Archive for November, 2017


Matt Lauer and a transparent industry

NBC News has said it has fired Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of the Today Show. In an email to staff, Andrew Lack, NBC News’ chairman, said a complaint was received on Monday night, and that a review of that complaint led to the termination of his employment.

Lack added that NBC News management was saddened about the events, and aimed to be as transparent about the news as possible.

Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie made the announcement as the Today Show went live in the Eastern Time Zone.

Matt Lauer, seen here in 2012, was fired from NBC News this week for allegations of sexual harassment. (Photo: David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons/CC)

The news of Lauer’s termination of employment comes a week after CBS fired Charlie Rose, the co-anchor of CBS This Morning, and that PBS terminated the distribution deal of his eponymous talk show.

While the subject can be difficult, it is necessary for journalists to be held to account. SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent. Producers at Today were right to make the announcement, and they handled it as they would other stories.

Indeed, as my colleague, Ethics Chair Committee Andrew Seaman, wrote last week, there is a need for journalists to be held accountable, and for journalists themselves to hold their newsrooms accountable. For the record, I also serve on the Ethics Committee.

Guthrie added that media organizations were going through a reckoning that is long overdue. Issues women in journalism have faced are limited to not just sexual harassment, but also issues of trolling and harassment on social networks, a debate that has reached no clear answer from social media companies.

NBC must keep its word to be open and transparent about this issue. Just because he is one of the most prominent journalists on the network does not excuse the behavior. Women enter journalism for the same reasons as men – to inform, engage and educate, and they should be able to do that in a workplace free from intimidation, bullying, or anything that impedes the ability to do just that.

The conversations about our industry are important ones to have, and companies must be transparent about it – whether the issue is sexual harassment allegations or whether its policies on trolling and the impact on the relationship journalists have with their audiences on social media – because transparency will benefit the public in the long run when it comes to trust in news organizations.

NBC can, and must be transparent, not just for its own sake, but for journalism’s. I hope they keep their word and do just that.

Editor’s note: This post was amended at 9:39am CT to amend a typo.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Letting our principles lead the way in the time of social media

The alerts pop up in the right-hand corner of my screen in quick succession, each one more heartbreaking than the last.

“Possible attack in Barcelona.”

“In La Rambla and I think a car or van has driven through the pedestrian part.”

I begin tracking the accumulating tweets, reaching out in Spanish and English to scared and confused tourists and locals alike.

“Are you safe? Can you tell me what you saw?” I ask them.

Graphic videos come in without warning, showing motionless, bloodied bodies strewn across the famous boulevard. It’s difficult to imagine something so awful happening in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but soon, it becomes clear: this is terrorism.

As a member of my network’s social newsgathering team, safely ensconced in a New York City newsroom, I can only glean the horror from my computer screen, in shaky cell phone videos, or over the phone with witnesses struggling to grasp what has just taken place. I, on the other hand, have seen this many times before.

As smartphones and apps have become so ingrained in our lives, news now breaks almost exclusively on social media. It is a blunt, yet indispensable tool in a network’s newsgathering efforts.

NBC’s Becky Bratu says we must not forget values of humanity when reporting on events through social media.

I am part of a 24/7 team that monitors the fire hose that is global social media for any inkling of an unfolding event – and there have been lots of late. These platforms have given us an ability to cover stories in areas not immediately accessible to a US based news operation.

We no longer need to fire up a satellite truck and camera crew to get to the news. We can watch it almost as it happens. On Facebook or Twitter, the distance between a reporter and her source disappears, but our journalistic ethics, standards, and professionalism shouldn’t.

Our team is trained to move fast, finding witnesses and verifying content from the scene in an event’s immediate aftermath, knowing that we are competing against reporters in newsrooms all across the world.

With shrinking attention spans (and news cycles), I wonder sometimes if these faraway fellow journalists also stop and think about our guiding principles: seeking the truth, being accountable and, perhaps most importantly, minimizing harm.

In the wake of a mass shooting in rural Texas this month, Dallas Morning News reporter Lauren McGaughy wrote that the media that descended upon the small community of Sutherland Springs in such large numbers and with so many satellite trucks in tow, owed the grieving town an apology.

“You’re more than a hashtag,” she said.

“As journalists, our role as observers and investigators in times of tragedy is important. But so is our empathy and our humanity. As a profession, we must have a conversation about how best to chronicle horrors like this. We can do better.”

We should do better. As social platforms have given us access to an infinite amount of sources and stories, regardless of our organizational resources, we must not forget our humanity. We should bring compassion for those struck by tragedy or involved in traumatic events, even as we work from behind a Twitter avatar.

In an effort to establish a set of common principles and in accordance with our company’s practices, a colleague and I developed a social newsgathering ‘boot camp’ with an emphasis on the standards that should be met in our reporting.

Teaching it to dozens of people throughout the company, we highlighted the importance of making sure people are safe before we ask them to tweet at us, as well as the need to protect a source’s personal information. I am hopeful that this small initiative, as well as broader ones led by nonprofit groups such as First Draft, will better equip us to, in their words, “address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age.”

As the attack in Barcelona unfolded, I managed to connect on the phone with a life-long resident who had witnessed the carnage up close. I hoped to honor his generosity (and courage) in sharing his first-hand account with our audience, as our mission remains, first and foremost, to inform the public.

Social media gives us a new toolkit in serving this mission, but our principles should lead the way.

Becky Bratu is a reporter based in New York. She has been working with NBC News for more than six years in various roles, most recently as a reporter on the social newsgathering team. She has also written for NBCNews.com on topics ranging from Catholicism to wine investment. She can conduct interviews in five languages, one of them her native Romanian. Bratu holds a Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In her spare time,
she has been learning to code. You can interact with her on Twitter here

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Twitter and the truth

Two tube stations within London’s Underground were reopened after reports emerged that shots were fired on Oxford Street in central London. In a message on Twitter, British Transport Police, which looks after trains and the subway network, said there was no such evidence of gunfire.

Transport Police responded alongside officers with the Metropolitan Police. According to a statement from the Met, they responded as if the incident was terrorism related. The cause of what happened is under investigation.

News organizations in Britain and internationally began reporting on the incident, as Oxford Circus’ tube station is known to be one of the busiest in the system, and central to much of London’s shopping areas and cultural life. As that news was reported, many saw the information disseminated on Twitter.

Twitter has become a way for audiences to get information quickly and to stay informed in a fast paced news environment. Yet, while there have been pros for journalists in using Twitter, there also have been cons – particularly on whether or not its credible, whether the tweet comes from a civilian or a British pop star known for a song in which his heart skipped a beat.

No matter who the person is receiving (or trying to disseminate) news, getting the right information out is essential. SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, to cross every t and dot every i, and advises that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. This applies to all platforms, including and especially social media outlets like Twitter.

If you’re reporting a breaking news story on Twitter, here are some tips to remember:

  • Verify everything: If its a photo or testimonial, try to contact the user behind that to verify what happened. Vet the material before you use it, whether in an article or on the air.
  • Cite with caution: If you come across a report about a story you’re covering, consider if it will be helpful to you in your coverage. If you cite it, mention the report as you try to confirm information.
  • Be transparent: A forthright journalist is a credible journalist. If you get something wrong, correct it. If you’re not running with something because of uncertainty, explain why. Even if you’re retweeting a report, add a note at the top of the tweet for clarity and explain why its important.
  • Don’t tweet for tweeting’s sake: As mentioned above, if you find a report, consider if it will be helpful to you in your coverage. Will it help more than harm? Will it help the public as you tell the story? Would it benefit your friends, family or neighbors if you were telling them? Think twice before retweeting.
  • Verify everything: It’s so nice it’s worth saying twice! You have an obligation to get the most accurate information out to the public possible. Remember, it is better to be right than be first.

In the world where the news cycle has become fast paced, the goal of getting accurate information out to the public has not. So when you take to Twitter, and bear these tips in mind, you can show anyone, even that pop star, why the need to seek truth and report accurately is crucial.

You’ll also reduce the amount of skipping heartbeats along the way.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

#SPJ4All in action

One night in April 1986, Garrison Keillor stood on the stage of the World Theater (now the Fitzgerald Theater) in St. Paul, Minnesota, as part of celebrations for its grand reopening after years of renovation. His program, A Prairie Home Companion, was simulcast that evening on public radio and public television stations nationwide.

As the show’s association with the theater, and the timeline of events which led to the renovations were discussed, touching on a moment when things looked bleak, Keillor offered this remark: “Nobody likes to ask for help, but you find out about other people when you do.”

I know this feeling too well. This week marks the fourth month since I relocated to Minneapolis after 18 years in Chicago. I had a little family there and a couple of colleagues that I had worked with on SPJ matters, and I had been to Minneapolis twice in the five years since, but it was still relatively new territory to me. Despite being fueled by caffeine and adrenaline, I felt uneasy. Even to this day, I wonder what’s out there for me in this Midwestern metropolis.

Not a lot of people knew that I would be making the over 400 mile trek northwest, but in the couple of weeks since I made did, two people in this metropolis did something they didn’t have to do – they extended a hand to this early career journalist from Chicago.

It made an impact as I adjusted, and I consider their kindness not only to be a personal and professional joy, but a reminder that the ability to create something authentic and meaningful is being done every day. The desire and ability is out there, and it is something that I can contribute to.

This week, SPJ will run its 3rd #SPJ4All campaign. Robyn Davis Sekula, SPJ’s Membership Committee chair, came up with the idea in response to controversial legislation in Indiana that would have been branded as discriminatory to gay and lesbian couples. For the record, SPJ itself is based in Indianapolis.

While #SPJ4All is designed to be a campaign to encourage the need for a diverse membership within SPJ, I think it goes one step further. It encourages the need for those who produce journalism either behind the scenes, on air or behind a byline, and those who support it, to be united as one.

This is not a time for us to compete against one another. This is a time to collaborate, to work together, and to champion each other – so we together can seek truth and report it. When we support each other and encourage each other to be at our best, journalism and media can be at its best for the people who depend on it most – our audience.

These are difficult times for journalism, and uncertainty is the norm, especially for early career journalists. But amid uncertainty come reminders that the ability to inform, educate and engage is available in vivacious abundance – that if you feel uneasy, you can be inspired, and when you are inspired, you can make a difference.

Every day, here in the Twin Cities, people respond to the calling of journalism. They believe in its mission and the impact it can have – whether its journalists like Jenna Ross, Briana Bierschbach and Laura Yuen, or bloggers and writers like Jade and Andrea Swensson.

Yet, it doesn’t apply solely to the people of the Twin Cities – it applies to people across the country and around the world – from Dhruti Shah at the BBC and Taylor Mirfendereski at KING-TV in Seattle (who also co-chairs the Digital Community, which oversees this blog), to Beth Francesco at the University of Texas at Arlington, as well as my colleagues on the Ethics and Freedom of Information committees – and all who strive to seek the truth and report it.

The work we do collectively as one entity demonstrates why journalism continues to be important, day in and day out, and in difficult times, communities like these are essential things to have – not just for one’s own sake, but for journalism’s too.

Early career journalists may feel uneasy at first in asking for help, but take it from me – when you do ask, you find a community that is supportive and wants you to be at your best. You find people who listen to you, who value you and your contributions, and give you a sense of belonging.

It exists in a community that has your back. That community is found not just in one’s own newsroom or professional network, but within SPJ as a whole. Of all the reasons there are to be an SPJ member, the community aspect is the one I identify with the most, and really what #SPJ4All is all about.

These communities can only exist however when we work together. After all, we are stronger together when we collaborate and promote the exchange of ideas together. We are stronger together because we make journalism better together. We are stronger together making SPJ better together – because if we don’t do it, who will?

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

A global need for an equal industry

Today in the UK is Equal Pay Day, where The Fawcett Society, a campaign group promoting gender equality and women’s rights, says that both genders will be paid equal only by 2117.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s equivalent to the US Census Bureau, women are paid 7.2 percent less than men. Their median earnings are £16.30 ($21.51) an hour, while men’s median earnings are £17.57 ($23.18) an hour.

In the United States, women are paid 86 percent of their male counterparts, according to data from the US Census Bureau. Their median earnings are $48,597, compared to men whose median earnings are $56,430.

In both Britain and the US, the subject of the gender pay gap has been at the center of conversation, especially in journalism. The BBC recently made headlines for the differences in how they pay male and female journalists and personalities. Female journalists at the broadcaster took to Twitter to advocate for equal pay for men and women.

It also sparked this tweet from Greg James, a DJ on Radio 1, the BBC’s popular music network, which also airs Newsbeat, designed for younger audiences.

In the US, The Wall Street Journal was one of the publications which was part of the debate on journalism’s gender pay gap, where they pay women 85 percent of their male colleagues – which had raised concerns especially with a lack of women in the publication’s management.

Men and women enter journalism and the media for the same reasons – to inform, engage and educate, and to make a difference in their communities. Women play just as equal of a role as men, and their work has an impact not just on the communities themselves, but for journalism as a profession.

The debate may go beyond the shores of the United States, but the goals remain the same. We owe it to ourselves, to quote James, to shout about it. We owe it to ourselves to fight for equal pay for men and women, and for the opportunities that come with it. We owe it to ourselves to not take for granted the contributions made by women in journalism. We owe it to ourselves to emphasize every day why women are needed in this industry, and how they make journalism stronger with all they do.

We can do this, and we must – not just for our sake, but for journalism’s.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

Lessons from Sarah

The stories filtered through my Twitter algorithm with a unison voice. Sarah Portlock, to them, was more than just any other colleague or journalist.

Portlock, a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal, died Monday in New York. A memo from Journal editor Gerry Baker said she had suffered a traumatic brain injury earlier in the year.

I never met Portlock or had the opportunity to work with her. Yet, as I read these stories, I was reminded of the value of supporting each other in the profession, in a time where competition is fierce, news of layoffs are the norm, and the culture of journalism is challenged with digital advances alongside the repetitive chants of fake news and rampant criticism from government officials.

In his memo, Baker noted that Portlock extended a helping hand to all who came in contact with her.

“Sarah will be remembered by colleagues in Washington and New York as a warm and kind colleague, a friendly face for new employees; the organizer of cards and gifts when someone had a new baby or got married; the planner of team-building happy hours; and the cheerleader of friends and colleagues when they landed a big scoop, finished a big project or received some recognition for work well done,” Baker wrote. “Sarah will be remembered by all for her thoughtfulness and her collegiality.”

Portlock’s efforts also extended to the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, where as one reporter put it on Twitter, she made them feel more than just ordinary reporters at a large paper.

But the tweet that stood out to me the most was from the Journal’s Allison Prang, which is a call to action to all journalists.

There are a lot of questions about journalism and its future which remain unanswered. There are a lot of people, myself included, who wonder about the future, and if we can have an impact. If Sarah Portlock has taught the journalism community anything, it is this – our work is important, and our industry has meaning when we work together and support each other, especially in difficult times.

This is needed now more than ever. When we support each other, we can do great things. When we support each other, whether supporting a young reporter or supporting a fellow colleague (in your newsroom or in another newsroom), we can face the challenges ahead. When we support each other, we are at our best – for when journalism is at its best, the people who we serve will be too.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 2:57pm CT to amend a spacing error.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Digital Community, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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