As the new school year begins, get back to the basics of good journalism

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The new school year is underway, and it’s the perfect time for getting back to the basics of good journalism. Two articles I found recently offer students an excellent set of resources to refresh those “basic” skill sets and tenets of good reporting.

In the first piece, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed spells out his “eight simple rules for doing accurate journalism.” As educators, we preach accuracy and truth-telling, but sometimes students–especially beginners–don’t understand how to achieve that somewhat elusive goal. But, in reality, it comes back to a few simple rules and guidelines that can make all the difference.

Below, I’ve outlined each of Sliverman’s rules with some pointers for scholastic journalism. The original article, linked above, provides more insights about each of these points.

The initial, mistaken information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction–Bottom line here: Think before you publish. While you can and should offer corrections whenever possible, remember that people will most likely remember the false information more than they will the correction, especially if the false information confirms some bias they already have.

A journalist is only as good as her sources–We can’t stress this enough to students. Stories are made or broken by the quality of the sources they have (or don’t have). Always look for more voices, perspectives and ideas. This also means looking beyond the walls of the school building. Students shouldn’t be the primary voices in stories about mental health issues, drug abuse, dating violence, etc. Their voices are important, but they shouldn’t be the only foundation of the story. Pick up the phone. After all, sometimes that simple act can pay off in dividends.

Verification before dissemination–Do the extra leg work. Don’t trust what people tell you. Don’t assume something is true just because your best friend told you so or because you saw it online. Figure out whether it’s true before publishing.

People will forget who got it first, but they remember who got it wrong–Perhaps there is less competition among student journalists for scoops, but it’s always cool when students break a story before the pros do. However, getting it first isn’t really that important, especially if you get it wrong. (Think of all the famous plagiarism and fabrication cases). Develop your skills so you’re able to get it right when the opportunity arrives. Big stories will happen—administrators will resign, buildings might catch fire, car crashes happen. Be ready for when they do.

Failure sucks but instructs–No matter how careful you are, you will screw up. It happens to everyone, even the professionals. But take heart. You can learn from your mistakes. The best lessons originate from failure.

If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out–I’ll say it again: verify, verify, verify. Make that extra call. Check that online database. Don’t assume anything is true. Ask sources for examples and specific numbers of incidents. Double check small details like dates, times, locations, and even the name of the source’s dog.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is–These days, there is a never-ending supply of information that ranges from being stretched a bit to being downright made up. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup–Admit your mistakes. Come clean. Be honest. Make a commitment to running corrections early, often and in a consistent place both in print and online. Establish policies about corrections. While no one likes to admit to screwing up, owning your mistakes can help maintain your credibility as a trusted source of news and information.

And there is no better teacher than those who have “lived in the trenches,” so to speak. Veterans journalists have learned a lot both through their experience but also through the advice they’ve received from their mentors in the profession. This piece is a compilation of reporters offering others the best advice they’ve ever received and how acting upon it has positively affected their reporting and writing.

It includes everything from advice on how to find story ideas, how to conduct interviews and how to capture better detail in your stories. It’s a terrific learning tool for student journalists and budding reporters.

 

 

 

 

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Hurricane coverage raises questions about finding the truth amid disaster

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The images from Hurricane Harvey last week were horrific. Scores of people were left stranded in rising water, homes were destroyed and others’ livelihoods were washed away in seconds. As with any natural disaster of that magnitude, the storm became a focal point for local, national and even global news coverage.

And the coverage was everywhere. It included everything from real-time updates that provided life-saving information to harrowing stories of rescues and reunions among the displaced. And this whole cycle is about to be repeated again this weekend as Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida.

A natural disaster is always a painful experience. Capturing that pain, while an important documentary function of the news media, can be tough for survivors and victims who become unwitting subjects of the news. Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted several ethical dilemmas in the coverage. Both this article and CJR’s weekly podcast, The Kicker, devoted time to delving into those questions.

Discussing these matters can help students grapple with the real consequences of how the media present facts and depict the subjects featured in the news. Ultimately, they can better learn how to make decisions about coverage in their own publications.

lootfindWords matter: How the news media describe something can have a profound impact on how the audience understands and interprets what they see. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these two images circulated online noting how the black man in the first photo was described as “looting” while the white couple in the second photo were described as “finding” the items they were carrying. As this story in the New York Times indicates, each photographer did offer justification about why he each felt those respective word choices were justified.

Use of the word “looting” arose again during coverage of Harvey when ABC reporter Tom Llamas tweeted that he alerted police to possible looting.

What’s the distinction between the two terms? Is one more appropriate than the other? Is the term “looting” ever justified following a disaster? What if people were taking luxury items like jewelry or TV sets that aren’t necessary for survival?

What proportion of disaster coverage should be focused on such questions? Does a preponderance of coverage about alleged criminal behavior following a disaster suggest that such activities are more prevalent than they really are? What effect can that have on the audience and their perceptions of reality?

Involvement in the story: Llamas’s actions (alerting the police) involved him in the story. His actions had some impact on how the events unfolded. This was even more true when a television crew from a Houston TV station rescued a driver caught in raging water.

Generally, reporters seek to remain out of the story by serving as bystanders and observers. Is there ever a point when that rule becomes ethically unacceptable? Some will make the distinction of whether it’s necessary to choose between being a human being and a journalist. Is that a false choice? Is it enough to argue that the circumstances of a natural disaster mandate a different set of guidelines to abide by?

Telling the truth vs. minimize harm: This video of a CNN reporter interviewing a clearly distraught woman fleeing the floodwaters drew criticism. As noted in the CJR podcast, a healthy tension exists between capturing emotions, experiences and reactions of those affected but also not appearing to exploit their pain, grief and exile for professional fame, monetary gain for the news organization or a spike in ratings. People in such situations are vulnerable and need to be treated with care and respect.

What should the reporter have done? Stopped the interview all together? Gained consent before going live on air? Taken time to establish a relationship? It’s ethically necessary to cover the story, but how you go about it can have a significant impact on those who are subjects of the news, especially the vulnerable.

Disaster reporting is wrought with numerous other dilemmas affecting both the subjects of the stories and the reporters themselves. I outlined some of those in a previous post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firing of WSJ reporter reminder of need for more ethics training in student journalism

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal fired a reporter who violated the company’s policies by engaging in a business deal with a source he was assigned to cover. The reporter’s action constituted a conflict on interest, whereby he engaged in conduct that might compromise (or give the perception thereof) his ability to act as an independent source of information for his audience.

His greatest allegiance might not have been to the truth, but rather to making the subject of the story look good to enhance the business deal he allegedly entered into.

As a profession, we’ve chosen to adhere to certain standards and values to ensure our primary obligation is to seeking the truth in all instances, not to our own personal gain or biases. And sometimes, that’s tougher to do than it would seem. Journalists are human themselves. They have opinions, perspectives and beliefs that shape their view of the world, just like everyone else.

Yet, the ethical demands of the profession to independently seek the truth mandate they find ways to insulate themselves from allowing those biases to affect their job. This includes maintaining some distance from the sources they cover. Journalists–and the organizations that employ them–must grapple with tough questions like whether journalists should be involved in political activity or openly advocate for one side in a public conflict or controversy.

And how does this play out in scholastic journalism? In a school environment–a seeming microcosm of society–everyone is much closer, and roles tend to blend together. Students, for their own development, need to be involved in school life, clubs and sports. But how do we put up sufficient barriers to ensure stories are receiving proper coverage? Is it enough to insist that a member of a given club or sport not be assigned to cover those activities? Or are there additional considerations to make?

Ensuring that students understand conflicts of interest and how to avoid them is a paramount lesson for student journalists so they better understand the value of the truth. Any publication serious about developing its ethical fitness should understand what circumstances constitute conflicts of interest and invest the time in learning to avoid them.

As with all ethics training, it starts with a healthy dose of discussion to help students understand the gravity of this issue. Talk about case studies and stories that appear in the news. Use that dialogue to develop and refine a staff ethics policy so reporters know how to handle specific situations in which these issues might arise and also to drive discussion between editors and reporters.

Below are some resources to help drive the discussion:
Ethics code from NPR
Ethics code from RTDNA
Ethics code from SPJ
Case studies from the Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Potential problem areas for conflicts of interest from NYU School of Journalism

 

 

Altered yearbook photo sparks questions about truth in reporting

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Earlier this month, a New Jersey high school was in the headlines because several students reported that “pro-Donald Trump” logos on the shirts they wore when sitting for their school pictures were mysteriously absent from the photos printed in the yearbook.

The act raised quite a stir, and the yearbook faculty adviser was disciplined. According to news reports, students were not involved in editing the photos. The school will also issue re-printed books with the original photos. This story has highlighted a series of deep legal and ethical questions.

First, if the decision to alter the photos was made by school faculty, this is an overreach of authority and can constitute censorship. Faculty advisers (in this case, state actors) cannot arbitrarily stifle speech simply because they disagree with it, especially when students are engaging in speech that is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection (in this case, showing support for a candidate in an election). It should be noted that little to no reasoning has emerged publicly as to why the editing took place.

If it were made by students (though it doesn’t appear to be), then their decision-making power could be insulated from censorship concerns surrounding an abridgment of the students’ First Amendment rights. Students, as non-state actors, have wider latitude over editorial content.

But looking at this issue more broadly, it doesn’t matter who edited the photos or who made the decision to do so. This story raises ethical concerns that far outweigh the legal issues. First, no matter who made the decision, the most important question here is “What was their journalistic purpose?” Why would they choose to airbrush material from a photo?

Altering photos (i.e. altering the truth) is always of paramount concern. Changing the photos’ content changes the reality of the situation. The bottom line is that changing even small details like these in a photo creates a work of non-fiction, a paramount sin in the journalism world. Viewers trust that what they are seeing is the truth as it happened, not an interpretation that fits the photographer’s worldview.

Altered photos warp the sense of trust viewers place in what they are seeing. Yearbooks are a form of journalism. As such, they must operate under the principles of ethical decision making akin to all forms of journalism. Editing photos simply because one disagrees with a political statement is no more appropriate than removing cords or light fixtures to enhance the photo’s aesthetic appeal.

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?