Several items of interest

I bumped into several stories today about a range of issues in journalism. In case you haven’t seen these, check them out.

The first is a link to a column from Poynter about a Reuters editor who identified one of James Holmes’s classmates as a “person of interest” in the shootings at the theater in Aurora last Friday. What I find especially interesting is the discussion (through quoted material and some tweets) about how news organizations should treat Holmes in the coverage and the pledges being made by some to keep the focus on the victims. I understand the fact that the victims matter more — and some of the Dart Center work (you can find a link to the Dart Center in Caryn’s post, too), but as journalists can we really afford to ignore Holmes’s story? I think too many people still want to get some sense of what led up to his deadly rampage.

The second column, also from Poynter, provides some advice on reaching out to trauma victims via Twitter. Social media can be a valuable tool, but with only 140 characters to work with, it can be difficult to make the request for an interview compassionate. This column has some advice and examples of how to do it better.

Then there’s this story from Forbes about Ryan Holiday, head of marketing for American Apparel, who managed to get quoted in publications ranging from small blogs to The New York Times on topics ranging from winterizing your boat to collection vinyl records. He’s not an expert in any of those topics, but he pretended to be one and offered himself up to reporters in search of a quote. Once again, this speaks to the need to verify what your sources are telling you, including what they’re telling you about who they are.

Finally, here are some follow-up pieces to the story on political sources who are demanding that they get the chance to approve quotes as a condition of being interviewed for a story. I posted the original story last week, and now some news organizations are saying “no” to the quote-fixing demands. The NYT did a follow-up noting that the National Journal is banning the use of fixed quotes, McClatchy Newspapers has developed a similar policy, and On the Media has a short audio story about the controversy.

Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma

Since we were talking about interviewing trauma victims in last week’s class and since the Aurora shootings have been all over the news, I have been paying close attention to how reporters are interviewing victims of the shooting as well as the friends and family of those who died. I started looking for some online sources that could offer helpful interviewing tips, and I came across this site called the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s a great resource. There are separate complete pages for interviewing victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, natural disaster, war and PTSD, as well as specific tips for interviewing children, veterans, and relatives of suicide and homicide victims. I took a look at the veterans page for my American Homecomings story, and its ideas for finding sources who are willing to talk was especially helpful. I found sources through Twitter (via @USParalympics) and through PR people for the Paralympics and Deptartment of Veterans Affairs.

A few valuable lessons I learned from the Dart Center website and my own experience interviewing for the American Homecomings project:
1. Allow more time than you think you need. I waited too long to start finding sources for my story, so that in the final days I was calling anyone and everyone I could think of because I was worried I wouldn’t have a big enough variety of voices. Thankfully, several people responded to me two days before my deadline, so I was able to actually speak with several veterans, coaches, trainers and therapists. Still, the experience would have been less stressful if I had started researching earlier. Especially for sensitive stories, I think people need some time to decide if they want to participate before they respond to the reporter. Two people responded to me after the story was published, so I will only be able to have them as sources if I do a follow-up. In addition to allowing time to find sources, I would recommend allowing more time than you think you need for interviews. Even if I didn’t have a lot of questions planned, most of my interviewees were really interested in telling their stories. I was late to my internship one day because an interview I thought would be 10 minutes was 40 — which was wonderful for my story, but also taught me a lesson about careful planning.

2. Leave questions about traumatic events open-ended. Professor Skewes talked about this a little bit last Tuesday, and this strategy definitely saved my story. I interviewed two Paralympians, and since I had done my research, I knew a little bit about their stories. I was very nervous to interview them because I felt like my specific questions wouldn’t be able to get at the heart of the story, so I ended up going with the traditional “tell me a little bit about your story and how you got involved with ____ ” (in my case, adaptive sports). Thankfully, my two veteran interviewees were very willing to talk and were willing to discuss their accidents and their emotions with me. I had specific questions planned just in case the conversation started to die, but I don’t think I even asked most of them. Just by asking the simple tell-me-your-story question, the other questions I had and the issues I had hoped to talk about were answered.

3. Learn the culture and language of the topic as much as possible. I found it was helpful to know some military terms before starting interviews. When interviewing a veteran (and later, when writing my story), I made sure to have the background knowledge of what branch of the military the veteran served in, what was his rank, where and when he served, and, in the case of the Paralympians, the circumstances of the injury. To break the ice and relate a little bit, I often told the veterans I was from a Navy family (my dad is a retired commander). Many of my interviewees told me about the difficulty of returning to civilian life, so letting them know that I was familiar with the military lifestyle — even though I had not served — made a difference.
If you plan to report on violence or interview trauma victims at any point, the Dart Center website is an excellent one to bookmark. I’m grateful to have come across it, and I will certainly use it in the future!

The Journatic problem

For those of you who haven’t heard of Journatic — or about the scandal that has enveloped the news service — NPR did a great story that explains what’s been going on (and thanks to Jackie for sending along the link!), and Poynter has done several pieces on it, including this one from a few days ago. If you want to see what else Poynter has done, there are some links to “related stories” at the bottom of the Poynter column.

The story raises issues about journalistic credibility, particularly in a new media environment.

Philanthro-journalism: The new economic model?

A couple of blog posts discussed economic models for journalism and the strategies news corporations are using to stay viable.  An article by the Economist explores a new perspective worthy of discussion: Philanthro-journalism.  Reporters without orders: Can journalism funded by private generosity compensate for the decline of the commercial kind?

My question after reading this article is: How should the economic model of journalism evolve to ensure the greatest freedom of press and preserve the important function of journalists in a democratic society?

Stephanie Craft, in her essay “Press Freedom and Responsibility,” raises an interesting point: Freedom House ranked the United States 16th in the level of freedom of the press despite the fact that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution. Iceland and Finland, who ranked at the top, also have freedom of press and speech protected under their constitution; however, one cannot denigrate the doctrines of religious groups. In addition, Finland’s government provides direct grants to newspapers. Craft asks: Why then, do Iceland and Finland rank higher than the United States in freedom of the press?

Craft’s question indirectly answers part of my question; while the idea of government-funded newspapers is provocative in the United States, it does work in other democracies and should be considered as a possible source of support for newspapers to ensure the survival of a free press.

The Economist concludes that philanthro-journalism is only a partial solution and journalism still depends on the old model. However, I would argue that the future trend is going toward an economic model where journalism will be supported by increasingly diverse sources. It will likely be based on a combination of advertisers, government funding, and philanthropy.


S. Craft. (2010). “Press Freedom and Responsibility.” in Meyers, C. (Ed.) “Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach,” Cambridge: Oxford University Press.

Poynter’s McBride on covering the Penn State report

I’m sure most of you know that the report of the investigation into the Sandusky scandal — the independent one commissioned by Penn State University trustees and conducted by a panel led by former FBI director Louis Freeh — was released today. It’s pretty damning in terms of what it says about Penn State officials, including Joe Paterno. And it’s certainly newsworthy.

But, as Kelly McBride points out in this column on the Poynter website, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that this story has an impact beyond Sandusky or Paterno’s legacy or Penn State or even Sandusky’s victims (though they are certainly going through their own traumas as a result of the news coverage). McBride reminds us that one in four women and one in six men have been sexually abused before they turn 18, and that stories like this can have impacts on these victims as well, and she talks about how to more responsibly cover the Sandusky scandal and the Freeh report (and, by extension) other stories like this one.

It’s worth a few minutes to take a look at what McBride is suggesting … especially, in my opinion, our tendency to soften the language so that readers don’t get offended or put off. But in doing that — by using words like ‘molest’ or ‘fondle’ instead of ‘child rape’ — we also make it seem less traumatic than it is.

The Ethics of B-Roll: Wildfires

Since the wildfire coverage took up so much of my time, I started to notice how the Denver channels used b-roll. Many clips they used were days old, but the only reason I knew that was from having watched daily for weeks. They did not clarify that the footage was from days before, but implied by using it that it was from that day. My question for you: is this practice acceptable? To the people who live in these areas, who have been evacuated and may recognize landmarks, should you show an area burning, implying it is happening now?

Journalism Ethics had an interesting article called The Problem with B-Roll by Jayson Go. Go defines b-roll as subjective and objective in the article, and comes to this conclusion:

“The process of producing b-roll is not amenable to deep, contemplative thought or sober, deliberative reasoning. There are no codes of conduct or principled guidelines to follow, because thinking on your feet means thinking with your gut. The problem with b-roll, as it relates to live news programming, is that it can so easily lead to breaches of ethical conduct and ethical principles of truth-telling, accurate representation and honesty.”

Here on channel 7’s website they chose to show a house burning (scroll down to the picture), which is dramatic for most, but could be devastating for the people whose house it is. Is this just part of covering a wildfire, or should the news organization be more sensitive to the people whose homes are lost?

Sports Reporting and the “Erin Andrews Precedent”

I’m sure many of you have heard that famed sideline reporter Erin Andrews recently decided to leave ESPN to host a college football show on Fox Sports. All the news about Andrews got me thinking about the example she sets as a woman in the field of sports journalism. As a sideline reporter, her main job, according to Dave Matter in the link below, is to “look pretty while lobbing inane questions at grumpy coaches as they [jog] to the locker room.” She was obviously quite successful at getting access, but how much of that was due to her talent as a reporter and how much was due to her attractiveness? As a broadcast reporter, Andrews’ appearance necessarily played a role in shaping her “brand,” but as a sports reporter for print, I struggle with how much I can — or should — follow in Andrews’ footsteps.

My favorite sports stories are features based on more in-depth reporting, something that does require a certain amount of access. Still, I wonder if Andrews’ precedent makes athletes and coaches see female reporters as shallow sideline girls looking for a quick quote. There is an assumption that female reporters don’t have the same background knowledge as the men, especially with football and basketball. I have experienced this reaction in the past, trying to capture more than a second of an athlete’s time when I am the only female voice in a sea of tall, loud men. I’d welcome your comments about the best way to assert myself and show my worth as a sports journalist, and whether or not the “Erin Andrews precedent” is a good or bad thing for female sports reporters.

Here’s a story by Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune on Andrews:

And here’s a 2011 story from the IU National Sports Journalism Center about gender diversity in sports journalism: (What do you think about the locker room controversy?)

A piece on our personal lives

In my Poynter newsletter today there was a link to a column by Kelly McBride talking about Anderson Cooper’s decision to go public about the fact that he is gay. What I find most interesting about the piece is McBride’s discussion of the “Land of Few Personal Details.” It resonates with me and the kind of journalism I practiced as a reporter — the kind I was describing in class yesterday. We were not supposed to be involved in the story or be any part of it. The closer to invisible that I could be, the better.

But that started to change with television, and especially the chatty, personality-driven programming that started to pop up — first in the morning news and more recently across programming. So today Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity are brands, not reporters. And there’s a new reality for all journalists — that people do want to know more about you. Some of it has to do with transparency, and some of it has to do with the lens through which readers, viewers and listeners will interpret your work. In your professional work, you may be asked to reveal information about your personal lives. It’s a different world than when I was a full-time reporter, and I think I just want to caution you about being a bit circumspect about what you choose to reveal and what you choose to keep private.

A few things that might be of interest

A few items have come across my inbox this week that I thought I’d post here in case you haven’t seen them. The first is a cautionary tale about an intern at The Wall Street Journal who was fired for fabricating sources in a story. The story has been pulled from the Journal‘s website, but was posted on Talking Biz News, along with a few comments. Poynter has a little more on the intern, Liane Membis.

Of course, then there’s this piece from Poynter about Jeff Meade, a sports writer for The Monroe Evening News in Michigan, who wrote a column outlining several of his ethical transgressions, including making up quotes when he lost his notebook and dating a source. Interestingly, the column appears to have been taken down from the website. I read it this morning (and now wish I’d taken a screenshot of it), but the links no longer work. It will be interesting to see if he keeps his job.

[An update: Poynter ran this follow-up on June 29, which includes a link to a cached copy of the original column.]

Then there’s this piece that ran on The Washington Post website that — once again — points to the issue that speed and quality journalism don’t always go together. In this case, both CNN and Fox initially reported that the individual mandate provision of the health care  act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, it was upheld. But in the rush to get the “news” out, the journalists  wrote their reports without reading past the first page of the ruling. The errors were corrected, but I have to wonder if the public would have been better served by waiting for the few extra minutes it took to read page 2 of the decision.

[Another update: The Raw Story ran this brief, which includes a clip of The Colbert Show, on Colbert’s coverage of the error made by both CNN and Fox. The clip includes some of the footage from Fox and CNN programming on the day of the court ruling)

Finally, for those of you interested in issues about media ownership and conglomeration, the Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with it’s new report on ownership changes. It might be useful, and it certainly has some interesting data.

Watching what you Tweet

We were talking in class today about the importance of Twitter for breaking news, but it is important to remember that whatever you do on social media is being watched — and sometimes by your employer. I just bumped into this story on a site called TVNewsCheck that talks about Twitter and social media policies for NBC stations. Essentially, the bottom line is that anything you do, even on a “private” site, is considered company business and is linked to the company’s reputation.