Sunday, February 20, 2011

Helpful hints for deciding “What is happening?” and “Where do I stand?”

Many of us who work here at UW-Madison -- faculty, staff, and graduate students -- have participated to one degree or another in the Capitol Square protests against Governor Walker's proposed budget repair bill. (Full disclosure: I showed up a couple of times, bringing my kids on Thursday and honking my ridiculous bicycle horn quite loudly on Saturday). Individual reasons for discomfort with this bill vary. Some oppose the notion that a "shared sacrifice" during a state financial crisis should translate simply to more cuts in remuneration for public service employees while businesses get tax breaks at the same time. Others are concerned about the speed at which this legislation has been proposed, without any consultation with public service employee representatives (especially labor unions). What unites much of the bill's opposition are its provisions for dismantling both the legal rights and the practical abilities of public employees to collectively organize and democratically negotiate their wages, benefits, and working conditions. This is why so many individuals who are not themselves directly affected by the bill's provisions -- including both firefighters and police officers, both union and non-union workers, both public and private employees -- have united to pack the Capitol Rotunda and surrounding grounds for days on end.

However, for many UW-Madison students, witnessing this drama playing out on and around their college campus, the situation may seem bewildering or even exasperating. Students may have to deal with classes that are moved, postponed, cancelled or reformulated on short notice in response to rapidly shifting circumstances. Students may be unused to seeing their instructors shed their more customary classroom personas of "disinterested observer" or "omniscient narrator" for a more activist position in a complicated political debate. And students may simply wonder, without ever articulating it for fear of seeming out of touch, "What is happening?"

To me, the ability to fearlessly ask that basic question of "What is happening?" -- together with its normative follow-up, "Where do I stand?" -- represents the very reason that one spends precious years and precious dollars attending a university in the first place. This week, I and many of my fellow instructors have been using the current political-economic debate in Wisconsin as a "teachable moment" in classes ranging from mass communication to political science, women's studies to geography. But what about students who aren't wrestling with these issues in class right now? What kind of advice can we as UW instructors offer to students who are trying to figure out "What is happening?" and "Where do I stand?" on their own?

Rather than try to explain my own position on these two questions, I thought I might offer a list of strategies for developing your own views on the current crisis. Through the networked digital information infrastructure of the Web, college students in the early 21st century are privileged to have access to more media voices, more first-person accounts, more background data, and more historical context than ever before. Using these resources effectively, however, requires care, skill, and practice. Here are some guidelines that I follow in my own media diet, with selected but incomplete examples, that I hope will be helpful to you.

1. Start with a summary from a trusted national news source. Most of the information that circulates on social networking services like Facebook or Twitter, or that gets reposted and excerpted on blogs and news aggregators, still comes from professional journalists working for newspapers and magazines, television and radio stations, and online news sites. When an issue has both large-scale and local implications such as our Wisconsin budget debate, I like to start with a national newspaper like the New York Times, a national broadcaster like CNN, or a national public-service media outlet like National Public Radio. For example, Michael Cooper and Katharine Q. Seelye's New York Times article "Wisconsin leads the way as workers fight state cuts" (18 Feb 2011) succinctly explains the issues at stake: "Governor Walker's plan would limit collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to wages, barring them from negotiating on issues like benefits and work conditions. It would also require workers to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, cap wage increases based on the Consumer Price Index and limit contracts to one year. And it would take on the power of unions by requiring them to take annual votes to maintain certification, and by permitting workers to stop paying union dues. Police and fire unions, which have some of the most expensive benefits but who supported Mr. Walker's campaign for governor, are exempted."

2. Continue by exploring local and regional news sources. For an issue dealing with UW-Madison, our two student newspapers (the Badger Herald and the Daily Cardinal) are great local starting points. But professional papers are still the best source for pieces written by full-time journalists who have spent years cultivating connections to local sources and developing a thorough understanding of the diverse local culture. I start with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Capital Times, and the Isthmus. For example, in the Capital Times, longtime area business reporter Mike Ivey provides some crucial background on our current budget woes: "Former Gov. Jim Doyle was able to reduce the deficit then through a combination of furloughs for state workers, increases to the cigarette tax, a move to combined reporting for corporate tax collections and a boost in income taxes for those in the upper bracket. The state was also helped by $1.3 billion in one-time federal stimulus funding. Moreover, state tax collections have continued to rise as the economy recovers. In January, the state collected $1.46 billion in revenue, up 7.1 percent from a year ago. And Wisconsin's unemployment rate of 7.5 percent is better than the 9 percent for the U.S. as a whole. While the state has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, the recession has not hit as hard here as other places." ("Analysis: Despite budget woes, state less in crisis now than two years ago," 18 Feb 2011)

3. Dive into the detail. Once you've got the basic story, find some longer narrative or analysis pieces to bring more detail to the picture. Look for eyewitness accounts. Find unusual angles. Pay special attention to articles that set the story in context, comparing it to previous historical moments, to other events happening elsewhere around the world, or to similar issues with comparable stakes. These pieces often come from weekly long-form culture and news magazines like the New Yorker, the Atlantic, or the New Republic -- news organizations that can better disregard the demands of a daily (or hourly) news cycle deadline and focus on longer-term reporting. For example:

  • Follow the money and the power. Many times stories taking an investigative journalism angle will come from the partisan or alternative press -- that is, news outlets that transparently (and proudly) declare their own editorial position, such as "fearless watchdogging of the powerful" on the left or "free markets and free ideas" on the right. The news magazine Mother Jones ran a piece by Andy Kroll ("Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Funded by the Koch Bros," 18 Feb 2011) which charged that "Charles and David Koch are conservative titans of industry who have infamously used their vast wealth to undermine President Obama and fight legislation they detest, such as the cap-and-trade climate bill, the health care reform act, and the economic stimulus package. [...] Koch Industries' political action committee has doled out more than $2.6 million to candidates. And one prominent beneficiary of the Koch brothers' largess is Scott Walker."
  • Unpack the numbers and the language. An early Associated Press report from 10 February 2011 (Scott Bauer, "Walker to strip most union rights") largely relied on the budget numbers put forth by the Governor's own office, reporting that "cuts are necessary to avoid up to 1,500 state employee layoffs. The state faces a $137 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year that ends June 30." But a later editorial from the Capital Times ("Walker gins up 'crisis' to reward cronies," 26 Feb 2011) argued that "To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker's new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the 'crisis' would not exist." Seemingly objective numbers are actually quite contested in this story. Similarly, whether one refers to the Capitol Square protestors as "thugs and rioters" or "peaceful demonstrators" casts a spin over an entire news report. Watch out for such fighting words.
  • Understand the history. A recent piece in the The New Republic (Joseph A. McCain, "What's really going on in Wisconsin?," 19 Feb 2011) does a good job of setting our current debate in historical context. The author noted that "Public-sector collective bargaining arose in tandem with the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1965. This was no coincidence, as both movements were making the same point: How could the nation justify denying some citizens the rights and freedoms that it granted to others?" 

4. Question your sources. Having explored the national, local, and in-depth angles of any big story, you'll no doubt encounter some differences, and maybe even some contradictions, in how the story is told. Some sources might be getting their voices out in all venues, while others seem strangely silent. Different reporters might use different terms for the event itself (was it "protest" or "intimidation"?). And even numbers represented in one article as objective facts (like budgetary projections or the results of public opinion polls) may be contested in another article. How do you decide what is true? Here are some questions you can ask of each news outlet, each reporter, and each article to help clarify how the article is meant to "work":

  • Does the news outlet transparently declare a particular partisan position? For example, in Madison the Capital Times bills itself as "your progressive news source." In their articles you might see a greater number of sources from, say, the labor movement or the progressive grassroots. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Capital Times is "biased" or uncritical towards these sources; however, it does mean that the paper takes seriously its responsibility to help these sources participate in the debate. 
  • Does the news outlet target a particular audience that it might either want to please or fear to alienate? Except for public service media, most news sources have a very clear idea of the market segment that they are trying to reach -- in order to deliver that market segment to their advertisers -- and some may end up running more and more stories that appeal to the preexisting assumptions of their audience base. For example, the Fox News Channel bills itself as "fair and balanced," but research on its audience demonstrates that it reaches a very homogenous conservative-leaning psychographic (that is, an audience segment defined by subjective traits -- shared ideas or lifestyle -- rather than by objective demographic traits like household income, education level, or age). Similarly, MSNBC's new branding of its audience as one that "leans forward" might be part of its strategy to send Ed Schultz to Madison to run his prime-time opinion-journalism show from the center of the rallies. 
  • Does the reporter have the experience to cover the issue critically? Debates over budget legislation, economic forecasts, and the social realities of working families are complicated. Look for reporters who have a track record of dealing competently and completely with these issues, rather than reporters who are uncritically recirculating the soundbites of others. When a reporter simply reports "he said, she said" quotes to create a supposedly "balanced" article, we call this "stenography" (simply taking down what is said verbatim) rather than journalism (applying a critical filter to bring readers your best interpretation of what is happening). 
  • Does the reporter clearly describe the sources used in an article? Even the most experienced reporters need to rely on the statements of elected public officials, paid public relations professionals, and independent experts in putting together a comprehensive news article. You can't always know if these sources are telling the truth, but the reporter should give you as much information as possible in order to help you make that decision. What organization does a source represent? On behalf of whose interests does a source claim to speak? How does the source stand to lose or gain from the outcome of the debate? Watch out for the use of "anonymous sources" (sources that are not named but are described as to their expertise and position), and especially "blind anonymous sources" (unnamed sources whose positions are not even described in the article) because such sources may have their own agendas in leaking information to the press -- without being accountable to the public for their own words. 
  • Does the story you're reading claim to be "objective" reporting, in-depth analysis, or journalistic opinion? The same news outlet will usually contain all three of these types of stories. Breaking news stories receive the "just the facts" treatment, to get the known outline of the story out before the competition does, even if that leaves many questions unanswered. Later, reporters are assigned to delve into a story and bring more analysis to their pieces, which both introduces a subjective element (what the reporter thinks is happening) and allows the reporter to add a richer context (explaining why something is happening and what it means). Finally, reporters (and editorial boards) often declare their views on the issues of the day in their newspapers, news magazines, or web sites. Make sure such pieces are marked as "opinion" or "editorial" columns. Don't disregard them just because they state a clear point of view; instead, try to judge whether opinion journalists have effectively communicated to you why they are taking the stance that they claim. That's their job. 

5. Check in with the media watchdogs. Many political action organizations like Media Matters for America (on the left) and Accuracy in Media (on the right) purport to watchdog both the mainstream and the partisan media for "bias" and spin. Visiting these sites can help prepare you to notice the strategic use of language, data, or emotion to frame a debate in a certain way that serves certain interests. But beware of false equivalency. The right wing charges that "liberal" news organizations have personal power agendas that skew all their reporting; the left wing charges that "conservative" news organizations target their audiences with what they want to hear for purposes of making profit, and that mainstream news organizations lack the will to aggressively question authorities who might later refuse to talk with them. For example, Media Matters argued on 18 Feb 2011 that "Fox News' coverage of the Wisconsin protests over Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to eliminate public employees' collective bargaining rights, among other things, has been marked with repeated attacks on the protesters. However, by contrast, Fox has relentlessly promoted and even encouraged viewers to participate in tea party and 'Tax Day' protests over the past few years." ("Fox slams WI protests but cheered Tea Party protests")

6. Don't be distracted. Side-issues, conspiracy theories, and anecdotal reports (often the fodder of the media watchdogs above!) all help round out the coverage of many news outlets, especially to jack-up page views online, but these sensational tidbits often serve to increase outrage more than they serve to increase understanding. For example, how important are one or two incidents of incivility or poor behavior at a political rally when 60,000 people behaved peacefully and appropriately? How important is a politician's personal life when it comes to an unrelated budget proposal? And does it really matter that "In Madison, two sides in bitter fight agree over beers"? (James Kelleher, Reuters, 29 Feb 2011). Make sure you're not simply helping a news outlet build buzz and audience by repeating and reposting the most salacious or silly bits of gossip about a news story.

7. See what Wikipedia says. Yep, I'm a professor and I'm telling you it's OK to use Wikipedia. You might even use it as a starting point in your investigation into an issue. A well-written Wikipedia article has all the same strengths of a well-written piece of journalism: it summarizes the issue, it sets the issue in context, and it clearly identifies its sources. I often use Wikipedia articles not for their conclusions, but for their list of "see also" web sites and news reports at the bottom of the page. See if you think their "2011 Wisconsin budget protests" article is useful.

8. See what your social network says. Now that you've done your own background reading on the issue, Facebook and Twitter can be great resources to see if you've found the same reports that others have, or if you've followed a trail of journalism that's rather unique. Trading the best news you've found through tweets or status updates is a nice way to let others benefit from the thorough research and reading that you've done. And opening your media diet up to criticism from your social networking community ("you're citing that media outlet!?") is a good way to enter into a critical conversation about journalism with a trusted group of friends. And check out Kristian Knutsen's "A guide to social media campaigns against Scott Walker's agenda for Wisconsin unions" (Isthmus, 13 Feb 2011) to see how one side is mobilizing this resource.

9. See what your instructors say. Out of modesty I've left this one for nearly last, but really, your university teachers have a wealth of insight and experience with complicated public issues that often doesn't get to come out in structured classroom settings. But if you start asking critical questions of them -- in class or outside of class -- I guarantee that they'll rise to the occasion and help you think things through. Some instructors might be hesitant to reveal their own positions on divisive issues for fear of alienating students who hold differing views; others will gladly hold forth in spirited debate, if you encourage them. (I'm somewhere in the middle, personally.) But if you ask, they can help. You may even change some minds yourself (it's happened to me).

10. Finally, go see for yourself. We're incredibly lucky that so many important issues unfold right in our own backyard here in Madison. But don't think that eyewitness experience automatically substitutes for thoughtful research. The two should challenge and complement each other in building your understanding.

In the end, I think all of this media research -- both answering your initial questions and (most likely) inspiring new ones -- comes down to one thing: What kind of future do you want to see? In any given debate, think about which side is offering a better (or any) vision of tomorrow. How desirable is that future? How feasible is it? And how willing would you be to sacrifice and fight for it? Because that's really what's at stake in every political battle -- not which past we all agree on, but which future we will build together.


  1. Impressively well done!
    Christopher Lee (

  2. Great post, Greg. I had this moment last night in O'Hare on the way back to Madison where I realized that the strangers discussing the events in Madison were not always well informed, and that this is why information literacy stuff is so darn important! It was easy enough for them to discuss the situation and maybe even have an opinion about it, even if they were not 100% sure of the circumstances and it was just driving me crazy. I want to send this post to those airport strangers.

  3. This is a wonderful post. Thank you. I think I'm going to direct my students here.

  4. Anonymous9:35 AM

    Thanks for this excellent post!! I'd love to share your thoughts with my students! This post also helps me develop ideas about my new literacy course I've been working on.


  5. Anonymous10:27 PM

    Useful general advice, but virtually all the specifics point the reader (presumably students in most cases) to one particular slant on the story, issues, and events. The sources are almost completely on the left. The post ends up working against its seemingly high-minded intent -- "here's how to do an open-minded, hard-thinking, critical analysis: read these sources that mostly present one side of the issue."

  6. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. I disagree that sources like the New York Times, Reuters, the New Republic, and the Associated Press are "on the left." Certainly sources like Mother Jones and the Capital Times are -- they say so clearly for any reader who explores them -- and I address my reasons for including those sources above, as ways of exploring the context and debate around the issue. I also pointed out reasons for being skeptical of one of the first major pundits to visit the city, Ed Schultz of MSNBC, who also clearly advertises himself as being "on the left." I think you are looking for a false equivalency. To understand a debate around political issues in a state where the Executive and Legislative branch are both currently controlled by one party -- and who are pushing a stark agenda against worker organizing rights that is the stated goal of that party's most conservative base -- it is important to explore opposition viewpoints represented in a more partisan press. Finally, I must say that in my own evaluation of various news outlets in their professional experience, their use of evidence, and their responsible engagement in a debate, many well-respected sources "on the left" which have real insight into this issue -- like, say, the Madison-based Progressive magazine or the Chicago based In These Times -- do a much better job of understanding and explaining the issues at stake than does, say, the Fox News Channel with its clear intent of sensationalizing proven hot-button issues in order to reach, and keep, a targeted viewing audience "on the right." I hope that my students would agree that, in the media classes I teach, we explore all of these issues fairly, and in much greater depth than a blog post (or a blog comment) can provide.

  7. Greg--great post and much appreciated. Two suggestions: I really like using news aggregators to help with the work of steps one and two. Here's a great google news feed for the events in Wisconsin:

    Second, while the point you make in "Unpack the Numbers and the Language" is an excellent one, it is slightly misleading, particularly since the Cap Times editorial itself gets the facts wrong. The current budget deficit is NOT a result of Walker's tax cuts (which haven't yet been collected--they're relevant for the 2011-2013 budget cycle), rather, the current budget deficit is the result of the State Supreme Court's decision that the State must repay $200 million it took from a medical malpractice fund to balance the budget in 2007. See: The point you're making might be better made in relation to the way that Governor Walker (and subsequent news outlets) have talked about state employee contributions to pension and benefit plans. See: for a really interesting unpacking of legal language and why semantics and the way we talk about details matters.