Thursday, December 6, 2012

Don't do this. Ever!

Sources that don't exist?  Really?!

A reporter for The Cape Cod Times recently admitted to fabricating a number of people in articles she had written since the late nineties, as well as giving other sources false names, without letting readers know of the use of pseudonyms:
Times editors have been unable to find 69 people in 34 stories since 1998, when we began archiving stories electronically.

Check the story here.

The good news is that the paper apologized.  Why they didn't notice sooner is beyond me.  The reporter no longer has a job.   Better news still.

Baffled.  Why on earth would a reporter do this?  Didn't she know that this is indefensible?  See Shattered Glass.   bk

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The debate over fact-checking

Go here for some good food for thought on the role of fact-checking in the wake of the second Obama-Romney debate.  Should Candy Crowley have stepped in when she did?  Should reporters fact-check what politicians say on the stump -- or during debates?

Here's a taste:

...conservatives are opposing the very notion that the media should play a fact-checking role. The only conclusion is that they’d prefer to see a world in which candidates and parties get to make whatever claims they want, while journalists merely transcribe them, leaving voters to sort out for themselves which are true. Call it a free market of political attacks.

Geneva Overholser, the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, said that approach doesn’t serve the public. “It’s the journalist’s role to help the consumers of news know what the truth is,” she said.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU, agrees. In a long recent post on the press’s fact-checking role, Rosen urged journalists to “fight for what is true,” rather than critiquing politics as a game.

“[I]t is a regrettable loss for the polity, and for political journalism–and for the voters, the public–when dubious claims gain traction and quotes pulled from their context appear to ‘work.’” Rosen wrote. “What the press can do to prevent this is try to raise the costs of making false or misleading claims, which is the whole point of fact-checking.
It's also the point of reporting.  Journalism: not the same as stenography.  We have youtube for that.  bk

Saturday, September 29, 2012

WSJ forgets the rule: Opinions, yes. Connections, no

According to Media Matters, the august Wall Street Journal failed to disclose that a number of their op-ed writers, who roundly castigated the President and praised his opponent, were also advisors to the Romney campaign.  From the piece:
In a total of 23 pieces, the op-ed writers attacked President Obama or praised Romney without the paper acknowledging their Romney connections.
Shameful.  Or shameless.  Not sure which.

There's no problem with op-ed writers, as opposed to news reporters, voicing their opinion and taking sides.  What's at issue is transparency.  If you're directly involved with the candidate, organization, issue that you are, um, pimping, you darn well need to let the reader know.  Which is what a number of opinion page editors contacted by Media Mattters had to say.  here's a taste:

Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor since 2009, said that providing transparency for the relationships of op-ed writers is "absolutely essential."  
"Op-ed writers aren't supposed to be objective or to have no stake in the subjects they're writing about," he explained. "But when a writer does have a particular relationship to his subject that is not immediately apparent to the reader, it is important to disclose that so that the reader can evaluate the argument intelligently."
Max Frankel, a former New York Times executive editor and editorial page editor, called the lack of disclosure "shameless."
"They ought to put a banner saying Romney has approved of this page," Frankel said of the Journal. "It looks like The Wall Street Journal editorial and op ed pages have enlisted in the campaign. They should be disclosing that, that makes it outrageous, it is not a mistake or a slip up, it is a matter of policy to be deplored. The page is shameless, not interested in multiple points of view."
He added that his own paper had established policies to prevent such failures: "We had a standard inquiry of people writing as to whether they had any conflict on this subject or this position that you are taking, we questioned them. If they did, I don't remember publishing pieces with a conflict of this flagrant sort. If you are going to let the campaign speak, you say this is from the campaign."
Read more here.  And thanks, Hilary Tone, for the link.  bk

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing about Poverty: For 141

Go here for an interview with Pullitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo, who discusses the ethical dilemmas she encountered in writing about poverty in her book about a family, living in a slum in Mumbai, and struggling to get out of poverty.  The book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Here's a taste of that interview:

When I pick a story, I’m very much aware of the larger issues that it’s illuminating. But one of the things that I, as a writer, feel strongly about is that nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people. Making them representative loses sight of that. Which is why a lot of writing about low-income people makes them into saints, perfect in their suffering. But you take Abdul, for instance. He’s diffident, he’s selfish, he’s not very verbal. Even his own family considers him charmless. But when the reader meets him, they sense he’s a real person, that he’s not a construct. And even Manju—who’s good and generous in many ways—she’s good and generous as a way of getting back at her mother. The more righteous she can be, the better she can stick it to her mom. So you try to let the reader have a sense of this person and soul, as a recognizable human.
The hope is for the reader to engage with them as individuals and see how these people really do get around social obstacles, when there is a limited distribution of opportunities, when there are institutional problems, be it police corruption or poor public hospitals and schools. I don’t think readers will get invested in what potential is being squandered if they don’t engage with the people in the story as individuals. When you have a kid who is killed, I want the reader to feel what I felt and what the people of Annawadi felt, and because of that, get involved in the problems of criminal or social justice.
And that's the point: as writers, our job is to help our readers engage with the people in our stories and books as individuals. That's how we slap the debate on the table. bk

To quote or not to quote...

That is always the question.  But there's a new wrinkle, according to this piece in Monday's New York Times by media writer David Carr.  He is disturbed by the increasing practice of news sources insisting on reviewing their quotes before publication.  He calls it "The Puppetry of Quotation Approval".  Read the whole column here.

Here's a taste:
Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.
As someone who has covered Hollywood, I can’t begin to catalog the number of distasteful communications customs in that industry. And reporters I spoke to said Wall Street companies have been trying to negotiate quotations for a decade, in part because one poorly chosen word could cost millions or even billions. But now it is leaking into all corners of the kingdom.
Including government and politics.  And there's something else that can kill the truth of a story:  email interviews.  More from Carr:
But something else more modern and insidious is under way. In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article. Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.
All of which tends to serve the source, rather than the public interest.  Trouble, yes? Especially in an election season.  Back to Carr for the last word(s):
It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.
 Indeed.  bk

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pretend editors and speechification, part deux

Two quick reads:

First, is the Wizard of Oz behind all this?  The Vibrant Nation, an online website about I don't know what, proudly announces in a staff bio no less that its editor is a "composite."  Read: does not exist.  Should the site be renamed Virtual Nation?What's baffling to me is that they/she/it is not embarrassed to admit it.  Go here for more rom Charles Apple ... 

And, in the wake of the five big whoppers in Paul Ryan's speech at the Republican convention last night -- read about them here, here, and here -- Salon's Steve Kornacki reports on the way that much of the media chose to report on what he said, rather than the truth of what he said, leaving it up to the fact-checkers to do the work. 

Which brings up the perennial question wrt what I call speechification:  is the journalist's job to report the facts -- or to report the meaning/veracity of those facts?  I know where I stand.  bk

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Did I Really Say That?

Should you ever let sources review a quote before you go to print?  Short answer: No. 

Despite the fact that some news orgs, insert shudder here, are letting campaign officials okay quotes in advance, many others are holding firm.  Here's what AP has to say, via Poynter:

“We don’t permit quote approval,” AP spokesman Paul Colford told me by email. “We have declined interviews that have come with this contingency.” That puts the AP in agreement with 58 percent of the people who said in our Twitter poll that they never let sources review quotes. (The poll is totally unscientific, changing as more people vote, and should be taken with the grain of salt that you normally apply to Twitter.) 

In a followup conversation, Colford said that AP reporters do conduct interviews on background and then negotiate to get certain parts on the record. “You’d be a fool to turn those down,” he said. But, he said, an AP reporter would not go along with a source who said, “I want those three sentences you want to use sent over to me to be put through my rinse cycle.”
Rinse cycle, indeed.  Here's more from Jeremy W. Peters from the New York Times, who writes that quote approval results in quotations that "come back redacted, stripped of colorful metaphors, colloquial language and anything even mildly provocative."  bk

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Journatic rhymes with lunatic?

Actually, it doesn't.  But the hyperlocal reporting (using that term loosely) machine, which has admitted to faking bylines and which produces "local stories" offshore (if that isn't oxymoronic, not sure what is...) has admitted to plagiarizing and fabricating quotes in a story on a high school pitcher.

The Chicago Tribune company, which had invested in Journatic and hired it to take over its TribLocal websites while laying off about 20 journalists" killed its relationship with the company. 

More here, via Poynter.  bk

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who do you trust?

A new Gallup poll shows dwindling confidence in TV news, with trust in print falling as well.  From HuffPost:
The survey showed an interesting political split. Overall, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to trust TV news (34 percent versus 17 percent.) But self-identified liberals were the most disenchanted of all groups, with just 19 percent expressing confidence in the medium.
Gallup said that it wasn't clear why exactly the numbers were so grim. But it wrote that "Americans' negativity likely reflects the continuation of a broader trend that appeared to enjoy only a brief respite last year. Americans have grown more negative about the media in recent years, as they have about many other U.S. institutions and the direction of the country in general."
What I wonder is this:  If Americans have no confidence in journalists to keep them informed, who can they trust?  Their mothers? Twitter?  Campaign ads?

Could this explain why, for example, journalism students cannot name more than one member of the U.S. Supreme Court?

Scary stuff, especially with a major election coming up.  Seriously gives me chills.  bk

Monday, May 14, 2012

Text-book perfect magazine story

Casting about for a sample of a great magazine piece?  Check out the scenes, the characters, the science and the structure in this piece from Sunday's New York Times Magazine:

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shivers up my spine:

And yours?

A student just sent me a link to a story from Wired on a newly trained sports/finance reporter.  Said reporter is a computer algorithim. No human interaction required:

For now consider this: Every 30 seconds or so, the algorithmic bull pen of Narrative Science, a 30-person company occupying a large room on the fringes of the Chicago Loop, extrudes a story whose very byline is a question of philosophical inquiry. The computer-written product could be a pennant-waving second-half update of a Big Ten basketball contest, a sober preview of a corporate earnings statement, or a blithe summary of the presidential horse race drawn from Twitter posts. The articles run on the websites of respected publishers like Forbes, as well as other Internet media powers (many of which are keeping their identities private). Niche news services hire Narrative Science to write updates for their subscribers, be they sports fans, small-cap investors, or fast-food franchise owners.
Is this the end of the world as we know it?  I for one think that the beauty of sports writing -- and possibly all the nuances therein -- might get lost when the byline reads "by Robo Reporter."  But that's just me. What's next? 

Robo-journalism for everything from politics to public policy? 

An algorithim that grades papers?  Wait.  That one I can definitely get behind.

Your thoughts?  bk

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Good news for J-kids!

A new study out of Georgetown finds that journalism grads have a lower-than-average unemployment rate, and a respectable salary:

Recent college graduates with an undergraduate degree in journalism have a 7.7 percent unemployment rate, a new Georgetown University study says. Experienced grads have a 6 percent rate, and people with graduate degrees in journalism have only a 3.8 percent unemployment rate. Median earnings, according to the study: $32,000 annually for recent grads; $58,000 for experienced college grads; $66,000 for people with graduate degrees.

 The average unemployment rate for new grads is 8.2 percent, and for all 20 - 24 year olds is 13.2.  Check out the story, with links to the study, here. bk

Monday, April 16, 2012

Staggering and heartbreaking magazine genius

One of the finalists for the 2012 National Magazine Awards: The Aquarium by Aleksander Hemon, published last year in The New Yorker.

Read it here.

Here's a taste:
"Isabel was asleep in the recovery room, motionless, innocent. Teri and I kissed her hands and her forehead and wept through the moment that divided our life into before and after. Before was now and forever foreclosed, while after was spreading out, like an exploding twinkle star, into a dark universe of pain."

Today's Newsroom: How to thrive -- not merely survive

Depressing or invigoriating? Five good ways to thrive in the newsroom -- and change the world while you're at it -- via Poynter's Tom Huang. Here's one:

Be a learner. I can’t think of another business where you can learn as quickly, widely and, potentially, as deeply as in journalism. Whether you are challenged to understand the latest trends on your beat, how to comb through an obscure public record, or how to employ a classic narrative-writing technique, you are learning something new every day. We make our living by our wits and curiosity. We get paid to ask questions. That’s pretty cool. So even when learning is scary and exasperating (um, what’s that latest tech tool?), let’s embrace that part of our jobs.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

State of the News Media 2012

Go here for the latest report on the state of the news media. According to the results, technology is driving news consumption. Among the findings:

New research released in this report finds that mobile devices are adding to people’s news consumption, strengthening the lure of traditional news brands and providing a boost to long-form journalism. Eight in ten who get news on smartphones or tablets, for instance, get news on conventional computers as well. People are taking advantage, in other words, of having easier access to news throughout the day – in their pocket, on their desks and in their laps.
The evidence also suggests mobile is adding to, rather than replacing, people’s news consumption. Data tracking people’s behavior, for instance, finds that mobile devices increased traffic on major newspaper websites by an average of 9%.1 The technology may also be spreading this access to groups that were passed over by the first generation of digital. Some rural populations like Native Americans who largely missed the desktop generation, are now moving straight to mobile options that do not rely on broadband access.
Social media are important but not overwhelming drivers of news, at least not yet. Some 133 million Americans, or 54% of the online U.S. population, are now active users on Facebook (out of 850 million monthly active users globally).2 They also spend an average of seven hours there a month, 14 times the amount of time people spend on average on the most popular news sites.3 And the number of Twitter users grew 32% last year to around 24 million active users in the U.S. (500 million total accounts worldwide), the company reports. But the notion that large percentages of Americans now get their news mainly from recommendations from friends does not hold up, according to survey data released here

Friday, February 10, 2012

on teling the truth ...

... in interviews. For those times when you're heading off to what might be a difficult interview for a tough story, listen to what NYT columnist David Carr tells NPR's Terry Gross.

One of the first things he often says to sources is that the story is "likely to be big. What do you think the story is that I should tell?"

Here's more:
Historically, I had been a reporter who was very fond of making speeches and very fond of telling people what their stories were about," he says. "[As journalists], we're people who just show up and declare ourselves instant experts on all manner of stories. And we often are only taking a very blunt-force guess about what's going on, and I think it always behooves us to ask the people, especially if you're aspiring to do something good, 'What do you think is going on? What do you think this is about?' "

Carr tells his sources that they shouldn't expect a fluff piece; he doesn't want anyone to be genuinely surprised by what they find in his stories.

"I don't want to sit up in the middle of the night and wonder whether I was unfair to the person — that I didn't communicate to them what is coming," he says. "I don't want anybody to open up one of my stories and have their nose broken by what they read — although I do have to say, at the beginning of the week, I wrote a really mean column, and I didn't tell anybody involved, so I guess that's not always true."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Literature of Fact presentations

In (very) roughly chronological order:

Studs Terkel
Joan Didion
Seymour Hersch
Michael Herr
Calvin Trillin
Nora Ephron
Pauline Kael
Barbara Ehrenreich
Jonathan Kozol
Eric Schlosser
Michael Pollan
Richard Rodrigues
Andrew Law
Michael Lewis
Rick Reilly
Chuck Klosterman
Susan Orlean
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Isabel Wilkerson

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Who defines "journalist?"

Is anyone with a cell phone a journalist? Are you a journalist only if you are affiliated with a recognized news outlet?

Does publishing a blog post make you a journalist?

All interesting questions as the definition of journalism grows increasingly blurry. Here's some food for thought from CJ Cornell via the MediaShift Idea lab:

Never has technology unraveled an industry so fast that its professionals no longer agree on what it is that they do. It's not surprising; the sharp line between journalist and non-journalist is so faded that few can see it anymore.

If someone happens to be at the right place at the right time and captures a significant event on his cell phone, it will be newsworthy to some audience. At the moment he tweets the image, does he magically transform from a bystander into a journalist? If he is an employee of The New York Times, most would have little trouble classifying him as a journalist. But if it also was his very first uploaded photo, then really what is the difference between the NY Times employee and the bystander? Who is the journalist?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

on objectivity, blanace and fact-checking

Whose job is it to fact-check, especially in an election year? Go here for a nuanced look by Neiman Journalism Lab writer Lucas Graves that goes deep into the murky definition of "journalistic objectivity." It all stemmed from a query by the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane. Here's a taste:

For anyone who missed it (or the ensuing analysis, rounded up here) the exchange can be summed up in two lines of dialogue:

Times to Internet: Should we fact-check the things politicians say?

Internet to Times: Are you freakin’ kidding?

That was an actual response, and a popular refrain: More than a dozen comments included some variant of, “This is a joke, right?” Several readers compared the column to an Onion piece. By far the most common reaction, which shows up in scores of comments, was to express dismay at the question or to say it captures the abysmal state of journalism today. A typical example, from “Fed Up” in Brooklyn: “The fact that this is even a question shows us how far mainstream journalism has fallen.”

You might also check out some jlinx posts from the last election year. Search terms: speechification and fact-checking

Thursday, January 12, 2012

how NOT to pitch

Great advice from The Open Notebook. Among the tips: email rather than phone, pitch a story rather than a topic; and know your market. As for bad pitches? Here's a taste, from David Grimm, editor of ScienceNow:

As far as worst pitch, that would have to be a freelancer who pitched me a couple of years ago about an AIDS study. It was a very controversial study, promoting (if I remember correctly) an unusual therapy. Fortunately, I passed the pitch by our AIDS expert, Jon Cohen, who did some digging and found out that the freelancer’s mother-in-law was an author on the paper. I confronted the writer about this, and he told me it wasn’t a conflict of interest because he could be objective about the study. As we were going back and forth I noticed something else troubling: The freelancer himself was mentioned in the paper’s acknowledgments. When I brought that up, I didn’t hear from him again.

Top that! :-)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Magazines: then and now

Two years ago, Maria Popova put together this look at magazines past, present -- and future, via tablets. At the time she wrote the piece, iPads were still pretty much a twinkle in techno-geeks eyes. Here's how the piece -- which includes a video history of magazines and tablet demos -- begins:

As big proponents of the power of curated interestingness, we have to admit that despite their umbilical cord to the corpse that is the print world, magazines — the best of them, at least — are one of the finest examples of cultural curation. But in order for this editorial-curatorial model to survive and flourish past print, it has to adapt to the platform-blind content ecosystems enabled by technology, while staying rooted in the behavioral and cultural demands of its audience. So today, we’ll try to contextualize all this by looking at the past, present and future of magazine publishing from three different angles, exploring everything from the digitization of print archives, to the emergence of niche, indie titles, to the publishing potential of the iPad.

fair use and plagiarism: redfined?

A good piece from by Emma Mustich on the ethics of fair use -- and the ways in which the internet -- and our own brains -- have muddied the waters. The post features the opinions of several professions in fields -- from music to fashion to journalism -- where copying the words or ideas of others is often an issueBottom line: when in doubt, don't.

Here's a taste:

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University

The core of what plagiarism is remains undented by the digital publishing environment. Copying out the words of others and passing them off as your own is still what it always was; wholesale plagiarism is a sacking offense in most newsrooms. It is of course much easier to detect now, thanks to Google text search, but beyond the clear example of screeds of lifted text or images passed off as your own, the issue of who is a plagiarist is also a little more porous at the edges than it was.

In digital journalism, one of the most valuable functions you can perform is to aggregate and link to the content produced by others. We do however also see the problems of “over aggregation,” where credit and sourcing is not clear enough, links are missing, attribution is fuzzy and where the idea of “fair use” is enormously stretched. Is this plagiarism or enthusiastic aggregation?

The increased ease of detection of plagiarism is offset against the temptation to “over aggregate.” As for the broader context of taking ideas and presenting them as new, well, that happens all the time, sometimes knowingly and sometimes accidentally. It is an area where journalism is still thrashing out standards and best practice; there is a sort of arms race of transparency going on in digital news filtering at the moment – who did what first and when. I can’t help feeling that the idea of a plagiarism algorithm is not too far away.