A guide to the FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, is an essential part of the public’s right to know about their government. (Photo: Kevin McCoy/Wikimedia Commons)

This week is Sunshine Week. Sunshine Week is a week held annually reminding us of the importance of the public’s right to know. At the core of this is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was signed into law in 1966.

Because of the nature of my work, I have to be selective in the FOIA requests that I file with the US government. Most of the ones that I have written concern UK-US relations, or aspects of British culture that have been popular in America.

Some of them included a request to the FCC of any complaints about Downton Abbey on PBS (there were a few), a request to the State Department for the cost of Winfield House (the US Ambassador’s residence in London), a request to the Department of Justice regarding the Leveson Inquiry and the phone hacking scandal, and a couple of requests regarding Britain’s negotiations to exit the EU, amid the campaign leading up to last year’s referendum.

While a Freedom of Information request can provide an opportunity for a unique story, it can also be a bit intimidating. I may not be a master of FOIA requests, but what I have found as a journalist starting out is that for the most part, filing a request and tracking it is as simple as making that all important phone call for a story.

Here are some tips I have found helpful so you can get better acquainted with FOIA.

  • Keep a paper trail: Keep a copy of the request you send in (contact details are listed by the agency or compiled on this FOIA web site). I’ll usually send mine in by fax and note the date and time that I sent it, and keep it in my files. Also, keep the letters that the agency will send you. That lists the contact information for the office and your request ID to follow up. Finally, keep a record of any personnel in the FOI office you may speak with. If you encounter a problem, that may help expedite or resolve concerns on the agency’s end.
  • Be specific: Don’t be vague in what you ask for – get a specific time period or a specific area. For example, a request to the FCC detailing complaints about all of the Monday night sitcoms on prime time TV is vague. Pinpoint it to a specific program, or perhaps, a specific episode of the program in question.
  • Give context: Explain a little bit of your story and how it correlates with the request. You can write a brief paragraph in your letter about why this is important, or also enclose articles from other sources that points back to your request. Citing is never a bad thing, and it will help the agency better understand the information you’re looking for.
  • Don’t be afraid to follow up: Most FOIA staff I have worked with have been incredibly friendly and helpful, so one phone call inquiring won’t hurt. Just make sure you have your request ID in front of you when you call.
  • Seek advice if there’s a problem: There may be instances where you may not hear anything for months and months. If following up with the agency has not helped, or you go without a response on a timetable, there are resources available to you, including OGIS, operated through the National Archives and Records Administration. If you decide to contact them, explain what you have done and send them a copy of your original request, as well as any correspondence. You’ll receive a letter from a specialist who can do some research for you and figure out the process. Don’t hesitate to follow up with them afterwards for help if you need it.
  • Consider the public interest: Once your request gets processed and you get the data that you need, take time to review it. If you know it will be useful for your story, go ahead and get going. If you decide not to use it, don’t worry – you’re doing the public (and your peers in the industry) a favor by seeing that information is in the public domain.

When you look at the SPJ’s Code of Ethics, at its core is this phrase: “Seek truth and report it.” The phrase however does not apply to politics exclusively – it applies to all of the beats, be it associated with current affairs, sport or lifestyle and culture. Seek truth and report it is the crux of the mission of journalists, in order to help the world be informed, educated and engaged.

Reporting with the help of the Freedom of Information Act is an essential part of the public’s right to know. After all, it isn’t about the journalists who file the request, but those who benefit from the information provided – the audience.

Editor’s note: Lynn Walsh, SPJ president, serves as a member of the FOIA Advisory Committee, part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which OGIS provides administrative support to.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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5, Must-Know Standards Citizen Journalists Should Know and Practice

Citizen journalism involves those who aren’t professionally trained in journalism to take part in one of the foundations of democracy by conducting their own reporting and interviewing. The rise of social media has allowed the number of citizen journalists to exponentially grow where information and visuals can be attained and shared in mere seconds. But there’s been skepticism regarding the growing number of citizen journalists and how they contribute, such as the accuracy of information, how that information is portrayed, and a lack of standard training unlike their professional counterparts.

If you want to report news and label such information as factual and journalistic, then you should have a grasp on the foundation and basics of journalism.

Here are those Five Standards for Citizen Journalists to Learn and Practice:

  1. Journalism Ethics
  2. Learn about journalism ethics for citizen journalists and why upholding ethics while reporting information is vital.

    Image from Journalism Degree.

    Journalists are given or discover powerful information for a story at one time or another. Knowing how to ethically handle such information is important as the main role of a journalist is to report confirmed, factual information to the public while maintaining one’s reputation.

    Aidan White, Director of Ethical Journalism Network, describes the five core values of journalism, which include: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity, and accountability.

  3. Media Law
  4. What may be considered one of the more complex journalism areas, media law involves learning how past cases were handled and how such legal outcomes influence how journalists practice and report today. Understanding the bigger and more historical significant court cases allows citizen journalists to not only understand their legal rights, but also knowledge of how to handle any issues that may arise from obtaining or publishing information.

    From copyright to libel and slander, to invasion of privacy and first-amendment rights, journalists must know where the law currently stands with such areas, and how journalism and freedom of press evolved before and during those court cases.

    Resources on media law for journalists:

  5. AP Style
  6. Why citizen journalists should know AP Style.Journalists even have their own writing style that citizen journalists should adapt in order to maintain consistency and professionalism.

    When I was accepted into UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, all students were required to take a news-writing class that involved learning the do’s and don’ts of AP Style and other areas. I remember studying various parts of the AP Stylebook—literally—and being tested on them, such as when to write out names of cities and states.

    Purchase the most recently published AP Style guide and read through the more common sections to familiarize yourself with the proper forms of words and grammar. This, in turn, will increase your professionalism as well as the likelihood that a media outlet, professional organization or person will share or re-publish your article.

    Resources on becoming familiar with AP Style:

  7. Interviewing Techniques
  8. Being able to find, interview, and successfully include direct quotes and/or paraphrases into your story is a vital and strong skill to have as a journalist. Also, as discussed earlier in the ethical standards of journalism, ensuring the story has the whole story instead of only one side will not only make your story stronger, but will also seem more impartial.

    One of my first interviews I ever conducted happened my senior year of high school as an intern at my hometown’s local newspaper, The State Port Pilot. I was very nervous and tried to write down every word the source said, which I successfully did—although my notes were almost illegible! However, the more I interviewed, the more confident I became in my ability to find great sources and record the discussion. You don’t need to record every single word, but instead, be able to note the main topics he/she talks about as well as quoting one or two very strong quotes; this method worked well for me. Also, always ask if you can contact them again in case you need to confirm anything.

    Another method involves using a recording device while interviewing; however, there may be some limitations in recording sources, which you should review prior to using one. It’s also polite to let your source know that you would like to record them prior to the interview.

    Resources for bettering your interviewing skills:

  9. Fact-Checking
  10. Fact-checking and journalism: Jon Stewart quote.

    Image from AZ Quotes.

    Double-—no—triple-check the facts: names, places, quotes, and anything else that may slip by. By fact checking your work prior to publication and having a different set of eyes on it, if possible, you’re setting yourself up for success. Ensuring the names of people, places, organizations, etc., are spelled correctly will not only uphold your professionalism but increase the likelihood of no potential conflicts.

    Resources on fact-checking:

Citizen journalists who understand and practice these journalistic standards will find their reporting, ability to handle conflicts, and overall reputation become more confident and professional.

Have another tip or technique that all journalists should know? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Katie-Leigh Corder headshot

Photo via the author.

About the Author:

Katie-Leigh Corder is a SEO & Audience Development Specialist at F+W Media in Fort Collins, CO. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011 with dual bachelor’s degrees from the School of Journalism and Media and the Department of History and is originally from Oak Island, NC. She’s been a member of SPJ since 2014 and loves the Society’s JournCamp trainings! Follow Katie on Twitter, or her website at katieleighcorder.com.

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Stuart McLean’s stories

The author and broadcaster Stuart McLean during a recording of the Vinyl Cafe radio show. McLean died Wednesday at 68. (Photo: Alana Elliott/Wikimedia Commons)

One of the first people I remember interviewing was the renowned Canadian journalist, author and broadcaster Stuart McLean. It also happened to be an interview which I was late for, but nevertheless, was excited to do.

While the piece that accompanied the interview didn’t run, and I don’t remember very much about the conversation today, it was still an interview that I was excited to do. As the years passed, the work he did signified my belief in the power of good storytelling, be it in books, on the radio or other means.

Stuart McLean, known for his Vinyl Cafe program, which aired on CBC Radio and some public radio stations in the US, died today at the age of 68.

McLean found stories in the smallest, intimate moments – stories that could make you laugh, cry, think and wonder, in the form of stories featuring Dave, Morley and their family, or stories he curated through the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange.

His work went beyond the Vinyl Cafe though – he taught journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto (the inspiration for the Story Exchange, as he wrote in 2003) and did stories for CBC’s various programs, on radio and television, putting a different lens on stories.

He was the man who epitomized the connection of Canada and its culture to the world, using the simplest of mediums, telling unique stories to have the most impact. Yet, I suspect his finest contribution will be beyond his curation of Canadian life – but how along the way he showcased the importance of telling these stories, why these stories are important, and that journalism can go beyond the norm of established expectations.

When he spoke to graduates at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 2012, he spoke of his early career beginnings – concerns of confidence in himself, fumbling around as he called it. He got a job at a summer camp and found a way to give back to the greater good. He then found journalism – albeit being shy and too scared to volunteer at the newspaper or campus radio station.

But as his confidence grew, he wanted to give journalism a try, something he wanted to do. He went to work for the CBC in Montreal, and threw his heart and soul into it. That gave him comfort amidst anything that came with it. It was a lesson he instilled in his students at Ryerson, and is a lesson that is important to bring to this and the next generation of journalists.

He encouraged the students at the ceremony to follow their hearts, and said if you want to be successful, find successful people, and hitch a ride.

“I know these are hard times, but times are always hard in one way or another, so don’t pay attention to that. Pay attention to your heart, which is deep inside of you, so you’ll have to pay deep attention. Find your heart’s desire. If you follow your heart or your instincts, you will be happy where you end up, even if you have no idea how or why you get there.”

It is a lesson that is necessary, today, tomorrow, and in the days, months and years to come.

Thank you, Stuart. So long for now.

This piece was amended at 11:17pm CT on February 15 for clarity.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. 

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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Freedom of Press and History of Journalism in America

Freedom of press has been tested time and time again throughout the history of journalism in America.In recent months, the American political system experienced an upheaval of unprecedented events involving the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Also in recent months, the trust in news and media organizations has plummeted among Americans where only 32 percent have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is “the lowest level in Gallup polling history and is down eight percentage points from 2015.

Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media from Gallup polling.

Image from Gallup.

Needless to say, it only takes moments on social media or listening to leaders to reveal that the media is NOT portrayed in a golden light. The importance of keeping the press free so journalists can be ‘watchdogs’ and ‘gatekeepers’ is extremely high … so high that the overall structure of press freedom may be at risk … again.

Again? Take a step back before allowing clickbait headlines and dismal topics burn you out. Let’s analyze the origins and tests of press freedom throughout our history. Where and when did these freedoms start? In other words, what’s the history of American journalism, and how did it transform to what we are seeing today?

The Notion of Freedom of Press

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved,” wrote Founding Father Benjamin Franklin in The Pennsylvania Gazette.

The founders saw the federal government as a powerful entity; therefore, they developed a system of checks and balances for all branches. The press was considered an outlet to inform the people about what was happening within each branch. The press’ job was to present the facts to the public so that citizens would be aware of issues as well as be involved in politics.

After the Revolutionary War, the Founders debated various interpretations of freedom of speech and of press. James Madison revealed the original form of these freedoms by writing “the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty shall be inviolable.”

As the idea of freedom of speech and press was constructed, both Madison and Jefferson argued that stating or printing one’s opinions—whether they are true or false—did not fall into the federal government’s jurisdiction, and such regulation was not a function the government should perform.

(Source: digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu)

Sedition Act of 1798

England and France were in the midst of a heated war during the late 1790s, and Adams and the Federalists were in power. Because they believed war was imminent, they pushed for the Sedition Act of 1798, which was a test of governmental power over the freedom of press.

Because newspapers tended to be partisan during this time, the Federalists used this Act to attack opposition, which included those newspapers aligned against them:

“Newspapers were highly partisan, and often existed principally to advance the interests of a particular political party. The government prosecuted the editors of the leading Republican newspapers, and succeeded in jailing many Republican editors and closing, at least temporarily, many Republican newspapers.”

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

How Times of War Influenced the Press

Civil War

Abraham Lincoln used his wartime powers to control the freedom of press during the Civil War.

Photo from The History Rat.

As the Civil War began, “it was early recognized by the [Lincoln] Administration that the newspapers might be an effective agent in giving information to the South, as well as in encouraging their resistance. Therefore early in the war, measures were adopted which were intended to curb their activities. These measures may be classified as follows: Control of reporters, Censorship of the Telegraph System, Exclusion from the Mails, Closing of Newspaper Offices and the Arrest of Editors by Military Force.”

In what would be seen as shocking today, the Civil War period saw “more than 300 opposition newspapers in the North shut down” as well as the arrest of “many editors for publishing ‘disloyal’ speech.”

The Union held vast powers during the time of war over the press, and never again has such power and restraint recurred in our history. This, in turn, was a test of power of the federal government in controlling newspapers and what they printed due to wartime fears.

(Sources: Virginia Law Review and chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

Yellow Journalism

Another notable period did not involve the government controlling the press so much as it involved the press controlling the masses. The sensational stories about Spain’s control over Cuba influenced the public and government to become involved in this foreign conflict in the late 1890s.

According to the Office of the Historian: “Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. During its heyday in the late 19th century, it was one of many factors that helped push the United States and Spain into war in Cuba and the Philippines, leading to the acquisition of overseas territory by the United States.”

Such sensational articles—mainly by Hearst and Pulitzer publishers—used dramatic, bold headlines, drawings of events, and “occasionally printing rousing stories that proved to be false.”

Overall, the press influenced ideas and involvement in foreign affairs and showed the impact and power held by the press.

World War I & II

World War I during the Woodrow Wilson era saw a decrease in freedom of press due to wartime and was punishable up to 20 years in prison.

American women protesting the sedition and espionage acts at the White House between 1917 and 1918.

The American people didn’t want to partake in World War I. Because of such disdain for entering the War, President Woodrow Wilson needed to increase public approval for entering war, which involved government propaganda and holding the media accountable.

Because of this, another attempt at stifling press freedom was enacted under the Sedition Act of 1918—a distant cousin of the one in 1798.

“In effect, the government reenacted the Sedition Act of 1798. But whereas the 1798 act had a maximum penalty of two years in prison, the World War I statutes carried penalties ranging up to 20 years in prison. Most people convicted under these acts were sentenced to terms ranging from 10 to 20 years in prison. During World War I, some 2,000 individuals were prosecuted under these laws, including not only individual speakers, but publishers of newspapers and magazines.”

Unlike WWI that saw little enthusiasm from the American public, World War II differed in that the attack on Pearl Harbor awakened a mass frenzy to enter the War. Even so, the 1940s propelled the thought that “the government no longer thought it could (or should) convict individuals for criticizing the war unless their criticisms included false statements of fact. This was a major step forward in our First Amendment traditions.”

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 7, 1941.

Front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Image from The World War II Multimedia Database.

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

Post-September 11th

How the press covered the 9/11 attacks in terms of press freedom.It’s argued that after the September 11th attacks, journalists were reporting in fear—not knowing when the next attack would be or where it would occur.

An article from The Atlantic titled, “They were far less concerned about civil liberties. Editors long ignored isolated reports that the United States was holding suspected terrorists in secret prisons. ‘We wouldn’t publish it even if we knew,’ a senior editor at a major American newspaper said when it was suggested that his paper devote its impressive investigative talent to exposing the secret prisons.”

Since then, the ‘digital revolution’ continues to impact news consumption where social media has made it possible to discover new information in mere seconds. Privacy concerns are on the rise, and traditional, print media outlets are under fire for losing a large part of their revenue streams as well as not successfully adapting to such a fast, visual and interactive, and impatient society.

(Source: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu)

What’s Next?

Fake news, Trump and Facebook—oh my!

Donald Trump declares a war on the media that has caused many to question freedom of press.

Image from CNN.

Think how topsy-turvy the world is when trying to acquire factual and unbiased information. Trump declared “war on the media” due to alternative facts of his apparent success. Trust in the media is at a new time low. Fakes news seems to be influencing citizens more so than journalistic media outlets. These are just a few issues dealing with press freedom and how the media is portrayed in society.

Are we seeing the most censored time in press freedom? Perhaps it’s not the most censored time after reviewing the history of press freedom and past actions by the federal government.

In a Politico article titled “Trump is Making Journalism Great Again,” it stated, “In his own way, Trump has set us free. Reporters must treat Inauguration Day as a kind of Liberation Day to explore news outside the usual Washington circles. He has been explicit in his disdain for the press and his dislike for press conferences, prickly to the nth degree about being challenged and known for his vindictive way with those who cross him. So, forget about the White House press room. It’s time to circle behind enemy lines.”

History proves journalists were trialed, tested, hated, and loved over and over. Take advantage of the need for factual information in this digital age, and don’t let fear override the true role of the journalist—informing the public with honest, factual information so they aren’t left in the dark.


Sources

  1. Gallup, Inc. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup.com. N.p., 14 Sept. 2016. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx.
  2. David S. Bogen, The Origins of Freedom of Speech and Press, 42 Md. L. Rev. 429 (1983)
    Available at: digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/mlr/vol42/iss3/3
  3. Geoffrey R. Stone, “Freedom of the Press in Time of War,” 59 SMU Law Review 1663 (2006).
    Available at: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2955&context=journal_articles
  4. Carroll, Thomas F. “Freedom of Speech and of the Press during the Civil War.” Virginia Law Review, vol. 9, no. 7, 1923, pp. 516–551. jstor.org/stable/1065306.
  5. “Milestones: 1866–1898 – Office of the Historian.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/yellow-journalism.
  6. Bonner, Raymond. “The Media and 9/11: How We Did.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 9 Sept. 2011. Web. 07 Feb. 2017. Available at: theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/the-media-and-9-11-how-we-did/244818/.

Katie-Leigh Corder headshot

Photo via the author.

About the Author:

Katie-Leigh Corder is a SEO & Audience Development Specialist at F+W Media in Fort Collins, CO. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011 with dual bachelor’s degrees from the School of Journalism and Media and the Department of History and is originally from Oak Island, NC. She’s been a member of SPJ since 2014 and loves the Society’s JournCamp trainings! Follow Katie on Twitter, or her website at katieleighcorder.com.

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Social media discourse: Don’t feed the trolls

Dartmouth, Nova Scotia – Monday, the 16th. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has come to this community, just outside Halifax in the eastern part of the country, for a town hall with members of the public to discuss various aspects of policy, as well as the future.

In line is Erin Moore, a journalism instructor at Nova Scotia Community College, and her 7 year old son, Oliver. Her students are inside covering the town hall for an assignment. Her son had seen protesters, some protesting a work stoppage by teachers in the province, others protesting Trudeau’s policies.

Moore rarely tweets on a personal basis, but got someone to take a photo of her and her son at the rally.  She saw it as an opportunity to teach him about protesting and rights as a citizen. She tweeted it and tagged Trudeau.

It got retweeted by his chief of staff, but then got tweeted out by Ezra Levant, a Conservative commentator in the country who owns and operates the web site The Rebel Media.

Moore was then subjected to tweets from his followers, described in this interview with the Canadian public broadcaster CBC, and by the time all was said and done, she had become part of the story.

Moore, in a telephone interview with SPJ, said though she wasn’t threatened or upset by the remarks, being on the other end of the story was something unexpected.

“I loathe the journalists’ idea of being part of the story,” Moore said.

Moore said though that she wanted to speak out, especially as its an issue she discusses with her students, particularly as the issue of social media and news consumption has become a central part of the discussion on the future of journalism.

Social media has become prominent in informing and engaging audiences, but must be done with caution. (Photo: Pixabay)

She says that young journalists need to look at this as a challenge, and that it serves as a reminder for them to remember the principles surrounding journalism ethics, in an age where competition is rife to get the story out there first.

Yet, the bigger concern, Moore says, is the ability to hold politicians to account, saying that there are instances where the media has been regurgitating the official line instead of questioning it.

“There are different things at play, but when you’ve got advertisers and certain politicians who play well to advertisers, are you going to hold them to account, piss them off and they won’t appear, or not challenge it and let the ratings rise?” Moore said.

That also includes informing on social media, even though information is being posted and may bring on the response. Though she did not face the worst of trolling compared to other situations, Moore advises not to respond to trolls, and has a teachable example when it comes to engaging audiences.

“I have a personal example that can serve as a warning that you can set yourself up for,” Moore said. “I don’t want people to be dissuaded to go into journalism because of trolling.”

Moore says in the end, it also reinforces the need of developing a thick skin.

“Your voices are needed – they are important,” Moore said. “You never are on the deserving end, but if you enter the profession at this point, it will be something to consider. You need to be able to deal with it and not lose focus on the bigger issue – telling stories.”

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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A public connection

Bush House, the former home of the BBC World Service in London, where nightly broadcasts became a comfort for the author. (Photo: Nigel Cox/CC license)

It was a night in Spring 2009, just before 1am. The house was quiet as my mom and sister tried to sleep. In my room, I found myself awake because of insomnia, stemming from treatment of a trifecta of illness that kept me from attending high school. I tuned the dial on my radio, volume low so not to wake them, to stumble upon WBEZ, the NPR station in Chicago, doing its top of the hour station ID.

Then, a beep and these words, spoken over music: “It’s 7:00 GMT. This is The World Today from the BBC World Service.”

I had never been a listener to public radio before that night, but that night I listened with interest in what followed – discussions on news and current affairs, as part of a string of programs airing overnight before Morning Edition began at 5. After that night, I was hooked, and WBEZ and the BBC became a comfort to me in the pause between those rising to begin their days, and those returning home after a night shift. After that night, I became a public radio nerd.

I also knew that journalism was my calling for a career, something I would pursue as I completed university amidst industry change.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act, the act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and saw the rise of PBS and NPR in the American media landscape. In spite of funding concerns, and a notable defense of funding from Fred Rogers in 1969, public broadcasting has continued to thrive and prosper.

Journalism and public broadcasting share common goals and objectives — to inform, educate, and stimulate. We are educators, storytellers, people looking to do the best work they can for public good.

These are goals and ideas that reflect part of my journalistic philosophy, and are personal values to which I hold dear. These values epitomize the ideals of journalism’s contributions to society, and remain in the DNA of anyone who wants to contribute to its future, especially through public broadcasting.

In addition to my hope to teach journalism at a university level and the ability to continue writing, a career goal I have is to work for a public broadcaster, either through blogging or in some digital capacity. As these mediums evolve, public broadcasting has the potential still to do the most good for society, to produce authentic offerings – to educate, stimulate and inspire.

It happens whether its through news, public affairs and documentary programs from the BBC or NPR, cultural offerings like 89.3 The Current from Minnesota Public Radio, or programs to inspire like the shows from Jacques Pepin, as well as the Great British Baking Show on PBS – as well as the British comedy and programs that have become a favorite.

The ability to do good also happens in the digital age online and on social media – and it is something that I hope I can contribute to in the near future.

So to all of those who work in public broadcasting, thank you for your commitment to the audience, and for reminding us to never take the principles of education for granted – and to quote Garrison Keillor at the end of his Writer’s Almanac program: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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The natural educators

In two weeks from now, we will say goodbye to the old year and hello to a new one. Crowds will gather at Times Square in New York, around the South Bank in London, and at other areas around the world, and sing the words of Scottish poet Robert Burns:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of Auld Lang Syne?

For Auld Lang Syne, my dear,
for Auld Lang Syne!
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for Auld Lang Syne!

As we reflect on the old year and look ahead to the new, with personal goals in our minds, it is also time to reflect on other things, including our professional goals, and our contributions to journalism.

In 2016, journalism evolved once more, as it continues to expand in the digital age. Twitter turned 10 years old this year, while live video from Facebook, Instagram, and more recently Twitter (through mobile), continues to challenge our ideas of storytelling and reporting.

There were also concerns, as post-truth became the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries, as layoffs continued in their abundance, and questions surrounded Facebook’s algorithms, and its role in journalism.

The BBC’s coat of arms at Broadcasting House in London says: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation,” a reminder of education, one of journalism’s core principles. (Photo: David Dixon via Creative Commons license)

As the year ends, there are also questions – especially from those looking to get careers in journalism, either fresh from university or on the way to the finish, whether its if they can be able to work in this industry, if all their work will pay off, or if they can make a difference.

We enter this profession not to seek fame or fortune, but instead to educate, stimulate, and engage, through these key questions — who, what, when, where, why and how.

The SPJ Code of Ethics, though steadfast in its four key principles — seek truth and report it, minimize harm, be accountable and transparent, and act independently — reminds us of this commitment to education, and that the work that we strive to do is for the public good.

It also reminds us that education can be, and is, a wonderful investment, no matter the medium.

When the French composer Claude Debussy composed his piece Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water) in the early 20th century, it was supposed to be about the speed of ocean water, slow in the beginning but then picking up again. Yet, I suspect it’s more than that. It’s symbolic about life — its joys, its pleasures, and its challenges.

I would also argue that its interpretations would also reflect that of modern journalism — its ups and its downs as the industry evolves, but no matter what happens, the commitment to education and to public service, is unwavering, no matter what beat we cover. Journalism is ubiquitous with not just a democracy, but education.

No matter what changes will present this industry, journalists are educators. There is always going to be a need for journalism, and for that education, no matter the circumstance.

At the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London, there is this saying on its coat of arms: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation.” At the heart of that saying is education, and that an informed public is a peaceful public.

It is also a reminder for us to remember the importance our mediums can have to educate the world, and to never, ever, take that for granted.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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SEO for Journalists: How to Increase Visibility to Your Stories Naturally

SEO for journalists demystified: Learn everything you need to know about how to increase visibility to your online articles and more in this informative blog by Katie-Leigh Corder on SPJ.As journalists, we are expected to adapt to many different and rapidly changing technologies and techniques in order to increase views, shares, clicks, etc. which attract users to our online articles and websites. At the same time, journalists don’t want to fall into the ‘clickbait trap.’ Still, journalists need to prove that their articles are engaging readers, and that’s where search engine optimization (SEO) can help.

What is SEO?

Think of SEO as free visibility for your site if you do it right. Many people assume SEO is purely marketing or ‘robotic’ writing and doesn’t relate to what they’re trying to accomplish with their online presence; however, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to Internet Live Stats, “Google now processes over 40,000 search queries every second on average (visualize them here), which translates to over 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.”

Knowing that people are increasingly searching for practically everything on search engines, how can you become more involved and benefit from these searches? How can you dive into this technical world of optimizing your content while keeping your journalistic ethics in check?

Here are the main areas of SEO in which every journalist should have a basic knowledge so they can implement in their online stories:

Keywords

One of the most important areas of SEO involve keywords and queries—basically what people are searching for and how popular those searches are in search engines. Let’s say you live close to Pueblo, CO, and wrote a news article about a developing wildfire. Obviously, you want people to read your article especially since other local outlets will be ‘competing’ to break the story first. To increase your chances of visibility and higher ranking in search results, you’ll want to conduct keyword research.

Not so long ago, Google had a really awesome, free tool called Keyword Planner that gave you the average monthly searches of keywords; however, instead of an exact number, such as an 170 average monthly search volume, it now gives you a range, such as between 100–10,000—that are ultimately useless for our purposes here. Because of this, I would recommend using limited, free tools or biting the bullet and purchasing an account with Moz or other sites that include keyword research capabilities.

The goal of keyword research is to understand how many people are searching for keywords that are related to your article’s topic. The higher the searches and lower the competition, the more likely your article will receive better visibility and visits. Other tools involve typing in queries in Google and seeing what Google suggests under your search as well as related searches near the bottom of the first page of the search engine results page.

You can find more specific queries people are searching for—called longtail keywords—through Ubersuggest and Answer the Public; sites that are really helpful in determining what people are searching for.

After choosing a keyword or two that people are researching, then you can move forward to the next section.

On-Page Optimization

After writing a great article and conducting keyword research, you want to make sure all of your hard work doesn’t go to waste. By inserting those keywords into certain areas on the back-end of the page, you are following the main ‘rules’ of SEO. Here are the seven areas of a page you should focus your SEO efforts on:

  1. Headline
    First and foremost, the page title of a news article is very important. Not only must you engage users to click on your article, but you must make sure it accurately represents the presented information. It should also include keywords that will increase its ranking in search engine results. But it’s easier than you think.After determining your keywords you can simply plop them as close to the beginning of the headline as possible. For example, let’s say ‘Pueblo Wildfire’ is a trending and breaking news story. People around the area and in the state are searching for ‘Pueblo wildfire’ to stay up-to-date with developments. One way you could approach this is by including ‘Pueblo Wildfire’ into the forefront of your engaging title: Pueblo Wildfire Consumes X Acreage in Less Than a Day.
  2. URL
    Not only should the URL be short and concise, but you should place your main keyword into the URL, as well. For example, using the keyword from above, you could create a custom URL such as: domain.com/pueblo-wildfire-acreage. Mind you, your site may default to adding category names, tags, and/or dates in front of the customization; however, Google has dropped the requirement for news articles to contain numbers in their URLs.
  3. Meta-Title
    Meta-title (aka page title) and headline are sometimes interchanged with one another. The meta-title refers to the title that a user will see if he or she hovers the mouse over the page’s tab, as we can see in the example below:
    This is where you can see a page's meta-title if you hover over the page's tab in your browser.Like the page title, you’ll want to include your keyword near the beginning of the meta-title. Also, you’ll want to include branding in it, such as the example above (usually found at the end of your meta-title): “KRDO.com | …”This is what your meta-title will show up in a Google search results page, using the same example from above:

    This is what your page's meta-title will look like in search results.

    There are character limits you should follow. According to Moz, “Google typically displays the first 50–60 characters of a title tag, or as many characters as will fit into a 512-pixel display. If you keep your titles under 55 characters, you can expect at least 95% of your titles to display properly.”

  4. Meta-Description
    Another item to focus on is the meta-description, or the brief description that shows up underneath URLs in search results:This is what your page's meta-description will look like in search results.

    Include keywords in the description but acknowledge these are most useful for click-through rates, so you’ll want to include between 150–160 characters and make it as unique and descriptive of the page as possible, see Moz for more details.

  5. Images
    In addition to correctly sized images for social-media purposes and showcasing an interesting visual, you’ll want to make sure two elements behind the image are included: the title and alternative tags:

    • Title Tag
      The title tag isn’t important for SEO purposes, but if a user Pins the image then the title tag will—most of the time—fill the description text area. Also, including a title tag ensures your page is Section 508 compliant for those that use screen readers, or if the image doesn’t load correctly, then that text will still show up to describe the image.
    • Alt Tag
      The part of the image that IS crawled by search engine bots is the alternative tag (alt tag). You’ll want to ensure your keywords are included in this tag along with an accurate, natural-sounding description of the image—write as a human, not as a bot. Your images will stand a better chance of showing up in image search results, as well.
  6. Body Text
    Ensure your researched keywords are included within the body text of your article, as well. You’ll want to write as you normally do, but include the keywords a few times throughout your content, which is necessary to increase visibility to your article.
  7. Tagging and Categories
    If the site you’re contributing to is a large site or has lots of past articles, then it’ll probably have a variety of tags or categories to help with organization and search. The tags and categories you choose to better describe your article will help define the URL at times as well as where it is within the site. This also helps with SEO as it gives a better idea of the covered topics in your article.

Sharing

After completing your research, refining your article with keywords, adding engaging images and titles, and publishing it, you’re ready to share it on your site’s social media accounts! Ideally, users will click on the article, engage with others—and not try to bite each other’s’ heads off, and, most importantly, share it on their walls for others to interact with. You’re increasing the visibility of the article and the company’s brand, which is a great indicator that people are visiting your article to read about that certain topic.

Linking

  • External Linking (link building)
    Google will see your site as reliable and trustworthy if other equally trustworthy sites link to you. Think of it as a vote of confidence … one that will increase your site’s rank and visibility.Using the Pueblo wildfire as an example, you write an article with great stats, interviews with locals and professionals, and included great visuals. You use highly searched for keywords, include an engaging title, and share it on social media. Now let’s say another reporter who works at a media outlet farther away from the wildfire wants to write about it, as well, and loves your article. The reporter decides to link to your article from his/her article to give a more localized feel for his/her article.

    With more external sites linking to pages on your site, Google will see you as a trustworthy source and move your page up in rankings for certain queries.

  • Internal Linking
    Another way to increase visibility to the pages on your site—and to make it easier for Google to crawl your site—is to link to other, already published pages within your site that are relevant to the page you are working on.Let’s say there was a past wildfire in your community that you reported on a while back, and you want to reference it in your story about the current wildfire, so you bring up the past wildfire and link to it. This allows users to not only learn more about wildfires in the area, but allows Google to crawl your site better and give ‘SEO juice’ to both your current and past wildfire articles.

The number one factor in ranking and visibility is the quality of your content. Make sure your content is accurate, sounds natural, and doesn’t lead your audience on.

You don’t have to be a SEO expert to implement these strategies into your online content, and the more you practice these tactics, the easier and more natural they’ll become. At the same time, as technology and online methods continue to evolve so will SEO. It’s a good idea to stay up-to-date with where SEO is going to ensure your efforts are paying off (see my earlier post about the best sites to follow for SEO and other technical updates).

Learn everything you need to know to get started with SEO in Moz’s beginner’s guide to SEO.

The author in Colorado Springs, Colorado earlier this year. (Photo via the author)

(Photo via the author)

About the Author:

Katie-Leigh Corder is a SEO & Audience Development Specialist at F+W Media in Fort Collins, CO. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2011 with dual bachelor’s degrees from the School of Journalism and Media and the Department of History and is originally from Oak Island, NC. She’s been a member of SPJ since 2014 and loves the Society’s JournCamp trainings! Follow Katie on Twitter @kvcorder or her website at katieleighcorder.com.

Attribution of top image: By Periodicoelcolombiano (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Why am I here?

Victoria Blake

Victoria Blake

As part of Generation J’s ongoing series of guest essays, Victoria Blake of Tarleton State University looks back at the path that led her to journalism.

Recently, I was asked to write a few questions for a class that included some practice interview questions. One of the questions I created was, “Why did you pick journalism?” I had some time to reflect on this and thought about where I was three years ago.

At that time, I was considering astrophysics or mechanical engineering.I found the idea of searching for improvements in technology interesting. On the other hand, I also found intricate and difficult topics like LGBT psychology interesting. This idea a few years ago led me to choose the issue for my high school senior research paper no matter how much flack I received for it, as LGBT was not yet legalized and many people personally opposed it where I went to school.

But as I have progressed in my writing — and inevitably college career — and switched to journalism two years ago, I found out why journalism was an interesting path to me. I could pursue many things without sacrificing the most difficult details. I could be in a field that rewards details while promoting creativity.

When I researched and wrote about the LGBT community and the challenges that it faces, I found the gritty details are what make it so fascinating to me. Like in astrophysics, the details were nearly everything.On the other hand, the taboo and things that others may not have considered can be interesting to write about. The more I thought about it, the more I began to care about journalism as a career.

I remember that high school paper did not end so well. Some people disagreed with its content, but that was not why I pursued it. , What I was in pursuit of was more information being known about Transgender reassignment surgeries and the spectrum of sexualities that exist. I wanted to share personal stories that haven’t been spoken of much before this point in history.

I’m graduating in a year, and I continue to think about a quote by Geraldo Rivera: “The courage in Journalism is sticking up for the unpopular, not the popular.” At the same time, I feel I can be creative, and the ideas of progress are something I truly believe in.

Kind of like a science career, one that I truly believed I would see through to the end of college,  journalism is a never-ending cycle of learning. I love that.

Now, as I interview people for a prospective story, I continue to ask, “Why am I here?”

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The importance of truth in the social age

The Guardian's offices in London. Its editor C.P. Scott promoted the pursuit of truth, saying: "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." (Photo: Bryantbob/Wikimedia Commons under CC)

The Guardian’s offices in London. Its editor C.P. Scott promoted the pursuit of truth, saying: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” (Photo: Bryantbob/Wikimedia Commons under CC)

As the world of social media has evolved, so too has the dissemination and the curation of journalism, from how we inform and engage our audiences to how we enhance the stories that we tell. Every day, we find ourselves flocking to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other places to help tell these stories, to enhance our crafts, and to reach our audiences in new ways.

Yet as we do, there are equal cons to the pros that have become established in the world of social media, and it concerns the information that exists. We are in an age where anyone can publish anything, and that anything that is published can be taken as fact.

Journalism is adjusting to the world of open information in the social media age, and as it does, I am reminded of this quote: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

That quote came from C.P. Scott, an editor of The Guardian newspaper in Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries, and established the foundation of the paper’s editorial philosophy, and indeed my own.

The SPJ Code of Ethics also has a phrase that is ubiquitous to finding fact: “Seek truth and report it.” It still remains an integral part of journalism even as it evolves in the digital age, and it is something that is worth preserving and promoting, even as questions about what the facts are remain present. Indeed, the Ethics Committee suggests that the rule be applied to all types of journalism, irrespective of platform.

Facebook and Twitter have been useful in the release of information. However, on the same scale, that doesn’t mean that most of the information should be taken at face value. Its important to take the time to verify it, to ensure it is authentic, so the public can be informed of the facts, whether its a phone call with the source, or other means.

The time you put into ensuring accuracy will help you build your relationship with your audience, and present the complete story — with all of the facts. We should not be afraid to question the information that we see, because the questions that come from what is seen can help create a better informed society.

Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, in an essay about social media and facts earlier this year, put it this way: “The truth is a struggle. It takes hard graft. But the struggle is worth it: traditional news values are important and they matter and they are worth defending.”

Even though Twitter, Facebook and other platforms provide pros in the world of journalism, it is important that we must promote these traditional values and ethics, and continue to put them into practice, for they allow us to be better journalists for the people that matter most — our audiences.

Seek truth and report it, because while comment is free, the facts are still sacred.

Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of the SPJ Digital community, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He is also a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Generation J community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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