Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sockpuppet Journalism

The dismal ABC debate raises many questions about journalistic ethics and the civic obligations of the media. One thing I want to explore is the use of quotes from "ordinary voters", in light of revelations that Nash McCabe - the woman used by ABC to ask whether Obama "believes in the flag" - has had past media exposure:
Presumably, a researcher for ABC or Gibson saw the piece in the Times, figured, hey, this lady hates Obama and is seriously ginned up about the lapel issue. Let's send a camera crew and film her slamming Obama to his face. It'll be great in the debate.

A TPM reader adds:
In [certain other debates], citizens asked questions that weren't obvious or oriented toward sound bytes. They were the kinds of questions that would not, for whatever reason, be asked by these tv moderators. Moreover, these were their questions. In this case, the producers put the producers' question into the mouth of a voter, because it made the question seem more authentic, as if people care in large numbers about the flag pin question. That is, the woman was used to legitimize the traditional media's focus on these frankly trivial and, yes, distracting issues.

So it's not just bad that they sought out someone to ask the question, but that they did it in order to avoid asking the question themselves because, you know, it's sort of embarrassing. It's not about content; it's about TV content and TV optics. There's no way for Gibson to ask that without looking petty and stupid. So they used this woman.

Let's define journalistic sockpuppetry as the practice of starting with a preconceived statement 'X' in mind, and purposefully searching for someone (anyone) to echo it, so that you can present your desired statement 'X' under the guise of neutrally reporting someone else's words.

I suspect that journalistic sockpuppetry is fairly common. Such gratuitous dishonesty also seems pretty clearly unethical. (Any counterarguments?) Journalists shouldn't use others merely as a mouthpiece. If you've stacked the deck in such a way as to ensure that your final quote matches some preconceived content, the quoted person is no more the author of that content than my keyboard is the author of this post. They're merely a mechanism through which you've expressed yourself, and it's deceitful to pretend otherwise.


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