Kelly McBride

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Kelly spent 14 years covering saints and sinners in Spokane, Wash. Now she's at Poynter, searching for the soul of American journalism.


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Egg donation, first conceived as personal essay, becomes investigative report

When Sarasota Herald Tribune business reporter Justine Griffin set out to donate her eggs, her editors asked her to consider doing a personal essay. What she discovered during the year-long journey is that fertility industry has some serious conflicts of interest and that nobody advocates for the health of egg donors. As her approach morphed from a personal essay to an investigative package, Griffin had to deal with her own conflict of interest. She was part of the story. Read more

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9 best practices for publishing provocative opinions in a polarized world

Clashes between professional provocateurs and the masses, like the recent criticism that rained down on Washington Post columnist George F. Will over  #survivorprivilege, are on the rise.

See #checkyourprivilege. Remember the reaction to the equally appalling Richard Cohen column that suggested a gag reflex is a normal reaction to learning the white mayor of New York is married to a black woman and they have biracial children.

As more voices crowd the opinion space, some writers might become more shrill and provocative to garner attention. Certainly Will deserved the outrage he received for his recent column where he argues that the increase reported sexual assaults on college campuses is a ploy by women seeking to gain a status of privilege.

The ire over Will’s opinions on rape likely intensified the howling over PostEverything’s guest column two days later suggesting with an incredibly flip headline that marriage is the best way to protect women from violence. That interesting argument had its own guest appearance on #survivorprivilege, particularly when Post editors changed the headline from: “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married” to “One way to end violence against women? Married dads.”

Opinion editors are looking for the sweet spot in social debate. The hashtag that’s not a meme. Passion, not poison. Undershoot that sweet spot and no one notices. Overshoot it and no one actually reads the essay. Instead they read those ridiculing the essay. As a democracy, we’re probably better for it when opinion writers and editors overshoot. Unless we get to a point where most people are tuning out most conversations to avoid the vitriol.

So what’s an opinion editor to do to increase the chances that an idea will land in the space of vigorous debate, but fall short of ridicule? Here are nine best practices for publishing provocative pieces on polarized issues.

  • Watch the flippancy, especially in headlines. It implies a lack of respect for those on the other side of the debate. When issues are highly polarized, go for a straight, descriptive headline. Clever headlines may gain traction on social media, but when they cause folks to debate your opinions without reading them, they do more harm than good.
  • Jump into the stream and defend the decision to publish when the comments take off. That may be on Twitter or Facebook or in a comments section.  You don’t have to respond to every knucklehead out there. But when someone asks a rational question, answer it. You’ll elevate the sophistication of the debate and increase respect for your publication as an idea broker.
  • Curate the best of your critics and follow up. Dialogue implies back and forth, give and take. When people feel ignored or dismissed, they often get louder. Particularly when things start to get a bit uncivil, sometimes a few civil voices can refocus a conversation.
  • Ask genuine questions of those who oppose a point of view. When you invite others to share their experiences or their views in response to a piece they disagree with, you indicate a sportsman-like approach to the debate, rather than a take-no-prisoners battle.
  • That said, avoid dialogue with trolls and idiots. A good rule of thumb on Twitter or in the comments section is to respond to civil questions the first time you hear them, then move on.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the conversation you are in. If you are merely using a hashtag to introduce a new idea, be honest about that.
  • Offer support to the writers and editors who throw themselves out there. We live in a democracy where unpopular ideas sometimes emerge as good ones decades later. We depend on people to challenge conventional thinking.
  • Offer a diversity of opinions. You don’t necessarily have to do it all on the same day. And it won’t buy you credibility with everyone. But if over time, you can demonstrate provocative, well-written, original opinions across a wide spectrum, your audience will keep coming back.
  • Admit it and fix it when you make a mistake, whether it was a miscalculation in tone or a misinterpretation of data. No sense handing people the stick to beat you with.
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Two students comfort each other during a candlelight vigil held to honor the victims of Friday night's mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff's officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The right way to publish a killer’s deranged manifesto

There’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.

But don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document. (Though perhaps you wouldn’t want to annotate it like this.)

Art Caplan, head of the bioethics division at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, advocates the same approach when considering the publication of medical research produced by Nazi doctors. By explaining the flaws behind information, we contribute to an improving body of knowledge while neutralizing the potential of perpetuating harm.

“Make it clear this is the raving of a devious and delusional mind,” Caplan said of Rodger’s manifesto. “Help us understand what compels someone to be so hateful and mysogonistic.”

Also, help the audience see what hate and misogyny really look like. You can do that the way the New York Post did, by labeling the killer’s ravings as those of a lunatic. Or you can point out the many places misogynists turn to reinforce their hate, the way the Soraya Nadia McDonald did for The Washington Post in this piece.

Journalists who repeat the names of childhood acquaintances that Rodger faulted for his personal misery have a particular responsibility to counteract that blame in their reporting.

When we leave out the additional context that would condemn Rodger’s logic, we run the risk of legitimizing his rationale. It seems ludicrous, until you consider the fact that misogyny is the root of many crimes.

Journalists asked similar questions when The Washington Post and The New York Times, at the request of the FBI, published the Unabomber’s manifesto in 1995, hoping that someone might be able to identify him (which worked.) That 35,000-word screed against technology, equality, and progressive causes remains available today. Read more

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Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. attends Marina Abramovic's "The Artist is Present" exhibition closing party hosted by Givenchy at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Tuesday, June 1, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes

The New York Times owes the audience an explanation

Jill Abramson’s departure as the executive editor of The New York Times and Dean Baquet’s appointment as her replacement was abrupt.

Times Company Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. told senior editors at a 2 p.m. meeting and the rest of the staff and the world found out around 2:30 p.m.

Abramson had been in the position since 2011, a relatively short time. She won’t stick around for the transition. For now, Times leadership is not answering the question: What happened?

The Times’ own story was cryptic. Reporter Ravi Somaiya wrote, “The reasons for the switch were not immediately clear.” In a later version he wrote that Sulzberger declined to directly address the question he said was “’on all of your minds’ – the reason for the sudden switch. Citing newsroom management, he said it was not about the journalism, the direction of the newsroom or the relationship between the newsroom and business sides of the paper.”

Capital New York reported it this way: “And that’s all I’m going to say about it,” said Sulzberger, according to two sources who were present. “It was an issue of newsroom management.”

That answer isn’t just frustrating to journalists. It’s dismissive of the audience with whom the Times presumes a relationship of trust.

Poynter’s leadership expert, Senior Faculty Jill Geisler, explained that management is often in a difficult position when going through an unexpected and unpleasant parting of ways. But if Abramson was fired, that should be said out loud.

“When personnel changes are made, employers balance two competing responsibilities: employee privacy and customer interest,” Geisler said. “Because The New York Times is at the epicenter of journalism, and aggressively covers changes at the top in other industries, it should aim for maximum transparency in sharing the story behind this apparently swift and surprising move. To do less leaves the door open to speculation ranging from a personal life decision to under performance to palace coup.”

Transparency is important in a trust relationship, especially when something unexpected happens. Transparency is increasingly important for news organizations, because the audience is constantly asking, “Why should I trust you?”

The details will certainly creep out. It’s just a question of whether Gawker, BuzzFeed or The Huffington Post will get them first. Given that reality, it doesn’t make sense for the Times to sit back and concede the story to its competitors.

But even if the details weren’t likely to leak out, hypocrisy can taint a newsroom’s brand. Certainly if this were another private company where there is significant public scrutiny, Times reporters would be aggressively working sources to get the details. Journalists are often counseled to expect the same scrutiny of their lives that they provide to the lives of others. News companies should abide by the same advice.

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracyYou can find more information about the book here. Read more

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Can journalists prevent suicide clusters?

Suicides sometimes happen in clusters. Epidemiologists and suicide prevention experts have often claimed that media coverage is partially to blame for this. Thus that old-fashioned and often ignored rule: Don’t cover suicides.

Of course that rule came with a couple of caveats. Celebrity suicides were fair game. So too were suicides that happened in public places. Because of those carve-outs and others (if it’s really interesting, or if people are talking about it) the rule never really worked. The news media have always covered suicides, sometimes badly.

While suicide prevention advocates cite the potential for contagion in their effort to get newsrooms to change their standards, journalists, including me, have responded with skepticism. That’s because there has never been a conclusive study in a peer-reviewed journal that specifically tied contagion to media coverage.

Until now. This month a study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal confirms that certain types of media coverage do indeed make suicide contagion more likely to happen, particularly among teenagers and young adults.

The author, Dr. Madeline Gould, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, conducted the statistical analysis as part of a larger autopsy study, then compared suicides associated with a cluster, to suicides that were not part of a cluster, and media reporting.

Her conclusions: Stories about an individual with the word suicide in the headline, stories on the front page of a newspaper, photos of the dead person, detailed descriptions of the act of suicide and portrayals of the suicide victim as noble, angelic or heroic, are associated with more suicides in the same community. It’s not a causal relationship, but rather they are related. Brandy Zadrozny’s Daily Beast article does a good job translating the study into layman’s English.

But here’s the problem for journalists. Those are the devices of good story-telling and effective headline writing. Suicides are tragic events. And when you decide a story is interesting enough to tell, you want to pack it full of emotional punch. But those details can be a factor that contributes to a suicide cluster.

Why? There are both biological and sociological reasons, she said.

Biologically, the frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature in humans until the early 20s. An immature cortex is associated with impulsive behavior. Teens and 20-year-olds are also at the age when serious psychiatric problems can emerge.

Sociologically, during the teen years, family becomes less important and social peers become more important. That reverses for most people in their 20s. Young people also have not had the experience of watching difficult problems come and go. So when they experience serious depression or anxiety, it seems like life will always be that way, Gould said.

“I’m not saying that this will occur in a vacuum with healthy people,” Gould said. Instead, she is suggesting that media attention to individual suicide victims can be harmful to people already at risk for suicide.

But there’s a catch with this study: All the data was gathered between 1988 and 1996. And the media examples most likely to lead to contagion all came from newspapers.

It’s hard to believe that newspapers could have the same influence with the modern under-25 set, who are more likely to consume information through social media and mobile devices. Instead we have to extrapolate her findings into an environment that’s harder to measure and control.

Along those lines, just today, celebrity shrink Dr. Drew Pinsky lead the announcement of Social Media Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention, a more general set of best practices which seem to address the general public, suicide prevention advocates, and  journalists.

The guidelines acknowledge something that suicide researchers have been talking about for some time, that all stories about suicide and attempted suicides are not equally harmful. In a social media setting, it is impossible to prevent people from discussing suicide. The guidelines suggest best practices about language choices, audience engagement, privacy concerns and how to address suicidal content.

Several organizations including Facebook, RTDNA and the Entertainment Industries Council endorsed the guidelines.

Journalists may find more practical advice from the Reporting on Suicide guidelines, which were developed in collaboration with a number of journalists and journalism education institutions.

Will any of this matter? While suicide rates are declining among teen and young adults, they are rising among baby boomers and veterans. Because true statistical analysis takes so long, it’s hard to say what really contributes to pattern changes.

“Suicide behavior is complex, contagion is one piece of the puzzle,” Gould said. “But it’s worth addressing every piece of the puzzle.”

In addition to avoiding the behaviors that might lead to contagion, journalists can find stories of hope and recovery among people who have contemplated or attempted suicide. Those stories were taboo among suicide prevention advocates for a long time, for fear of contributing to contagion. But that community has opened up, and as a result it’s possible that journalists will find new ways to tell compelling stories about suicide and mental health.

And even if they don’t, Gould suspects the public will do its own storytelling, using social media. Once the underlying stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues diminishes, there may be real progress in reducing rates of suicide. Read more

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Eagle huntress photos by 24-year-old documentary photographer go viral

 

You know those stunning photos bouncing around the Internet of the Mongolian children hunting with eagles? The 24-year-old photographer who took them self-financed his expedition and at first had a hard time selling the images at all.

Asher Svidensky told me in a Skype interview Thursday that he got three offers from magazines in his home country of Israel. One offered him $80 and a byline. The other offered to run the photos for free along with a credit. A third suggested that he pay them $200 to publish the photo essay, because it would help his tour guide business.

Svidensky said he trained as a documentary photographer during his service in the Israeli Army. Since his release, he’s wanted to strike out as a freelance travel photographer. He’s done a lot of commercial and PR work, and served as a tour guide for Israelis traveling through Mongolia and Kazakhstan. “I took a lot of pictures of things I didn’t want to photograph,” he said.

In 2013, he packed his Canon gear, two shirts and a bag and set off on an open-ended trip to Mongolia. He planned to travel through Asia and document a variety of cultures, but Svidensky found himself drawn to the tradition of hunting with eagles.

He spent 40 days on the story. A lot of that time involved knocking on doors, learning the culture, deciphering the story. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to document children learning to hunt at the traditional starting age of 13. “There was no telephone book to say where the hunters are,” he told me. “It was just like a children’s book. You knock on a door and find out there is no kid here. Then you go to a house and they have a kid, but he’s too scared of the eagle. Or the father doesn’t want to go into the mountains.”

Eventually he met Irka Bolen, a 13-year-old boy in training and the main subject of his photos. Together they trekked into the mountains on horseback.

While the photos are breathtaking, Svidensky felt like the story was incomplete. The culture of that region is changing and he wanted to capture that as well. That’s when he discovered Ashol-Pan, a Khazak girl who may be the only eagle huntress in the world.

He went into the mountains with her and her father as well. But the story Svidensky documents is not the simplistic one that’s taken root in social media. The girl was training with her father, but not considered a full-fledged hunter. Her father told Svidensky that he had trained a son before her, but he was conscripted into the army. He would only continue training his daughter if she continued to ask for it.

In his blog, Svidensky quotes the father: “It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn’t dare do it unless she asks me to do it, and if she will? Next year you will come to the eagle festival and see her riding with the eagle in my place.”

That nuance was often lost as the photos ricocheted around the world via social media. Most of the news organizations and blogs that have republished them have focused exclusively on the girl, ignoring the ambiguity of her future as an eagle hunter. Some headlines changed the context completely, like “13-year-old Mongolian girl hunts with eagle, has coolest childhood ever.”

But Svidensky isn’t upset. He’s relieved people are seeing the photos at all.

After his initial disappointment trying to sell the pictures to magazines, Svidensky published four images on 1x.com, a curated photo blog. From there, the U.K.-based Caters News Agency spotted the work and contacted him. Now, Svidensky gets a cut every time the pictures are published. Since the BBC Magazine and radio program have highlighted his work, the images have caught the imaginations of many. He believes he will recoup his financial investment.

“But that’s not what’s important,” he said. “This is my dream to be a documentary photographer. My hope is that through this project, I will get other opportunities.” Read more

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AP Stylebook update: A sign of our times

People are freaking out over an update to the AP Stylebook, the equivalent of canon law for journalists. AP Style now tells us that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable. It’s as if Big Brother has just suggested that what was true yesterday, is no longer true today.

Not all people are freaking out, of course. But a lot of people are, especially journalists, and also English majors. The people who love word craft are visibly upset. You can tell by tracking #ACES2014 on Twitter.

For the uninitiated, until this update, “more than” was used when referring to numbers. “Over” was appropriate when talking about the physical relationship of two objects.

On this issue, you could divide the world into three categories of people. There are those who believe that words are tools and that if you are going to craft something substantial you must use the right tool. You wouldn’t pound a screw in with a hammer, would you?

Then there are those who are aware of these nuanced differences, but they believe that words are flexible and democratic. I count myself in this category. While I prefer to build something eloquent, I don’t always get there. And I’m not above using a blunt object when I can’t find my drill.

Finally, there are a lot of people completely unaware or unmoved by this debate. They have a toolbox, they use it when they need it, and it gets the job done.

Whichever category you are in, it is impossible to not see this alteration of standards as a sign of the times.

“It is a license to cut corners,” Tim Stephens wrote in a lively conversation on my Facebook page. A former newspaperman, he’s now the deputy managing editor of CBSSports.com, as well as the current president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. “It is an admission that there are no copy editors left to ‘fix’ it, and thus it is therefore OK to let slide, so the overworked ‘producers’ who now handle copy can focus on more essential tasks such as adding video or honing the SEO fields.”

That’s probably right. We have lowered the barriers to production and allowed more voices into our democratic spaces. As the volume of content available for consumption has grown, it seems logical that we have altered the precision with which we use our words.

The change in the AP Stylebook is merely an acknowledgment of that fact. And if you want to remain a relevant and effective influence, you cannot insist on enforcing standards that large numbers of people ignore or misunderstand.

And yet there will always be a need and an appreciation for finely crafted prose. In the cacophony that now exists, such words will rise over the noise.

The AP Stylebook is for everyone, not just the sophisticates. Western civilization won’t come to an end because of this change. If anything, getting rid of widely disregarded standards will make the remaining standards stronger.

Words are like wine. Consumption is up dramatically. Our options are greater than ever. There’s an entire supermarket aisle filled with choices. We find what we need. And every once in a while, we taste the great stuff. Read more

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Lessons learned from a Twitter storm

Poynter is a school. We teach journalists new and better ways of informing the public. And so it makes sense that I would share what I’ve learned from the recent Twitter uproar over a column I wrote last week.

First the background: Twitter user @steenfox started a powerful conversation last week when she asked her followers who had been sexually assaulted to share what they were wearing at the time they were attacked. After BuzzFeed posted this piece aggregating the responses from a few of the many women who responded, there was a discussion on Twitter questioning whether BuzzFeed violated the privacy expectations of the participants in the conversation. Read more

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BuzzFeed reporter’s use of tweets stirs controversy

BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa noticed a unique thread on her Twitter timeline Wednesday. Twitter user @steenfox asked her followers who were rape survivors to share what they were wearing when they were attacked. The results were rather spectacular. Some were in college when they were assaulted. Others were children. The precise details of their memories – pink pajamas, or peep-toe flats – provided a window into the insidious nature of rape.

Seeing an opportunity to tell an interesting story, Testa asked some of those same Twitter users for their permission to aggregate the tweets, then organized them by themes, drawing out the trends, adding her observations and sprinkling in some statistics about sexual assault. The result was this BuzzFeed news item that went up Wednesday evening.

It was an effective device to counter many of the myths about rape. Read more

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n this Wednesday, March 9, 2011 photo, photographer Brandon Stanton, left, prepares to photograph a man on a New York City sidewalk as he works the streets of New York City seeking photos of people he finds interesting, for his project entitled “Humans of New York.” The photos go on his website, at humansofnewyork.com, and are linked to the neighborhoods in which they were taken. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Seven lessons from Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton at SXSW

Standing in line to see Brandon Stanton, the man behind the Humans of New York blog and book, was like discovering his blog for the first time.

Because Stanton was scheduled to speak at 11:15 a.m. on the stage inside in the SXSW trade show, which didn’t open until 11 a.m., it seemed like something big was about to happen.

“Is this the line for Humans of New York?” people kept asking. “Yes,” someone in the line would say. Then three other people who were standing in the line would say, “What’s Humans of New York?”

Then someone would explain the simple concept behind the blog turned book: Some guy takes simple portraits of people in New York, tells a small story about them and people love it. Now it’s a book that’s “on the way to becoming the most widely sold photography book of all time,” which Stanton explained to his audience.

Stanton sat alone on the stage as the crowd filtered in, wearing jeans, a sweater and a green baseball cap turned backwards. He shared a little of his backstory during his packed session Sunday at SXSW Interactive. A fired bond trader, he moved to New York four years ago, with a goal of taking 10,000 photographs. He started publishing his photos on a Facebook page. From there he expanded to Tumblr, Instagram and ultimately his best-selling book.

He started his talk by admitting how nervous he was and asking for an audience volunteer to come on stage so he could demonstrate how he approaches a stranger and ask questions. He got 17-year-old Hannah, who wowed the crowd with a sophisticated understanding of fair use and copyright. Then he asked her if she wanted to stay on stage with him, because she alleviated his nervousness.

Ultimately Stanton offered a list of advice for budding journalists, citizen journalists and other entrepreneurs.

  • How to approach a stranger: “Getting a stranger to feel comfortable has nothing to do with the words that you use but the energy that you have,” he said. When he first started, he had a wordy pitch, with a high voice and lots of explanation. He still has the high voice, but he he eventually, he whittled it down to, “Can I take your picture?” He offers a follow-up explanation of the blog, for those who need more. When he started, two out of every three people turned him down.
  • Everyone has a story. Most of the time Stanton starts with a general question like, “What advice would give?” But he uses that to get to a personal story. He knows he has enough for his extended caption when he’s heard something that no one has ever told him before.
  • Work on the work, not the promotion. Stanton was focused to the point of tunnel vision on publishing 10,000 photos, not promotion. “I can’t tell you how many musicians I know who have two or three songs and all they do is promote those songs,” he said.
  • Once you have one true fan of your work, you’re on your way. Stanton still remembers the first letters from people describing how Humans of New York had emotionally impacted them.
  • Figure out what you do that’s different from everybody else. “I know I’m not going to be the best photographer out there,” he said. “It’s about doing the one thing I can do better than anybody else and that’s talk to strangers.”
  • It’s the story, stupid. Once Stanton had a little success, he tried to break into fashion photography. But soon he realized that it wasn’t the photography, it was the storytelling that was drawing in his audience.
  • Publish, then refine. “Humans of New York today is very different from what I set out to do,” Stanton said. But until you publish, you can’t get a lot of feedback. He’s skeptical of people with great ideas, who won’t share a rough cut of their work.

A cynic or a sophisticate might dismiss Stanton’s advice as clichés found in any column about entrepreneurs, but he arrives at his ideas honestly. While others try to attach a motive or a theme to Humans of New York, he resists. That’s part of the attraction. If he thinks much about the technical aspects of photography, he didn’t discuss it. He takes notes by sending himself texts. He still tries to post five new pictures and stories every day.

His favorite place to take pictures? Central Park. Read more

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