Panel discussions explore news media’s role in the wake of 2016 election

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For journalism educators looking for resources to help their students better understand the news and media environment leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election, check out these two panel discussions. Each is about 90 minutes and can be used to garner ideas for class discussions, debate or other assignments.

The first, “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” took place at Harvard University this week and featured speakers from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, CNN and others.

The second, “Journalism’s Way Forward,” was sponsored by the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State and took place last week. Area media professionals and several of the School’s faculty comprised the panel.

Both groups touched on a range of relevant issues to explore: the public’s trust in the news media, representations of groups and audience members in news stories, and the proper way both to cover antagonistic government officials and to correct falsehoods and other inaccurate information promulgated both by officials and misinformed media consumers.

 

 

 

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Journalism lessons from Inauguration Day

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Inauguration Day has arrived. As is the case every four years, for some, it’s a time of celebration and victory, and for others, it’s a day of somberness and disappointment. This day itself and recent events all point to important lessons journalism teachers can share with their students.

Gathering, celebrating and protesting

The First Amendment is clear on this one: Citizens have a right to assemble, both to express satisfaction and dissatisfaction with government action (or inaction, as the case may be). Every Inauguration Day is filled with demonstrations, marches, protests and counter protests representing a variety of ideas and viewpoints. While the rhetoric might get heated, this act of assembling is one of the hallmarks of American democracy.

Now is the perfect time to remind students of the importance of the right to peaceably assemble, and to discuss why a free exchange of ideas (no matter how distressing to some) is essential for democracy to function.

The key word here is peaceful protest. Remind students of the difference between demonstrations that seek to empower the public versus those that devolve into violence and vandalism. Every person’s rights are relative to those of others. While someone has the right to make their voice heard, he or she doesn’t have the right damage another’s property or cause another physical harm.

#PressthePrez

Leading up the election and in the weeks following, much concern has circulated about the new president’s understanding of and attitudes toward the First Amendment. I’ve discussed that topic in a previous post.

Earlier this week, the Society of Professional Journalists sent an open letter to then President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence requesting a meeting to discuss journalists’ access to information. Almost 70 journalism and First Amendment organizations have signed on to the letter. The hashtag #PressthePrez has directed the conversation through social media.

Remind students of the importance of open records, public meetings and journalists’ (and the public’s) right to access information. And it’s more than just information from the federal government. Your own public school district generates a wealth of information that could form the basis of excellent stories and investigations.

Is dumping unverified information online really journalism? 

Last week, the online publisher BuzzFeed released a 35-page dossier with unverified claims about President Trump and his potential ties to Russia. The revelation caused quite a stir just a week ahead of the Inauguration. It also sparked debate among journalists and journalism advocacy groups about the appropriateness of publishing unverified information. While some argued the publication was unwarranted, others said BuzzFeed should have been more transparent about what parts of the document were unverified and what steps reporters were taking to verify the information.

BuzzFeed stood by its decision, ultimately arguing that the importance of the potential truth of the information about such a high-ranking public official made the decision justifiable.

Students should be reminded of the ethical dilemma of simultaneously trying to tell the full truth and to provide the public with information to evaluate their elected officials while also minimizing the harm that stems from misinformation. It’s also essential to remember that one’s own personal views about the new president should have no bearing on the decision whether to publish. Publishing something simply because you “want” it to be true falls far short of highest ideals of the profession.

 

 

Incident at Ohio State holds valuable lessons about storytelling, breaking news

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Reaching your audience is all about telling an engaging story. As technology has evolved, the tools available to tell stories have expanded exponentially. Journalists and other communicators now have the ability use tools that enhance parts of their messages (visual, auditory or text) in ways that didn’t exist even a few years ago. These changes necessitate the need for urgency to publish information, especially when stories are changing minute by minute.

As students at Ohio State were returning from Thanksgiving break, a student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk, got out and began stabbing passers-by. Within minutes, campus police responded and shot the suspect. A university-wide text alert said an active shooter was on campus and students were asked to shelter in place.

This story, which quickly gained national attention, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling and breaking news coverage. This article, told through the perspectives of student editors at The Lantern (Ohio State’s student newspaper) details how the publication’s staff reacted to the news and spent the next few hours and days providing coverage. It’s also illustrative in the lessons it teaches about storytelling.

As a student publication, it’s essential to “own” the coverage of your school. That doesn’t just apply to major breaking news events. It includes the mundane parts of everyday life. But whenever your school is involved in a major news event, your publication needs to be on top of it. Students and others should be able to look to your publication as a primary source of information and updates.

It can be tough to balance the demands of breaking news coverage with the realities of school life, but it’s an essential skill to learn. Create procedures and plans that rely on a chain of command to assign responsibilities when news breaks. You may never have to deal with a school shooting, but other stories demand immediate coverage. Even the students at Ohio State prepared for this very scenario in a class exercise just a few weeks before. Little did they know how soon they’d have to use what they’ve learned.

Storytelling happens now. Audience engagement is at its highest when news first breaks because people are looking for information so they can understand what’s happening. As time passes, they look for more context to enable them to make sense of what’s happened. No matter what type of publication you have, your online presence enables you to keep your audience informed as the story evolves.

First you plan, and then you amend. The Lantern publishes in print several times per week. Tuesday was one of its print days. The staff tore up their plans for the next day’s paper and reworked the layouts to adapt to the breaking story. Their coverage included multi-faceted approaches that spanned a range of digital and print coverage over the following days that not only provided a summary of events but explored reactions and fallout.

Breaking news demands quick thinking. One of the editors dropped what he was doing to get to the scene. Another made the decision to work remotely because commuting back to campus would have proved prohibitive (roads were shut down around campus) and the travel time would have wasted valuable opportunities to cultivate sources and plan coverage with other reporters on the ground.

Any breaking news environment is prone to rumor and confusion. Part of your job as reporters is to dispel rumors and to provide clear, accurate information. Never overstate and be open about what you don’t know. It’s tough sometimes for the truth to win out amid so many conflicting ideas, but it’s a necessary fight. The Lantern staff worked to dispel rumors—that an active shooter was on campus (compounded by the campus text alert), that the shooter had an accomplice, that several students had died, and that someone purposefully pulled a fire alarm to get students outside prior to the attack.

For more guidance, consult On the Media’s guide for breaking news. Planning today will make your job easier when the time arrives to put it to use.

Teach the First Amendment, now more than ever

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Then candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the press and the First Amendment has raised more than a few eyebrows among defenders of free speech during the past year. Everything from threatening to sue publications that printed unfavorable coverage of his behavior or candidacy to insisting he would change libel laws to enable him and others to more easily win lawsuits against the press have all been fair game.

The news business has long been a target of those in governing authority because the press wields the power to question and hold accountable all those individuals and institutions that everyday citizens place faith in to structure and shape their lives. However, it’s precisely that power to question authority that must be staunchly defended.

But his misgivings about the First Amendment don’t stop with the press. Earlier this month in a tweet, he hinted it was unfair for people to protest the outcome of the election. He reversed course on that statement several hours later with another tweet (as noted in the link above). And just this week, he announced in a tweet that flag burning should be illegal and punishable with jail time or possibly the loss of one’s citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that the practice is protected speech.

The freedom to write, speak, worship, assemble and petition can’t be taken lightly because those freedoms—etched in the hallmarks and identity of American democracy—can be eroded and quashed without vigilant defense. A government official’s own feelings, preferences or even ignorance can never supplant the law.

Perhaps some of these claims from the president-elect are more rhetoric than anything else. But it’s troubling when a powerful government official demonstrates such lacking knowledge of the laws and legal principles that protect the opinions of all Americans, especially those expressing dissent.

Press freedom advocates are calling on journalists to exercise more tenacity covering the new administration, and their calls deserve merit. It’s only through concerted, deliberate effort we can defend these liberties. But it can’t end with journalists. All citizens must make the effort to call out baseless claims that represent affronts to basic freedoms. And to do that, they need to understand the law, perhaps not enough to become legal scholars, but they need a working knowledge that enables them to call out falsehoods and overreaches of power.

To all scholastic publication advisers, now is the time to double-down on teaching students about a free press and other free-speech issues. Young people now, more than ever, need to understand the First Amendment’s protections, principles and limitations. That way they can wade through the clog of information and claims that circulate through the news cycle, blogs and social media and can help teach others about the importance of understanding and defending their freedoms.

Teaching about the First Amendment in class is the foundation. Ensure that students learn about court cases like Near v. Minnesota, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, New York Times v. U.S.New York Times v. Sullivan & Snyder v. Phelps. In few other places will students ever be exposed to this material. These seminal cases and others will provide a firm foundation to guide their continued learning and exploration. Help them apply the holdings in those cases to contemporary issues and stories in the news.

Guide students to stay abreast of what’s happening and to understand how the First Amendment and its protections are discussed and interpreted in the news and among conversations online.

And, of course, the best way to teach about freedom is through practice. No better “real-life” simulation of a free press in action exists than a student publication, whether print, broadcast or online. Teach students to do good journalism by asking questions of those in power and seeking accountability. That mindset will serve them well into their adult lives.

Below is a list of links to recent news items and columns that will enable better discussion.

A Call to Action for Journalists Covering President Trump by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Our First Amendment Test Is Here. We Can’t Afford to Flunk It, by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom: Why It Matters, by Mirren Gidda & Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

War Between Trump, Media Seen Escalating With Presidency’s Power, by Gerry Smith, Bloomberg News

A short list of post-mortem resources about the 2016 presidential election

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The 2016 presidential election might be over, but its ramifications are only beginning. The entire campaign–and the past week following the election, especially–have been marked by the exchange of razor-sharp opinions from all sides. Protests continue throughout the country, and some wonder how the next administration will shape public policy. This campaign and election tested and stretched the bounds of normalcy in an already ravenous political environment.

As journalism educators and publication advisers, this moment provides an opportunity to explore changing audience demographics, viewers’ use of technology, the purpose of political journalism and campaign reporting, and the importance of news literacy.

What follows is a short list of resources to use in class to help students better understand news coverage surrounding the election and its aftermath. This list is by no means exhaustive but only serves as a starting point for the exchange of ideas, discussion and debate.

The forces that drove this election’s media failure are only likely to get worse by Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab

This article examines the underlying assumptions about how social norms and expectations in the journalism profession and on the business side of the media industry contributed to the reporting about the election and candidates throughout the past year. The author discusses the rise and prevalence of “fake” stories that spread easily through social media and do more to shape some viewers’ opinions than truthful reporting does. The article also examines the “echo-chamber” effect of social media that leads some readers to select stories and surround themselves with information that confirms what they already believe.

Here’s to the return of journalists as malcontent by Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review

Building off the point in the piece above, this article discusses the importance of journalists cultivating sources beyond spokespeople and seeking input from those with whom they have fundamental differences of opinion and perspective. The lessons here are essential for scholastic journalism students and reporters, who must accurately capture the voice of their audience who largely cannot yet vote but will be affected by the outcome of any election. For more about these points,  this piece offers some further guidance to journalists to reach beyond their comfort zones and to find deeper, more meaningful perspectives from a wider range of sources.

How the 2016 campaign changed political journalism by Kristen Hare and Alexios Mantzarlis of the Poynter Institute

This campaign changed political journalism by usurping the status quo and forcing journalists and editors to confront new realities about dealing with sources, relating to their audiences, and being more transparent about their decision-making processes. Some members of the public even challenged the work and role of journalists through threats and intimidation. Twenty journalists and media critics have offered their observations about how this campaign season has shaped and changed the norms of political journalism.

As seen on TV: For the TV-less viewer, live election night shows abound, on any number of screens by Shan Wang of Nieman Lab

This piece is a post-mortem on the variety of coverage available on election night as the results rolled in. In an effort reach further segmented portions of their audiences, even traditional outlets (like television networks) offered some online component to both draw and serve viewers who were more comfortable with that medium. Online-exclusive platforms offered even more options to viewers and additional competition to traditional outlets. Students must stay up-to-date with the opportunities for deeper and richer storytelling using a variety of platforms. Examples like these can generate more ideas.

How could polling be so wrong? by Steven Shepard of Politico & Four possible reasons the polls got it so wrong this year by Danielle Kurtzleben of NPR

Polling, when conduced scientifically, can provide an illustrative picture of public opinion. Yet, like any information-gathering tool, it does have its drawbacks and limitations. These articles explore some of the reasons why the polls seemed so “off” in their predictions that Hillary Clinton would win the election. Understanding how polls work and why they sometimes fall short of their fullest potential can enable journalists to better harness their power in the future.

These are a small sample of the available materials to use for class discussion, and other issues deserve attention as well. Among them, the president-elect’s attitudes and comments about the First Amendment and its protections for a free press. But we’ll explore that in another post.

 

Fact checking in an age of distortion, half-truths and outright lies

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Fact checking has been in the news a lot lately. The political contest that has been unfolding before our eyes this year plays out as both major-party candidates for president continually spar over policy positions and past decisions. Amid an influx of mutually exclusive claims and assertions by and about each candidate, it’s tough for the average voter to sort out fact from half-truths and even outright distortion and lies.

It’s no secret that politicians and others present information in ways favorable to their positions as they seek to sway public opinion. Just look at any election advertising. Beyond that, in this explosive information age, people post, share, and discuss countless assertions often without any consideration whether they are true. Such claims can originate from the candidates themselves, their campaign staffs, interest groups, or even from ordinary citizens with biases and agendas.

In this glut of information, where does that leave the truth? In the past decade, a new movement began that hopes to offer some perspective amid the chaos. “Fact-check journalism” began its rise to prominence amid criticisms that questioned why the press had failed to verify candidates’ provably false claims about their opponents or the candidates’ own dubious promises to gain favor among supporters.

In this traditional form, sometimes referred to as “he said/she said journalism,” reporters record a source’s claims without much question or investigation. Thus, one candidate makes an unflattering claim about an opponent, and the opponent fires back that it’s not true. Readers must decipher for themselves what’s true. Recent claims in the 2016 presidential campaign have sparked renewed interest about the relevance of this journalistic storytelling model. Others do argue that the model has merits because it raises obscure and marginalized voices that break away from the mainstream, thus enabling society a better chance of discovering the truth.

One of the most well-known fact-checking sites is PolitiFact, which began in 2007. Bill Adair, then with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), helped to found PolitiFact in an effort to investigate the underlying truth of candidates’ claims. The site has grown to examine the factual claims made by politicians, television pundits, and other opinion leaders in an effort to help readers seek the truth and understand the context behind the facts. Similar sites exist with the same mission.

In this episode of The Open Mind, Adair, who is now the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University and the director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, discusses the role of fact checking in an age when people often share, discuss and even argue about information without ever figuring out whether it’s true.

As students watch, ask them to consider these questions:

What is fact-check journalism? What is its role? How can it create a more informed electorate?

Does fact checking create accountability? By whom and from whom?

Are the results of fact checking easily accessible to most readers? Do people care?

How do politicians respond when the press fact checks the claims they make? The claims of their opponents?

Explain the idea of fact checks as “reported conclusions.”

What is the importance of transparency in the methods used and how claims to be checked are chosen?

Where do falsehoods start? Where do they grow?

What’s the responsibility of average people who share/post information online to check facts or verify before posting? What responsibility do those who receive/see such shared information have before reposting or sharing it?

How do changing technologies promise new possibilities for better fact checking?

Free speech in the news

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Last week, the annual celebration of Free Speech Week drew attention to the importance of free expression. All journalism educators know that free speech and press form the foundation for all journalism and public communication, and fostering appreciation for those freedoms lasts for more than one week each year.

So in that vein, I offer a few examples of stories in the news in which free speech was a central issue or question. Current events and other recent examples can show students how legal principles apply to events in everyday life. Each of these stories raises important questions about free speech, its application to real-life circumstances, and its limitations. Following each scenario are a few questions for class discussion.

Presidential politics and libel law. Earlier this month, Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president, threatened to sue The New York Times for libel after the paper printed allegations from women who claimed Trump touched them inappropriately or made unwanted advances toward them.

Trump’s lawyer sent a letter to the paper claiming the allegations were libelous and that publishing them was simply an attempt to tarnish the candidate’s reputation and his chances of winning the election. The paper’s legal counsel responded with a letter to the Trump campaign, and The Times’ editorial board wrote an editorial defending the story.

As the editorial board noted, the law provides that the actions of public officials and public figures (those who hold sway in some governing function or those whose actions draw attention to themselves) are subject to more rigorous scrutiny, discussion and debate than the lives of private individuals. The landmark 1964 case (of which The Times was a party) New York Times v. Sullivan, spelled this out when it held that the actions of those in power must be subject to the greatest possible scrutiny in order for democracy to thrive.

This isn’t the first claim the candidate has made about libel laws. Earlier this year, Trump said he planned to “open up libel laws” to make it easier to sue the people and organizations he feels have defamed him. Of course, the president has little power to change libel laws, which are passed at the state level. Beyond that, the president must respect the bounds of the First Amendment, which can’t be changed at will on a personal whim.

The bottom line here is that anyone running for what’s arguably one of the most powerful offices in the world qualifies as a public figure, if not a public official. Their actions must be subject to the most stringent public scrutiny. This is equally why discussion about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for reading and storing classified emails can be subject to the same level of inquiry and debate. Knowing the law is essential for interpreting and understanding the claims candidates make during election season and beyond.

  1. Why is it important for the public to be able to discuss the actions of public officials, even those individuals who are running for office?
  2. Even if elected officials are powerless to change laws regarding free speech, why is it important for journalists and the public to vigorously defend the protections of free speech and press and to scrutinize the claims they make about free speech and press?
  3. Are most members of the public educated about the free speech laws? Why is personal education important to helping average citizens evaluate claims by candidates and other elected officials?

A protest and a journalist’s right to tell the story. Amy Goodman, co-host of Democracy Now!, was arrested last month while covering protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline expansion in North Dakota. The expansion has been mired in controversy. Proponents say the pipeline will make it easier to ship crude oil to refineries, while opponents are upset that the pipeline will disturb sites Native American tribes consider sacred, and they argue it could pose health risks to those on a nearby Native American reservation. The pipeline has sparked ongoing protests the past few months.

Goodman was arrested while capturing footage of company guards using dogs and pepper spray on protestors. Law enforcement claimed Goodman—even though she was working as a journalist—was a protestor and even participated in a riot. The charges were later dropped, but the local prosecutor initially responded to the claim of Goodman working as a journalist by questioning how was it possible to even determine who was a journalist because anyone with access to a cell phone and an Internet connection could publish information.

Without the stories journalists tell, the ability to understand what’s happening beyond one’s own direct experiences would cease to be. While the system is far from perfect, the right of the press to tell stories that hold the powerful accountable to the people is firmly etched in our national dialogue because of the essential function journalists perform. Covering a major protest, such as the one surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, is certainly protected speech.

Journalists’ rights of access to newsworthy people and events aren’t any greater than those afforded to the general public. They aren’t permitted to run red lights, trespass on private property or do anything a member of the public wouldn’t be afforded the right to do when covering a story. However, the conduct of their jobs shouldn’t qualify as criminal activity. Goodman’s reporting provided a public service by drawing attention to a matter of national concern.

  1. Who does qualify as a journalist? Should the same free press protections be afforded to those capturing footage on a cell-phone camera versus a reporter working for a national television network? If the former isn’t afforded the same rights, could that erode those protections for everyone?
  2. Journalists sometimes witness illegal activity (trespassing, rioting, etc.). What public service does their presence provide when they document both the activity itself and law enforcement’s response to it?
  3. While no one is above the law, could the threat of arrest deter some journalists from doing their jobs? What effect could that have on the public’s knowledge of important issues?

Online speech, civility, and the limits of free expression. This summer, comedian Leslie Jones—star of the latest Ghostbusters movie and cast member on Saturday Night Live—was subject to a barrage of racist and sexist tweets.

The mastermind behind this campaign was Milo Yiannopoulos, a blogger for the right-leaning site breitbart.com. Twitter has since banned him from the site. Yiannopoulos was angry to be banned from Twitter and said Twitter’s action was an affront to free speech.

First, as a private entity, Twitter is legally permitted to ban users who don’t conform to the site’s terms of use. The prohibitions against censorship only apply to the government, not private individuals or companies. That’s perhaps one of the most misunderstood principles of First Amendment law.

Second, in another often misunderstood pillar of free-expression law, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Despite its lack of much, if any, contribution to the public agenda and the marketplace of ideas, to punish hate speech could easily pave the way to more censorship because deciding where to draw the line can become blurry. The best defense is a good offense, as they say. To counter the claims of those spewing hate speech, use speech that seeks to debunk it. In other words, instead of asking the government to punish or stop hateful-filled rhetoric, engage in speech that promotes unity, empathy and inclusion. Point out the fallacies that hateful speech contains. Stage a counter protest, for example. Or create an information campaign to promote a different viewpoint.

But, this case raises the point about the balance of fostering open discussion online while protecting individuals from an onslaught of hateful comments, attacks and bullying. The basic facts behind this story could play out in any school district in America where some students choose to bully fellow students from the shield of a computer screen. The serious consequences of which cannot be discounted. Putting the legality of the issue aside, it’s important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. And while the government cannot dictate that individuals be civil online, privately owned sites and apps can insist on a certain level of decorum on their sites.

In this article that thoughtfully spells out the important concerns raised in this debate, Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum, cited comments that Newseum CEO Jeffery Herbst made during a speech earlier this year about the importance of staking boundaries of acceptable comments, especially when users take advantage of anonymity online to attack individuals. Seeking to establish such boundaries, as difficult and fleeting as they might be, is an important step to finding the balance between expression and civility. Others point to the need for consistent standards and policies to decide how users can be banned from such platforms, even though the government can’t mandate such even-handedness.

  1. A private entity like Twitter has the right to ban users from its site. It’s not a government organization, so no legal free-speech concerns exist with such action. However, does such action curb the amount of available voices, even if they are offensive to most? Do personal attacks have any merit at all? Does it make a difference if the intended target is a public official (like the president) versus a private person?
  2. What rights should individuals have to be free from (often anonymous) attacks online? How should site and app operators consider the rights of such individuals when crafting their user policies and spelling out terms of acceptable use?
  3. Should sites and apps ban anonymous comments? Does anonymity foster vileness and mean-spiritedness? What benefits can anonymous comments have?

As these stories clearly illustrate, free speech is constantly in the news. While each of these examples might have been a “snapshot in time,” the underlying questions they pose for the future of free speech are timeless. As technology changes, the same questions re-invent themselves, so to speak, and the same underlying matters appear time and again. Shedding a spotlight on how free speech manifests itself in everyday events is the start of enabling students to better understand how to protect, foster and defend their rights to speak and write.

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