Alleged police attacks on journalists are strikes on democracy

Arizona State University journalism professor Leslie-Jean Thornton tweeted sound advice for up-and-coming reporters Wednesday night.

“J-students: If your feed isn’t erupting with #Ferguson news now, you need to fix it ASAP,” she tweeted.

Wednesday night showed how Twitter is still an important tool in breaking news. Journalists on the ground were live tweeting actions from both police and the protesters – giving a play by play of the unfolding events.

The breaking news, however, was only part of why young journalists – and journalists in general – should pay attention.

Wednesday was a difficult time for reporters in Ferguson, Missouri. Journalists from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post were arrested while on the job. Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron called the arrests unwarranted and “an assault on freedom of the press to cover the news.”

Journalists should also be aware of the Al Jazeera America crew who police allegedly attacked with tear gas. Business Insider has an article reporting on the attack and raw video showing what happened.

These alleged acts by police are not simply assaults on members of the press, but assaults on democracy. The public has a right to know what is happening in Ferguson. Without reporters on the ground to tell those stories, the public will stay in the dark.

One man apparently in the dark Wednesday was Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. According to the Los Angeles Times, one of its reporters told Jackson two journalists had been arrested.

Jackson’s reaction is telling. The paper quoted him as saying, “Oh God;” he then called the St. Louis County Police Department and asked them to release the journalists.

I don’t know Ferguson well. When I reported in suburban St. Louis for AOL’s Patch.com, my focus was about 10 miles away in Maryland Heights. Yet to see assault on journalism and the First Amendment happening so close to a place on which I reported for two years is incredible.

My thoughts are with the journalists who are covering Ferguson’s unrest. They are doing an incredible service for the public at tremendous danger to themselves.

Rob McLean is a digital managing editor for Hearst Television based out of Omaha, Neb. Previously, he served as a local editor for Patch.com in St. Louis. His work has appeared in C-Ville Weekly, The Reader, HearNebraska.org and Omaha Public Radio. Follow him on twitter at @robertmclean.

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Why must we be reminded of evil that still haunts this country?

by Mike Brannen

With each passing week, it feels somewhere, in some American city, an officer falls victim to gun shots. Journalists don’t have the luxury to ignore it and say “I’m not dealing with this today;” we have to face it head-on.

On Wednesday, it was our turn to cover a deadly police shooting (link). A Mendota Heights, MN police officer was shot in the head during a traffic stop. An 8-hour manhunt ensued, chock full of SWAT situations, chases, gun shots, and a terrified community. At the end of the ordeal, police say the suspect shot at officers, who then shot him. They took him to the hospital, and he is now in custody.

There are some cut and dry days in the news biz. But, we struggle through the dirtier and more depressing ones. When a story like this is constantly evolving, there is no time to digest the seriousness and gravity of what’s transpired. Feelings are temporarily repressed because the next deadline lingers, and there is no time to get caught up in emotion.

I was fortunate to participate in it all from the safety and comfort of my computer at KSTP-TV. My reporters, OUR reporters, bravely followed every move officers made. I cannot fathom lingering near an active crime scene where at any moment, BANG BANG, shots are fired. They are bold, they are risky, and they have brass.

After producing several cut-ins and updates, juggling live reporters and chopper coverage, and chasing the latest information, I finally left work for the night. I had spent hours in a fog, navigating toward whatever clarity in the story we could find. When I emerged, I felt defeated. The responsibility of covering inhumane activity is burdensome and exhausting. It is a weight that we journalists take upon ourselves for our own personal reasons, be it our duty as information dispensers, recorders of history, or merely for our own lurid curiosity.

The solace I take from this horrific crime is how the public reacts. Family, friends, strangers, everyday people, sharing a common response: this shouldn’t happen, and it shouldn’t happen to this guy. He was a standup officer, who now leaves behind a wife and two daughters.

Today, we empathize with law enforcement, and their sorrow. The last 24 hours have not been easy for them, and despite my grief, I imagine their hearts are heavier than mine. It is a loss they cannot replace.

We will mourn, but we will stay strong.

Officers, journalists, and the public.

Even in the face of evil, we will gather our strength to move on.

Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Before that, he was a producer at KIRO7 in Seattle, where he led the 4:30 a.m. show to a #1 share in the U.S. He received an MA in Broadcast Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2010 and received his Bachelor of Journalism degree the year before. He shares more about his life at mikebrannen.com and on Twitter: @MikeBrannen.

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Professor Walsh: Nice title for an evening

By Lynn Walsh

A few months ago I was asked to step in for a journalism ethics class at Northern Kentucky University.

While I was excited, I wasn’t quite sure what to talk about. What are college journalists taught about ethics in our field? What do they already know?

Looking back on my college experience, I realized a lot of what I have learned about ethics in journalism has come from jobs and stories post-college. I had great ethics courses in school that led to great debate and discussions. But sometimes it’s how you respond in the heat of the moment that shows the ethics a person holds true.

During the class, I talked about some of my experiences, and that’s when the discussion and debate began.

Two highlights:

Acceptance of food/gifts. What’s OK to accept? How about free concert tickets to a band you are writing a review for? The class was split. Some believed it was OK. I tend to always say no to anything, just to eliminate the thought or possibility of a conflict of interest. But the idea of adding a disclaimer to the review came up, so the reader always knows what’s going on: transparency.

Codes are guidelines, not laws. Students were surprised to learn there isn’t a set of regulations or rules journalists have to abide by. Codes of ethics, like SPJ’s, are just guidelines. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to decide what he or she will do. Some were so surprised by this, they thought there should be a sort of certification or requirements for journalists to be journalists. But, as I brought up, what does this mean for our right to speak freely? So, the debate continues.

At the end of class there was a wider conversation around the importance of transparency. I’m a believer in having and keeping it in tact on both ends of the reporting process, so people know what’s happening and have all the facts to make their own decisions.

Lynn Walsh is an investigative journalist currently producing stories for 30+ properties across the country owned by the E.W. Scripps company. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Find her on Twitter @LWalsh or email her Lynn.k.walsh@gmail.com.

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Small town journalism

by Cass Herrington

I vomit a little bit when I read stories about small towns, painted with rosy adjectives, like “quaint” and “friendly.”

Because they make me think about the town I’m living in right now. I don’t mean any disrespect to Evansville, Ind. (population 200,000), nor to its surrounding river towns. But these gushy descriptions devalue the legitimacy of small towns’ residents, commerce and social problems.

I’ll admit, I was to blame for perpetuating that small-town myth.

When I moved from Chicago to Evansville for my first full-time job, I thought, “this will be a cinch.” I imagined covering city council meetings, where the rowdiest decisions would involve snowplow deployments or street permits for farmer’s markets.

Evansville quickly proved me wrong.

Covering news in a smaller market is a tightrope walk. Unlike Chicago, where I was a small fish in a school of hundreds of reporters, now I’m one of very few. Even if I cover the mayor in the morning, I’m expected to smile and chat warmly if I see him in line at the grocery store after work.

And many stories I’ve written aren’t akin to that rosy prototype I mentioned earlier.

This is where SPJ has been a godsend. Conflicts of interest are inescapable in smaller towns, but the code of ethics has been my guide in sticky situations. I’m the only full-time reporter at my news station, so I simply can’t drop a story and pass it over to someone else. I have to do my due diligence, even if it means covering my friend, my doctor or the barista who pours my morning coffee.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges I face in a smaller market is the community expects that I be a champion of their town. I’m not sure if this is unique to Evansville (please chime in with your thoughts), but I often receive requests to “promote” an event or “highlight” a certain political figure.

This, of course, is not what I’m trained to do.

However, listeners have called or written to me questioning why I asked a local politician a tough question – or worse, claimed that I have a vendetta because I reported some unflattering, albeit true, information.

Sometimes I wish I had an SPJ guardian angel who could guide me through these times, but I trust in my heart that I’m doing my duty to elevate the cause of journalism in this town – where the two newspapers have now become one. And the commercial radio news station is now playing classic rock.

And, who’s to say that I’m not a “champion for Evansville”? I believe that journalism is tough love. We report truth because we aspire for better.

Not the “quaint,” “picturesque” ideal that has bored me to nausea.

Cass Herrington is the host of  WNIN’s All Things Considered and The Trend. Follow her on Twitter @CassHerrington.

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Recognizing journalism excellence shows support for your fellow reporter

Kansas City Press Club Heart of America Awards
On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the Kansas City Press Club’s annual Heart of America awards. Journalists from across the area came to the Brio Tuscan to honor their peers’ successes and receive an award or two.
I was impressed by the event’s turnout. Organizers saw journalists from Columbia, Springfield and other news markets not in the immediate KC area. Watching the room of reporters, editors and producers applaud each win reminded me how fantastic our profession can be at its best.
Kansas City Heart of America awards
While we journalists have a healthy sense of competition, we also champion the work of our peers. When another station or paper gets a fantastic scoop, we devour that story and learn from it.
Our attitude toward other journalists reminds me of something I think the late Harold Ramis said about Second City performers on the Ghostbusters DVD commentary. (It’s been a while since I listed to it, so if this is inaccurate — mea culpa)
In the commentary, I remember him saying Second City performers help each other with jokes and deliveries. To paraphrase, comedy wasn’t me-centric with the group, it was a team-effort.
Kansas City Press Club Heart of America Awards
Journalism, similarly, is a team effort. And when we work together and fill in the gaps in coverage, society as a whole benefits from that team-effort.

Congratulations to all the winners in the Heart of America awards. I’m looking forward to seeing who wins in 2015.

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A Cover Letter with Columns? I’ll Try It.

T-Format Cover Letters

This week, I came across a different way to construct a cover letter. In “Perfecting Your Cover Letter to a ‘T’” posted in August 2012, Amanda Augustine, a job search expert for TheLadders, proposes a unique way to quickly highlight your qualifications against the needs of the employer.

In this sample job description and cover letter posted with the article, the fictional applicant begins with an intro that demonstrates her knowledge of the company and her desire to work in this position. The body is broken up into two columns, “Your Needs” and “My Qualifications” (ignore the colored highlighting in the letter). Instead of “Your Needs,” I think “Employer’s Needs” is a better header for the column that lists the top three qualifications from the job description that you possess. Under the “My Qualifications” column, the applicant explains how she has this specific experience.

The author calls this a T-format cover letter, but I don’t think “T” is a proper description of it. I’d rather call it a table-format cover letter since you will probably use the Table tool in Word to format it. One problem I find with this formatting is that, while it’s fine for Word documents, what about the times when you need to send a cover letter within the body of an email? The formatting will probably look wonky and need reworking.

While this particular sample cover letter may be a bit wordy, I like the two-column format because it provides an organized, at-a-glance way for employers to quickly scan your cover letter and get to the meaty stuff.

For my next cover letter, I’ll definitely try it out.

What do you think of this type of cover letter? Have you ever tried this formatting? If so, let us know!

Jennifer Nicole Sullivan is the vintage fashion writer/editor at About.com and a contributing writer at Newport Mercury. Previously, she was a copywriter at Real Simple magazine and a features reporter at Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Jennifer is based in NYC, but she’s still a Dallas girl! Connect with her on Twitter @trendyjenny or learn more at jennifernicolesullivan.com.

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Minorities and women leading the masthead

By Cass Herrington

I’m glad Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times.

Don’t get me wrong, I was devastated to see the headline pop up on my iPhone screen. A woman finally makes it to the highest leadership post in journalism in the U.S., only to get smacked down a few years later.

But in hindsight, I’m thankful this happened. News organizations are experiencing much-needed soul-searching. I’ve read and heard some of the most honest discussions about women and minorities in journalism.

NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explained last week how the “glass cliff” sets women and minorities up for failure. Essentially, the term suggests when women and minorities are promoted, they tend to be promoted to struggling firms in crisis.

If General Motor’s CEO Mary Barra was listening, she was probably shaking her head in sad agreement.

The reasons behind this phenomenon are speculation at this point (you can read the transcript here), but what happens afterward poses a problem for future social mobility. When an organization looks at filling that empty spot, its management thinks to some degree, “well, we already tried hiring a woman, and it didn’t pan out.”

But here’s where we can prevent that from happening. Right here, right now. We’re having this conversation about women and minorities in leadership roles and about the sociological structures that are holding us back from more diversity at the top.

Managers, editors and directors, I kindly ask that you take a third look at your hiring practices. Perhaps, even ask (we are journalists after all) the women and minorities in your newsroom if they feel their work is playing to their strengths. This is the magic of diversity: your life’s experience delivers a certain, unmatched value to your work. You just need the opportunity to use it.

The New York Times could have another chance to right the ship. Dean Baquet, Abramson’s replacement, is the first-ever African-American executive editor at the Times. Like Abramson, he’s a heavy-hitting force to be reckoned with, and he has the Pulitzers to prove it.

But as All Digitocracy’s founder Tracie Powell, who is black and a woman, puts it, this historic moment is being overshadowed by race and gender politics.

“From now on, despite all of Baquet’s credentials including his Pulitzer Prize, people will quietly wonder whether a still sexist New York Times elevated an African American, at least in part, to give itself cover for firing an uppity woman,” Powell said in a column responding to the news.

We may never know the Times’ intentions. But one fact is invariable. According to a recent Pew Research study on news media, long-tenured women journalists are outnumbered two to one by men. This is what made Abramson’s seniority at the newspaper so remarkable.

This poses an opportunity for other media organizations to look at ways to keep women and minorities from falling off of that “glass cliff.” And I’m thankful for Jill Abramson’s unfortunate situation — because it helped generate these vital conversations.

Cass Herrington is the host of  WNIN’s All Things Considered and The Trend. Follow her on Twitter @CassHerrington.

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The sun sets on another regional conference season

SPJ’s regional conferences are an important networking tool for professionals.
National conferences have more opportunity for journalists to get lost in the crowd. The regional conference gives journos a chance to show their stuff and it’s also more saturated with colleagues immediately affecting the surrounding area.
Previously I’ve blogged about why journalists should attend their regional conference. Since then, I attended the 2014 Region 7 conference held at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. The organizers did a first-class job hosting the event — complete with a Kansas City barbecue dinner to open the festivities.
Among the most interesting conference sessions was one presented by the Shawnee Police Department’s public information officer, Bill Hissle. Hissle spoke about PIO/journalist interaction during breaking news situations and his day-to-day responsibilities.
While Hissle’s presentation was among the highlights of the conference, the event was chalked full of great information for both veteran journalists and students.
If you haven’t attended a regional conference before, consider attending in 2015. Place yourself in situations where you can learn to be a better reporter and meet people who can help help your career. Few events do that better than the SPJ regional conferences.

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DIY Data Storytelling

By: Guest Blogger Hilary Powell

Words are surely the fundamental foundation of news, but data visualization tools can help make content relatable.

I never thought my first footsteps in locative storytelling as graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School would ring relevant years later. At the time, we experimented with telling GPS-triggered stories and discussed how the new second generation iPhone would have a satellite positioning system.

Now, you collegiates can get your kicks out of maps any day.

While I’m no digital diva when it comes to coding online maps for storytelling, I’ve come to find I don’t have to be. Several reporter-friendly platforms are available to help you plot your prose. Check out these free resources:

BatchGeo: If you can cut and paste, pop over to this beginner-friendly site, pronto. After putting data into the BatchGeo box, validate and set options for your spreadsheet, then hit the “Map Now” button. You can save the easily-crafted cartogram to share online.

StoryMapsJS: An innovation out of Medill’s Knight Lab, StoryMapsJS helps journalists chronicle an event by merging interactive maps with digital content.  “We think it’s a good tool for stories in which geography and time are key components,” says Ryan Graff, editor at Knight Lab. He says successful projects have come from newsrooms seeking out the open source Lab for advice.

Google Fusion Tables: This cloud-based tool lets you visualize data tables. After adding Fusion Tables to you Google Drive, the program prompts you to import a data set into Google Spreadsheets, or upload figures. Because Google is a search engine superstar, there is also an option to hunt for public data tables. After importing you can create interactive maps and graphs. You can also filter through data to focus on the most topical information. Google also provides a step-by-step tutorial if you’re stuck after getting started. Data that can be mapped in Fusion Tables can also be a layer on a Google Map.

If you get stuck, data-journalism expert Claudia Núñez advises to just search for a tutorial online. The beauty of mapping narratives is that there is no one road to reach your data destination.
Hilary Powell is a Reporter for Lakeshore Public Television (PBS) in Merrillville, Ind. In the past, she served as an Associate Producer with The Oprah Winfrey Network. She loves sharing stories that express universal truths about the human experience. Follow her on Twitter, @mshilary.

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6 Places to Dig Before Conducting an Interview

Before interviewing someone for a story, especially if it’s a politician, community leader or celebrity, a great reporter always does extensive research. Here’s a handy checklist of where you should dig:

  1. Google: Of course, right? But be sure to check out Google Images and Google News, which can uncover different content. Google the person’s name with and without quotation marks and variations of his or her name (e.g., “Jennifer Nicole Sullivan,” “Jennifer Sullivan,” Jennifer Nicole Sullivan).
  2. Social media accounts: You can often find up-to-date information about what your subject is doing—especially social media savvy celebs—by researching their accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
  3. Personal websites: Do they have a personal website? Read it, especially their blog posts.
  4. Entertainment media: Watch their films and TV shows, read their books and listen to their albums. Yes, go to the library if you need to get your hands on these materials quickly. If there’s not enough time, consume their recent projects and be familiar with the breadth of their work.
  5. Videos of interviews: If it’s a notable person, hunt for videos of him or her being interviewed on news or entertainment shows.
  6. Friends and relatives: If possible, talk to people close to the subject to get a better sense of his or her personality and character.

Have any other research tips? Let us know!

Jennifer Nicole Sullivan is the vintage fashion writer/editor at About.com and a contributing writer at Newport Mercury. Previously, she was a copywriter at Real Simple magazine and a features reporter at Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Jennifer is based in NYC, but she’s still a Dallas girl! Connect with her on Twitter @trendyjenny or learn more at jennifernicolesullivan.com.

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