Thursday, December 11, 2008

Opinalysis: The Mystery Meat Of Journalism

Analysis: The “Mystery-Meat” of Journalism
Todd Herman, SpinSpotter Founder

News Publishers have taken a bad rap for their supposed failure to innovate. In fact, they have never been more creative: the Big Picture from allows readers to make the decisions faced by newsmakers, and iReport from CNN meaningfully combines reader input with CNN content; these are two examples of brave new ways to tell a story. In terms of impact on the craft, tough, they pale in comparison to an industry-wide invention. In the past few years, News Publishers invented a brand new class of writing: Opinalysis (not be confused with Analypinion, the distinction requires no explanation). 

Clamato™ is a blend of the bodily fluids of clams and tomatoes; Opinalysis is a blend of two things: one-part professional writers, objectively and carefully analyzing objective data in their area of expertise in search of verifiable changes in trajectory worthy of note and one-part someone with a keyboard belittling people or actions they don’t like. The mix is not always 50/50, sometimes it approaches 0/100, as in this case from the New York Times (best viewed with Spinoculars; that is not -just- a sales pitch, it’s true).

In this Opinalysis, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley analyzes the final debate between Senators Obama and McCain. The reader can discern what mix of clam fluids and tomatoes the piece contains---among the statements:

“Barack Obama looked like a polished summation in a long civil case, Joe the Plumber v. George W. Bush. John McCain was closer to a personal injury lawyer, staring into the camera to address “Joe the Plumber” as if he were standing by with an 800 number. (‘If you or a loved one has been wronged in an accident ...’ or in this case, in an Obama tax bracket.)”

“[McCain] kept taking out his pen to write on his yellow pad, almost as though it were a surrogate for reaching across and throttling the younger man he does not think should be challenging him because, as his aides put it, he hasn’t bled.” 

Is there a living editor who can explain the objective data-set Alessandra Stanley used to analyze this debate? Did the CNN crawler’s live-feed of McCain’s brainwaves, heartbeat and temperature and Ms. Stanley’s advanced medical degree enable her to Opinalyze that McCain was contemplating violence against the now President-elect? Was it Frank Luntz whispering creepily in her ear from a Fox News production studio that his live-feeds from his panelist’s bodies indicated Senator Obama was, in a scientifically verifiable way, coming across as a “polished summation”? 

The New York Times is far from alone in this: CNN Opinalyzes that, when she becomes Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton must become an “honest broker.”

“If confirmed by the Senate, Clinton will have to transform herself from politician to diplomat, and her biggest challenge will be changing the vision she expressed as a senator from New York and as a presidential candidate and become an ‘honest broker’ [emphasis mine] the role the U.S. secretary of state often plays in the world's hot spots.”

Is there a set of data -beyond what which resides in the the gray matter of those who think of Senator Clinton is a dishonest broker- from which CNN’s State Department Producer Elise Labott draws this conclusion? How about one of her other conclusions that President-elect Obama’s national defense team is an “all star cast?” It would be tremendously nice of CNN to share with us where Mr. Labott’s “analysis” and “opinion diverge” ... if anyone at CNN knows the mix or the rules of the official difference.

Fox News, though, practices a form of analysis that is perhaps the sneakiest. In this case, as SpinSpotter user Sylvia L points out, Fox News invents an angle (President-elect Barack Obama and Indicted Governor Rod Blagojevich had “Ties”).

“The matter also highlights ties between the disgraced Democratic governor and some members of Obama's inner circle. His top campaign strategist, David Axelrod -- who will move to the White House for a senior adviser's job -- lists Blagojevich on his firm's Web site as one of his clients, when the politician was a candidate for Congress.”

Sylvia L user the Spinoculars “Edit” function to correct the record (in her opinion, you are welcome to disagree here.) Note her edit after the strike out:

How much of the discussion about Obama’s “ties” are organically grown and how much came through “Opinalysis" by the media?

This is the precise problem with Opinalysis: how much clam-juice and how much tomato will one swallow? 

The free press, a necessary component of a free democracy, is well within its rights to create words in blenders. The readers of a free press, a necessary component of a non-Federally subsidized News Publishing industry, are free to reject them. According to Pew, 56% of Americans actually believe that our free press is “bad for democracy”, 70% believe reporters try to get the candidates they support elected. The full data-set is too long for a blog but it suggests some obvious questions. According to Pew, only 16% of Americans “believe all of most of what [the New York Times says]”, do News Publishers become more worthy of being believed when they create the journalistic equivalent of Mystery Meat? News Publishers are competing against Twitter for debate coverage; do they serve themselves when they publish something other than that for which they are uniquely able and inclined to deliver? Now that they are competing with billions of personalities, are they choosing a wise battle by turning journalism into personality media?

Americans historically desire one thing from powerful institutions, a group of which the News Media is still a member. Americans want honesty. Like all weasel words and faux-phrases - “sources say”, “cheese-food” and “mistakes-were-made”- “Analysis” when used like “meat by-product”, will engender distrust because it is neither clam nor tomato, neither cheese nor food. It is not an honest claim. 

News Publishers have, in fact, been wildly inventive: iPredict lets users predict what will be news; (born from students of the Columbia School of Journalism) is news funded directly by readers who vote with their dollars on what the team investigates. But, the GMO-like Opinalysis is a bad invention. Like other bad inventions -Hairless Cats, Vista Capable and Turkey-Drops- it should be discontinued. News Publishers should reject this sausage. They should create and publish rules for what constitutes analysis. Writing that is actually one person’s feelings or reactions to a person or event and is in no way based upon any form of objective data should be labeled what it is: Opinion. 

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