Al Tompkins

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Bergantino issues sharp letter to Putin after detention in Russia

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino is safely back home in Boston but he is still steaming over being detained in Russia and fired off a letter to Russian President Valdimir Putin. “Was it really necessary to replay a scene from a tired, old cold war movie?” the letter said.

Bergantino, the head of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting was invited by the U.S. State Department to Moscow and St. Petersburg to teach investigative reporting techniques to Russian journalists.

As Bergantino told Poynter.org last week, he had just started teaching the class when Russian immigration officers walked into his classroom and demanded to see his passport and visa. A few minutes later, they came back to the classroom and ordered Bergantino and colleague Randy Covington, director of Newsplex to come with them. After hours of questioning and being hauled before a judge, the two Americans were told they had the wrong visas and would have to shut their journalism workshop down.

Bergantino dashed off a note to Putin Sunday saying, “Among our “subversive” topics: how to be fair and balanced, ethical and thorough, and how to use data to be more precise and accurate.” He continued, “The 14 journalists in the room in St. Petersburg were eager to learn. Instead they were recipients of a not-so-subtle message of power and intimidation, and a reminder of the obstacles they face while you’re in charge.”

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Bergantino said even while he and Covington were being investigated, Russian authorities publicized the detention:

In the interest of fairness, I should note that your immigration service posted our names and the charges against us on its website while we were being detained. You can be transparent when you choose to send a message, which in this case was ‘We’re showing Americans who’s boss.’

And when a Russian TV crew unexpectedly arrived to interview us, your agents offered us tea and cookies.

Bergantino said he believes Putin is trying to send a message to NGOs not to come to Russia to teach journalism. Journalism training groups like Poynter, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting often work abroad training journalists how to strengthen their interviewing skills, how to be tough but fair and how to use government records in their reporting. Bergantino said he has taught in China, Vietnam and Serbia with no problems.

You’re clearly playing by the bully-strongman playbook.  Strip away freedom of the press and do whatever you please because no one’s holding you accountable. It’s easy being ‘leader’ when those who dare to question you face intimidation and punishment.

Bergantino told me last week that the judge told him that he could return to Russia if he could get the proper visa next time.  Most likely, this letter to Putin lowered the chances of that happening. Read more

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Journalists struggle to balance reporting on Ebola with HIPAA

A medical staff member, right, watches as others in protective gear escort Nina Pham, left, from an ambulance to a nearby aircraft at Love Field, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in Dallas. Pham, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, was diagnosed with the Ebola virus after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan who died of the same virus. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A medical staff member, right, watches as others in protective gear escort Nina Pham, left, from an ambulance to a nearby aircraft at Love Field, Thursday, Oct. 16, 2014, in Dallas. Pham, a nurse at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, was diagnosed with the Ebola virus after caring for Thomas Eric Duncan who died of the same virus. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Journalists covering the Ebola story are struggling to find a balance between patients’ rights, the public’s need to know what is going on and the uncomfortable feeling that innocent people caught up in this story will be “marked” for life.

A little more than a week ago, Nina Pham was a nurse who was helping to care for a Liberian man who was dying from Ebola in a Dallas hospital. This week, she showed up on a YouTube video, lying in a hospital bed recovering from the virus herself. 

Carolyn Mungo, WFAA-Dallas News Director

Carolyn Mungo, WFAA-Dallas News Director

WFAA-TV News Director Carolyn Mungo, a frequent guest faculty member at Poynter, told me that she worries about the long-term effect being linked to the Ebola story will have on Pham and so many others.

“When health officials said that Thomas Duncan (the first Ebola patient to die in the United States) could have exposed several children who attend Dallas schools, the school system alerted parents at those schools. Parents wanted to know which classes the children attended,” Mungo said. “The school system cited privacy concerns and would not identify the classrooms. But the parents pointed out that when there is a lice outbreak, the schools send home notes naming classrooms. They wanted to know why this potentially more serious alert provided less information.”

That was just the beginning of the privacy concerns that would arise.

“The police released a name and a photo of a homeless man who Duncan might have come into contact with. They just wanted to talk with the man, but we had to decide how much we would spread the man’s name and picture. Eventually we chose to show his picture and not name him, then when police found him and talked with him and found out he was not sick, we quit using the photo,” she said, but Mungo agreed that the images probably do still exist online somewhere.

“Mr. Duncan’s family is quarantined right now and will be for a few more days. We know where they are but we have chosen not to report that,” Mungo said. “There has been a lot of pressure from the public for officials to say where the family was moved. Our concern is where can this family go to start over? They have been branded, they may be forever linked with this virus.”

Then there was the tough call about whether to name the deputy who stopped by a medical clinic saying he was feeling sick and that he had been inside Duncan’s apartment. The response was overwhelming.

“People showed up at the clinic in hazmat suits. One of our people noticed the license plates of the man’s car and we traced the plates. We realized that a few days before, we had interviewed him as he complained that he had been sent into the apartment without protective gear.” Mungo said, “Because he had talked with us on camera, complaining about not being protected, we made a decision to use his name and image. He chose to go public before and that became a big part of our decision.”

Journalism v. HIPAA 

A health story of national proportions like the Ebola story pits the role of journalism against HIPPA rules. HIPAA (American Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) restricts patient information to doctors, direct caregivers, insurance companies and others expressly named in the Act.

A top medical ethicist says the law allows some leeway when a national health crisis is involved, but those loopholes do not apply to journalists.

Dr. Arthur Caplan

Dr. Arthur Caplan

“There is a clause about ‘contact tracing’ that lets public officials not directly involved in the patient’s care to get information,” said Dr. Art Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “Even when an otherwise private health matter becomes a national concern, the medical community has to use some common sense about HIPAA. The public may need to know where the infected person went, who else may have been exposed.”

The Health and Human Services website gives similar advice, “the Rule permits covered entities to disclose protected health information without authorization for specified public health purposes.” In fact, HHS says, there are several HIPAA exemptions.

The Privacy Rule permits covered entities to disclose protected health information, without authorization, to public health authorities who are legally authorized to receive such reports for the purpose of preventing or controlling disease, injury, or disability. This would include, for example, the reporting of a disease or injury; reporting vital events, such as births or deaths; and conducting public health surveillance, investigations, or interventions. See 45 CFR 164.512(b)(1)(i). Also, covered entities may, at the direction of a public health authority, disclose protected health information to a foreign government agency that is acting in collaboration with a public health authority. Covered entities who are also a public health authority may use, as well as disclose, protected health information for these public health purposes.

When Thomas Duncan died from Ebola in Texas, the hospital where he was being treated pointed out that patients can “opt in” or “opt out” of allowing their information to be released to journalists or others who call the hospital asking about the patient’s condition. A patient can even restrict who knows if a person has been admitted at all. And even hospital employees who are not involved in a patient’s care cannot go pawing through a patient’s records. Two hospital employees in Nebraska were fired for looking through Dr. Rick Sacra’s records when he was being treated for Ebola.

MedPage Today interviewed Michelle De Mooy, deputy director for consumer privacy at the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, who helped sort out what is an is not private in times of a national health concern:

So “when the hospital workers in Nebraska looked at the records of the doctor with Ebola, they still violated HIPAA, but when the ‘hospital’ officially announced the negative test results of a deputy sheriff in Dallas who was tested for Ebola, they did not,” she toldMedPage Today in an email. “My guess is their explanation for publicly announcing this would be to keep the community from panicking.”

HIPAA privacy rules would allow hospitals to release general information about a patient without releasing the person’s name, Caplan said.

“The public should know where the infected person traveled, who else could have been exposed, for example.”

Mungo said even when people on the periphery of the Ebola story volunteer to be named and interviewed, she urges them to be thoughtful about the long-term effect of being on TV.

“We heard from a man who was on the Frontier airline flight from Ohio to Dallas,” Mungo said. That was the flight that Ebola-infected nurse Amber Vinson flew on.

Two schools in Royse City, Texas closed Friday because the man’s kids went there,” Mungo said.

There is no proof the man or the children were exposed at all, but the schools closed to clean classrooms they attended and sent a systemwide alert out. Other school systems sent out alerts saying they too had children of parents on that flight. Three other Texas schools closed on Thursday.

“Every day we face these kinds of decisions,” Mungo said. “We want to report as much specific information as we can, but we worry a lot about what lasting damage will come to the people who get caught up in this story.” Read more

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While in Russia, two U.S. journalism teachers were hauled before a judge

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Joe Bergantino, New England Center for Investigative Reporting

Veteran Boston TV investigative reporter Joe Bergantino spent several hours in Russian police custody Thursday after authorities barged in on a journalism training session he and the Newsplex’s Randy Covington were leading in St. Petersburg, Russia. The two were teaching investigative reporting skills to 14 Russian TV, print and online reporters at the time.

Bergantino said in a phone interview that he and Covington had been contracted by the U.S. State Department to teach how to interview, report and think critically.

“We had finished teaching a workshop in Moscow and were just starting a second session in St. Petersburg, Russia when agents from the immigration service walked in,” Bergantino said from Paris. “We were taken to an adjacent room and surrounded by people asking us questions for about an hour.”

He said the officials demanded the two Americans write and sign a statement saying what they were doing in Russia. After writing the statement, the two returned to teaching for five minutes, only to be interrupted a second time. This time the agents shut the workshop down and hauled Bergantino and Covington away.

“This time they took us to an immigration service office and showed us a document that they wanted us to sign saying we were guilty of immigration law violations. We refused to sign it,” Bergantino said. “Then we were taken to a district court. The judge had already determined we were guilty. They initially provided an interpreter who was translating about one-tenth of what was going on.”

Bergantino and Covington were using “targeted tourism visas,” as they said the U.S. State Department told them to do. But the Russians said they needed business visas. “Randy has been to Russia before to train journalists and used the same visa we were using this time,” Bergantino told me.

“The judge told us we were guilty of violating immigration law and issued us a warning.”

As far as they know, Bergantino said, they weren’t fined and they weren’t officially deported.

“She told us we could take our scheduled flight home, but not knowing what might happen next, we took an earlier flight to Paris,” Bergantino said.

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Russian journalists interview Bergantino (photo provided by Joe Bergantino)

Bergantino is still unsure what was behind the disruption and intimidation.

“What we did hear last night is this is not from the immigration service, it is a higher level. Putin is trying to send a message if you make the Russian life difficult, we will make it difficult for you. They don’t want people from the journalists outside to come in and teach investigative reporting and stir up Russians journalists.”

Bergantino has partnered with Poynter and me on several occasions training investigative reporters as part of his work with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which he heads. Before that he had a long career with WBZ-TV, WPLG-TV and has appeared on many national broadcasts including Nightline, World News Tonight and Good Morning America.

The judge did tell the Americans they could return to Russia if they get the “proper” paperwork.

“I would go back, I love the people there,” Bergantino said. “But something tells me I am not going to get the visa they say I need.” Read more

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Here’s a peek behind the curtain of a televised debate

In the next two weeks, candidates from 11 hotly contested elections will face each other in statewide debates. Candidates in nine other states faced each other in debates already this month. In these days of the tightly scripted message-of-the-day campaigning, debates might be the closest voters get to hearing unscripted viewpoints.

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.24.44 PMMy Poynter colleague Jill Geisler, a veteran journalist in her home state of Wisconsin, moderated one of those high-profile TV debates last week. Republican Gov. Scott Walker faced Democrat Mary Burke. Walker is sometimes mentioned as a 2016 presidential possibility, but he has to get past Burke first and the polls show it is a tight race. The debate focused on typical fare; jobs, increasing minimum wage, social issues including abortion and health care, especially involving health care for women.

Geisler said a key to a successful debate lies in part to holding the candidates to strict time limits and even having the power to cut a long-winded candidate’s microphone off (which happened in the Wisconsin debate.) The Wisconsin debate also included a rule that can allow the moderator and journalists to try to force the candidates to deliver specific answers.

Jill: When I agreed to serve as moderator, I proposed the addition of a “moderator’s option” of an additional 30 seconds each in the event a topic called for it.   Both candidates’ camps agreed. (The negotiations around debate formats are fascinating, by the way. Right down to coin flips for order of questions and who gets to stand where.)  When the campaigns agreed to that proposed “moderator’s option,” we used it to press for specifics.

For example, the topic of Wisconsin’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A panelist asked the candidates what they felt the state’s minimum wage should be. When only one of the two gave a number (Burke proposed raising it to $10.10 over a multi-step process), and Gov. Walker talked about aspiring to create jobs that pay much more than the minimum wage, I exercised the moderator’s option to follow up with Gov. Walker on a request for a specific number.

I asked Geisler how the journalists on the debate panel decided what to ask:

Jill: In our case, the journalists were aware of the subject areas their colleagues on the panel intended to cover. This was done to avoid duplication of effort and provide the greatest possible array of subjects. Because we live in a world today in which candidates throw around “facts” that are often in dispute, the panel and I agreed on the goal of asking well-researched, fact based questions that, whenever possible, cited non-partisan, verifiable sources.

Al: How did you go about selecting questions that people really want answered?

Jill: We discussed our goals – serving the greatest possible number of voters with specific answers. Then we discussed issues where there were clear differences between the candidates. We also discussed issues in which candidates had, until then, refrained from providing specifics on their platforms. We also wanted to respect the fact that there are issues of statewide importance and some that are hotter in the area of the state from which we were broadcasting. That’s how the topic of sand mining found its way into the questions.

Do televised debates matter?

It may very well be that televised political debates do little to change voter behavior. But lots of academic research shows they do have value. The main value of political debates, researchers say, is that voters learn new information about the candidates, especially important for newcomers to the political scene. The FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver says in presidential debates, the challenger nearly always has the most to gain, and sometimes does gain from the exposure. Mostly the gains, Silver says, come from undecided voters, not from the other side. Why? Debate watchers tend to see what they want to see, and debates tend to affirm what they already believed about candidates.

John Sides, writing for Washington Monthly, pointed out that even the most famous TV debates may be misunderstood. The Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 is often cited as a game-changer after Richard Nixon sweated profusely and Kennedy calmly answered questions. Sides points out:

In Theodore White’s famous recounting of the election, Kennedy appeared ”calm and nerveless”while Nixon was ”haggardlooking to the point of sickness.” Two Gallup polls suggest that after the debate Kennedy moved from 1 point behind Nixon to 3 points ahead, although it is difficult to know whether that shift is statistically meaningful. Both Stimson and Erikson and Wlezien find that Kennedy’s margin after all of the debates was only slightly higher than his margin on the eve of the first debate. Moreover, any trend in Kennedy’s favor began before the debates were held. Clearly 1960 was a close election, and many factors, including the debates, may have contributed something to Kennedy’s narrow victory. But it is difficult to say that the debates were crucial.

Absent any big gaffes or headline producing news from the candidates themselves, which are rare in televised debates, the moderator can become news.  Viewers critique whether the journalists are too soft or too tough on candidates.  Geisler said she didn’t want to become a focus of any post-debate chatter so she even had to consider what to wear.

Jill: I met with the panelists several times for some terrific brainstorming in which we talked about potential topics and how to frame questions fairly. Then there were the usual production details that TV folks sweat over — writing my opening remarks to set a tone and share the rules so things were transparent to the folks at home, working on camera angles and lines of sight for countdown clocks, determining how the panelists and I would use the “moderator’s option” to press for more details, and even how I’d make sure that I had a decent “back of my hair day” because the moderator is seen from behind in so many of the wide shots, and I didn’t want anything regarding my clothing or hair to be a distraction. And one more thing: although my wardrobe has quite a few red and blue jackets, I chose pink, so no one would presume a political message.

A 2013 Washington Post story pointed out that a wide range of factors including post-debate spin can heavily influence debate watchers. The Post’s story points to a number of studies that showed how different network commentators affected who people thought won a debate. And there were other more subtle factors that come into play, including how good-looking the candidate is on TV.

John Wihbey at the Kennedy School has compiled a list of studies on debate effects, and many study factors that one wouldn’t think would have any impact at all, like what television setting a voter is using. But these things do matter, at least a little bit.

Several studies suggest that a candidate’s appearance during the debates could have a big impact. MIT’s Gabriel Lenz and Chappell Lawson have found that attractive candidates disproportionately benefit from debates, with new support coming especially from less informed voters. The College of Wooster’s Angela Bos, Bas van Doorn and Abbey Smanik found that HDTV hurt John McCain in 2008, with viewers reacting negatively to his appearance on higher-resolution screens.

 

Screen shot 2014-10-12 at 8.25.09 PMEvery election season, it seems, there is one final question that journalists turn to to reveal something personal about the candidates. Over the years panelists have asked candidates if they know the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. I have seen journalists ask candidates what their favorite “drink” is. In one especially memorable debate the first candidate said gin and tonic, the rest of the candidates said milk or orange juice and left the first poor sucker hanging. In the Wisconsin debate, the journalists asked the candidates to say something, anything nice about the other. I asked Jill what the journalists were fishing for:

Jill: I think it might be seen as the antithesis of the very negative advertising in today’s races. It’s a check to see if the candidate can rise above the rancor, however briefly.

But in our case, the question also served a very practical purpose. Debates involve tricky timing. The moderator has to end the questions in time for closing statements from both candidates. But what do you do if there’s only one or two minutes left before the time you have stop in order to get to those closing statements? You need a question that, in fairness, does not require a complicated answer. So during our debate prep, when one of our journalists told me he’d thought of asking such a question, I asked him to keep it ready in case we needed it. It turned out, we did. I told the candidates we had only a short time left before their final statements and could only fit in one with a brief reply. So “can you find something positive” was asked. Now you know the inside scoop.

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CBC’s effort to uncover bodies in an alleged 58-year-old triple murder

On Wednesday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship evening newscast dedicated 15-and-a-half minutes to a single jaw-dropping story.  It is the story of a horror that a woman said she witnessed 58 years ago and spent decades trying to get someone to care.

Courtesy CBC

Courtesy CBC

Three years ago, my church pastor called to say he knew a woman who desperately needed a journalist to help her. The pastor said her story might seem to be outlandish and unbelievable, but asked me to give the woman a chance. He believed her, he said, beyond the shadow of a doubt. In more than 40 years of working in journalism I have come to understand that the most unbelievable stories can be true and when they are, they can be blockbusters.

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

 

So I sat down with Glenna Mae Breckenridge, who lives in Ontario during the summers and, like lots of Canadians, lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the winters. Breckenridge told me that in July 1955, somebody killed three Aboriginal teenage boys on a farm an hour north of Toronto. I asked her how she knew. She said she witnessed the murders herself when she was a young girl. She said she knew the killer and she knew where the bodies were. She told she had not been able to get authorities to believe her.

Breckenridge needed a journalist who would help her. Somebody who knew the Canadian legal and police system, somebody who could tell the story to the world, somebody who had the resources to stay on the story for however long it took to find the truth.

I called CBC correspondent Paul Hunter, who is one of the best journalists I know. Hunter is at home in war zones and earthquake debris. He travels the world reporting on the biggest stories and the worst of human misery.  And yet, even in the worst situations, I have always noticed his reporting reveals a heart that has not hardened.

“Cold case stories are almost always inherently fascinating,” Hunter told me.  “The very idea something could go unresolved for so long, while a key player in it had insisted for years that an answer was there for the finding is, in my books, journalistically irresistible. I also felt personally for Breckenridge. She seemed broken by her many years of not being heard. I thought spending a little time looking into it (largely on my own time) was the least I could do, given her sincerity and level of despair.”

For three years, he chipped away at the story between covering wars and politics and disasters. Paul Hunter and a producer, Ghazala Malik, combed government records, even found a video deposition from 1996 when Breckenridge, after years of therapy, was able to recall enough details that she told police her story of the killings.

“His first call when you directed me to him, my gut told me he was listening and hearing what I was saying,” Breckenridge told me about her first call from Hunter. “And there was a form of empathy that helped me relax and thus show some trust-not easy for me — but he never challenged me or pushed me beyond what I needed to say or what he apparently felt was enough for the moment. He  kept the conversation short and I knew he had heard all. For me, I usually was very careful when talking to a man especially a man in a powerful position. He said very little, and I knew he knew what I was saying.”

Hunter said Breckenridge told him the same shocking story she had told me.  She told him, on camera, that her father was the killer. And that her father buried the teens below the floor of a pig pen inside of what is now a large barn on the family farm. Breckenridge told the CBC the story of how, she said, her father had repeatedly sexually abused her and that during one attack a teenaged farm hand saw one of the assaults and tried to intervene. Breckenridge said her father killed the boy with a pitchfork.

She told Hunter that the next day, two more teens came looking for their friend and her father killed both boys with a shotgun. But claims are one thing, proving the claims would be much more difficult, maybe impossible.

The CBC's Paul Hunter listens to Glenna Mae's story.  (From CBC)

The CBC’s Paul Hunter listens to Breckenridge’s story. (From CBC)

Hunter explained the mountain of problems that he  faced: “The incident in question happened in 1955. No bodies were found by police. No boys were ever reported missing. There was only one witness [Breckenridge] and a father [now deceased] who had denied everything to police. Her family had sided with the father and was no help to us. Police we spoke with acknowledged their difficulties in the initial investigation, underlining a truth about police work in general – not all crimes can be solved. As well, access to the farm where it all happened was complicated. The family had sold it to a new owner who had no interest in Glenna Mae coming by and — potentially — discovering human remains on his land. For the longest time he refused to allow us on. At the point where I was beginning to suggest to Glenna Mae that she should prepare herself to abandon hope for finding answers, we made one last pitch to the current property owner and, long story short, he agreed to let us on, for a day.”

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

A ground penetrating radar machine records what is below the barn floor. (From CBC)

For that one and only chance to examine that barn floor, the CBC hired a ground-penetrating-radar operator to come to the pig barn. The operator, Hunter said was considered to be a world-class expert.  With Hunter by her side, she directed the GPR operator to the exact location where she said she witnessed the burials.

Breckenridge told me that after all these years, Paul Hunter was her only hope of finding the truth. “After 58 years of trying to be heard – no. It just didn’t seem to happen with all other avenues that I have tried. You guys listened and I knew I was being heard. A refreshing experience for me! You never showed aghast, you just asked more questions. It made me feel that I had the right to tell you my information that I had held secret for so long. Both you and Paul treated me as an intelligent, normal woman instead of being frowned upon as a dirty, little girl with a secret. Always respectful and that was new for me.”

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

The ground penetrating radar image of what may be three teenaged boys below the barn floor. (From CBC)

After an hour of scanning the hard floor with his x-ray machine, the operator said he had found “three anomalies” about 5 feet in length a few feet below the floor. The images were consistent with human remains, the operator told Hunter. The anomalies showed up at exactly the location and depth Breckenridge insisted they would be. The images showed something where nothing but dirt should have been beneath that pig-pen floor. But while that’s compelling, it still leaves room for doubt.

“Did we find the truth? I think Glenna Mae found her truth,” Hunter told me. “As I underline in the piece, to be 100 percent certain there’d have to be a dig and DNA testing, and we didn’t do that. We felt we should report what we’ve found and, at least for now, leave it at that.”

Paul Hunter could have thrown up his hands years ago. But he told me early on he often found the best stories from the most unlikely witnesses that others ignored. This story, he said, taught even a veteran journalist like him lessons, “Don’t give up! Diligence pays! And a good story is a good story is a good story. And as well, it was a reminder that it pays to be upfront and fully transparent with people when it’s a long-term project. I give Glenna Mae credit for being patient with our logistical challenges and as well with the long-term nature of investigative pieces. It can be difficult explaining to those outside the industry why you can’t always ‘get it on tonight’ but the truth about process (boring as it may be to some!) has a funny way of easing the anxiety for those we involve in our stories. It was also instructive in finding ways to tell stories that are outside one’s comfort zone. This piece wasn’t so much about a potential crime, as it was about the idea of memory and truth.”

We don’t know if the police will ever reopen an investigation. Breckenridge’s father died five years ago. But when the CBC dedicates so much airtime and effort to gather and tell a story on the CBC’s main evening newscast, there could be enough attention on this case that the case cannot sit unresolved even if nobody could be held accountable if those anomalies are bodies beneath that floor. Since there were no missing person reports, and the new owner of the farm doesn’t want the disturbance of having his barn dug up, this story may be at an end.

But within minutes of the story airing, viewers took to Facebook demanding action.

This story cannot end like this,” a reader wrote CBC News’ Facebook page. “I was utterly shocked, and appalled at the way this story ended,” another said. “Thank you to Paul Hunter for the respectful reporting of the story,” wrote another.

The Follow-up

Within 24 hours of the story airing, police told Paul Hunter they wanted to see the CBC’s evidence and reminded Hunter that unsolved homicide cases are never closed. And, police insisted, they did take Breckenridge’s original report in the 1990s seriously. They generated a thick case file and police did search the farm and found no evidence of buried bodies. But they did not use ground x-ray.

photo of Hunter holding up police file - Caption: In a followup report, CBC's Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Photo of Hunter holding up police file – Caption: In a followup report, CBC’s Paul Hunter shows that police did investigation the 1996 complaint and generated a thick investigation file. Photo From CBC: The National

Police asked Hunter for his evidence to compare it to where they looked years ago and “decide what steps to take.” Hunter said police told him that if they look at the x-ray evidence and become convinced the data shows bodies, they may restart their investigation. And, of course, there is still the chance the x-rays picked up soundings of something else, not human remains.

In his follow-up report, Paul Hunter said Aboriginal leaders responded to the story by issuing a recall for families and community leaders to “think hard” about old tales from decades ago about boys who may have disappeared in 1955 and “were never heard from again.” Hunter reminds viewers that it may be difficult to know for sure if there were missing teens because there were many stories from the 1950s about runaways from residential schools and often there were no records of their disappearance.

Despite the ambiguous ending, Breckenridge told me she got what she wanted. “I wanted this story told, first for the boys who were murdered, so that other people who have witnessed a murder like I did can be strong enough to tell their story too. My biggest reason is I want people to know that those of us that have been abused can talk about it and get help. In this fast moving world, with all it’s horrors, I wonder if my story can make a change. I was always told in teaching that if you can change the life of one child, it is worth it. I felt a deep sense of relief and let out a breath ‘finally.’ I finally knew that my voice had been heard for the boys. Thank God.” Read more

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Storytelling lessons from Budweiser puppy commercial

Budweiser strikes again.

Once again, with the help of a puppy, the beer maker created another viral commercial. Earlier this year, it aired a Super Bowl commercial titled “Puppy Love” that I deconstructed for Poynter.org readers.

The new ad, “Friends are Waiting” comes with this cutline:

Next time you go out, be sure to make a plan to get home safely. Your friends are counting on you. Enjoy Budweiser responsibly. #FriendsAreWaiting

Watch the ad then let’s pull it apart to see what video storytelling lessons we can adapt to news writing:

The story uses a story frame I call:
Once Upon a Time — Suddenly — Fortunately — As it turns out

The playful pup falls in love with the man and the man adores the dog.
There are some interesting tensions along the way. The dog runs away with the leash, he chews on a shoe and at nine seconds in, even when the man is sick, the dog is there on the sofa comforting him. In just nine seconds, the story builds the relationship.

At 10 seconds we get the first hint this is a beer commercial. A beer bottle is sitting on the table next to a generic peanut butter jar. The bottle foreshadows something in the story.

At 15 seconds we get a second foreshadowing when the man walks down a pier and there is a towel on a chair, a towel with a Budweiser logo on it. Then again at 19 seconds everybody is gathered around the campfire drinking beer — all Budweisers.

At 20 seconds you see the people walking out of the house with a six-pack. Notice the panting sound of the dog. It is the first time you hear the dog in the whole spot. It is a sound of anxiety. It is a tension.
Then the commercial adds an action-reaction sequence. The people walk about, the dog is depressed.

He watches, then he waits, watches, waits.

The spot makes artistic use of lighting as the dog sniffs an old toy lying in a patch of light. The light of a passing car alerts him, but it is a false alarm, it is another tension builder.

At 33 seconds the night is gone, it is daylight outside the windows. At 35 seconds, once again, the dog makes a sound, a whimper.

The video goes to a white font over black background. The lyrics are replaced by soft guitar. It appears the story is over.

At 44 seconds the lyrics come back, the keys unlock the door, the dog comes back to full alert and at 47 seconds the dog makes his third sound as the master explains what happened and apologizes.

Notice that once the explosion of action occurs, the story ends quickly. That’s the best way to tell emotional stories. Don’t drag it out.

Think of this story frame as:

  • Tension
  • Context
  • Explosion of Action

The context of the story is that when you leave home to party, somebody is counting on you to be responsible and come home safety. The dog is a great choice for this ad because we all want the dog to be happy. A cat wouldn’t care.

We can learn some much about news writing from watching, listening to and reading great stories of all kinds. Short stories like commercials are especially useful models to study because they are short, like most news stories. This spot never wastes my time, builds emotions and connections quickly, makes a clear solid point and leads to a resolution. We don’t know the dog’s name or the man’s name because we didn’t need to. The production is subtle and never competes with the message. The natural sound punctuates the story. Seemingly small things like lighting are not small.

The commercial also drills down on what I call story motivators. I think there are eight key motivators for storytellers to attach to their stories:

  1. Money
  2. Family
  3. Health
  4. Safety
  5. Community
  6. Moral Outrage
  7. Curiosity
  8. Social Trending

I bet that some will see a moral outrage in this commercial that goes something like, “How could he be out drinking while his poor dog has to wait to go outside and relieve himself?” But the more sure-fire motivators for this story are family and safety. REMEMBER: The more motivators you can use, the wider your audience will be. Read more

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Ray Rice, Janay Palmer

How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims

The Executive Director of CASA, the St. Petersburg, Florida domestic violence center told me “not a single word” of Janay Rice’s Instagram post surprised her.

janay-rice-statement

After 30 years of working with domestic violence victims, Linda Osmundson says the Ray Rice case is typical of the 6,000 cases a year that flow through the victim support system, including a small shelter she oversees in Pinellas County. The big difference is most abuse cases don’t make the news. Most abuse happens behind closed doors, not in front of casino elevator cameras.

“Victims stand by their man,” Osmundson said. They will stand by him and stand by him and stand by him until they can’t stand by any longer. Why? Because they love him. They have children together, a house together, a life together. Battered women leave five to seven times before they finally leave for good. The batterer does not batter all the time. The charming guy comes back and charms her. The victim loves the charming guy.”

And so, like Janay Rice, they stay with the man who hit them. “Most of the victims have never been involved with police. They know the system will not defend their lives. We don’t prosecute most domestic violence cases in this county. They go back to the abusers. They are on their own. Restraining orders don’t stop fists and bullets. Many are terrified, what if they don’t win the case.”

Osmundson says shelters like CASA don’t see a big increase in calls for help after high profile cases anymore. Sadly, they have become so common, she says, the public doesn’t react to the news as it once did. “In the OJ Simpson years we saw an increase in calls. That was the first time it was out in the public among high visibility people. It is much less of a surprise now, we don’t see the same reaction now. OJ was a ‘goldmine’ to us because people said ‘Oh, that happens to other people?”‘

Osmundson offers this advice to journalists:

  • Focus on the abuser. Social media and even some talk radio focused on the woman for staying with a man who hit her. The victim should not be re-victimized. It sends a strong signal to other women that this public judgement is what awaits you if you report your abuser. “Women don’t report abuse for a lot of reasons. Maybe the batterer got to her and said if you tell I will hurt you and your family,” Osmundson said.
  • Alcohol and drug use is involved a significant number of cases that come through CASA. But, Osmundson said, don’t allow alcohol to become an excuse. In fact, she said, sober abusers may be even more dangerous.  “Alcohol makes me not be able to abuse “clearly.” Abuse is planned, thought through. It is important to remember they have two problems, one is abuse, the other is alcohol,” she said.
  • Abuse is a world view, it is not a disease. Your view is reinforced by family, friends, advertising, videos and music. It is reinforced culturally all the time when, for example, athletes beat their wives and continue on with their career. “If you get to guys when they are young there is some hope they can turn around. Take an older guy who has done this all along, I don’t have a lot of hope for him,” Osmundson told me.

Resources for Journalists

The stories Linda Osmundson told me based on her decades of experience are backed up by stacks of studies.

The CDC says in a newly released national survey(using 2011 data) :

On average, 20 people per minute are victims of physical violence by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 10 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story—nearly 2 million women are raped in a year and over 7 million women and men are victims of stalking in a year.

You can see state-by-state breakdowns of domestic violence from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control survey here. Note: the report urges you NOT to try to use the data to compare states because the report relies on different levels of responses from different locations.)

The Department of Justice reports:

Overall, African Americans were victimized by intimate partners a(t) significantly higher rates than persons of any other race between 1993 and 1998. Black females experienced intimate partner violence at a rate 35% higher than that of white females, and about 22 times the rate of women of other races.
– Callie Marie Rennison and Sarah Welchans, U.S. Department of Justice, Intimate Partner Violence (2000)

In a study of African-American sexual assault survivors, only 17% reported the assault to police. (Africana Voices Against Violence, Tufts University, Statistics, 2002)

One story that journalists could explore is whether your community has enough support for abuse victims. Help centers told the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s 2013 national survey that they had lost workers including shelter staff and legal assistants. The NNEDV’s census including shelters and centers that house abuse victims found:

Domestic violence programs do not always know what happens when a survivor courageously calls a stranger to ask for a bed or other help and the services aren’t available; however;

  • 60 percent of programs report that victims return to the abuser,
  • 27 percent report that victims become homeless
  • 11 percent report that victims end up living in their cars.

The survey also found this statistic that journalists could explore:

Across the United States 1,696 staff positions were eliminated in the past year. Most of these positions were direct service providers, such as shelter staff or legal advocates. This means there were fewer advocates to answer calls for help or provide needed services.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence lists these stunning statistics. I am linking to the studies on which some of this data is based. Much of it is from the Department of Justice, and some of the data is 15 years old:

  • One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

  • An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.

  • Almost one-third of female homicide victims that are reported in police records are killed by an intimate partner.

  • In 70-80 percent of intimate partner homicides, no matter which partner was killed, the man physically abused the woman before the murder.

  • Less than 20 percent of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence sought medical treatment following the injury.

The American Bar Association pulled together data for lawyers who deal with these kinds of cases. One of the more interesting facts the ABA lists this statistic from the American Journal of Public Health:

Access to firearms yields a more than five-fold increase in risk of intimate partner homicide when considering other factors of abuse, according to a recent study, suggesting that abusers who possess guns tend to inflict the most severe abuse on their partners.

Linda Osmundson offered two other key thoughts to journalists covering the Ray Rice story.  “This is not the first time a well-known athlete has done this. The exciting thing to me is that somebody is taking action this time. Other athletic organizations should take action too, it would make a difference.” She added, journalists should remember that victims are reading, listening and watching this coverage. If the case is taken seriously, they might find the courage to come forward. “For abusers, it is always power and control. Most of times, guys plan the abuse. That fist is connected to his arm. It is always his choice.”

Update:
In the day and a half since TMZ released the knockout punch video, Twitter users posted 96,000 entries with the hashtags #whyistay and #whyIleft.
While it is not possible to verify the stories behind the posts, the entries are heartbreaking. I put some of the posts in this Storify collection. Read more

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SPJ Approves New Code of Ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists approved a new Code of Ethics at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 convention in Nashville Saturday afternoon.

SPJ’s code of ethics attempts to speak to all media, and all who consider themselves to be journalists:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.

The newly approved code attempts to address using anonymous sources in stories:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm. Do not grant anonymity merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Some members wanted the new code to urge journalists to directly link to sources they reference online, the committee rejected that idea, saying it was a good idea to link to original sources but it was not imperative in every circumstance.  The new code says:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

The new code takes a harder line against paying for interviews compared the the previous code. The previous code said, journalists should “avoid bidding for news.”  The new code say s”do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.” 

The new code also takes a dim view of undercover tactics:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

The proposed new code also said, “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place,” but late Friday, committee members removed that line and would write an expanded guideline for journalists urging them to be careful when reporting on suicides but to not ignore such a significant issue. SPJ has already produced “position papers” on a number of other ethics issues.

I asked SPJ Ethics Chairman Kevin Smith if he thinks ethics codes even matter anymore.

After the vote Saturday, Smith said, “This was a long and arduous process that took a lot of thought and deliberation.”  Smith said he was “proud of the people who worked on this new code and proud of SPJ for accepting it.”

At the same convention that SPJ adopted its new code of ethics, the Radio and Television Digital News Association unveiled its proposed new code of ethics. Ethics committee chairman Scott Libin says the new code is RTNDA’s first ethics code update since 2000. The proposed code, which will likely be voted on in 2015. Here are some of the passages:

  • The facts should get in the way of a good story.  Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments.  Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.  Many things that are technically “true” are incomplete, out of context or otherwise misleading.  Journalism’s standard of accuracy is higher than that.

  • There are not two sides to every story; for every story of significance, there are more than two sides.  While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

  • Scarce resources, deadline pressure and cutthroat competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues.  “Trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media” may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.

  • Facts change over time.  Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.

Libin explained to Poynter.org what the committee was aiming for:

The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar, both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence. I asked Libin if he foresees a day when all of the organizations could come together with one unified code that all people practicing journalism in all forms could follow.

The RTDNA proposed code includes language that both encourages journalists to tackle unpopular, even controversial topics, while encouraging journalists to be sensitive, not just in how they report, but how they gather the story:

  • Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination.  Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.

  • Preserving privacy and protecting the right to a free trial are not the primary mission of journalism; still, these critical concerns deserve consideration and to be balanced against the importance or urgency of reporting.

  • The right to broadcast, publish or otherwise share information does not mean it is always right to do so.  However, journalism’s obligation is to pursue truth and report, not withhold it.  Shying away from difficult cases is not necessarily more ethical than taking on the challenge of reporting them. Leaving tough or sensitive stories to the rumor mill, the blogosphere and social media can be a disservice to the public.

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good_life

9 under-the-radar ONA finalist’s projects you need to see

The Online News Association’s contest finalist list is always a source of inspiration for me. When it arrived in my email Monday I started scouring it to find great projects that I would use in my Poynter teaching.

Some of the more highly publicized projects you may have already seen, but if you haven’t, you should check these out:

I was delighted to find some other magnificent reporting I had not seen before the finalist list came out and wanted to share some of my favorites. (Disclosure: I have no inside information of who will win the ONA awards and I have not gone through everything on the finalist list so don’t feel left out if your project is not mentioned here.)

Sex Predators Unleashed, South Florida Sun Sentinel: Pulitzer-winner Sally Keston and Dana Williams wrote a stunning report on “Rapists and pedophiles freed by the state went on to molest 460 children, rape 121 women and kill 14.” The project prompted state lawmakers to change Florida’s sex offender laws. The project included video and a searchable database of 594 sex offenders who were convicted of new sex crimes once they were released. The investigation also shows who gets rich, yes gets rich, from being expert witnesses in sex abuse cases.

The Good Life: The Movement that Changed Maine, Bangor Daily News, Maine: This is a rich multimedia story filled with video, audio and wonderful photos documenting the story of how 60 years ago, a movement started as city dwellers sought a way to get back to the land and out of the hassle of city life. The story includes the couple that others came to look up to as the founders of the movement. The music, the navigation, the simple photos are a joy to breeze through.

31 Days, 31 Ways, The Texas Tribune: This story is remarkable because it is so smartly designed.  The Tribune found 31 new laws that would take hold in September and explained each one in some details. Over 31 days, they rolled out the ways the new laws would affect Texans. Some in big ways and some not so big but this is something every newsroom could adapt every year rather than dumping a summary on the public all at once. I especially liked the “calendar view” the Tribune offered.

Betrayed by Silence, Minnesota Public Radio News: Sadly, it is a story we have seen before and it does not seem to end. MPR traces the decades of sexual abuse covered up by leaders of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The website includes a “quick guide” a useful timeline and breaks the complex story into chapters for easy navigation.

Boston’s Mayoral Race: Square by Square, WBUR: This is election reporting that goes block by block through the city to explain how the landscape of a big city is made up of distinct communities with unique needs.

Wild Horses In Crisis, Oregon Public Broadcasting: It is nice to see television moving to rich online reporting. The video is stunning.

Hollow, Hollow Interactive:  They warn you that it is best to experience this with headphones. The slow load is worth the wait. The story is about the many places in America where “more people leave than stay.” The story explores McDowell County, West Virginia in a rich multimedia way. After you scroll through the timeline, you begin to explore the deeper stories of the boom and bust of so many rural communities like this one. After a while, I realized many of the still images were clickable with rich hidden stories in them. I spent a half-hour on this site and got the feeling I was barely mining the richness of it.

Proof: For Many Rape Victims in Maine, Justice Comes Only From Being Believed, Bangor Daily News Maine:  I am not sure what is going on in Bangor but this website has produced some blockbuster projects in the last year. This one shows one in five Maine residents will be the victim of rape or attempted rape. Many victims appear to tell their stories. Others explain why they didn’t report what happened to them because they feared nobody would believe them.

ER Wait Watcher, ProPublica: This one explores how long it takes to get seen in America’s waiting rooms. Not only can you look state-by-state but click into the state and see hospital-by-hospital what the wait times are. See how long it will take before you are released and how long it takes to get transferred to a room for additional care. The stories that flow from this data seem endless.

And for those of you who wonder what the next generation of journalists looks like. Be impressed by these finalists:

STUDENT PROJECTS, SMALL

STUDENT PROJECTS, LARGE

The winners will be announced at the 2014 ONA Conference and Online Journalism Awards Banquet on Saturday, Sept. 27, in Chicago. Read more

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APTOPIX Police Shooting Missouri

Local TV journalists say police encounters are mixed in Ferguson

Local television journalists from St. Louis covering the protests in Ferguson, Missouri tell Poynter.org there is a version of the story unfolding that has not been widely told. These journalists say it’s true that some officers have come at them with weapons drawn but others have shown remarkable restraint.

KTVI photojournalist Dave Sharp was hit in the thigh by a rubber bullet Wednesday night. “It’s no big deal,” the 26-year news veteran said. “Look, the police gave everyone a lot of warning to get out of there.” Sharp captured video of a young man tossing a lit firebomb toward police. “He tried to throw it over a building and it landed on a car wash. The car wash caught fire. If it had gone further, the molotov cocktail would have landed on a group of police gathered nearby. That is what started things Wednesday night. Just imagine what would have happened if that guy had thrown that thing a little further, it would have set a lot of officers on fire.”

 

Police fire tear gas canisters at Al Jazeera America TV crew.

Police fire tear gas canisters at Al Jazeera America TV crew.

KTVI photojournalist Wade Smith, a 30 year journalism veteran, says he has been covering the disturbances “every night since the story began in Ferguson.” Wednesday night, as tear gas canisters and rubber bullets flew, Smith said he was “inside the perimeter” that police set up around 6 o’clock each evening. “The way it works is that there are people who protest during the day, then around 6, police put up barriers and if you are not inside those barriers, you are outside the action.”

Protestors could not have been surprised when police began trying to clear the streets of Ferguson Wednesday night, Smith said. “I said to another person out there last night it is like the police are playing Jedi mind games. They are on loudspeakers saying things like ‘You have the right to protest. Stay off the road. Go to the side.’”

Then after police try that for a while, they said something like “OK you have to go now” and they start moving, Smith said. “Then, there is a tone — like the ski racers on the Olympics — There is a tone that they sound and they start moving and firing.” Smith said, “It was the urban equivalent of the Running of the Bulls, you know something bad is going to happen really soon.”

“There is a lot of tension out there, no doubt,” Smith said, “But honestly what I saw was a lot of restraint. I was all ‘yes sir and no sir’ and the police treated me with respect.”  Smith said he did see many “independent” journalists, bloggers and others with small cameras, not TV cameras working “right up in the SWAT team’s faces.”  Smith said, “I just kept thinking man, you might want to back up. But the officers didn’t do anything to them.”

KSDK photojournalist Eric Voss, who has 20 years of journalism experience, captured the now iconic video of police firing a tear gas canister at an Al Jezeera America TV crew.

“I was shooting a story on the opening of school being delayed. We were outside of the protest area in a neighborhood and the Al Jezeera crew was a half block away. Police formed a line and started moving and the Al Jezeera crew yelled ‘we are the press, we are the press, we are the press.’” Voss said police fired a tear gas canister that bounced off the crew’s vehicle. “The journalists ran away and I saw the police disassemble their lights and tilt the camera to the ground, they left it on the tripod.” Then, Voss said, police turned their attention on him. “When they got 20 or 30 feet away from me with their guns drawn I got out of there. I got in my car and threw both of my hands in the air.”  Voss said there were no protestors anywhere near where the place he was when police confronted him.

KTVI’s Dave Sharp said he saw many people with mobile phones “trying to put themselves in the middle of the action,sounding like ‘oh the humanity.’ You could tell who was there to do their job as journalists who who just wanted to put themselves in the middle of the action,” he said.

The journalists I spoke with gave me examples of how some officers went out of their way to be helpful while others threatened journalists.

KSDK multimedia journalist Casey Nolen said that Tuesday night, the Ferguson Police Department’s public information officer called his station to say the station should alert journalists on the scene that police were going to use tear gas soon. “It was a ‘not for broadcast’ alert that they gave us. KSDK photojournalist Tom Herman captured video of police confronting a protestor. Police spotted Herman, shined a light directly at him, and second later, without warning, fired a beanbag round at him that pinged off his tripod.

KTVI photojournalist Wade Smith’s Facebook post from Ferguson, Missouri may have been the understatement of the night Wednesday. He posted a photo that he captured from his car with the caption, “Getting gas is no fun.”
Screen shot 2014-08-14 at 12.15.24 PM Read more

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