Archive for December, 2017


Passion in uncertainty

The need to seek truth and report it is more important than ever. If you want to do it, pursue it. (Photo: Pixabay/CC)

This past week, a column appeared in the Business section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, encouraging students to find a vocation that they would find themselves useful in, instead of following their passion.

The observations of columnist Lee Schafer, intertwined with a conversation with a career counselor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis, argues that finding a job that one will be useful in should be prioritized over doing something that will make one happy.

“Vocation may sound a little like a life of toil for little pay, but it is a very useful idea when approaching a decision on any kind of work,” Schafer wrote. “All it really means is work that is worthy of respect and with a reward that is bigger than just a paycheck. Passion for your work sounds great, but by now it is pretty clear people have a tough time figuring out what will make them happy. It is a lot easier to figure out what will make them feel useful.”

While Schafer’s piece raises some interesting points, including the need for conversations about what it means to work, I disagree with its core thesis – finding a vocation for a vocation’s sake, instead of following your passion and finding something that makes one happy.

My disagreement derives from the story that led me to pursue work in what are uneasy times for the industry. If I hadn’t stumbled upon to the BBC World Service through public radio one night in March 2009 as I suffered from insomnia, it is likely that I would be doing something else – though I suspect I would have no idea what it was. I was encouraged to follow this passion I had for journalism despite the uncertainty.

We all have stories that led us to decide to pursue work in this industry. Journalism is a calling, and the need to inform, engage and educate people about the events of the time, as well as holding those in power to account still is a necessity.

However, I’m not naive to suggest that things are perfect in this industry. Yes, times are hard for journalism, and yes, prospects, especially for early career journalists like myself, are uncertain – as we debate future business models as well as how to maintain trust with audiences, especially in the digital age. At the end of the year, the questions are still present, as well as the uneasiness that comes with not knowing what is next.

When my mom on one occasion saw that the thought of these uncertainties was a bit much for me, and I was ready to give up, she asked what I would do if I did. I didn’t know, as I found what I had wanted to do in the first place. Perhaps the pros of finding your passion can outweigh the cons.

Fred Rogers famously said that life is for service, and as life is for service, then certainly one of the best professions to have in life is a role in journalism.

Last week, I resolved for journalism to keep itself honest in 2018. I’ll resolve for one more thing – if you have a desire to work in journalism, pursue it. Have conversations with people, be it in your local media, across the country or around the world, and, to quote my mom once more – keep going.

It may not be easy, but it’s better to pursue what you’re passionate about and what makes you happy, instead of finding something for the sake of it. Besides, we’ll be a better industry because of your work in helping us do what we set out to do – seek truth and report it.

Happy New Year.

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 unless otherwise specified 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.

Keeping journalism honest

Keeping journalists honest is something that will help journalism thrive in 2018 and beyond. (Photo: Pixabay)

It is said that the things that are the simplest are often the most important. This can be said in the case of honesty, for an honest journalist is a credible journalist. Whether its a breaking news story, a recap of the day’s events or an enterprise story, journalists owe it to their audiences to be honest in their reporting.

Yet, in a year where many questions about the future of journalism included ones about trust, honesty should go beyond reporting. It should include the overall editorial process.

In a recent study from three journalism professors, educating consumers about the journalistic process can reduce the appeal of conspiracy theories, especially those the study calls “politically tempting”. According to a report from the Columbia Journalism Review, the study is part of a series of academic work that suggests that transparency and openness about the editorial process can lead to things in news being seen as believable.

In an interview with CJR, Melissa Tully, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Iowa, says the emphasis on understanding the link between journalism and democracy can help in reinforcing trust.

“News literacy tends to focus on content, trying to critically read an article, but we believe that people need to understand the industry side and the larger relationship between news structure and democracy,” Tully said.

Additionally, Stephanie Craft, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, says in a CJR interview that it is easier to teach people about how the media works rather than changing one’s political viewpoints.

Recently, I wrote about two examples of how news organizations were showcasing honesty – the first instance at the Washington Post with a series of videos on the fundamentals of journalism and the other being an interview with Raney Aronson-Rath, the executive producer of Frontline, as she put the principles of the program’s Transparency Project to the test on the project The Putin Files.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent and to curate such a conversation about the editorial process.

“Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences,” the code says. “Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.” (For the record, I serve on SPJ’s Ethics Committee.)

If journalists and news organizations were to make a list of New Year’s resolutions, then a more open conversation about what it means to be a journalist as well as the editorial process certainly should top that list.

We are known for holding those in power to account and (to borrow the name of the CNN TV segment) keeping them honest. Along the way, we must also keep ourselves honest and not be afraid to engage the public about what journalism means in daily life – whether its on the usage of anonymous sources in reporting or how a certain story was reported.

Recently, the New York Times, in its story on federal immigration policy under President Trump, included this paragraph.

While it is a start, more can be done by the likes of the Times and others in order to help restore audiences’ trust in the media.

A credible journalist is a forthright journalist, and a trusted news organization is an honest news organization – so in 2018, let’s strive as journalists to keep journalism honest – in the newsroom and in the public eye. The media ecosystem will be better for it, and so will the people that matter most in journalism – the audience.

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 unless otherwise specified 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.

Raney Aronson-Rath on transparency

Raney Aronson-Rath, Frontline’s executive producer. (Photo: Jonas Fredwall Karlsson/WGBH)

One of the biggest questions that journalism has faced over the course of the past year is how to maintain trust, in an era where the criticism “fake news” has become a norm. It is a conversation that is likely to continue over the course of the next year, as journalists and news organizations try to maintain trust with audiences.

For Raney Aronson-Rath, the Executive Producer of Frontline, the PBS investigative documentary program produced at WGBH in Boston, transparency is one of those solutions. In an essay for the Nieman Lab publication based at Harvard University, Aronson-Rath argued that transparency can be one of the ways that counteract recent high-profile criticisms of the media.

Frontline is no stranger to transparency. They’ve published transcripts of interviews that were conducted for their films for decades. Aronson-Rath said it was a tradition at Frontline, and had an impact on the work she did while she was a producer.

The Transparency Project, which Aronson-Rath runs with former Washington Post managing editor Philip Bennett, took that one step further, and was a way to help the public understand the thought process into the construction of the films.

“There is a skepticism about journalism in general,” Aronson-Rath said in a telephone interview. “We are facing a cluttered landscape.”

For their recent series, The Putin Files, which accompanied the film, Putin’s Revenge (its second part aired on PBS stations this week), Aronson-Rath wanted to put the Project to the test. The complete collection of interviews from all 56 sources was put online for all to see – 32 videos alongside transcripts, and 24 of them transcript only.

For Aronson-Rath, the basics are showing what they’ve gathered and uncovered, and to allow people who were skeptical or who raised questions access to the archives.

“When you’re doing transparency projects across the board, you may not know the amount of work that goes in, but now you know the amount of gathering and thought that goes into it,” Aronson-Rath said, adding that having the ability to emphasize what can be shown is a great way to do journalism in the public interest. “We welcome people under the intelligence gathering tent.”

Aronson-Rath believes in the health of the journalism and the news organization. She is clear to make sure that Frontline does not fall in any inadvertent silos, and was something she wanted to ensure when she took over as Executive Producer. The audience is important to Aronson-Rath as these stories come to light, irrespective of platform.

“I want to reach a wide range of people,” Aronson-Rath said. “That is at the center of Frontline – that we’re fair, we’re tough and we’re telling as much as we can.”

That call is shared in her belief of diversity with the ongoing conversation in the industry on workplace culture, amidst allegations of sexual harassment and assault against some prominent men in media.

“It’s important that women run things,” Aronson-Rath said. “It’s just as important as having diverse producers. I’ve always felt that women should be in positions of power. I hope more women join the senior and executive ranks.”

While transparency can help when it comes to relations between audiences and individual news organizations, it can also help with media literacy, and helping to distinguish fact from fiction. Aronson-Rath says news organizations and social media platforms have a dual responsibility when it comes to trust in media.

“We need to have a conversation on what it means to publish on the platform,” Aronson-Rath said.

Aronson-Rath takes an example from the magazines that are seen in the supermarket lines when you check out. You look at them thinking they aren’t true, but that has gotten more difficult for that to be recognized, especially in this multi-platform digital age.

Aronson-Rath says that for that to happen however, we cannot wait to let things change by themselves, and that news organizations and social media platforms have a dual responsibility to help with trust.

“My belief is that if we can teach people who are younger what a news organization is, what platforms they can trust – what is true, what isn’t and what is verified, we can see a difference,” Aronson-Rath said. “It is crucial.”

When all is said and done however, Frontline’s mission remains the same.

“We’re accountability journalists first and foremost,” Aronson-Rath said. “Criticisms do not change the standards.”

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.

Investing in trust

The New York Times needs to consider the need for the role it abolished earlier this year – the Public Editor. (Photo: Jleon/Wikimedia Commons/CC)

“It’s part of the DNA here. If there is some kind of mess-up, I go into the newsroom and ask what happened, talk to editors and complaintants and come to an assessment about what we need to do. It’s so ingrained here people know they need to talk to me.”

That was how Kathy English, the public editor for the Toronto Star in Canada, summed up the role of the position, in an interview earlier this year with the Columbia Journalism Review. The conversation came weeks after The New York Times terminated its public editor role in favor of a Reader Center.

The Times established their public editor post in 2003 after a plagiarism scandal surrounding one of its reporters, Jayson Blair. In a piece in the Star shortly thereafter, English said that while the position itself may not resolve all of the questions of public trust, it is crucial that a representative of the reader be in the newsroom.

“I continue to see the benefit in readers having an individual, independent of the newsroom, who is empowered by the organization to assess the legitimacy of readers’ complaints, seek answers for readers and hold journalists to account for lapses in standards,” English wrote.

Indeed, my colleague, SPJ Ethics Committee chair Andrew Seaman, wrote earlier this year that the public editor serves an important role that the culture of the internet cannot duplicate, especially within the Times. (For the record, I serve as a member of SPJ’s Ethics and Freedom of Information Committees.)

“The public editor sent a message to people that the paper took their questions seriously and that there was an independent arbiter who heard their concerns,” Seaman wrote. “In a time when trust in the press is still low, that message is an invaluable one to communicate.”

SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists and news organizations to be accountable and transparent for their work and for their actions, and to explain those decisions to the public.

Not many news organizations have people in the role of public editor, or ombudsman. Two notable examples are Elizabeth Jensen at NPR and Madhulika Sikka at PBS, and though the culture of the internet and social media has had an impact on how audiences consume journalism and how they respond to it, it does not serve as a reason to scrap the role and concept of public editors altogether.

With the scandals surrounding prominent male journalists and media personalities this past year, as well as continued questions about trust in light of an error at ABC News and rampant criticism from the Trump administration, public editors’ roles as ambassadors for readers are quintessential. They are integral to the foundation of the relationship between audiences and news organizations, and maintaining trust.

The Times was right to create the Public Editor position 14 years ago, and were wrong to remove it 14 years later. In 2018, it is time the Times (and for that matter, other news organizations) consider the need for a Public Editor – and if maintaining trust and being accountable outweighs long-term costs.

I’ll give you a hint. It does.

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 unless otherwise specified 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.

An external conversation

One of the pressing questions journalism is facing is how outlets can restore the trust of the public. Last week, the Poynter Institute held a summit to discuss journalism ethics (which SPJ’s national president, Rebecca Baker, attended), which coincided with the release of a media trust survey.

During the summit, one way that the Institute found to help combat questions of trust is to be transparent about the reporting process.

Days after that event, The Washington Post began a video series which looks at the journalism process. The first installment looked at the story surrounding sexual harassment and assault allegations against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the vacant Senate seat in Alabama.

Reporters Beth Reinhard and Stephanie McCrummen were candid about the process that led to the story, from on the ground reporting in the state to the meticulous amount of vetting that followed, as they tried to put the story together.

“We needed to be very careful in vetting information, and making sure that the people we were talking to didn’t have an ax to grind,” Reinhard said. “Every sentence, we went through, and vetted, and with a story with so many details, it was painstaking fact-checking.”

McCrummen was asked about the interviewing process and how sources are treated, as some sources in the Moore story had expressed reluctance of going on the record.

“The first meeting was just a chance to hear her story in a way she felt comfortable telling it – which was off the record,” McCrummen said. “I try to treat someone how I would like to be treated, and I’m really interested in what the other person has to say. That’s why I’m there – I’m there to listen.”

McCrummen adds that applies irrespective of the desire to go on the record.

“I see my role more as offering a chance for people to go on the record or to tell their story if they want to,” McCrummen said, adding that it was much better to present a more human element when it came to reporting.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics, as part of the need to be accountable and transparent, encourages journalists and news organizations to encourage a conversation about the editorial process and to be transparent about it, a view shared by Poynter.

What the Post has launched is a necessity in helping the public better understand the role of journalism, and other news organizations should follow suit, utilizing the platforms they have available to them, in an age where anyone can publish anything, whether or not its true – and the words “fake news” continue to become a norm as reporters carry out their work. Indeed, the more conversations journalists can externalize about their own future, the more that can be done in order to helping the public understand why journalism is and must continue to be a quintessential part of our democracy.

While the question of trust is something that cannot be solved overnight, the Post’s actions are a start in helping the public understand the role of journalists in the 21st century. More organizations should take the time to do the same – for it benefits everyone, and helps us all to better understand a fundamental goal of journalism – seeking the truth and reporting it.

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 unless otherwise specified 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 Katie

Katie Hawkins-Gaar’s contributions to journalism go beyond The Cohort newsletter. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The newsletter appeared near the top of my inbox, as it always does, on a Thursday every couple of weeks. Yet, the particular edition of this newsletter was special, as it signaled the passing of the baton, and allowed for an opportunity to pause and to reflect on the important work by its author.

I refer to The Cohort, the newsletter written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar of The Poynter Institute. Katie announced this week that she is leaving Poynter on December 15, and that edition of The Cohort, the 42nd one, was the last she would write.

While Katie isn’t going too far (she is going to continue the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, under contract with Poynter among many things), her contributions to journalism and understanding its future has been quintessential, not just for the general industry, but for the people who work in it.

The idea for The Cohort came during the review of applications for the second Academy initiative, according to Kristen Hare, her colleague and editor of The Cohort. Katie wanted to do something for the women that weren’t selected to the Academy.

It was clear straight away that the Academy initiative was in good hands, Hare says, as it was a perfect fit for her skills and talent. Yet, Katie wanted it to be more than that, and wanted everyone to benefit, whether or not they were selected.

“She wanted to bring as many people to the party as possible,” Hare said in a telephone interview. “It was meant to be a way to share what was learned at [the Academy] and it very quickly transformed into this ongoing conversation and support group for women on how to thrive and survive in digital media.”

Samantha Ragland, Manager of Digital Entertainment Strategy for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, was part of the 2016 Women in Leadership Academy class, and says that while Katie knew The Cohort was going to be big, her focus was on one-on-one – making it feel like it was just you and her.

“That woman is a light,” Ragland said in a telephone interview. “It is a light that does not intimidate other people, but inspires. She’s bright. She’s humble.”

Katie’s work however goes beyond The Cohort. In addition to her work as Digital Innovation Faculty she also was one of the people behind the 40 Better Hours initiative, in order to create a better working environment in newsrooms. Hare says that a key lesson from her was about process.

“She is really good at not just building but how to do it – this whole idea that anyone can work smart if you follow a process,” Hare said. “She’s really devoted to helping people figure out processes that make work and life better.”

Hare says that transparency and integrity also stand out with Katie – things that have fit in with the recent conversations surrounding sexual harassment allegations against prominent men in journalism, and how newsrooms respond to it.

When the news of her departure emerged, there were many in the industry (this writer included) that were shocked to hear this. Hare said she had three reactions.

“As editor of The Cohort, I am devastated for that audience because I know that she has a voice that will be impossible to replace,” Hare said. “As a co-worker, I’m lost because she is one of those people who just makes the place better and brighter. As a friend, I’m confident that she is doing the right thing. Her intuition is never wrong. I get the added bonus of having her in my life.”

Despite the concerns, Hare knows Katie’s work at Poynter will be a part of the legacy that she has in enhancing journalism – letting voices be heard.

“Her impact is giving a voice to The Cohort – her lasting legacy still will be amazing,” Hare said.

Ragland says involving as many people as possible and her impact on a number of women in journalism will also be a part of it.

“She reaches behind and brings people up with her,” Ragland said. “Katie set a standard for women in leadership. More and more women are going to feel an opportunity and see opportunities to mobilize and to uplift other women in media. That is going to be an important part of her legacy. The last thing is for us to go backwards. We want to go forward.”

Katie has helped journalism go forward in abundance, but also has given us a necessary reminder of why we need voices like Katie in order for the industry to survive. For Elite Truong, a product manager at Vox Media, Katie’s work is about connecting journalists and making them feel welcome. She makes people feel that they aren’t alone, be it through her writing and otherwise, and Truong says helping people to be better is a part of her legacy.

“It wouldn’t be what it is without Katie,” Truong said.

Katie had one goal in mind with all of this work – to help people to be at their best. That remains a necessary goal in an age where journalism continues to evolve, and how we make sense of its evolution. This was emphasized not just in the work she has done at Poynter, but a message she emphasized in interviews, including one she gave to me for Twin Cities PBS earlier this year. She cares about journalism and its people, and knows how much of a difference it can make, and is not afraid to make that known.

Last year, I argued that Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water in English) was an analogy for journalism. The composition, written based on the speed of ocean water, was a metaphor for the changes journalism was going through, but no matter how far those changes went, journalism would still be a constant.

Based on the conversations I had today and what I’ve heard, I’ll argue that the analogy applies to Katie’s work, in that no matter the changes that are ahead, or the answers that come from the debate on what journalism will be like – her support and her work will always remain a constant to continue to make journalism stronger.

So, here’s to you Katie. Thank you for being the supporter journalism needs more than ever. Thank you for being an idol, showing us that authentic and meaningful things can be done. Yet, most of all, thank you for being journalism’s friend.

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 unless otherwise specified 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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