some disinterested entity appealing to an institutional convention.

Which is why, ultimately, I’d come down on the side of disclosure, with the caveat that biography is only one of a number of factors we should take into account when trying to tease out a journalist’s or historian’s meaning (by appealing to his or her intent), and with the recognition that one can fudge a biography as easy as one can fudge a resume or mislead us about his or her intent. The fact that objectivity can never be perfectly rendered is not a compelling reason to surrender to cynicism or self-interest, and so to turn straight “reporting” into advocacy reporting that continues to rely on the trappings of journalistic convention (it pretends to appeal to objectivity, and it continues to use the familiar tropes of such a convention: third person descriptive pov, apparent independent verification of facts, etc) even as its intent has changed.

How we judge journalism comes down to whether or not we believe the journalist is acting (or is even able to act, given that certain philosophical and linguistic assumptions preclude one from doing so) in good faith.

Or — predictably — how we judge journalism comes down to the intent of the agency we see behind it.

Knowing an author’s biography can help us determine an author’s intent, just as it can distract us from that intent, and convince us to graft our own intent to see the point of biography as dispositive with respect to meaning onto the author’s signifiers.

Knowing nothing of the author’s biography leaves us to accept on faith the author’s intent to follow journalistic convention. Which, with respect to determining good faith, is the same place we’re left even with access to biography.

Meaning that biography simply gives us more to work with in determining intent; whether or not any of it is actually useful is another question entirely.

update: Michelle M. sent me this link earlier today, which, in the course of a review, touches on some interesting aspects of agency with respect to both encoding and decoding narratives.

Posted by Jeff G. @ 11:36am

Comments (30)

  1. Presumably, they would demand, or at least request, the background information when doing a story on a person. I do not see any reason why they would not be willing to provide the same information about theirselves. In an era where information in the key, timmah is keyless, and the media should be more transparent with not only their reporters, but their sourcing.

  2. I agree with all of that, except that it’s obvious that people can create fictional autobiographies of the sort that grace the Wikipedia entries of . . . well, that of Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

    Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. (born 27 January 1945) is an American poet, psychoanalyst and post-trauma specialist who was raised in a now nearly vanished oral and ethnic tradition. She grew up in a rural village, population 600, near the Great Lakes. Of Mexican mestiza and Magyar heritages, she comes from immigrant and refugee families who could not read or write, or who did so haltingly. Similar to William Carlos Williams and other poets who worked in the health professions, Estés is a certified psychoanalyst who has practiced clinically for 36 years. Her doctorate, from the Union Institute & University, is in ethno-clinical psychology, the study of social and psychological patterns in cultural and tribal groups. She often speaks as “distinguished visiting scholar” and “diversity scholar” at universities. She is the author of many books on the life of the soul, and her work is published in 32 languages.

    Oh, those nearly-vanished magic-realist communities.

  3. Of course they can. Which is why we must take them with a grain of salt, regardless — and judge the reporting based primarily on how well it tracks with the facts as we are able to divorce them from their narrative trappings.

  4. Imagine not knowing that your local food critic absolutely loves his salmon drizzled with “man butter” and you take his advice to try the salmon at “Fudgepackers: A fun place to get stuffed”.

    A bio might have been useful.

  5. I think that David Thompson may have sent you a Dutton link today, too.

  6. alppuccino —

    Useful. But not necessary. Me, I’d be a bit wary of eating at a place called “Fudgepackers” that sells salmon — unless it was buried inside a chocolate and peanut butter confection.

    Then again, if I failed to take his advice because he likes man butter, salmon, and Fudgepackers, I might miss out on some truly delicious vanilla-creme lox.

  7. Now I’m nervous about the “Best Pecan Logs of the Midwest” food tour I took after reading an article in “Log Fancy”.

  8. Try burping. If it doesn’t taste like bark, you’re officially gay.

  9. I am extremely impressed in Michelle Malkin sent you that link in the update. No offense, but that is not the sort of thing I would expect her to have in her holster, in response to your essay.

  10. There’s no stopping anyone from starting a little wikipedia to catalog biographical information about reporters. Myself, I would use it heavily. Brian Montopoli is surely aware that there are *some* of his viewers, knowing more about him, that are better positioned to evaluate his reportage than others. More importantly, Brian seems to be suggesting that a news report should be evaluated simply on its face, not only divorced from any biographical information, but independently of that reporter’s body of reportage. Once one realizes that this report is a followup to a previous report, on a subject that the reporter also addressed during a previous administration, etc., it seems pretty clear that the case for divorcing an reporter’s biography from an evaluation of his work becomes attenuated.

  11. Not only is “objectivity” a man-made construct, but it is also an ideal deriving from a particular political viewpoint.

  12. Luv ya, Jeff.
    Any convention that assists the consumer of any product in her due dilligence is helpful, so I come down on Powers’ side.

    No brainer.

    Buying your “news” is a lot like investing in Arkansas real-estate in the late eighties: you gots to look before you leap, folks.

  13. Ultimately, though, regardless of the level of disclosure, brute force creeps in. When 90-plus percent of newsrooms are composed of Kerry voters, I think it’s safe to say we have an unbalanced press.

    TW: cretionary: (n.) 1. List of cretins writing for newspapers and shilling for Democrats. 2. Dictionary kept in a bathroom.

  14. I am extremely impressed in Michelle Malkin sent you that link in the update. No offense, but that is not the sort of thing I would expect her to have in her holster, in response to your essay.

    Different Michelle M.

    Didn’t know if she wanted me to post her last name; didn’t even occur to me it might cause confusion

  15. Ummm…FA, it’s already pretty clear we have an unbalanced press, regardless of thier political affiliation.

    It’s almost the ultimate irony that these news creatures are more than happy to discount or skew the readers perception of the validity of information by citing the background information of the person they are sourcing but G*d fobid it be done to them.

    The other part of this is that it points out that “These People” don’t have the common decency to recuse themselves from stories they will inevitably be unable to report evenhandedly about.

  16. My lack of faith has been restored…

  17. I went to get lunch and while they were making my smoothie I realized that my comment at #10 made not a lot of sense really. Still, I’d say that reporter’s biographies would be better collected and updated by a third party. Journalists are inherently deceptive creatures with black little hearts.

  18. “Journalists are inherently deceptive creatures with black little hearts.”

    Quote of the day !

  19. I can look at a package of Doritos and know what is in in it and from whence it came – why not know that the local beat reporter for the crime/police blotter was an FOP flak in the past and a desk sargeant before that? Or the dude covering the Illinois General Assembly was a staffer to a certain Senator? As a consumer, I want as much information about the product I buy as possible.

  20. Re: the Dennis Dutton link –

    Anyone who can bring themselves to hate the Lord of the Rings is a deeply troubled individual and should not be trusted. Just saying.

  21. happyfeet, that has been the view of journalists since the British Raj, and with good reason….

    “She patronized extensively a man, Ulysses Gunne,
    Whose mode of earning money was a low and shameful one.
    He wrote for certain papers, which, as everybody knows,
    Is worse than serving in a shop or scaring off the crows.”

    Rudyard Kipling, Delilah

  22. It seems to me that the old adage of “follow the money” should be employed here. If a reporter does a story on a political matter, we should know if s/he has donated money or time to a political party or cause. Or if they’re reporting on a particular industry, we should know if they own stock in a competitor (unless it’s in a 401K fund or other type of thing where you usually don’t know where your money is specifically, and it shifts around).

    Or if they’ve got a track record of reporting on a particular subject repeatedly, we should get a link to that archive, so we can see what bias might have come before the current story.

    But if she’s doing a restaurant review, I don’t need to know where she went to college, etc.

    Just sayin.

  23. Looking at it a little differently; If the federal government and the several states can place any number of inconveniences and caveats in front of legal firearms owners in order to exercise their expressed right, then why can’t some modest parallel restriction be placed on those who profess to protect our 1st amendment right?

  24. Rusty – Don’t you know that the freedom of the press is absolute, but the rest of those rights, not so much.

  25. “Knowing nothing of the author’s biography leaves us to accept on faith the author’s intent to follow journalistic convention. ”

    There may have been a time where the American public’s default position on this would have been that they were willing to accept that the press was operating in good faith, and I suppose, if you are liberal, you could still feel that way. However, it is sad that such a large portion of this country can no longer assume that the media is acting in good faith.

  26. I’m all for disclosure and put out a lot of information about myself on my blog. When writing about gay rights issues, I often mention that I’m straight, that I didn’t meet an openly gay person until I was 23, that I worked in a gay bar for two years, and that I now collaborate with a lesbian colleague on some writing. More heterosexuals should consider the possibility that their heterosexuality biases their reflections on gay rights issues. I also frequently reference my background growing up in an abusive family, growing up in a rural area, and working at a regional state U as well.

    Having engaged in a lot of disclosure though, I can say that self-disclosure is a very tricky business. The most important problem is that people often deceive themselves about what experiences are important and what experiences are relevant to their writing. To give one of my pet examples, it doesn’t seem like Fred Thompson has recognized the lesbian character of his current marriage. This kind of self-deception often “biases” a person’s reporting of relevant information about themselves and introduce another element of bias into their accounts of socio-political issues as well. Knowing yourself is a difficult business and there’s a lot of reasons to look at people’s self-disclosures sceptically.

    Two other issues are worth mentioning. It’s very difficult for people to gauge the impact of professional training and experience in forming a person’s character. Professional training in law, medicine, academics, and other areas not only gives people a certain skill set, it changes their character in ways that makes them different from what they were before entering the profession and different from people outside the field. However, the impact of professional training is very difficult to gauge. People make the stupidest comments about academics but I don’t think that academics have a good grip on how their training shapes them as people either. If anything, medical people (I’m married to a school nurse and spend a lot of time with nurses, nurse practitioners, and doctors) seem even more oblivious.

    This brings up the issue of change in general. Human beings change a great deal over time as a result of taking on new roles (full-time employment and parenthood among them), aging, illness, and things like that. However, people have an extremely difficult time formulating the ways they’ve changed over time. Consequently, it would be the rare reporters, bloggers, or other writer who could disclose his or her own changing personality in an accurate way.

    Self-disclosure is certainly superior to the illusions that are conveyed by non-disclosure. But it’s still a difficult path filled with pitfalls.

    Another issue is that people often change a great deal over time and don’t realize the extent to which they’re changing. With career academics, the

  27. Pingback: a primer in gutter linguistics « de crapulas edormiendo

  28. Looking for information and found it at this great site…n

  29. I browse and saw you website and I found it very interesting.Thank you for the good work, greetings

  30. The recognized character for the kind of self deception which is often relevant to reporting to introduce in the element for the socio political business for the element of the bias.