Archive for August, 2012


Filter and vet this quote? Fuggitaboudit!

Here’s a bad journalism habit that needs to end now.

A July 15 New York Times story described a practice said to be prevalent among reporters covering the U.S. presidential election.

The story by Jeremy W. Peters detailed how many media organizations have allowed top campaign officials to vet and alter quotes as the price of being granted on-the-record access.

If true, this practice should stop before this election cycle goes any further. It’s shameful that reporters – who presumably are among the best and brightest in their newsrooms to have drawn this assignment – could be so gutless as to go along with these pre-conditions to an interview.

Their editors – who clearly know about the practice – ought to be ashamed to have allowed this abdication of editorial control to have occurred on their watch.

Quit it. Stop. Now.

Earlier this year, I covered a political rally in East Rutherford, N.J., where David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser, came to deliver an endorsement for a Democratic congressman who was an early Obama supporter.

Axelrod gave his speech, and afterward I was part of a group of reporters who were able to ask him a few questions.

None of his handlers made any attempt to impose conditions on the interview. Had there been a request to review quotes, I would have informed them that we were operating under New Jersey rules. The response would have been something to the effect of “Fugghitaboudit.”

Bear in mind, I’m not saying that reporters shouldn’t double check quotes with a sources for the sake of accuracy. I do that all the time, as I’m sure most reporters do. We want to get quotes rights.

But the practice described in the Times story goes beyond making sure a quote is accurate.

It’s more about access and control and allowing a political campaign to massage the quotes that appear in a story.

But what could a campaign official possibly have to say to make it worth a reporter’s while to allow a source to manipulate a story?

The Times story reminded me of a book that had a big influence on me when I was thinking about becoming a journalist.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of a series of stories that Rolling Stone magazine writer Timothy Crouse wrote about the press corps that was covering the 1972 campaign between President Richard Nixon and Democratic challenger George McGovern.

His stories became the book “The Boys on the Bus,” which described some of the perils so-called pack journalism.

But whatever their shortcomings, the boys on the bus never let a Nixon or McGovern staffer dictate how quotes would appear in a story.

The Times story also reminded me of a painful lesson I learned shortly after starting my journalism career.

I was writing a story on the controversy over the proposed closure of several Catholic elementary schools in northern New Jersey.

One of the people I quoted was an outspoken mother of a student who was outraged at how the local archdiocese had handled the situation.

Shortly before the story was set to run, the mother called me back, asking me to read her the part of the story where I had quoted her.

Being an inexperienced reporter, I did so. She then pleaded with me to allow her to change her quotes in order to tone down or eliminate her criticism.

She was not disputing the accuracy of what I had written. But after talking to her local pastor, she had gotten cold feet about criticizing church officials.

I reluctantly agreed even though it rendered that part of my story fairly useless after she had backpedaled away from all her previous statements.

When my editor found out what I had done, he was furious. But it was too late. The story ran with the watered-down quotes, and I learned a painful lesson, never again repeated, about letting people manipulate my story by ceding editorial control.

If the story had happened today, I would have kept the original quote but allowed the woman to later disavow her criticism.

The Times deserved credit for raising this issue. One of the Times editors is quoted as saying that journalists should push back harder against this practice.

I couldn’t agree more. By all means, let’s push back.

Kudos also to The Associated Press, the National Journal and several other media organizations that have come out since the story ran and affirmed they will not allow their reporters to engage in this practice.

The public expects us to provide them with an accurate and unvarnished account of what happens on the campaign trail. These stories are too important to allow a source to crawl into the story in this way.

I would urge any reporter asked to do so to refer back to New Jersey rules of journalism: Fugghitaboudit.

 

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Do yourself a favor: come to Fort Lauderdale

I’ve been a journalist for 34 years, and the learning curve in the past five years has been just as steep as it was for the first five.

I’ve learned to tweet, blog and use social media to advance my writing and reporting.

I’ve learned how to shoot and edit video. I even spent some time in film school learning about visual grammar and how to tell a story in a minute or two.

I’ve produced my own Internet radio news program. I’ve covered raging floods with my trusty iPad. And I still take notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and notepad.

None of this is remotely a complaint. Learning how to tell old familiar stories in completely new ways has been one of the pure joys of being a reporter in recent years.

I look at the world differently now. While on assignment, I think to myself: I can live-blog this, shoot some raw video, write my story on a park bench and tweet breaking news. It’s terrific fun, and somehow I still get paid for it.

One very tangible reason I still have this job (aside from my sheer incompetence at almost everything else) is the fact that I’ve managed to stay somewhat current with all these changes thanks in no small part to SPJ.

Most newsrooms have had to cut back if not eliminate their budgets for training and continuing education. If you want to take a couple of days off now to attend a seminar or a conference, chances are they will be on your own dime and time.

That’s why I think SPJ is such a solid investment in myself. For $75 a year, I’ve been able to access a ton of training and tools that have enabled me to be a better reporter.

I think back to all those spring conferences I’ve attended in Salt Lake City, Denver, Fort Collins, Colo., Long Island, N.Y., and Tacoma, Wash. There wasn’t one where I didn’t come back to the newsroom the following Monday and start applying something I had learned.

The pace of learning accelerates even more when I think of what I learned at our national conventions in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

That’s one reason I’m so looking forward to this year’s convention, Sept 20 to 22 at the Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale. It’ll be our second year teaming with the Radio Television Digital News Association to present the conference we call Excellence in Journalism. (Information and registration are atexcellenceinjournalism.org.)

First, there’s the hotel itself. It is so unlike any of the earlier convention venues we’ve been to in recent years. You walk out the back door and you’re a short walk from the ocean.

The white-sand beach has sections roped off for a tortoise nesting area. I’m told on a moon-lit night you can go down to the water’s edge and see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

If I were not slated to be at a national board meeting, I would definitely take the hovercraft tour of the Everglades. And I plan a return visit to an outrageously retro Polynesian tiki bar that dates back to the 1950s. (Think “Mad Men” with flame dancers and umbrella drinks.)

But I digress. There’s also some excellent learning opportunities and great speakers.

One of our keynote speakers is Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia University journalism professor who I heard talk earlier this year at an SPJ event in New York City. He is an expert on using social media to enhance your journalism skills. An hour with him will definitely raise your reporting game.

And not everything is high tech. Another speaker is Rick Bragg, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter and best-selling author. In my book, Rick is one of the best storytellers of our generation. And trust me, even in a digital age, stories still matter. I think they matter more.

Our partnership with RTDNA has made our conventions even more useful. As all forms of media have converged in recent years, people on all sides of our profession have skills that are useful to share.

For example, one breakout session I’m hoping to catch is “Unleash Your Inner Broadcaster,” presented by the Public Radio News Directors. This is a program we would never have been able to assemble without our friends from RTDNA.

Oh, and one of my personal journalism heroes, longtime public radio host Bob Edwards, will be speaking. He’ll also receive our Fellows of the Society award, one of our highest honors. I can’t wait.

This convention also will mark the end of my year as president. This job has been a joy, and I intend to work it hard right up to the last day.

But one thing I’ll enjoy when I turn the presidency over to the very able Sonny Albarado is this: When the 2013 convention in Anaheim rolls around, I expect there will be a lot more time to soak up the learning there.

But you won’t have to wait that long. Stop reading and register today while you can still get the early bird rate (ends Aug. 28). After all, aren’t you and your career worth the investment?

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Responding to The Red and Black controversy

Something remarkable happened in Athens, Georgia last week.

A group of student journalists — mad at what they saw as an infringment upon their editorial independence — walked out of the newsroom of The Red and Black, the independent newspaper for the University of Georgia.

They used their basic reporting skills and social media tools to create their own website and let the world know about their grievances.

It worked. In just 72 hours, their campaign forced the management of the paper to relent on just about every one of the student’s demands.

The paper’s board of directors apologized, a board member who wrote a draft memo that infuriated the students resigned and editorial control returned to the place where it was meant to be – in the hands of the student editor-in-chief.

When was the last time you ever heard of something like this happening in any newsroom, collegiate or professional?

What these students did took smarts, courage and moxie. They showed the kind of talents that will serve them well as journalists. They have my admiration.

And read all over….

As many of you know, Michael Koretzky and I have been having a very public disagreement over what SPJ’s response should have been to The Red and Black controversy.

The first thing you need to know though is that I have a lot of respect for Michael. He is completely fearless about bringing up difficult and often uncomfortable issues that others have been reluctant to raise.

That’s precisely what he’s doing in this instance, provoking a discussion that is well worth having.

I also love the way he has helped drag SPJ kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Our first SPJ webinar happened this summer because of Michael’s insistence. I helped produce it, and the results were awesome.

On The Red and Black case, though, we have an honest difference of opinion, not so much on the substance of the case but on the process of how to best do advocacy work.

Fact-finding first

A substantial amount of my time as president this year has centered around advocating for journalists, many of whom were either in trouble with police, campus administrators, lawyers, bureaucrats or elected officials.

One thing I quickly realized was that there was no one-size-fits-all strategy. Each situation required a different approach.

Sometimes I made phone calls. Sometimes I wrote letters or op-ed columns. Often it meant talking to local reporters. And most times I used social media like Facebook and Twitter to help get the word out.

My typical method though was to begin with fact-finding. One thing SPJ has taught me is the value of teamwork. So I often delegated this task to a local chapter leader or to a regional director.

So for example, when a Temple University photojournalism student was arrested this spring while taking photographs for a classroom assignment of Philadelphia Police making an arrest, we got involved.

I consulted with Philadelphia chapter president Phil Beck and Region 1 Director Luther Turmelle. In very short order we dashed off a letter to the Philadephia Police commissioner, protesting the arrest.

Be the change…

There are two basic reasons to do advocacy work. One is to feel good about yourself after having gotten off a righteous letter. The other is to actually accomplish real and meaningful change.

My preference has been the latter. Too often, journalism group bang out angry  denunciations that hit the target with a thud and go nowhere. I prefer to get under the skin of those whose behavior I’m trying to change.

Speed is not the issue…

I take pride in the fact that on many of the controversies that cropped up this year, we jumped on them right away and got a quick response.

For example, when New York City police arrested journalists who were covering an Occupy Wall Street protest, we had something drafted that very first day and we stayed on the issue for several months, even penning an open op-ed about it.

Likewise when a school board in New Jersey wanted to codify our Code of Ethics and hold tribunals to judge whether local journalists and bloggers were unethical, Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith and I pounced on it.

I spent a lot of time talking to the school board president directly, and in the end, SPJ helped convince the board to drop its policy — all within a matter of days.

Social media is not the issue…

At my job at The Record (not the Hackensack Record) I’m known as one of the more prolific users of social media. I do more blogging and shoot more video than most other reporters and I do my own Internet radio program.

I’ve tried to bring all those same talents to bear while advocating on behalf of SPJ. But an effective advocate needs to have a wide array of tools. And sometimes simply talking to people and asking questions can be more persuasive than tweets or letters.

Patience works…

Not all situations require blasting out instant opinions. Take, for example, the recent controversy at the University of Memphis, where a student paper had its funding cut by a third, more than any other group of campus, following controversy over some of the stories it published and other stories it chose not to cover.

One journalism group asked me to co-sign a letter of protest that simply took as gospel what the students had to say and wrote a short angry letter a day or two later.

I took a different approach. With a lot of help from Neil Ralston,  SPJ’s VP for campus affairs, we asked a lot of questions of campus administrators.

By the time were were done (this took about 10 days) I knew their position backward and forward. And we sent this letter and posted online.

But I also knew their thinking well enough to find the weak spots in their case. And like any good advocate, that’s where I applied the most pressure.

Teamwork works…

When the Red and Black controversy erupted, I turned to Neil and Michael for their advice. I encouraged Michael to do the fact-finding.

But either Michael did not understand his role or I failed to explain it to him.

I was glad when he offered to send someone to go to Athens and attend a pivotal meeting with the paper’s managers and student staff last Friday.

I was looking forward to hearing from him on what had happened and formulating a quick response.

Instead, I opened my email Saturday morning to find that Michael had gone ahead and posted his findings to his regional director’s blog. I had no clue that he was going to do that. I had been expecting him to report back to me or at least let me know what he was planning to do.

We are much powerful as a advocate for journalism when we work together. Perhaps that makes us a bit less nimble, but it also makes for a smarter and more powerful response.

Michael does not work for me. We are all volunteers in this effort called SPJ. But I do wish he had done more to work with me.

Whose speaks for SPJ?

Michael’s post presented two immediate problems.  Despite the fact that he posted to his regional blog, some people mistook it for SPJ’s position on the Red and Black controversy. One person even tweeted it as such.

Because of that confusion, I called Michael and asked him to take down the post, which he did, albeit under protest.

The president of SPJ speaks for the organization. I’ve been careful in that role to consult with others before issuing an opinion on behalf of the Society.

Getting both sides…

Michael’s post immediately came under fire from some who questioned why he did not make more of an effort to contact the management at The Red and Black to get their reaction to his findings.

Call me old school, but I still believe in the value of getting both sides of a story, whether it’s for a newspaper or a blog post.

It is, after all, what our ethics codes asks us to do. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources.”

That means interviewing all the stakeholders in a story. It does not mean waiting days for them to respond. But it does mean making the phone call and writing “Stakeholder XYZ could not be reached for comment yesterday.”

Michael tells me that’s so 20th century. I respectfully disagree. I think it remains a method that works best no matter what platform or medium we’re working on.

Can we do better?

Of course we can. With his amusing graphics and his snarky sense of humor, Michael makes some interesting suggestions on ways we can use social media as a means to apply pressure to a unfolding situation.

The Red and Black situation was unique. Most journalism controversies don’t erupt and then blow over in a span of a just a few days.

Figuring out how we do it will fall to my successor Sonny Albarado, who becomes president at our convention in September.

I’m not opposed to exploring ways we can have the speed of social media, thorough fact finding, teamwork and deliberation. But let’s get it right, and let’s work together to protect and foster journalism.

n

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