Beth Winegarner


Desensationalizing stories dealing with tragedies such as the shootings at Columbine High School require careful reporting by journalists. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

5 tips on how to desensationalize stories

Every year, news agencies fight harder than before to capture the audience’s attention — and every innovation seems to make that job tougher. With the creation of cable news, the 24-hour news cycle and, more recently, a seemingly infinite number of online options, consumers can get their news just about anywhere, forcing news outlets into ever-more-questionable reporting practices.

Kathy Walton, an audio engineer for several broadcast news services, told me online recently, “I blame the wireless remote control. I’m serious. The day it became so easy to change the channel was the day television news stopped being news and began tap dancing to keep people from clicking away.”

Often, sensationalism is used to lure the audience’s attention. While some publications have made exaggeration and manipulation of the news their stock-in-trade, others stretch the truth less intentionally, not realizing their chosen angle is iffy or just plain wrong. But when it comes to breaking news, especially crime, there’s no substitute for strong storytelling based on solid facts. Read more

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Judges Gavel

6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases

Newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging staff for more than a decade. They’ve had to cut back on major areas of coverage, including investigative reporting and another important beat: court reporting.

Today, reporters might be dispatched to cover big trials, but everyday lawsuits and court hearings are often overlooked. The courts can provide a rich source of daily stories as well as compelling narrative features, and it doesn’t take much time to keep tabs on them when you know what to do.

This piece offers six tips for tracking the legal cases you and your readers, listeners and viewers will want to know about. The tips focus on state courts because they’re often free; the federal courts make most cases available online, but they’re behind the PACER paywall. They can be tracked via Lexis Nexis, but that also costs money.

Check for new cases once a week.

Every state has its own court system, with courts in just about every county. Many have websites where you can look through the titles of cases that have been filed recently. Often, you can refine your queries by looking at only civil cases exceeding a particular amount of money, and cases filed within, say, the past week. Skim these to see whether any local public figures or businesses are suing someone — or being sued.

Some courts post these documents online. If they don’t, they’ll provide you with the names of the attorneys involved, many of whom will be happy to share the PDFs. Not all of them will turn out to be newsworthy, but it only takes a few minutes to skim through them to find out what the core dispute is about — and what kind of legal remedies, including money, the plaintiffs are asking for.

Look up important names regularly.

Those same court websites will also usually let you search for cases by the names of the people or businesses involved. If they do, make a list of local figures, including elected officials, top appointed leaders and others your newsroom follows, as well as important local businesses. Once a week or so, look up these names and see if they’re involved in any new litigation.

Of course, anyone can sue over just about anything, and even in civil cases, people are innocent until found guilty by a judge or a jury. People and companies with money are targets for litigation (just ask Google). Cities often face lawsuits when, for example, citizens are arrested and roughed up by police, or when someone is harmed in a public park. Those can make good follow-ups to articles about the underlying events.

Go with your gut.

If you look at enough court filings, after a while they all begin to look the same. The courts are full of lawsuits claiming that electronics companies price-fixed computer components, or that a drug company misled patients about the risks of a particular medication, so it’s tough to tease out the newsworthy ones.

Once in a while, a case title begs for further investigation, such as “United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins,” a case mentioned in Sarah Stillman’s recent feature for the New Yorker, “Taken.”

Other factors can also inspire you to dig, Stillman said in an email interview.

“Was a child involved? What was the magnitude of this person’s alleged loss? Does the complaint seem credible? Are there random, quirky things that just pique my interest for inexplicable reasons? All of these can be factors driving my decision to explore further, to pick up the phone or show up at an address,” she said. “After slogging through countless documents, you’re inevitably going to find a few that give you that ‘Wow, I have to pursue this’ feeling.”

Uncover the story behind the court documents.

Once in a while, a court filing — or a pattern of them — calls for a deeper look. Although “Taken” was inspired by one of Stillman’s prior articles, it also hinged on a pattern of perfunctory court filings that described assets seized by law-enforcement officials, as well as the lawsuits filed by those citizens. Those lawsuits provided a timeline, narrative structure and the names of potential sources who could put a face on the case, Stillman said.

“Nothing adds more to a story than actually enriching the material I’ve gleaned with the in-person, flesh-and-blood insights that come from spending time with the individuals involved,” she said.

Check out the court’s tentative rulings.

Many times, judges will post their tentative rulings the day before a hearing, so the attorneys in a case will be able to prepare for the judge’s thoughts or questions. These often provide basic information about the case and a quick snapshot of the judge’s thinking on whether the case should go forward.

If you see something that interests you, follow up the next day with the attorneys or the court clerk to see if the judge adopted the tentative; that’s the start of a news story. If you can spare the time, cover the hearing itself. (If your local court has a daily law-and-motion calendar, sit in for an hour and take notes on the arguments and rulings; something lively is likely to happen.)

Converse with people, search the Web.

New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak uncovered the story of Shon Hopwood, the prisoner who wrote a fellow inmate’s Supreme Court petition, while chatting idly with a source on another topic entirely.

“After you’re done doing the story you think you’re doing, hang around and talk to people. You never know what tidbits will turn into a story later,” he told me by phone.

Likewise, Liptak said he’s uncovered some interesting cases simply by asking questions in the search box on legal-research sites. (From my own experience, Google works, too). Many will turn up public links to court filings — like an obscure Alabama court ruling that helped him set up his article on the Supreme Court’s recent repeal of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

“All you need is a little dab of color” when you search, Liptak said. “You already know what theme you want to pursue; you just need something to bring it to life.” Read more

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Lockedinfo2

6 ways journalists can keep their reporting materials private & off-the-record

The recent discovery that the U.S. Department of Justice has seized Associated Press and Fox News phone records has seriously shaken the news industry.

It remains unclear whether the DOJ went through all the proper channels to get that information. Either way, the situation has made journalists wonder who else has been investigated — and who’s next.

The Internet makes many reporting tasks much easier, from gathering information to communicating with sources. But it also leaves a trail of digital bread crumbs for law-enforcement officials to follow — and electronic messages aren’t protected as strongly as those on paper, Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said via email.

“Despite the fact that police need a warrant to read physical letters or listen to phone calls, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act says police don’t need a warrant for email over 180 days old,” Timm said.

There are a number of ways journalists can protect themselves. Although few of them are foolproof, they can go a long way toward keeping your newsgathering process much more covert — especially when it matters most.

Get old-school

One of the best ways to make investigations tough to trace is to keep them offline. Meet sources in person — and in private if you can, to reduce the chances someone will spot you or overhear your conversation. Take notes on paper, and destroy them once you’re done with them.

Although these old-fashioned Deep Throat methods are among the best ways to keep things off the record, there’s a modern twist: turn off your cell phone or put it in airplane mode when you’re meeting a source, and make sure your source does the same.

Turning off geolocation isn’t enough, considering Apple is being sued for allegedly leaking location data even after customers said they didn’t want to be traced. As long as your phone is receiving a signal, someone can track your whereabouts — and that information is also sometimes stored for later retrieval.

Run your own mail server

Meeting sources in person isn’t always practical. They may be overseas, and your company might not be willing to spring for a plane ticket every time you want to communicate. But many of the popular mail services, including Gmail, Yahoo and AOL, will provide law-enforcement officials with information about your activity if they receive a warrant or subpoena — and other services don’t even require that much. It’s safer to keep email in-house, where your company has control of it.

Many news organizations, especially the large ones, have an IT department that keeps their computers humming and their Internet connections stable. These computer experts often also know how to run a mail server. While on-site email is also subject to warrants and subpoenas, if that happens, law-enforcement officials will have to go through your news organization’s top brass and attorneys to get at your messages. If the DOJ subpoenas an outside provider for your emails, on the other hand, you might not find out until it’s too late.

Encrypt or go anonymous

If your company can’t run its own mail server, there are a couple of alternatives. One is PGP (for “pretty good privacy”), an encryption software bundle that can make your messages look like gibberish to anyone without the key.

Unfortunately, PGP isn’t very user-friendly; this is another area where your IT team may come in handy. An easier option is Hushmail, a fully encrypted email service. The downside: Hushmail only stays encrypted when both you and your source are using it. And, as with other email services, it will hand over messages when ordered.

One way to help your sources remain anonymous is to use Tor, which keeps Internet activity hidden by decentralizing that activity — and by not recording it anywhere. Tor can also protect your newsgathering records; while your Google searches are subpoenable forever, funneling them through an anonymizer makes recovering them impossible.

“We get inquiries from law enforcement, and we explain that we have no information to give them,” Karen Reilly, Tor’s development director, said via email. “Tor can’t give out information it never gathered.”

Don’t keep anything online

What I said earlier about destroying your written notes also applies to electronic communications. If someone drops a tip in your personal inbox, as may have happened with Fox’s James Rosen, don’t keep it there. Download it to your computer or print a hard copy, and then delete the online version. Don’t just put it in the trash; you need to click the “delete forever” button or your email provider’s equivalent.

However, those providers keep backups, so check with yours to find out how long they’re kept. The chances that law officers will ask for that data before it’s purged is slim, but it isn’t zero. On top of that, the person on the other end of the email exchange may hang on to his or her copies.

Stay off the phone

I know that sounds ridiculous, but think about it: you can run your own email server, but you can’t run your own telephone service or cell-phone network, meaning you can’t control what happens when your call logs are subpoenaed. If you can’t communicate with sources entirely offline, go electronic. Email can be encrypted, but phone conversations can’t.

Likewise, don’t use text messages; they can’t be encrypted either, and even if you delete them, the person on the other side may not.

Consult a lawyer

Having a staff attorney, or even someone on retainer, who’s familiar with the ins and outs of police power and communications privacy can go a long way. For example, when you set up service with an Internet-service provider to provide broadband for your newsroom, have your attorney go over the ISP’s privacy policy in detail so they’ll know where you stand if the law comes calling.

Attorneys can also help quash or narrow subpoenas, particularly if those subpoenas are demanding information your company keeps in-house.

Final thoughts

You don’t have to encrypt or shred every conversation you have with a source. However, if someone is risking his or her job — or life — to leak information to you, taking these steps can protect both of you.

When it comes to government investigations, “national security reporters are the most likely targets,” Timm said. “This is clearly protected by the First Amendment, but it doesn’t stop the government from conducting investigations into leakers, many of which are over-broad fishing expeditions that lead to journalists being unduly surveiled and sources unnecessarily scared to talk.”

For further reading, check out the EFF’s Surveillance Self-Defense site, which outlines the legal limits of what investigating agencies can do and how to keep your communications private. And see these great tips from the EFF’s Eva Galperin. Read more

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lookingforwork

6 tips for getting gigs as a freelance journalist

In Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” freelancers or freelances were mercenaries — knights who didn’t belong to any kingdom’s army. Instead, they offered their lance-wielding skills to wealthy landowners. They were the private security officers of their day.

Today, freelance journalism can feel like a constant battle: to come up with good ideas, to pitch them to the right places and to land assignments that both pay well and leave enough room for more writing.

Many reporters turn to freelancing at some point in their careers. They may be fresh out of college and hoping to build a broad range of clips. They may be victims of downsizing who are trying to keep their bylines out there. Or they may be in a situation where they need the flexibility freelancing can provide.

Freelancing has its downsides, including instability, serving as your own collections agency and waiting months for payment. But it also has a major upside, says San Francisco freelance reporter Chris Roberts: “Freedom. You are free to rise when you please, quit when you please, travel as you please.”

In a market crowded with freelancers, it helps to know how to find and create more opportunities. Here are some tips to help you make those opportunities.

Create a network and continue to build it

When I got my start as a freelance music writer in the mid-1990s, I got my first freelance jobs through personal contacts. When I interviewed one editor for a college research paper, he asked me to freelance for him. After a while, he introduced me to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who gave me my second gig. Each one led to another.

Later, I worked for print newspapers, getting to know dozens of journalists and editors. After my daughter was born and I returned to freelancing, that network helped me find editors looking for freelancers — and even a few who weren’t looking, but were willing to assign me stories because they knew me.

Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, connecting with fellow freelancers has never been easier. Knowing who’s writing, and who they’re writing for, gives you a good sense of which publications are open to taking freelance work. Get to know other freelancers on social networks and, once you’ve built a rapport with them, ask them to introduce you to their editors. While cold-pitching works, your success rate will be much greater with a personal introduction.

Research potential publications – and their editors

Before you pitch, study up on what a particular newspaper, magazine or website publishes. Read some of their articles to see what topics they cover, as well as their tone or style. Who is their audience? Is their voice very no-frills, or chatty? Are they left-leaning, right-leaning or unpartisan?

“Luxury magazines don’t want tales of the urban poor. And alt-weeklies don’t want pieces fluffing the establishment,” Robert says. “Use your sense.”

In particular, seek out publications you enjoy reading, says Natalie Zina Walschots, a music and culture writer in Toronto. Look online for their submissions guidelines; if you can’t find them, email an editor and ask how they like to be pitched.

Likewise, see what you can find out about the editor you’re pitching to: What kinds of stories or angles does she like? Does she prefer pitches by phone or email? This is where your network comes in handy again; colleagues can tell you how to navigate the stormy pitching skies.

Pitch on subjects other reporters are missing

Are you an expert on relatively obscure topics, such as education funding, political unrest in Tbilisi or heavy metal in South Africa? If so, you can often create a niche for yourself by pitching those kinds of stories to publications that aren’t covering them, but should be.

Once you establish a rapport with an editor, make sure he or she knows your areas of expertise, in case stories come up that require your knowledge.

If you’re freelancing at the local level, in a city crowded with reporters, chances are good they’re going to have all the major news events well-covered. In that case, listen to what locals are gossiping about on neighborhood e-lists, at the dog park or in the back row at City Hall meetings. They’re good sources for news items that other reporters don’t know about yet.

Before you pitch, check to see what your potential publisher has already run on the topic. That way, you’ll be sure to offer something they haven’t done before.

Pitch more than you can write

Even if you have the perfect idea, other events can get in the way. Maybe another writer pitched the same story yesterday. Maybe your editor is suddenly sick of the topic. Or maybe news is about to break that would make your idea less-than-newsworthy.

With that in mind, pitch multiple ideas to each editor, and pitch to multiple editors at the same time. Some writers will even send the same idea to more than one editor, and go with whoever bites first.

Be prepared for plenty of rejection. “I take a lot of shots. And I miss an awful lot,” Roberts says. “Freelancing … is a game of failure. I hit .300, I’m not just in the hall of fame; I have more work than I know what to do with.”

Create an online portfolio

A well-crafted website that shows who you are and what you can do can be invaluable in landing freelance work (or a job). Websites can become like online clip books or portfolios that showcase your best writing and the topics you cover best. (Here are some tips on how to create a strong online portfolio.)

Although most freelance work comes through your connections, editors will sometimes Google a new writer’s website to scope them out. Others will do so when they’re seeking writers. This has happened to Walschots, who also goes by the catchy moniker of Natalie Zed.

“Often, someone will come across my website and approach me to do work,” she says. “I think it is absolutely essential for any freelancer to have a website that serves as an online portfolio and allows potential clients to get in touch with them.”

Share the wealth

If you’re a successful freelancer, chances are good that you got there through the help of your many connections. Once you’ve made inroads with a number of publications and editors, it’s time to pay it forward.

Talk to friends who are looking for freelance work and hook them up with like-minded editors. Or, if your editor asks you to work on something and you can’t fit it into your schedule, ask a fellow writer to take it on. Most times, your friend will be grateful for the work, and your editor will be happy to have someone on the story. In fact, I started writing for Poynter after a fellow freelancing friend, Eugenia Chien, introduced me to Poynter.org Managing Editor Mallary Tenore.

Sooner or later, you’re likely to hit a rocky patch with little work. When that happens, the writers you’ve helped find assignments are likely to return the favor.

For additional tips, you can replay this chat on how to make it as a freelancer:

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=f6bfe708c1″ mce_href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=f6bfe708c1″ >How freelance journalists can seek opportunities, land gigs</a> Read more

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How journalists can stay safe while working in the field

When journalists head into the field to cover a story, they frequently bring expensive equipment with them. Whether it’s high-end digital cameras, video cameras for television, laptops or smart phones, the gear that’s essential to our jobs can also be tempting to criminals.

After San Francisco Bay Area journalists were robbed in six separate incidents in this summer, I talked to some of those news teams to find out what happened. The journalists I spoke with offered advice on how to stay safe while reporting in the field, what to do if your equipment is stolen, and how to protect your data in case it disappears into thieves’ hands.

Prepare before you go

Laura Oda, chief photographer for the Oakland Tribune, was shooting murals for a news article earlier this month. As she was loading her cameras back into her car, two men approached her from behind. One pointed a gun at her and said, “Gimme all your stuff.” They made off with four cameras, three lenses, a laptop, a hard drive and many archives from Oda’s 18 years at the Tribune. She was angry and shaken, but unharmed.

Afterward, Oda regretted she hadn’t done more to protect her data. She recommended that other reporters activate the tracking feature in their laptop, if it’s an Apple. “I could have immediately tried to track my laptop and given the information to the police,” she said in an email interview. If police can recover a stolen device, sometimes they can catch the person who stole it. Also, take note of the serial numbers of all devices you carry with you. Police can record those numbers, and return your gear if it’s recovered.

Oda recommended making backups of all your important files. Don’t store your backup drive in the same place as your computer, though. Instead, keep it in your desk at the office, at home, or somewhere else safe and separate.

The Committee to Protect Journalists even recommends using a separate computer and phone, containing minimal data, when you’re out in the field. That way, if items are stolen, you don’t lose so much of your archived work.

While you’re out, stay alert and stick together

In late June, one of KTVU-TV’s crews was covering a crash between a bicycle and motorcycle. They were up in the Oakland hills, in a remote, wooded area. After filing their footage, the reporter was finalizing her script when three men approached the van. Two grabbed the news camera, while the third snatched the laptop. “We assumed they had weapons, though they weren’t overtly displayed,” Ed Chapuis, KTVU’s news director, said in a phone interview.

KTVU takes plenty of steps to protect its workers. Each year, it provides safety training sessions for all employees, Chapuis said. In recent years, it has fenced its headquarters to protect employees, and sends guards with crews when they’re going to dangerous areas. They regularly use unmarked trucks, since news vans are recognized for carrying expensive gear.

However, the most crucial thing is to stay alert. “You need to be in a constant state of assessment,” Chapuis said. “Know where the line of danger is, and take 10 big steps back.”

Sticking together is also important, said Tracey Watkowski, the news director for KGO-TV. One of her news crews was robbed in San Francisco in early May, in the midst of covering a four-alarm fire — with dozens of police officers and firefighters nearby.

“When you’re working in a situation with a photographer, stay with your photographer” for both people’s safety, Watkowski said in a phone interview. Similarly, at major news scenes, live crews and vans will often band together, Chapuis said. “We’re not competitive when it comes to [safety].”

If you’re robbed, put safety first, and report the crime quickly

If someone takes your gear, get to somewhere safe and report the crime immediately — to your managers, and to the police. If you were able to take down your gear’s serial numbers and enable any tracking software, share that information with the police as well. Give them the best description of the suspect or suspects that you can.

You may also want to warn other reporters, especially after a rash of robberies such as those that hit Bay Area journalists this summer. After Chapuis’ team told him they’d been robbed, he said he contacted the other news directors in the region, so they could be alert to similar danger.

In any dangerous situation, reporters should remember that their own safety is always more important than the assignment they’re working, or the gear they’re carrying. “If equipment is lost, that’s a terrible aspect, but the main thing is protecting our people,” Watkowski said.

Every time Chapuis leads a safety-training session with his employees, whether it’s one-on one or in groups, he emphasizes their safety and security. “In everything we do, we’re trying to keep the crews safe while still being able to do their jobs,” he said. “No live shot or story is worth getting hurt over.”

Related: Newspaper carriers the victims of crime as they make the rounds Read more

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6 ways journalists can cope when covering tragedies like the Colorado theater shooting

Almost every journalist will report on a crisis at some point, whether it’s a murder, a sexual assault, a natural disaster or a shooting like the one that happened overnight at a theater in Aurora, Colo.

The untold story is the effect such stories can have on the reporters who cover them.

Some major-league news outlets, such as The New York Times, offer mental-health resources to reporters who need it, whether they’re covering wars overseas or disasters on their home turf. But smaller newsrooms don’t always provide these services.

If you’re struggling to shake the effects of a traumatic incident you’ve covered, here are some tips that can help you stay sane — and stay in the business.

Mentally prepare yourself

San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Henry K. Lee began chasing police cars on his bicycle when he was 7. “Part of me is still that 7-year-old boy who is enamored with the thrill of the chase, the sirens and lights,” he told me by email. Although his reporting hits him harder as an adult, “I’ve always tried to keep my emotions ‘in a box;’ otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do my job effectively.”

Not everyone is as good at compartmentalizing as Lee, and most reporters will be called upon to cover a grisly breaking-news story at some point in their careers. Such incidents don’t give you much time to prepare, but recognizing that you’re on your way to a crime scene, where you might see blood or a body, can help you safeguard your mind.

Seek support from fellow reporters

When you’re covering a potentially traumatic story, your role as reporter may give you some professional remove. However, your job also requires you to collect disturbing details police and witnesses provide. Processing so much upsetting information so quickly can leave you feeling as though you lived through the horror.

At many crime scenes, there’s downtime as reporters wait for officials to release information. Use this time to chat with reporters about what happened. You don’t have to trade scoops; just share what you’ve seen. Knowing someone else is in the trenches with you can ameliorate the trauma. If you’re not comfortable talking the competition, talk with your colleagues back at the office.

Tara Ramroop Hunt, a former reporter for the San Mateo County Times, said she was affected by covering traumatic stories, including an incident in which a man had been scalped after getting his long hair caught in an industrial machine. For her, talking always helped.

“Friends, significant others, other reporters especially,” she said via email. “Sometimes, before I even sat down to write the story, I’d vent to my editor or another reporter. I didn’t like the idea of talking to a stranger/mental-health professional, but I did like the idea of a makeshift support group in my coworkers.”

Write, speak out about it

Just as reporting an upsetting story can wreak havoc on your emotions, writing can help you process those emotions. After freelance photographer Lynsey Addario covered the sexual-assault epidemic in Congo, she wrote about how the women’s stories affected her.

Addario has also been kidnapped, once in Iraq, and once in Libya, where her captors groped her. Writing and talking about such feelings can help validate what many reporters endure — and highlight places where journalists need support. When CBS reporter Lara Logan came forward about her Cairo assault, she helped raise awareness about other female journalists who have been assaulted on the job.

Pay attention to signs that you need help

Journalists, combat soldiers, paramedics and firefighters all encounter horrific incidents in their work. However, unlike the others, journalists are not debriefed after such incidents, Sherry Ricchiardi wrote in American Journalism Review. Even when mental-health resources are available, reporters resist them, Ricchiardi said.

“Their main reasons,” she wrote, are “lack of time, especially in deadline reporting, and the strong belief of reporters that outsiders couldn’t understand the rigors of being a witness on behalf of society.” But the reality is, resisting help can lead to more serious problems in the long run.

In the weeks and months after a brutal story, pay attention to signs of critical incident stress, which can include nightmares, chest pains and memory problems. If you’re feel as though you’re dealing with this type of stress, seek counseling — whether your news organization provides it or not.

Urge your company to provide resources — and encourage reporters to use them

In my time as a reporter, I’ve covered some pretty horrific events. In January 2008, 17-year-old Jose Luis Flores, despondent over his older brother’s deployment to Iraq, walked to the Caltrain tracks just north of downtown Redwood City. His body was spotted on the tracks at 8:15 p.m. The conductor who spotted the body estimated Flores had been struck by a train 45 minutes earlier — and was passed by three other trains before he was found.

Reporting the story, I gathered gruesome details about Flores’ death. They didn’t wind up in my article, but they stuck with me. I was shaken for days afterward. When I asked our human-resources department for advice, I discovered that reporters got just three free counseling visits per year.

If you work for a newspaper that doesn’t provide mental-health services for reporters, ask your editors and human-resources staff to make it a priority. It might be an uphill battle, considering how many newspapers are fighting budget cuts, but offering mental-health services is cheaper than paying reporters who take sick time to recover from trauma. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has some tips on choosing a therapist, as well as other resources.

Likewise, if a colleague comes to you because they’re suffering post-traumatic stress, hear them out, but encourage them to see a professional. It can make the difference between keeping a good reporter happy and sane — and losing them to stress and burnout.

Find what works best for you — and do it

One way Lee unwinds from his crime-reporting stress is by spending time with his family, watching silly television shows or reading light-hearted magazines. Some journalists have engaged in gallows humor, which seems insensitive, but has advantages in some cases.

Addario relies on other methods to shake off the trauma.

“I believe that every journalist who covers war, conflict, and who has been in a potentially traumatizing situation, has his or her own way of processing and dealing with that trauma,” Addario said via email while in Mauritania.

“I write, I feel, I exercise, I talk about what I have gone through, and this works for me, but in this, I recognize that I am not the victim — the people I cover are often victims of awful crimes, rapes, and consequences of their lives. I feel I lead a relatively privileged life. I choose to be there, and primarily as a conduit for their stories.”

Related: 7 tips for covering the Colorado theater shooting | News University course: Journalists and Trauma | How news spread of Colorado theater shootingJessica Ghawi, ‘aspiring sportscaster,’ dies in Aurora shootingABC News speculates theater shooter James Holmes linked to Tea Party Read more

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5 tips for journalists who want to do a better job of cultivating sources

Sources are one of a reporter’s biggest assets. If you cover a regular beat, you’ll find yourself talking to some of the same people pretty often. Over time, if you forge relationships with the right sources, you’ll find that they can become the gateway to career-making scoops.

Sources who trust and respect you will come to you first when they hear news on the down-low. But it takes time to earn that trust and respect. Here are five tips that will put you on the right track.

Embrace the small talk

Many reporters aren’t into schmoozing, but a few friendly words can set you apart from reporters who treat sources like information-vending machines instead of human beings. Think of small talk as the mayo in the tuna salad sandwich of your reporting.

When you reconnect with a source you’ve talked to before, ask how their day is going. Genuinely listen when they respond. Pay attention to whether they’re married or have kids, and ask occasionally how their family (or even a pet) is doing. If you have something in common with that source, take a moment to discuss the topic, whether it’s a sports team or an obscure favorite food.

Most people like it when you’re interested in them, and when you take the time to nurture that interest by finding out more. It’s flattering, but it’s not cheap flattery; it shows you’re paying attention to the details. That’s a sign of a good reporter.

Don’t be a stranger

If you find someone you think will be a goldmine of information, check in with them regularly, even if you don’t need to interview them. This is another good time for small talk, and to ask if there have been any developments on a topic you’ve discussed before. Look through your contacts and see if there’s someone you haven’t heard from in a while. Give them a call; they might just have a scoop for you.

Email is a good way to touch base with sources, though they may be reluctant to put anything hush-hush into writing. Phone calls are better. In person is often best, whether you just drop by to see sources on your way to a City Hall meeting or you grab coffee regularly with them. The key is making sure they don’t forget you, and that they remember you’re interested in what they know.

Social networking sites have given reporters even more ways to keep up with their sources. Many journalists use Facebook and Twitter to find sources, interact with them informally, and find out what they’re sharing with their audiences.

What happens “off the record” stays “off the record”

We all know reporters who say there’s no such thing as “off the record,” or who promise to keep a source’s information in confidence, and then quote them in the next day’s news. Don’t be that reporter.

Many sources want to tell you more than their higher-ups will allow. Of course, such information can be incredibly valuable, especially if you can use it to get on-the-record sources to verify what you’ve heard. If someone says they want to go off the record with you, say yes — and mean it. (But don’t be afraid to ask: “Is there anyone I should talk to who may be more likely to speak on the record?”)

For many sources, going off the record is not only an opportunity to make a news story more accurate; it’s a test of the reporter. Sources want to know whether you’ll honor their request not to be quoted. If you can report those details without revealing your source, you’re that much closer to gaining that source’s trust. With time, this can lead to bigger and bigger tips.

Ask your sources to recommend more sources

At the end of interviews, ask your source whether there’s anyone else you should talk to about the topic at hand. It’s likely they’ll have someone in mind.

Sources inside an administration, whether it’s a government agency, a school, or a business, will probably recommend colleagues, while citizens and rabble-rousers are apt to connect you with birds of the same feather. Good sources of both stripes will hook you up with sources “across the aisle,” so to speak. Take your source’s advice, but if they’ve got a bias to protect, make sure you round out their recommendations with other voices.

Avoid getting too friendly with sources

In Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film “Almost Famous,” rock writer Lester Bangs tells the fledgling journalist William Miller, “You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. They are not your friends.”

It’s unclear whether the real Lester Bangs ever spoke these words, but they reflect good advice. When you interview someone often, when you write about them regularly, they can start to feel like a friend. That’s especially true if you follow the rest of these tips, because you’ll wind up feeling closer to them than you would an average source.

Getting too close can jeopardize your objectivity. If you become friends, you may find yourself telling that source’s side of the story — to the detriment of the other sides. You may withhold important information to protect the source unnecessarily. You may even avoid writing news articles because your source wants to suppress information.

Needless to say, this is bad news — it’s the opposite of what source cultivation is for. There’s a fine line between trusted source and confidante. Be careful to stay on the right side of that line, and you’ll be well on your way to scooping the competition. Read more

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5 ways journalists can overcome shyness during interviews

When I was a kid, I was the walking definition of “painfully shy.” I was so shy, I couldn’t read out loud when teachers called on me, even though I could read at a higher grade level than my classmates. I was too paralyzed by anxiety to open my mouth.

Soon, I discovered I could write — and write well. When writing, I felt safe to express myself, so I wrote a lot. As a teenager, I found a home at my high-school newspaper and realized I could make journalism a career.

But there was a catch: being a journalist meant talking to people. It meant picking up the phone and cold-calling strangers. It meant walking up to people on the street and asking them personal questions. It meant practically stalking politicians and public figures for a chance at a juicy quote. Each of these prospects terrified me.

With time and experience (not to mention a desire to earn a living), I developed methods for tricking myself into doing all of these things. Here are some of the strategies I used to get there.

Use your job as armor

As a journalist, it’s your professional responsibility to talk to people, to ask probing questions, to get the information you need to inform the public. If you’re shy, you may fear what people will say when you try to talk to them, or you may think they’ll wonder what gives you the right to ask them questions. Your role as a reporter gives you that permission.

In addition, stepping into the reporter’s role is a little like KISS painting on stage makeup and putting on their platform boots. Taking on a role can sometimes give us the degree of separation (and courage) we need to approach people in ways that would otherwise give shy reporters nightmares.

Let your curiosity override your anxiety

If you’re a reporter, chances are good that you’re an incurably curious person. Even if you’re apprehensive about talking to strangers, it’s likely that you’re driven to find out how people and societies work.

Let your desire to ask questions override your shyness. Again, your role as a journalist gives you special permission to be nosy. Police, legislators and everyday citizens might think it’s weird if a stranger starts asking them questions, but if you whip out your reporter’s notebook and give them your business card, they’ll usually accept that it’s your job to cross-examine them.

Do prep work to give yourself confidence

It’s important for every journalist to do his or her homework before picking up the phone or stepping into a room with a source. But for shy reporters, it’s even more important, for two reasons. One, it gives you a script you can follow, so you’re not scrambling to come up with questions while you’re nervous. Two, it gives you confidence in your knowledge of the subject and in the questions you’ve prepared — and confidence is a good antidote to shyness.

Prior to each interview, research the topic at hand, as well as the person you’re questioning. Come up with a list of questions, and have them in front of you when you go into the interview. Even if the conversation goes off course, and you wind up asking questions that aren’t on your list, you can always go back to what you’ve prepared.

There will be times when you have to interview someone without preparing ahead of time, especially when news breaks. Even so, you can come up with a script ahead of time for how you’ll introduce yourself, and one or two initial questions. Rehearse them in your head as you approach your subject; it’ll distract you from your nervousness.

Pick up the phone before you psych yourself out

Many journalists are expert procrastinators. This is especially bad news for shy reporters who balk at the prospect of cold-calling sources. The longer you sit staring at the phone, imagining all the ways your interview can go horribly wrong, the more afraid you’ll become.

Shy journalists have their own bogeymen; I always found calling the families of the recently deceased particularly tough. Instead of sitting and fretting, just pick up the phone and dial as soon as you have your questions ready. They’ll answer, and you’ll be forced to talk, distracting you from your anxiety. Or, you’ll get their voice mail, where you can practice introducing yourself to their “digital assistant” (who won’t judge you, I promise).

Remember that reporters make people nervous

Many people — from random citizens to seasoned politicians — would rather get a root canal than talk to a reporter. There’s a reason Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Writers have the power to take casual comments and record them for posterity.

You can see it in their eyes when you approach, pen and notepad in hand. They’re worried about what you will jot down, and what you will write about them later. So if you’re nervous about asking them questions, remember: you’re probably not the only one with butterflies in your stomach.

Keep practicing & finding ways to grow

Research shows that our brains are plastic: the more we do something, the easier it gets. The same goes for overcoming shyness. Think of it in terms of statistics: the more interviews you do, the more successes you’ll have under your belt — and the less likely failure will seem.

When you’re getting your start, find a mentor or colleague in the newsroom who’s a pro at interviews. Ask if they can offer any tips, or if you can listen in while they work the phone. Pay attention to how they introduce themselves, ask questions and introduce new queries on the fly.

Then, it’s time to put your education to work. Sure, you’ll have some flops, but you’ll come to see that your fear of constant failure is unfounded. With time and repetition, even the most reluctant reporter can come to feel a little like Terry Gross. Read more

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How journalists can stop the spread of misinformation when reporting on the occult

Police in Fairfield, Conn., say new DNA evidence may help them catch the suspect who strangled a newborn boy and left his body by the banks of Lake Mohegan 26 years ago. But as police and reporters return the case to the public eye, they’re also resurrecting rumors that Santeria or Palo Mayombe were involved in the killing.

The infant’s body was laid on a piece of burlap pinned with crosses of St. Lazarus, surrounded by pieces of fruit, coins and food, according to police. Some inspectors claimed these were signs that the killing was part of a ritual, even though neither faith practices human sacrifice.

Police admitted the connection to Santeria was just a guess: “We called it Santeria because we had to label it something,” Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner told the Fairfield Citizen. “There are similar religions; we just don’t know enough about the practices to say.” Local television took it further, connecting the crime to Palo Mayombe, which a reporter erroneously called “a dark offshoot of the Santeria religion.”

Santeria and Palo Mayombe, which are not related faiths, both developed in Africa. Neither is particularly well understood in the United States. Santeria has just tens of thousands of followers, most of whom keep their beliefs to themselves. It’s unlikely most Americans will knowingly encounter someone who follows Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Most of their exposure is through horror movies and the news, which usually don’t portray them accurately.

That leaves the public’s imagination wide open to suggestion when it comes to crimes with an occult element. Because reporters are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one. Doing so without evidence, however, means spreading false — even defamatory — information about minority faiths and their followers.

There are plenty of ways to avoid these mistakes. Here are some tips for reporting on such crimes responsibly.

Don’t take what police or other sources say at face value

Police aren’t experts on the occult or minority faiths. Police academies don’t teach these topics extensively. Once in a while, an officer decides to self-educate, but it’s rare. Most police — like most people — don’t encounter Satanists, Wiccans, Santerians or Thelemites every day, so they don’t necessarily know more than we do about their practices.

When officers enter a crime scene, they seek items that might inform the investigation. For example, when Milwaukee, Wisc., roommates Raven Larrabee and Rebecca Chandler were arrested last fall for cutting an Arizona man 300 times, police noted the presence of two books at their apartment: the humorous “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life” and the more serious “Necromantic Ritual Book.” They also found a black folder titled “Introduction to Sigilborne Spirits.”

Reporters ran with the information and speculated about sexy werewolf rituals. It was remarkable how this story spread for the week or two after it broke. This spring, one of the women denied any occult inspiration for the incident.

Without in-house expertise, police have sometimes consulted self-styled “occult experts,” such as the late Don Rimer, whose handbooks and seminars for police departments were full of misinformation. If police claim a link between a crime and a specific faith or occult practice, be skeptical.

Likewise, crime-scene neighbors aren’t occult experts. In January, when a Cornwall, UK, woman’s horse was slaughtered, locals Googled the date and linked it to a holiday found on an online “Satanic calendar” — which had been fabricated by a fundamentalist Christian organization. Several news outlets, including the BBC, ran with the rumors before backing off in later reports.

Find & interview real experts

If the police say a crime has Satanic elements, find a local Satanist leader to vet the claims. If the neighbors say it’s Santeria or Palo Mayombe, talk to the nearest botanica owner. Many of these faiths have leaders or public figures who are happy to discuss the facts and clarify whether elements of a crime bear any resemblance to their practices.

Over time — particularly if you’re on the crime beat — you’ll build up a list of reliable contacts who can respond quickly when you’re covering a breaking crime story.

Relying on books is tricky, because so many are full of sensationalistic or false information. The Internet is worse; while there are reliable sites describing minority faiths and their practices accurately, it’s tough to know which ones are legit, particularly when you’re unfamiliar with the field and you’re racing a deadline.

Write carefully, with attention to relevant details

When it comes time to write, be as clear as you can. If the police claim a murder was a specific religion’s ritual sacrifice, but the expert you’ve talked to says his or her faith doesn’t practice such sacrifices, spell that out. This is a chance not only to report facts about a newsworthy crime, but also clear the air of readers’ preconceived ideas.

If you’re stuck and can’t find reliable information on the faith in question, be conscientious in your phrasing. There’s a big difference between saying “the police are investigating a Satanic murder” and saying “police say they found a pentagram at the crime scene.” Such information doesn’t necessarily belong in your lede; most crimes are attention-grabbing enough on their own.

Confessed suspects may provide their own clues, as well. When Murfreesboro, Tenn., police arrested John Lotts, Jr., in January on charges of stabbing a 5-year-old, they quickly latched on to his status as a member of the Church of Satan. Lotts told a reporter that he’d hurt the child after losing his temper — and that Satanism was not involved. Even so, his faith got more play than the fact that Lotts is a convicted sex offender — a much more relevant factor.

Prior criminal history and mental illness are more likely culprits in such crimes. And they make reader-luring headlines, too. Let these details take the lead, and tread carefully when police raise the specter of the occult. The reputation of the suspect, and of anyone who belongs to the faith in question, is on the line. Read more

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The hot sauce trial: 5 ways journalists can improve coverage of research

Humans are messy and complicated. Psychologists and sociologists have put us through proverbial rats’ mazes for decades, hoping to find patterns in our behavior. Every time, our humanness gets in the way.

Social science is not like physical science: drop 10 eggs from the same height, and they’ll all fall. Feed eggs to 10 people, though, and you may get 10 different responses. Did the subject’s mother serve eggs every Sunday for breakfast? How did she feel about her mother? Are eggs the subject’s favorite food? Is he allergic? It all plays a role.

That’s why reporting on social-science studies can be deceptively hard. Sure, each one opens with a theory that seems solid and sensible — an easy news hook. But dig deeper, and you’ll find that most studies raise more questions than they answer.

These tips, aimed at general assignment reporters, can save you from misinterpreting or sensationalizing a researcher’s hot new findings. Even those on social science beats may learn something new.

Read the whole study

This advice may seem obvious, but when you’ve been handed a 20-page study full of academic language two hours before deadline, it can be tempting to read the introduction and then start putting together your story. Academic papers are not written in reverse-pyramid style, however, and sometimes key points — including data that contradict the findings — are buried on the 19th page.

Take, for instance, a study about whether playing a competitive video game would make subjects more aggressive. Aggressiveness was measured by the amount of hot sauce subjects gave each other after playing a game. (Yes, this sounds a little odd, but the study explains it further.) In general, the subjects did reach for hot sauce after a high-stakes game.

But flip through to the limitations section and you learn that the results might be different in other geographic areas or among different ethnic groups. Would test subjects raised with spicy foods view serving hot sauce as an aggressive act? Probably not.

Demographics can skew results in many ways. Look at the sample size, gender and ethnic or socioeconomic factors. The hot-sauce trial included two groups: one of 60 college students and another of 42. Given the tested region’s demographics, they were probably mostly white and all college age. Would the findings apply to African American 15-year-olds, or to Florida retirees?

These details are worth sharing with readers so they have better context for the findings you’re reporting.

Determine how true-to-life the experiment was

Researchers are always limited by ethical issues that prevent them from, say, subjecting 1,000 kids to 18 years of eating nothing but fast food to determine the health consequences.

So they craft lab trials they hope will invoke responses that can be tested and repeated — and that apply to real life. In reality, if video games make college kids aggressive, Sriracha might not be their weapon of choice. So, is using it in a research setting realistic?

Also, just bringing people into a lab can taint research. People act differently when they know they’re being studied. In addition, being asked to do something they normally wouldn’t do (such as serve cups of hot sauce to strangers) can change their behavior.

Case-control and longitudinal studies are rarer, but they provide more reliable information about the populations in question, either because they have a large pool of subjects, the subjects were studied for a long time in real-life settings, or both.

Ask: Could the findings be backward?

Reporters who spent time in college sociology courses heard the phrase “correlation is not causation” almost as often as the five Ws. It’s easy to forget this maxim when a study reveals a link, for instance, between teen depression and listening to heavy metal. Plenty of journalists would go ahead and say the music caused bad feelings — that’s what many people believed in the 1980s, right?

However, the correlation could go the other way: maybe depressed people seek out heavy metal to make themselves feel better. In fact, that’s just what heavy metal fans reported.

When reporting on such studies, resist the urge to imply one thing causes another. And, if you suspect the correlation could be reversed, make time to find a source who can discuss the other side.

Look for bias

Remember when I said humans are complicated? That’s true of researchers, too. Many do their best to remain objective — and to find objective results — but our tendency to look for patterns or to see what we’re expecting can get the best of us.

Many researchers spend their entire careers studying the same topic. On the upside, this means they’ve got that particular topic in the bag. On the downside, they may be more likely to reach the same conclusions over and over, especially once they start anticipating certain results based on prior tests. This effect can be magnified when they base their research on similar studies — and not on research that shows opposite results.

Funding is another source of bias. Follow the trail, and most money for social science studies can be traced back to the university that hosted them. When industries or lobbyists bankroll a study, it’s easy to see the spin potential. But even universities gain bragging rights when their researchers “prove” something related to a hot topic — or lose them when they don’t.

Readers have become more sensitive to questions of funding, so mentioning it in your reporting is one way to trigger their critical-thinking tendencies.

Avoid sensationalized language

In this era of “most-clicked” articles, it’s tempting to lead with whatever nugget from the study will draw the most readers, whether or not it’s factual. In reality, such findings are much more nuanced.

Strong writing, combined with reporting that digs up aspects of the research other journalists aren’t covering, is one way to make those nuances sexy. It’ll set you — and your news site — apart. Read more

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