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July 16, 2013, 2:50 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   July 16, 2013

The academic journal Journalism has posted a new paper by the University of Maryland’s Linda Steiner, Jing Guo, and Raymond McCaffrey and Paul Hills of Rhodes University in South Africa. The subject: how journalists responded to Season 5 of The Wire, which famously critiqued a fictionalized version of The Baltimore Sun:

The concept of paradigm repair was used here to explain journalists’ responses to The Wire. Our qualitative analysis of articles from 44 newspapers, as well as radio transcripts, dealing with the 2008 season shows that a fictional challenge can precipitate vigorous efforts by journalists to restore their reputation after what they regard as an attack on their professional identity and credibility. The [real] Baltimore Sun and other papers where Simon’s journalistic nemeses worked were the most likely to call Simon vindictive and obsessed and to use this to marginalize his stinging critique of corporatized newsrooms.

Some highlights:

As Kuhn underscored, paradigm revolution is frighteningly difficult. If possible, journalists may try to ignore the problem, like scientists, ignoring the anomalous evidence. Eventually, given the resulting stress, they try to alter or repair and restore the paradigm…

They can try to justify actions or methods undertaken by an accused person or organization; contextualize the problem, emphasizing their good intentions; deny that the breach ever occurred, given their professional work routines; or claim a case is ‘old’ or outdated and already corrected. If ‘renegades’ can be identified, journalists can blame the greed, stupidity, laziness, or pathology of individual reporters, editors, publishers or entire organizations — that is, as not merely deviant but ‘exceptional’. Often a specific platform or genre is blamed. After Princess Diana’s death, ‘serious’ journalists ritually separated themselves from tabloid journalists, whom they said constituted a different (unethical) phenomena altogether…Meanwhile, the tabloids blamed sensationalism-hungry audiences and aberrant paparazzi.

The Sun’s TV critic, whose reviews were syndicated nationally for McClatchy-Tribune, had celebrated The Wire’s past seasons. He hated Season 5. Among other reasons, Zurawik (2007) said the episodes he previewed said almost nothing about newspapers’ biggest story: ‘the vast technological change sweeping through media today’. Zurawik’s (2008) review of the finale repeated each of his initial criticisms, including the ‘unconvincing, one-dimensional characters’ that populated the ‘improbable’ and ‘deeply flawed’ newsroom narrative.

A remaining question is why the Baltimore Sun, and to a lesser extent, the Inquirer and Tribune were so thin-skinned. After all, many ‘non-invested’ journalists, while mentioning the Baltimore back story, saw this as about US journalism. The Wire took on not merely problems of ‘all media, and the growing confusion over how to deliver news, but also the way those changes are buffeting the culture of journalism, the leadership, and the media’s ability to have a positive impact on society’ (Kushman, 2008). This narrative is now very well known, including outside the profession. So-called ‘public editors’, required to criticize their own newspapers, painfully recognize that, as one ombudsperson put it, ‘Journalists love to probe, and criticize, but are famously thin-skinned themselves’ (Moses, 2000).

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