Al Tompkins


Florida newspaper runs photo of ‘two-headed alligator’

TBT, the tabloid publication of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, may have been duped by a prankster. It ran a photo of a two-headed alligator on its front page Monday.


The image comes from Justin Arnold, who wrote on his Facebook page that he “was walking my dog yesterday and noticed a few people gathered by the Hillsborough river in Seminole Heights. When I went closer I was amazed to see this two headed alligator. According to Florida Fish and Game it has been reported by several people and they explained it as a failed separation of monozygotic twins and that it is common in reptiles. Please share this picture so others can keep their eyes out for it.”

Others in the region have picked up the story. WTSP posted a story about the gator, though it notes “the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission tells us they’ve received no reports of a two-headed alligator in the area.” First Coast News is also running what appears to be an earlier version of WTSP’s story. WWSB has posted a skeptical story, as did WTVT.

Justin Arnold has a collection of astonishing photos on his Tumblr, including a fur-bearing trout and other oddities. One posting of a mythical water creature was reportedly captured by Arnold two hundred years ago.


Arnold posted a second photo of his gator on Tumblr, this time complete with a trail for the beast’s tail.


Reached by phone, TBT Editor Neville Green said two readers submitted photos of the two-headed gator. “If we have been hoaxed, we certainly are guilty of it,” Green said. “On the other hand, we did not say it was a live alligator.” Read more

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Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on cell phones on planes. As one part of the federal government looks to remove restrictions on making phone calls from airplanes, another agency is apparently considering its own prohibition. Wheeler told members of Congress that while his agency sees no technical reason to ban calls on planes, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told him Thursday morning that the DOT will be moving forward with its own restrictions.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

What the FCC’s net neutrality ruling means for journalism

The battle over regulation of the Internet moves to Congress this week. Until now, the question of whether the Federal Communications Commission should have the power to force Internet service providers to treat all customers equally has been a legal matter, tied up in federal courts.

But on Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler heads to Capitol Hill to face the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who is openly critical of the FCC’s “net neutrality” rules — the commission’s attempt at ensuring a level playing field on the Internet.

Last week, the FCC, on a split decision, voted to open public discussion on the rules. More than 22,000 public responses have already poured into the commission’s comment site.

This story is boiling up.

Journalists have largely played net neutrality as a battle among three players: the Internet providers delivering data to your home or business, consumer groups wanting to keep the providers from cutting deals with companies seeking a fast lane into homes, and businesses operating online and relying solely on the Internet for their survival — Amazon, for instance.

But media companies have a huge stake in this battle, too, as once text-based sites become heavier with video and interactive features that suck up more bandwidth, and as a larger percentage of the news audience moves online.

Don’t think of the debate in today’s terms. Think in terms of what your data flow will look like 5 or 10 years from now with more video and multimedia. That content will continue to multiply as users migrate away from your print or over-the-air offerings.

For some, the way to ensure a free and equally accessible Internet is to designate it as a public utility. Utilities can be regulated, just as the FCC regulates mobile phone frequencies and states regulate utility companies.

Those in the pro-utility camp favor “net neutrality,” the idea that the Internet should be equally available to everyone. A small TV station that streams video to an online audience would have equal access to the end user as Netflix does. It is similar to how cable TV works now; a local TV station has the same quality delivery as ESPN.

Here’s the rub: when government gets in the regulation business does something become more open or less open? Your take on the issue depends on whether you believe there’s a problem giving big content producers preference over small operators in getting to customers quickly. As the FCC stated in opening this issue, “Today, there are no legally enforceable rules by which the Commission can stop broadband providers from limiting Internet openness.”

Those who oppose the regulation of the Internet’s flow say when the government gets involved, it chokes investment and progress. Yes, the government can regulate things for consumer protection, to prevent fraud and anti-trust as examples, but the Internet carriers say they should be able to control the information packets that stream through their lines.

And who are the providers of this service that do not want to be regulated? The biggest players are the cable companies that already find themselves under attack from consumers over rising rates and from broadcasters over compensation for over-the-air programming.

As Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu said in a Wall Street Journal article:

“So, despite 15 years of high hopes, cable operators are the dominant providers of Internet access in nearly every important market in the U.S. Verizon’s FiOS service, a worthy competitor in some areas, has a national market share of just 8%. Google Fiber has less than 1%. These numbers may eventually change, but we need to face the market as it is today, not as we hope it might be.”

Professor Wu used a “bridge” analogy in his essay, asking readers to imagine a private owner controlling the only bridge into New York City. I want to build on his illustration to make my point.

Not only could the bridge owner extract a toll on the bridge, but also the unregulated operator could tell drivers that if they were willing to pay a premium toll they could enter a fast lane while other drivers crawl along in the slow lanes. There would even be a financial reason to make the slow lanes as slow as possible to give people a reason to pay to get into a faster lane.

Under FCC’s regulation, everyone in theory would be slowed down or sped up equally when traffic fills the bridge. No one would be given preference even if they offered to pay for it.

The bridge owner would say the best way to get better traffic control is for the government to stay out of it. They would say regulation limits profits and keeps other potential bridge builders from getting into the business and building new bridges. In effect, they say, if you want lower rates, let us profit. The competition that follows profitable business forces competitive pricing. The regulation, they say, would also limit the money the bridge company would have to make improvements, widen lanes or maintain infrastructure.

But when something becomes as vital to society as the Internet is now, what is the role of government to be sure it remains open and not fall under the control of deep-pocket users?

Big media companies with big plans to provide lots more video and more robust online content have many stakes in this debate. So does every TV station, all of which should see Netflix as a competitor for viewer eyeballs. If a provider gives Netflix priority streaming, its faster, smoother service makes it a more attractive alternative to over-the-air broadcasting.

If a newspaper of the future provided video that always loaded fast, never buffered, played without fail, it would have a big advantage over a smaller publication whose data sputtered its way to the user. We all know the exasperation of waiting for video to load.

Today the problem is yours to solve. But what if you have done all you can to smooth the delivery of your content only to have the Internet service provider choke your feed, and ask for more money to give you priority over the next guy?

Networks like NBC have direct ownership connections to Comcast, an Internet provider as well as a cable company. Comcast has fought the FCC before over whether it can say how much bandwidth a user can use. The case had to do with peer-to-peer use, the big volume file transfers that go around central servers. So when NBC and Comcast sought to merge, open access was top of mind for people concerned with whether Comcast would give NBC preference over competitors.

In 2011, while approving the deal, the FCC mentioned the potential conflict by warning the two parties to not “prioritize affiliated Internet content over unaffiliated Internet content . . . [or] treat affiliated network traffic differently from unaffiliated network traffic” as well as to comply with the Commission’s open Internet rules, regardless of the effect of ‘any judicial challenge’ affecting those rules.”

So the FCC is fighting over who will control the bridges that lead to what comes next. This week, it cited this data that is worth chewing on:

• The number of hours Americans spend watching video over the Internet has grown 70 percent since June 2010.

• Between 2010 and 2013, revenues from online video services grew 175 percent, from $1.86 billion to $5.12 billion.

• Real-time entertainment (that is, programming that is viewed as it is delivered, such as video streamed by Netflix and Hulu) grew from 42.7 percent of the “downstream fixed access traffic at peak time” (generally 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.) in 2010 to 67 percent of comparable traffic by September 2013.

With so much money at stake for the mega-users of online bandwidth, there are real concerns about what happens if big providers push smaller users to the curb should they be unable to pay for priority access.

What does it mean to free speech? What does it mean to “the marketplace of ideas?” What if some corporate news services pay for priority treatment but small alternative news and information sources can’t or won’t?

What’s next?

Congress may try to commandeer this whole issue and take it out of the hands of the FCC and courts. For this reason alone, this week’s House subcommittee session will be worth watching.

To read more on the net neutrality rules debate, go to the FCC’s public comment page here and click on proceeding 14-28, which will take you here, where you can submit a comment or search the filings. Many of the comments on this issue are smartly written and passionate. There is a story in the comments to be sure.

You can also comment by sending the FCC an email at or by calling 1-888-225-5322, but the commission would rather hear from you in writing.

The FCC says it hopes to have its rules in place by the end of this year.


The FCC Open Internet page, including background and official statements from commissioners.

• What is “706”? Often in this debate you will hear people use that number. They are referring to section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In a lawsuit, Verizon v. FCC, the federal courts relied on that section. People who call on the FCC to use “706” want the government to treat the Internet like a utility and regulate it to keep it “open.”

• What is Title II? It refers to the Communications Act of 1934. Go to page 32 of the act and you will see the definitions of “common carriers.” Critics say using this rule would only address “unreasonable” or “unjust” discrimination and would allow cable companies to use that loophole to continue down the path of selective traffic regulation.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association represents cable companies in the fight against regulation. Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman, is the head of this group.

Common Cause is a public-interest group that includes another former FCC chairman, Michael Copps, who supports FCC regulation. Electronic Frontier Foundation also supports regulation.

• The New York Times has an easy-to-follow primer on the debate reflecting the many sides of the issue. Read more


Newsrooms pay for scoops: will it escalate the practice?

We start a new week with a sobering journalistic reality. Last week, two newsrooms paid sources for exclusive content that broke big stories, and those who would not or did not pay were left quoting those who did.

A year ago, Canadian journalists said they had seen video of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack but they didn’t buy the video and, despite Ford’s bizarre behavior, no images equaled no proof.  So when a new video emerged showing the mayor holding a crack pipe, The Globe and Mail forked over $10,000 to an admitted drug dealer for still frames from the video.

TMZ will not say if it paid for audio of NBA team owner Donald Sterling’s ranting about his associate/girlfriend’s posting photos of herself and black men on social media, but Deadspin said it paid for another version of the audio tape.

Shocking photos and audio have a real street value, and now we know the going price. The price you pay for the photos may be linked to the cost of the steady, slow decline of journalism credibility. Audiences say they believe less of what journalists report. So to get the public to believe us, must we amp up the evidence, even if it means paying a drug dealer for a set up photo?

A 100 years ago, journalists found themselves in a similar situation. Following the press wars between Pulitzer and Hearst and the birth of what we would now call public relations, journalists attempted to rebuild credibility by establishing new standards.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics does not forbid paying a source for photos, video or audio. The SPJ code says, “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” TMZ says it pays for such things just as other newsrooms pay stringers.

The Globe’s reporter Robyn Doolittle says the “drug dealers” were asking for six-figures, or $100,000 for rights to the video. They accepted $10,000 for still frames from the video.

The Globe’s Editor-in-Chief David Walmsley explained on the paper’s website that he felt the paper had to obtain the photos that it snagged from the video because, “We had a public duty to properly scrutinize the mayor’s behavior and we felt it was important that we highlight, with the evidence, the example of the story that we then ran today.”

If The Globe had reason to believe that it had evidence of Mayor Ford committing a crime, shouldn’t the paper have turned the evidence over to police? Walmsley said no. He said journalists should not “be agents of the police.”

Gawker says a source offered the Ford video to them, too. Gawker countered with a deal. It would pay the source based on the popularity of the video. The more online traffic the photos generated, the more they would pay. Think about the incentive that such deals would give to a source to capture the most salacious images possible.

The ethics of paying sources

The problem with paying sources in this case is that The Globe may be rewarding criminals for performing a criminal act. It is not unusual for a newsroom to ethically pay a stringer, as an example, for significant photos that tell great truths or provide insight. It can be ethical to pay a large sum for such images or video. But when the supplier may also be involved in the criminal act that is at the center of the scandal, the decision becomes messier.

Poynter Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark told me “In general, I say no” to paying for information, photos or video. “But I think of my position as a standard not an absolute.” Clark said, “It can be defensible to pay for photos if there is no other way to prove a story to be true. Ask if the story reaches a point of significant impact on the public’s well-being.”

By that standard, The Globe and Mail has a reasonable defense.

Poynter Senior Faculty for Ethics Kelly McBride said money “can have a distorting effect” on truth-telling. “When you offer a monetary incentive to a source, the source may try to give you what you want; they change reality to make what they are offering more valuable.”

But even unpaid sources can have selfish motives for providing distorted information, including revenge, self-aggrandizement and to promote a cause.

Other professions that depend on “sources” gladly pay for useful information. Police pay for information when the source can provide leads that end in convictions. Lawyers hire expert witnesses to provide useful testimony. But in both circumstances, the paid informant can expect to come under suspicion.

Weighing the options

The Globe found an alternative to paying $100,000 to drug dealers who say they supplied drugs to Mayor Ford, and the evidence was plenty to tell the story that needed to be told.

The Globe did the right thing by boldly and clearly starting how it obtained the photos.

The key difference between paying for the audio of Donald Sterling and the photos of Ford can be found in the gravity of the two events that were documented. One is a high-profile, private businessman whose business touches lots of people, but whose conversation was neither illegal nor public. The case against Sterling’s attitudes about race is demonstrated in court documents and lawsuits. The audio provided a new multimedia frame for an old story.

The stakes in the Ford case were significantly higher. Ford represents Canada’s biggest city, can influence government spending and affect the lives of every citizen. There was no other way to prove the case in the way the photos can.

What’s next?

Imagine the nightmare that awaits you if every story begins with negotiations with sources over how much you will pay for today’s interview. What if the source of your information could count on being rewarded based on how many page views their information produced on your website? Or would you argue that if we would just loosen up our ethical playbook, information that you can’t pry out of your sources, useful — even vital — information that would reveal rich stories would flow like Niagara Falls and we could be better off for it?

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark says journalists may have sent a signal to all out there that their recordings can pay off handsomely. “Here is the bigger issue,” Clark says, “you are establishing a precedent that could create incentives for entrapment of public figures. Imagine somebody saying, ‘So now I know how much a newsroom will pay for a photo that will take down a mayor. What’s the price for a prime minister?”’ Read more

In this Wednesday, March 26, 2014 photo, Chet Kanojia, the founder and CEO of Aereo, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in New York. The future of Aereo, an online service that provides over-the-air TV channels, hinges on a battle with broadcasters that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court in late April 2014. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Aereo Supreme Court case: what’s at stake — local news included

Chet Kanojia, the founder and CEO of Aereo, speaks during a March 2014 interview with The Associated Press in New York. The future of the online service hinges on a legal battle with broadcasters that goes before the Supreme Court Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The cast of characters fighting Aereo gives you a hint of how important the case that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET is to the future of broadcasting.

It is as big as the 1984 Betamax case, which seems like a silly notion now, but wasn’t back then. In that case, the court allowed you to tape record what you see on TV, despite dire warnings from broadcasters that it would ruin them. Now, the court has to consider technology that can deliver live TV programs to your phone, laptop or tablet. And the company that wants to deliver the programs also wants to avoid paying the broadcasters anything for the rights. Read more


Despite ABC News/CPI blowup, here’s how news partnerships can work

Journalism organizations might get discouraged about joining partnerships after the public meltdown of the partnership between ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity this week.

CPI’s reporter Chris Hamby won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that exposed how coal miners who were dying from black-lung disease were being unfairly denied health benefits. ABC wanted to get some of the credit for the investigation. What followed was a nasty exchange that played out here on Poynter Online all week.

But let’s not forget the upside to great investigative journalists from different organizations working together. ABC and CPI did affect lives, expose wrongdoing and reach a national audience that neither could have done alone.

Some of the most important journalism in recent years has been the product of partnerships. Look at this graphic from PBS Frontline showing all of the partners it has worked with on significant projects. The list spans from local newspapers to nonprofit investigative groups to ESPN and Univision. In some cases there were several partners involved in a project.

Howard Berkes, NPR investigations correspondent

National Public Radio investigations correspondent Howard Berkes told that partnerships can allow newsrooms to cover stories with depth and expertise that they cannot do on their own. Berkes points to a partnership he participated in that involved The Center for Public Integrity and NPR. The investigation focused on the resurgence of black-lung cases in the United States.

“My partner in this project, Chris Hamby from The Center for Public Integrity, knows how to make sense of data a lot better than I do. He worked on worker safety realm of the story while I know a lot about the coal industry having done a lot of stories about mine safety. It was a good blending; we spent a week on the road together, but when I did an interview alone I shared a complete transcript with him and he did the same. We shared everything,” Berkes said. When it was time to publish and air the stories, Berkes said having a partner was vital to making the stories bulletproof. “CPI reviewed my script, every word of it. While you each write your own stories, you want your reporting to be consistent with your partner. ”

Berkes also produced his groundbreaking investigation into corn bin safety, Buried in Grain, with CPI as a partner. The story uncovered how hundreds of workers died in preventable grain-related entrapments in 34 states since 1984. But safety enforcement is weak and even big fines get reduced before they are paid.

“My partner in that project, Jim Morris is a journalist who spent his entire career covering workplace safety issues.” Berkes said Morris brought tremendous knowledge to that project, which produced congressional action.

Berkes said his expertise in developing memorable characters to illustrate stories made the facts the team uncovered come alive. Berkes said his partner at CPI was ready to publish his version of the story in November 2012. But NPR wanted to land one key interview first, an interview with a young worker who watched his buddy die while being buried in grain. It took six months to land the interview and CPI agreed to wait until NPR was ready to air. “Good partners make it more likely that you will produce the kind of reporting that will make a difference,” Berkes said.

Mark Stencel, Poynter Digital Fellow

Mark Stencel, The Poynter Institute’s Digital Fellow, has been helping to manage news partnerships since 1996. “My first job in partnerships involved The Washington Post, ABC News, Newsweek and Times Mirror. It was right at the beginning of the digital news movement.”

Since then, Stencel has worked on partnerships that included the Post, MSNBC,, NPR and many others. “I can tell you this, anybody who starts a partnership with another organization thinking it is going to save time reporting a story is almost always wrong. Partnerships involve a lot of trust-building, communication and effort.” Stencel offered me a list of ways partnerships can pay off:

  • Expand Your Expertise: “Newsrooms should partner with others who have experiences that will complement their own. The partner could also have contacts and access that helps tell a stronger story than you can get alone.”
  • Reach: “Partners can help you reach wider audiences. It is the megaphone effect that can get the attention of people, including lawmakers who can change things that you expose as wrong.”
  • Share Resources: “Partnerships can help newsrooms with limited budgets to find ways to tell big stories.”


Stencel says partnerships sometimes fall apart when the parties fail to work out key details on the front end. His advice:

  • Know What You Want: “The worst partnerships are the ones that are born at executive lunches and dinners. I have been in a lot of meetings where teams stare longingly and whisper about making beautiful news but never do. You have to have specific objectives for why you want this partnership and how you will help each other.”
  • Internal Partnerships Don’t Always Work: “Even if partners come from the same company, there is no guarantee that they will work well together. They still have to agree on an outcome and work toward that.”
  • Get Management Buy-In: “I have worked on partnerships that have endured many changes in management, including the polling partnerships between ABC News and The Washington Post. The key is to define your goals and stick to it.”
  • Agree to a Process: “The processes include everything from how stories will be edited, when they will be published, how you will make corrections if they are needed, how you will credit each other and how, if the work is submitted for awards, the credit would be shared.”
  • Agree on Legal Issues: “Partnerships are best if they begin with a formal agreement but lots of them are informal. You may have to have a talk about who would be responsible if somebody gets sued for what you report. How will you indemnify each other?”


NPR’s Berkes said big organizations should not overlook smaller partners. “I am working on a project right now with a partner called Mine Safety and Health News. They are encyclopedic in their knowledge of the coal industry, civil and criminal cases and they know all of the characters and companies in the industry.” You may not have heard of Mine Safety and Health News, but the group has won 31 national journalism awards over the years.

Stencel says his experience with partnerships has taught him that newsrooms get the most results from working on targeted projects first, then if it works out, strike a larger partnership.

“Marry often, divorce bad partners fast, and don’t be afraid to keep dating,” Stencel said. Read more

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CORRECTION Nobel Peace Prize Auction

Contest entries from ABC, Center for Public Integrity highlight their division

On the same day that ABC News and The Center for Public Integrity won yet another national journalism award for exposing how coal miners were being unjustly denied black-lung benefits, the spat between the two venerable newsrooms heated up. And now you can read the letters that have been flying back and forth between former colleagues who in recent months shared some of journalism’s highest honors for their work.

Wednesday, ABC and CPI won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for online investigative reporting (affiliated category).

On March 5, ABC and CPI accepted the coveted Harvard Goldsmith Prize. The Goldsmith judges gushed about how they believed the joint investigation was a model for other newsrooms to follow.


The White House Correspondents’ Association also honored the joint project with its Edgar A. Poe Award.

But the partnership blew up Tuesday when the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. A CPI reporter, Chris Hamby, won and ABC was not included in the award and says it should share in the honor.

CPI fired back and said ABC didn’t do as much work on the project as it claimed. How did a partnership that produced what, by all accounts, is one of the most important works of journalism in the last year fall apart so spectacularly?

The difference in how the two sides viewed each other’s involvement shows up in two contest entry forms. The first is one submitted by ABC for the SPJ/SDX awards. ABC mentions its “partner” CPI’s considerable contributions to the effort multiple times in the entry.

ABC News Contest Entry

Now look at the entry submitted to the Pulitzers by CPI. It barely mentions ABC’s work except to say ABC joined the effort months into the investigation.

CPI Pulitzer Entry Letter

On Wednesday, the executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, Bill Buzenberg, offered to release what he says is evidence of how little ABC News knew about the investigation into coal miner black-lung benefits.

Buzenberg was still steaming about the four-page letter that ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent to Buzenberg and his center’s board asking them to “share” credit for the Pulitzer awarded to Hamby, who Capital New York reported is moving to BuzzFeed.

(You can read Sherwood’s letter to Buzenberg, Buzenberg’s reply, and CPI’s letter to Pulitzer Administrator Sig Gissler below.)

On Wednesday, Buzenberg wrote on the CPI website:

Emails and drafts leading up to the airdate of ABC’s “Nightline” segment show that ABC depended to a remarkable degree on Chris’ access to sources, documents and data and his expertise on complex issues — all of which repeatedly saved ABC from making embarrassing factual errors in broadcast segments and online stories.

The Center is prepared to show in great detail how little ABC’s Brian Ross and Matt Mosk understood about even the most fundamental concepts and key facts and how they repeatedly turned to Chris to advise them or, in some instances, to do their work for them.

Draft scripts leading up to the airdate of the “Nightline” segment show serious factual inaccuracies by ABC and a continued lack of understanding of basic, key concepts. If not for Chris’ intervention, upon finally being shown the scripts, ABC would have found itself facing withering, legitimate criticism.

ABC has never acknowledged its extraordinary reliance on Chris for even the most basic information about this highly technical and complex story. Chris, of course, has never complained to ABC about this, despite repeated statements by ABC on air, online and in press releases that erroneously made it appear as if ABC was the driving force behind this project.

It is incredibly insulting for ABC to not only fail to acknowledge Chris’ indispensable work solely for ABC’s benefit, but to go even further and suggest that the opposite is true — that the Center is downplaying ABC’s work. A mountain of evidence shows this is not true.

In his letter, Sherwood insisted that CPI could not have won the Pulitzer without ABC’s help. Buzenberg provides a point-by-point rebuttal saying Hamby was the engine behind the story for months before ABC entered the investigation and in long stretches when ABC was working on other things.

Buzenberg repeated the point that he made to Tuesday that no matter what ABC says its contributions were, Pulitzer rules would not have allowed the network to share a prize.

Buzenberg says:

Of course, we appreciate the contributions ABC made, but the unique contributions of ABC were almost exclusively for the benefit of the production of television segments. We believe ABC did great work on the television segments, which is why we submitted them in contests that allowed such joint submissions and happily shared numerous other honors with ABC. But, as we’ve said, television simply cannot be entered in the Pulitzers. The rules are very clear and have been confirmed again by the Pulitzer Administrator.

We have been thrilled at the success of this project and happy to share in the accolades with ABC. But we find it very disturbing that ABC is now trying to grab credit for work it did not do.

Letter from Ben Sherwood about Center for Public Integrity Pulitzer

Letter from Bill Buzenberg to Ben Sherwood

Center for Public Integrity letter to Sig Gissler

Related links: CPI stories | ABC News stories Read more

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ABC News says Center for Public Integrity should share Pulitzer for investigative reporting

This is the top of the letter that ABC President Ben Sherwood sent to William Buzenberg and his organization’s board members Tuesday asking The Center for Public Integrity to share Pulitzer Prize credit.

ABC News President Ben Sherwood sent a four-page letter to WIlliam Buzenberg, executive director of The Center for Public Integrity, asking CPI to share credit for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting awarded to CPI’s Chris Hamby this week. The letter was sent to the CPI board and was obtained by

“You seem to be determined that ABC was simply a megaphone for Chris Hamby’s work,” Sherwood wrote. Sherwood said ABC’s investigative reporter Brian Ross and producer Matt Mosk should “share” in the Pulitzer and Sherwood says he intends to take the matter up with the Pulitzer board.

The work at the center of this spat exposed how doctors and lawyers worked with the coal industry to deny sick miners black-lung medical benefits. In response Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program and Congress and the Labor Department reacted.

-See the collection of ABC News stories

-See the collection of CPI stories

Sherwood says in his letter that ABC and CPI spent a year working as equal partners in the investigation of “how some lawyers and doctors rigged a system to deny benefits to coal miners stricken with black lung disease, resulting in remedial legislative efforts.”  In fact, the two news organizations have shared other big journalism prizes for this investigation including the Goldsmith Award. But when CPI sent the entry to the Pulitzer Committee, the nominating letter said:

“Months into the reporting, the Center shared its findings with the ABC News investigative unit, whose broadcasts help reach a wider audience. ABC produced a 10-minute ‘Nightline’ segment focusing on the unit at Johns Hopkins, building from the Center’s work and airing the evening of the Center’s publication of part two.”

Sherwood said that the nominating letter is wrong. Sherwood says the partnership began October 31, 2012 and ABC said it had promises from CPI that it would be a “true partnership.”  Sherwood wrote to Buzenberg:

“In your submission to the Pulitzer committee, you omitted the names of ABC News reporters and sought to parse and diminish their contributions, even though their bylines appropriately appear on four of the eight articles submitted by the Center to the committee. (Surprisingly, Chris Hamby’s byline appears in bold face type in the Pulitzer submissions, although that was not the case when the articles actually appeared online.”)

Buzenberg told me late Tuesday evening in a phone interview, “ABC has a very very inflated idea of their role in this investigation.” He continued, “The facts are the facts. The CPI’s Chris Hamby wrote the stories that were submitted to the (Pulitzer) committee.” He said Hamby pored through 1,500 medical cases and reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents.  (Read Chris Hamby’s own account of how the story came to be.)

Sherwood said ABC News has “nothing but the highest admiration for the work of Chris Hamby” but said “CPI alone did not win this honor.” He asked, “Do you really believe that Hamby and CPI would have been recognized with this honor without the contributions of ABC News?”

Buzenberg said, “Brian Ross is a great reporter, these are great people, they did great television reports.” But Buzenberg said ABC is “ex-post facto trying to grab” a piece of the Pulitzer by using “a big PR effort.”  After our phone conversation, Buzenberg wrote me an email saying:

Three times ABC SVP for communications Jeffrey W. Schneider threatened me and the Center saying they would make this very “messy” for us unless they got what they wanted, which is a share of the investigation prize that they did not earn under the Pulitzer rules. ABC does great TV. They did not write the entries or spend a year doing this investigation with all these documents and data, as we did, as confirmed again today by the Pulitzer Administrator. Those are the facts.”

ABC may find the Pulitzer’s rules make it impossible for it to be a part of one of journalism’s most celebrated awards. Buzenberg sent me an email that he said he got from Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler saying the award belongs to Hamby, not ABC:

Bill:  I’ve reviewed the entry again. It is overwhelmingly Hamby’s work and was entered by the center in conformance with our rules on limited partnerships (SEE BELOW). The rules expressly state that the eligible entity must do the preponderance of the work; specific elements produced by the ineligible entity (such as ABC video) cannot be entered; and if there is a prize it will go ONLY to the eligible organization that submitted the work.

So, based on the entry, the prize to the Hamby alone is warranted.

Best, SG

The email has this attachment:


Q: Can an eligible news organization enter work that is published in partnership with an ineligible organization, such as a magazine or television station? A: Yes, but only under certain circumstances. Such a partnership is permitted if the eligible organization (1) does the preponderance of the work and (2) publishes the work first, or at least simultaneously. It is up to the entrant to demonstrate convincingly in its entry letter and in the composition of its entry that it primarily conceived and produced the work and that the entry rests on the basic foundation provided by the eligible entity. Specific elements produced by the ineligible entity, such as video, are disqualified and should not be submitted. Eligibility decisions, as necessary, will be made on a case-by-case basis. If the entry wins a prize, it will go only to the eligible news organization that submitted the work.


The Pulitzer rules further state who may enter. The rules say that broadcasters may not enter except as a lesser partner, which CPI argues ABC was:

“Entries must be based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles. Magazines and broadcast media, and their respective Web sites, are not eligible. Entries that involve collaboration between an eligible organization and ineligible media will be considered if the eligible organization does the preponderance of the work and publishes it first.”

It is a sad postscript to a remarkable work of journalism produced by two of America’s most important investigative newsrooms. The disagreement over a prize should not tarnish Chris Hamby’s work and ABC News’ work. Indeed, we need more of that kind of journalism. It would be a pity if this moment of friction also stops other media organizations from working together to tell stories that need to be told. The cost of doing this work is often too much for one news organization to handle. Together they can reach bigger audiences and right wrongs. CPI said that was precisely why it joined forces with ABC, to increase the reach of the story.

The biggest honor that comes from this work won’t arrive as a trophy or even a cash prize. It will arrive when sick and dying coal miners get the health care they deserve. This investigation gave them hope. You can’t put that reward on a shelf. Read more


How the new Colbert show might affect local news

CBS’s decision to replace David Letterman with Stephen Colbert has local TV managers wondering how the change will affect late-night news ratings.

Graeme Newell-Researcher, speaker with 602 Communications

Marketing researcher Graeme Newell of 602 Communications explained how what follows a newscast can affect the newscast itself.

“There is an in-flow and an out-flow that happens with television,” he said. Even though we can effortlessly skip from channel to channel with the push of a remote button, viewers still tend to keep watching a channel until they are prompted to change, but it takes prompting. Read more

Students are escorted as they leave the campus of the Franklin Regional School District after more then a dozen students were stabbed by a knife wielding suspect at nearby Franklin Regional High School on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, in Murrysville, Pa., near Pittsburgh. The suspect, a male student, was taken into custody and is being questioned. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How to cover what comes next in the Pennsylvania school stabbing case

Pittsburgh-area newsrooms now must live through the reality of covering a mass casualty attack, just as journalists near Fort Hood, Texas, did last week.

They will seek answers about how a student at the Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville, Penn., slashed and stabbed 20 people Wednesday morning. For months, journalists will tell stories of heroism and panic, of missed signals and critiques of school security. Sadly, other journalists have been through this. I asked them to help guide us through the coverage ahead.

Lessons from Newtown

Josh Kovner-Reporter, Hartford Courant

Hartford Courant reporter Josh Kovner co-authored the paper’s reports that profiled Adam Lanza, the troubled 20-year-old who committed the second deadliest school shooting in American history. Kovner’s and Alaine Griffin’s reporting of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School was part of a partnership with PBS Frontline.

I asked Kovner what advice he had for journalists investigating the stabbings and trying to understand the mind of the young man who is accused of doing them.

“You have to adjust your expectations,” Kovner told me by phone. “You may get close. You may identify a number of factors but to try to figure out what is in somebody’s mind is by definition a losing proposition.” Kovner said he and his paper did piece together an understanding of Lanza’s mental health issues, his likes and dislikes, his childhood. But key questions about the shooting cannot be answered.

“Why was it December 14th and not the 13th or the following February?” Kovner wondered. “If you think you are going to get answers like that or your editors think you should, you should know better before you start,” Kovner warned. These cases never produce clean, simple answers.

Kovner said journalists who report stories like Newtown, and now the Franklin Regional Senior High School will endure public criticism. “People will ask how you dignify such a monster by even mentioning their name,” Kovner said.

And he has an answer to their question. In the Newtown case, he says, the investigation into what led up to the shooting has taken more than a year and has a long way to go. “But remember that in a year later, and for another year into the future, the gaps and deficiencies and missed red flags are going to be consuming mental health advocates as they figure out how to change and reform. But they will initiate reform, and that is what you have to keep your eyes on.”

In fact, Kovner said, that hope for improving mental health and early detection was a key line that he and other Courant reporters used to encourage people close to Lanza to speak up. “It helps if you are genuinely sorry for what has happened to the person you are speaking with and you can tell them that.” Kovner continued, “Early on, our calling card was ‘there is a lot of misinformation out there and we are setting it straight.’” Later, Kovner said he would explain to people that there was hope that deeper understanding might spark reform.

And, Kovner said, journalists investigating the Murrysville case would be smart not to get so caught up in the police investigation. When police say they know who the attacker is, the deeper story is exploring holes in the more complicated hidden background. “They are far less a police case than they are a case for public health, mental health committees and experts. The police angle is fairly upfront — the police angle is not the most important angle. What happened that led up to this?”

Framing coverage

Newsrooms often invent banners or themes for their coverage that they use to package their work. These themes can set a tone for how a community thinks of itself. Without debating the wisdom or effectiveness of these attempts to package coverage, my advice is to be careful of the tone you use, in wording, in the design of the logo(s), and, for broadcasters, in the music that you use going into and out of coverage.

Be especially careful about the adjectives you choose, including “tragedy, horror, terror” and such. What happened is bad enough without journalists adding to the sorrow.

Minimize harm

Instead of 20 of us journalists knocking on a parent’s door for a photo, why not pool?

Mass casualty stories can be an opportunity for newsrooms to work together to minimize the harm they cause, even while staying competitive and aggressive in their coverage.

Every newsroom will want images of all of the attack victims. If the newsrooms work together and pool the images they obtain from families, they will not have to answer dozens of phone calls and door knocks from local, national and international media. Think of how you might react if a reporter came to you and told you that releasing a photo once, to the pool, you could avoid a dozen more journalists. Compassion and journalism do not have to be in competition with each other.

Lessons learned

Angie Kucharski-CBS News vice president for media strategy

Angie Kucharski is CBS Television Network’s vice president-media strategies. In 1999, she was the news director at KCNC in Denver when two high school students opened fire inside Columbine High School.

I asked her to draw on her experience to help newsrooms who are covering the school stabbings in Murrysville, Penn.. She said:

“Remember you are there for the community. Your community is looking for answers, you have to help the public to understand step-by-step what happened. The competitive nature of this is not as important as being accurate, giving perspective and context.

“These things seem to happen somewhere else. But you are part of a community where it is happening now. You are going to have to come to terms that these victims and families are kids and friends and neighbors that you know.

“Understand that over months of coverage the families and teachers that become the face of this story become public figures and they all have stories. But they are not public figures by choice.

“Maintain that relationship with the community even though there will be a frenzy of coverage initially.

“You don’t have to be the only one making decisions about your coverage. Get help. Sometimes you may forget that you have a lot of experts in your community including child psychologists and law enforcement experts. They are there as an added tool to help you understand the effect of your decisions. For example, in the days ahead, even where you fly news helicopters and how you fly helicopters in the area could retraumatize victims.”

Every market is different, but in Denver, the newsrooms understood there was competition, but as local media we “stand for the better qualities of what we did,” she said.

Make decisions about how to cover the school re-opening, Kucharski said. The last thing these kids saw were live trucks and helicopters as they left the school. Think about how much equipment you’ll really need when school resumes.

Give your staff some time to recover. What is amazing about the people with whom we share the passion of the craft is that they will give you their all, she said. But you can’t assume that your staff can shut off their emotions. It will hit them that they are covering their neighbors and friends. Sometimes the best gift you can give them is to tell them to go see their families and give their kids a hug.

Avoid Easy Answers

Bill Dedman-investigative journalist

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Bill Dedman has dissected Secret Service studies of students who commit violent act. Several times over the years, Dedman has reminded us all that we should avoid trying to find easy answers as to why a student would harm others.

Among Dedman’s tips:

• There is no profile for school attackers. “The stereotypes of teens in Goth makeup or other types of dress are not useful in preventing attacks. Just as in other areas of security — workplace violence, airplane hijacking, even presidential assassination — too many innocent students will fit any profile you can come up with, and too many attackers will not.

“The demographic, personality, school history, and social characteristics of the attackers varied substantially,” the report said. Attackers were of all races and family situations, with academic achievement ranging from failing to excellent.

• Attackers don’t “just snap.” Resist the “nobody knew this would happen” explanation.  When students attack, the violence usually follows a long pattern of behaviors, clues, planning. Many have displayed violent behavior that required, or should have required intervention.

• Most attackers are not mentally ill. In fact, the Secret Service found that a third of school attackers suffered from a diagnosed mental illness. Many attackers had suffered with depression and suicidal thoughts, however.

How often are knives used?

Media reports have said the attacker this week used kitchen knives. Many cities and states have laws that regulate what knives may be carried in public. Generally, the laws have to do with blade length, switchblades and where a person may have a knife. For example, some cities forbid them in public areas such as parks.

The FBI says about 1,600 Americans die from knife violence each year. The figure has been declining steadily since 2006. Knives are used to kill people far more often than rifles or shotguns but far less than handguns.

Stay Factual About School Violence

Attacks like the one at Franklin Regional Senior High School might lead you to think that school violence is worse than ever and that more kids are carrying weapons.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opposite is true.

This week, the journalism investigative group called RetroReport released a documentary project showing that projections years ago that juvenile crime was rising and growing more violent was simply wrong. Years ago, the phrase “superpredator” became shorthand for a growing fear that kids were out of control and there was reason to be afraid. RetroReport looked backward at those reports to show the superpredator predictions never panned out.

The CDC says among a 2011 nationally-representative sample of youth in grades 9-12:

• 32.8 percent reported being in a physical fight in the 12 months preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (40.7 percent) than females (24.4 percent)

• 16.6 percent reported carrying a weapon (gun, knife or club) on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (25.9 percent) than females (6.8 percent)

• 5.1 percent reported carrying a gun on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey; the prevalence was higher among males (8.6 percent) than females (1.4 percent).

Look at this data table from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, compiled every year. You will see that students report school violence, threats and bullying. The percentage of students who say they have carried a weapon onto school grounds is flat or has decreased over the last two decades.

You can “get local” by looking at youth violence and injury stats state-by-state.

The government has many other resources to help you get beyond the emotions of the story:

Think ahead 

As hard as it is to get through daily news coverage when mass violence comes to your town, you have to think ahead.

  • How will you decide whether to show up on the day the school reopens?
  • How will you use 9-1-1 calls? What will you not use, and why?
  • Package your coverage into a repository online. It will become a destination years from now as the public searches to understand this event.
  • How can you produce content especially focused toward students and parents?
  • When will you stop using file and archive images of this incident? Under what conditions would you reuse them?
  • How will you cover any legal/criminal proceedings in this case considering that it involves a juvenile?
  • How will you react if victims’ funds pop up asking for financial help to offset medical bills of the victims? What safeguards will you insist on being in place to be sure any money donated goes where it should?
Read more