Kelly McBride

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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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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Joe Paterno, Mike McQueary, Matt McGloin

ESPN reports Mike McQueary was sexually assaulted, but says little else

In this photo taken Sept. 24, 2011, then-Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, left, talks with quarterback Matt McGloin (11) as assistant coach Mike McQueary listens on the sidelines during an NCAA college football game against Eastern Michigan in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Editor’s note: This column was revised and updated to include ESPN The Magazine Editor Chad Millman’s response to our emailed questions about the process behind the story.

ESPN The Magazine just published a long read about Mike McQueary, the man who witnessed Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a child in the Penn State locker room. The man who cost Joe Paterno his job and his legacy.

The story appears under the headline “The Whistleblower’s Last Stand” and describes widespread distrust of the former assistant coach and a life diminished since Sandusky’s indictment in the fall of 2011. But all anyone is talking about is this line near the top of the story:

“Finally, McQueary confided in his players something he hoped would make them understand how he’d reacted at the time. He told them he could relate to the fear and helplessness felt by the boy in the shower because he too was sexually abused as a boy.”

The story tops 5,000 words and never returns to that assertion, which is attributed to anonymous sources who were present for the conversation and anonymous sources who heard about the conversation from people who were there. The writer doesn’t say if McQueary reported his own abuse to authorities, if anyone was prosecuted, how old McQueary was, if anyone from his inner circle knew about the abuse before then, if McQueary has sought counseling, or what McQueary’s relationship to that abuser was.

Yet it’s clear from the video that accompanies the story that writer Don Van Natta Jr. and others at the Worldwide Leader in Sports understand the most compelling item in the story is the revelation of childhood sexual abuse. What’s not clear is what reporting attempts were made to bring more context to that information.

ESPN The Magazine Editor Chad Millman wrote this in response to our questions about how decisions were made:

“We recognize the extremely sensitive nature of this topic and had extensive discussions about our approach in advance of publishing. Ultimately, Mike McQueary’s revelation to a number of people is a relevant piece of information in a thoroughly-reported story. Mike McQueary was aware that we had been told the details of his revelation. Given that he is a central figure in the upcoming trial of Penn State officials and his own whistleblower lawsuit, a big focus is on what he saw, what he said and who he said it to. As a result, we carefully considered that if he was a victim of sexual abuse, that may have affected how he processed what he saw and what his reaction and statements were in the aftermath.”

Most newsrooms have a policy of protecting the identity of sexual assault victims. They do this because sexual assault is the single most under-reported felony and those who have been sexually assaulted generally incur a lasting stigma from the crime.

Millman wrote in his email that ESPN’s policy is to protect victims in a criminal case, but when reporting on a sexual assault that is not the subject of a criminal investigation or trial, to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.  Here’s his full response:

“We weigh each circumstance on a case-by-case basis, and if after careful review a story meets our standards for reporting, there are civil or criminal implications and/or the story has a higher editorial imperative, we may disclose names in those circumstances. When there are situations of criminal sexual assault/rape cases, per our Editorial Standards & Practices, we generally don’t report the names of accusers, unless the accuser personally decides to make his/her name public.”

When a newsroom does identify a survivor, editors usually explain why they are making an exception to their policy.

This magazine story carries no such explanation. Nor does the story explain why this fact is revealed, how it is relevant to McQueary’s story, or if the writer made any attempts to determine further context about the assault. In a related story, ESPN said it asked McQueary for comment on the magazine story, but he declined, other than to say he loved his mentor, Joe Paterno.

Millman’s email explains why ESPN felt McQueary’s revelation to his players was fodder for the article. But he doesn’t go into the reporting process around McQueary’s revelation.

Here’s a set of questions that might surface a few alternatives:

  • When you told McQueary that you are going to publish that he was sexually assaulted, would he talk about it, even off-the-record?
  • Did anyone else in McQueary’s inner circle have further information that would shed light on how the assault influenced him through the Sandusky investigation?
  • Have you talked to a counselor who works with male survivors? What light can that expert shed on the potential harm that outing him as a survivor might cause?
  • A large part of the story deals with allegations that McQueary had a gambling problem. Several sources said he wasn’t trustworthy. How do you intend for readers to digest this? Might they conclude that the claim of sexual abuse is fake?
  • The theme for this issue is “The Conspiracy Issue.” Does running this story under that theme suggest a bias toward believing or not believing McQueary?
  • What is the journalistic purpose of this story and how does revealing McQueary’s past sexual assault support that purpose?
  • Are you treating him different because he is a man? Would you treat a female survivor in a similar situation the same way?

I ask this last question because I’ve counseled newsrooms covering male survivors and it doesn’t always occur to decision-makers that the reasons we grant women survivors anonymity are valid for men, too.

These questions encourage a process. There is a well-established standard that guides how sexual assault victims are identified. While some newsrooms have an exception to granting anonymity when an accuser sues an assailant in civil court, I’ve never encountered a newsroom that specifically restricts the policy of anonymity to victims in a criminal investigation. The threshold for identifying someone as a sexual assault survivor against his or her wishes should be exceedingly high.

To clear that threshold, the story itself should have great journalistic significance to the audience. And the fact of the assault should be clearly relevant to the story.

Millman argues this story clears that threshold. I’m still not convinced. In the story that’s been published, there’s not enough reporting about that abuse to give the audience an adequate context. Is there reason to doubt McQueary’s truthfulness about the abuse? There’s no reporting that supports or undermines his claim. The writer could have at the very least revealed McQueary’s reaction and McQueary’s father’s reaction, when they learned that ESPN was going to publish the story of the abuse.

Finally, an editor could have explained ESPN’s practice on identifying sexual assault victims and how this story fits into that policy.

For more resources about covering sexual assault, see our NewsU course, Covering Sexual Assault.

Kelly McBride served as the lead writer for the Poynter Review Project in 2011-2012, in which the Institute provided ombudsman services to ESPN. She and her partner Jason Fry were critical of ESPN’s initial coverage of the Jerry Sandusky indictment. Read more

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Outed Duke student presents lesson in crowd behavior

There’s been a relatively slow burn on the story of a female Duke University freshman outed as a porn star by a frat boy during rush.

The rumor first circulated through Duke’s campus in late January, after a frat boy discovered one of his classmates in a porn video, promised to keep her secret and then outed her during a rush party. On Valentine’s Day, the student newspaper published a smart, in-depth story on the woman, including lengthy answers to an interviewer’s questions. The paper used a pseudonym, Lauren, to identify her.

In the ensuing two weeks, anonymous participants on sites like CollegiateACB  revealed the woman’s name, her hometown, her dad’s profession and his work telephone number. Read more

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Poynter at SXSW: Algorithms, Journalism and Democracy

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the third in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

Algorithms control the marketplace of ideas. They grant power to certain information as it flies through the digital space and take power away from other information. Algorithms control who sees what on social-media sites such as Facebook and YouTube, through search engines such as Google and Bing, and even in defined news spaces such as The New York Times, with its lists of most-shared and most-commented features, and Yahoo News.

Just ask some poor guy who’s tried to get his old DUI photo removed from a scurrilous mug-shot site. Having your old mug shot out there in the ether isn’t so bad, except when it turns up on the first page of a Google search for your name. That mug-shot sites were able to make a killing by charging to remove information is a testament to the power of algorithms. That Google and other search engines were able to penalize mug-shot sites (after The New York Times and other news organizations drew attention to the scummy practice) is a testament to the mysterious power of the people who control the algorithms.

This used to be the job of editors, whom we described as gatekeepers. Those editors were flawed human beings, biased by their own perspectives. And it was hard to hold them accountable because their process for making decisions was a private one.

But algorithms are by their very nature biased, meant to give priority to some information and de-emphasize other information. And it’s even harder to determine the biases of an algorithm than it is to determine the biases of a human editor.

If you’re concerned with democracy, you’re in favor of holding algorithms accountable for their impact on the marketplace of ideas.

Nicholas Diakopoulos argues in a paper issued this month for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism that journalists are the natural check on powerful algorithms. His report is aptly titled Algorithmic Accountability Reporting: On the Investigation of Black Boxes.

How can journalists demystify algorithms? First by observing and describing how certain algorithms are working. Then by questioning the assumptions. And finally by reverse-engineering those algorithms to force more transparency into the system.

Diakopoulos offers a methodology for doing so, which includes isolating the algorithm, testing it with a valid sample, talking to sources, and then revealing newsworthy findings. His process requires a certain base of knowledge and familiarity with how algorithms work. But one need not be a computer programmer to do this work — the report cites several examples of such journalism and describes how the reporters arrived at their conclusions.

This method very much follows the scientific method, Diakopoulos writes. I would argue that certain communities and audiences could be enlisted to help with the work.

Deciphering algorithms is more than just determining how they work. It’s also describing why certain information or information providers are so much better at optimizing certain algorithms. For instance, Upworthy got really good at the Facebook algorithm late last year. Then Facebook changed its algorithm, apparently de-emphasizing Upworthy because it doesn’t create original content. As a result, another site, Mental Floss, saw a huge benefit.

Describing what’s happening in algorithms is a critical function of journalism. Why is this type of informed analysis crucial to democracy?

  • It informs citizens and makes them more literate. The more people know about why they organically get certain information and have to hunt for other information, they more they know what to hunt for.
  • It holds the powerful accountable. Most private companies are never going to reveal what values they prioritize. But helping citizens decipher the apparent values gives them the power to pressure companies to be honest brokers.
  • It levels the playing field, sharing information held by a few with the masses.

Betaworks’ Chief Data Scientist Gilad Lotan and I will team up for a SXSW session exploring Algorithms, Journalism and Democracy on Sunday, March 9, at 6 p.m. ET (5 p.m. CT), at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Related: Poynter at SXSW: The ins and outs of Twibel | Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance Read more

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Hyperbolic to sensitive, how news outlets treated dramatic car crash video

The 55-second cell-phone video of an SUV going the wrong way on the Interstate, smashing into a sedan and exploding into a fiery ball that killed five people quickly sky-rocketed to one of the most viewed videos ever on the Tampa Bay Times’ website. It’s also a case study to examine how different newsrooms treat difficult content.

The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, ran the whole video, unedited, along with the sound. The Tampa Tribune ran the video without the sound. WTSP and WFLA used small portions of the video in a package, but then stopped using it, as did Fox 13. ABC Action News used a tight clip of the video in two packages. Bay News 9 ran the video but truncated it before the crash. Read more

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Chat replay: covering pot when recreational use is legalized

As states move to lift local bans on marijuana use, reporters and editors are increasingly faced with the question of how to cover the drug as more than a crime story.

Communities where pot is legal are faced with a complex set of issues like preventing underage access to the drug, appropriately regulating the supply chain, determining where growers and distributors should be located, and enforcing bans that prevent citizens from taking marijuana out of state in cars and on airplanes.

Journalists from two states that have legalized recreational marijuana — Colorado and Washington — talked about their approaches to covering the regulation, business, consumption and consequences of legalized medical and recreational marijuana.

Ricardo Baca, editor of The Denver Post’s marijuana website and of its pot coverage, and Bob Young, who writes about marijuana for The Seattle Times, joined Poynter’s Kelly McBride to discuss the challenges they encounter following pot’s legalization. They also shared the lessons they have learned in reporting on marijuana topics from business licensing to recipes and suggest best practices to follow in writing about legalized pot.

Find the archive of all past chats at www.poynter.org/chats.

Related training: On the Beat: Covering Cops and Crime | On the Beat: Covering the Courts Read more

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Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs

The one-year anniversary of a tragic event is a significant moment. But for journalists, such moments too often become opportunities for emotional exploitation rather than real journalism.

The citizens of Newtown, Conn., and the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims have drawn a hard boundary around their homes. No media, they’ve said to the outside world. Don’t talk to the media, they’ve said to the 28,000 people who live in the community.

In doing so, they’ve deprived newsrooms of the easy visuals and rote storytelling that have sometimes substituted for meaningful journalism. And that’s good: It forces journalists to do the hard work they should be doing on the first anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

In a way, it’s a gift to the audience everywhere that Newtown is spurning public events. Without requisite sights and sounds such as flickering candles, tolling bells, and names read aloud, journalists have to do something other than tap into the grief and rehash the horror of that day.

But it would be wrong to leave the anniversary itself unnoticed. Anniversaries, especially the one-year mark of a tragic event, are sometimes the best opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the world. This is why counselors tell grieving people not to make major decisions for the first year after a loved one dies. A year later, the world looks much different — maybe not better, but certainly not as fuzzy as it looked then.

Here’s what the best anniversary stories will look like:

  • Many will offer updates on the national debates we are having about guns and mental health. Sure, these are obvious subjects. But done well, they can advance the conversation by describing the likely paths forward. And the best stories are those that bring new data or studies into the narrative. USA Today’s Behind the Bloodshed interactive graphic is a particularly good example, while this New York Times update on gun laws and Frontline’s look at the gun lobby are both sobering.
  • Any perspective from the families will come through newsrooms that have established strong ties with the families of the slain children and teachers. This blog post by Emilie Parker’s mother is a strong example, and this AP story is particularly well done.
  • Outside essayists will offer their thoughts in a variety of op-eds and columns.
  • The journalists who do go to Newtown will have a plan. They will document the town and its people from a distance, instead of fighting with each other to interview everyone and anyone. And I’m OK with that. I don’t want to live in a world where journalists are afraid to cover important stories in ways they think serve the story. I want some journalists to be in Newtown, just not hundreds of them.

How to cover the Newtown anniversary depends on your audience. Local news providers need to focus on local stories, turning to their own communities. The wider your audience, the tougher the task of finding a relevant story.

Finally, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Gratuitous use of images from that day. This may be tempting given the absence of fresh visuals, but using the image of the children in a line rushing from the school or the crying woman on the phone will likely cue the audience to move on.
  • Political grandstanding. It’s possible that politicians and pundits will try to use the anniversary of these deaths to make a political point, and that cable news, talk radio, or other media with lots of time but few resources will allow them to do so. But let’s hope not.
  • Oversimplification. It’s tempting for journalists who are used to making sense of complicated things to try and make sense of this. But some things defy such efforts, however well-intentioned. And trying to change that causes us to fall back on clichés about good and evil that will never be universally embraced.

We live in a media world of excess. With self-discipline, restraint and a sense of service to our audience — rather than to our ratings or web metrics — journalists should be able to provide meaningful stories a year after Newtown. And possibly such efforts can set the tone for future tragedies.

* * *

“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 democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

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