Tag Archives: journalism

Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

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Janet Malcolm and the Eileen Fisher sweater

Someone left last week’s New Yorker in the coffeeshop where I’m working right now, or rather “working” because what I’m actually doing is pausing to read the profile of Eileen Fisher by America’s greatest living essayist, Janet Malcolm.

Malcolm arrives in an Eileen Fisher sweater:

The sweater is a remarkable garment.  On the hanger it looks like nothing — it is buttonless and ribbed and boxy — but when worn it becomes almost uncannily flattering.  Everyone who wears it looks good in it.  Eileen then said something surprising, namely that she had not designed my sweater.  Twenty years earlier, she had stopped designing; she had turned this work over to a design team that has been doing it ever since, at first under her supervision and now under that of a lead designer.

Like a tiny short story — Malcolm has brought Fisher a gift, the gift of wearing the sweater she designs, and Fisher, casually and without much thought — “like nothing” — dismisses it.  Malcolm’s disappointment colors the paragraph and retroactively makes poignant her extravagant praise of what is, after all, just a sweater.

This is what the New Journalism — I mean the old New Journalism, not tweetable listicles — was supposed to be about.  Moments where the journalist’s hand is visible:  in the picture, but not obscuring the subject.  Rather, harmonizing with it, in a way that, if you are not Janet Malcolm, is very hard to bring off.

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Ten-second tragedy

Two undergrads sitting against the wall this morning outside Ingraham Deli.

First undergrad:  “So, what are you going to do with your life?”

Second undergrad:  “Good question!  (very long pause)  I think I’m applying to journalism school?”

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Should science journalists check copy with their sources?

I have often heard mathematicians complain — most recently, last night — about their work being mangled when it gets covered in the press.  Why don’t science journalists check with their sources to make sure that the science is presented accurately?

There’s a great discussion of this issue at PLOSBlogs, featuring many well-known science writers and highly-placed editors in the comments.  It’s a tough issue.  On one side, journalists are quite likely to make mistakes about technical subjects (not only science) even if they’re very diligent when conducting the interview.  On the other hand, journalists are not public relations officers, and I tend to agree that it’s important to preserve that distinction, even when there are some costs.

As for me, I would never show copy to a source prior to publication.  Then again, because I mostly write about math, I think people cut me a lot of slack — if I oversimplify somebody’s work, they know that I know that I’m oversimplifying, and respect that I’m bowing to journalistic necessity.

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