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Listening

Be a Better Listener in 3 Minutes

I work with managers and non-managers alike who want to become better at listening. I’ve read books on it, written columns, and teach sessions on the essentials of the skill.

And then I met journalist E. S. Isaac of India and got a better education on what it means to truly listen.

During a dinner conversation before a week-long leadership seminar at Poynter, Isaac shared his insights. He grew up in rural Chhattisgarh, in Central India. His parents were illiterate. But his father, Benbarisi Isaac, was his best teacher.

I found what E. S. Isaac said — and how he said it — to be so meaningful that I asked his permission to record and share his thoughts.

I think this will be the best three minutes you spend today.

Who is this wise man?

Isaac oversees Doordarshan Television’s international channel DDIndia.  He manages the sports programming on DDSports, reaching 143 countries across the world.

From left to right, Father, Neha, Isaac (back), Mother, Nikhil, Rekha (front) Outside village home

From left to right, Benbasi Isaac (father), Aaditi Isaac(daughter), E. S. Isaac (back), Susena Kumari (mother), Rekha Sinha (wife), Aalok Isaac( son, in front).
I am standing behind my daughter,E S Isaac.
The photograph was taken on 28th April 1994 by Chanchal Isaac outside their village home

He was one of 15 international journalists selected for The Media Project’s Coaching and Leadership Fellowship initiative. The class met at Poynter the week of September 21.

I served as their leadership guide for the week. But when I got to the session on communication skills, you can bet that I delegated to Isaac.  And I listened. Read more

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Monday, Sep. 29, 2014

memofmurder-front-100

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

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

Courtesy CBC

Courtesy CBC

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

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

Glenna Mae Breckenridge: From CBC

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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wichita-eagle

A daily story about a car theft that reminds us why journalism matters

The past few weeks have not been much of an upper for those tracking the health of the news business. More layoffs. New (and increasingly meager) buyouts. And the downsizing strategy that promises to grow ever more popular back at Corporate:

All staffers must reapply for their jobs.

Only the delusional suggest this is a cycle from which we will emerge. Increasingly, editors know this is their reality:

I have fewer people this year than last, and I’ll have fewer still next year.

I remember feeling like this about 15 years ago when my newsroom in Philadelphia was in the midst of its latest “right-sizing.” Looking for a way to recharge my batteries, I asked 12 of my colleagues to join me for lunch and bring stories that reminded them why they did journalism. It was great. We laughed, we cried, and we left the room a bit more aware that what we did mattered.

The same thing happened to me this week. I read a story about Cleet McGhee.

Cleet’s story is the work of Dion Lefler, who covers government and politics for the Wichita Eagle. He sent me the story after I asked reporters to send me work that demonstrates a story done in a day can be memorable.

I will remember Cleet’s story. It reminds me that journalism can make good things happen.

Take a read: “Woman, man steal Lincoln Town Car that is dialysis patient’s lifeline.”

Lefler explained he was tipped to the story by Cleet’s former boss, a local Tea Party activist whom Lefler has known for years. He interviewed Cleet at his motel, photographed him and saw the security video that recorded the car theft. He also talked with police before writing the story. Done in a day.

Then good things started happening.

“The next day,” Lefler said, “I had about 12-15 messages from folks offering to drive him to his appointments. Cleet told me a woman came to his room, gave him $40 in grocery certificates, $20 cash, hugged him and left without even telling him her name.”

And there’s more. Here is Lefler’s first follow-up story: “Dialysis patient gets a lift after thieves steal his beloved Lincoln Town Car.”

I keep thinking about the moment Cleet hears that someone is giving him a car. Put yourself there:

“You’re kidding, me, man.”

But after being assured the offer was real, he said: “It will get me to my dialysis. God bless you.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Here’s Lefler’s second follow-up story: “Dialysis patient presented with replacement car from radio station, car dealership.”

Cleet’s words bear repeating:

“Somebody’s doing something for me and I’m doing something for somebody else and what goes around comes around.”

Journalists covered a lot of important stories this week. The bombing attacks on ISIS. The domestic violence crisis in sports. The spread of Ebola.

But back in June, Dion Lefler covered an important story, too: the theft of Cleet McGhee’s car.

That, I am again reminded, is why journalism matters. That’s why, when they’re reviewing the applications of all those journalists who are reapplying for their jobs, I wish Cleet McGhee had a vote.

Nice work, Dion Lefler. Thanks. Read more

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Friday, Sep. 26, 2014

keithjenkins_56

Keith Jenkins answers questions about his meteoric ascension at National Geographic

In just about one year’s time National Geographic’s Keith Jenkins has gone from director of photography to executive editor for digital content to general manager, National Geographic Digital.

Jenkins will be charged with restructuring, reimagining and elevating the venerable organization in the digital space.

In a recent telephone interview with Poynter’s Kenny Irby, Keith shared plans and hopes for the future of NatGeo digital.

Keith Jenkins, to General Manager, National Geographic Digital and Kenny Irby, Senior Faculty, Visual Journalism and Diversity and Director of Community Relations, The Poynter Institute, June 2014. (Photo by Karen Irby)

Keith Jenkins, to General Manager, National Geographic Digital and Kenny Irby, Senior Faculty, Visual Journalism and Diversity and Director of Community Relations, The Poynter Institute, June 2014. (Photo by Karen Irby)

Poynter.org: Tell me about the new role and your goal?

Jenkins: Well we are restructuring around our digital agenda for the organization and my role specifically is to make that happen and to set some priorities for (NatGeo) around digital media, but also more importantly transitioning parts of the organization from traditional print and or TV based programming to things that work online and over the internet and on mobile.

Poynter.org:  This is your third assignment in a about a year, what was your previous role at NatGeo?

Jenkins: I was executive editor, a role that I took in May, where I was really helping to restructuring the news operation and web operation here from an editorial content point of view.

Jenkins joined the company from NPR as the Director of Digital Photography a year ago.

How were you able to get so many promotions so quickly in the ranks at NatGeo? Any tips for moving up?

Jenkins:  No magic formula; I think it’s really just a result of NatGeo attempting to find its digital footing and my being in a position to help because of my experience.

Poynter.org:  How is this different from your photojournalism role and what’s the new challenge?

Jenkins: The main challenge is really being in charge of everything. (Laughter) So, really having to focus on both technology as well as content and really thinking about budget and how we make money.  It’s much more holistic in some ways, I get to look at the big picture and move all of the pieces around. And it is one step more removed from actually creating visual content.

Poynter.org: So what is your short-term, 30-day priority list?

Jenkins: Really getting the new, reconstituted digital business unit organized and staffed correctly. We need to hire a creative director, I am bringing in someone to help run digital content then to set priorities for the next six months to a year — and working on a new website for National Geographic.

Poynter.org: Moving forward, what is the role of photojournalism when you already have this tremendous history of great work?

Jenkins: Well, that is its history and legacy, and it is a huge part of its future. One of the things that we are really going to try and do is to elevate that visual storytelling even more than it currently is. We have done an “OK” job getting that material out to people, but there is way more that we can and should be doing. A part of trying to refine what we are offering across digital platforms is going to be about how do we do that better. Audiovisual storytelling is about video as well. Keeping that quality visual storytelling at the forefront of what we do no matter where we are distributing it or how.

Poynter.org: How will you and National Geographic define multimedia moving forward?

Jenkins:  It means a lot of different things to different people. It can mean different types of media, it can also mean the different types of presentation style, for each organization it is a little different. For us we are wrestling with how does it translate for us, where so much of what is done here has been photography based and now how we integrate multi media, design into presenting photography, how do we integrate video when we present photography… those types of question are the ones that we are asking and how does this stuff work on mobile.

Poynter.org  What does the future hold for young photojournalists and what advice do you have to give?

Jenkins:  Be versatile! There will always be a place for stellar photographers and photography, but the more that you can bring the gap between photography and video and audio and storytelling, the more likely you will be able to make a career because all of those individual things are changing.  The concept of only presenting a photograph is morphing.

Poynter.org  What can we expect or look forward to under your leadership?

Jenkins:  Give us some time and we will hopefully surprise you.

Jenkins joined National Geographic after working at NPR, where he was the supervising senior producer for multimedia. Prior to joining NPR, Jenkins spent 13 years at The Washington Post, where he was a staff photographer, photography editor of Washingtonpost.com, photography editor of The Washington Post Magazine and deputy assistant managing editor of photography. Jenkins was AOL’s first director of photography. He began his photography career working for the graphic designer Dietmar R. Winkler, and spent five years as a staff photographer for The Boston Globe. Jenkins is an award-winning photographer and has a law degree from Boston University. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. (Also thinking of moving to Vermont to become a recluse.)

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (63 words)
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Following in the footsteps of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger sacrifices his own language and mature insights (sort of) to turn narration of his novel over to a prep school student, Holden Caulfield, who came to represent the alienation of the post-World War II generation.

This is a carefully constructed text, of course, but it doesn’t sound that way. That’s the magic of it. It sounds like someone talking. How do you do that? You use the second person (“you”), contractions (“you’ll,” “don’t”), slang (“lousy”), intensifiers (“really”), verbal punctuation (“and all”), and mild profanity (“crap”). The cumulative effect is informal and conversational.

Of all his literary gifts, Salinger had a great ear for the spoken word and captures the idioms of his time in phrases like “how my parents were occupied” and “if you want to know the truth.” A double-edged razor hides in both phrases. The first one could mean (“what my parents did for a living,”) but “occupied” carries with it some negative connotations, as in the word “pre-occupied,” that is, distracted.

The second phrase “if you want to know the truth” is used mostly as filler in conversation, and yet the key word “truth” comes at the end, inviting the question of whether Holden is a reliable narrator about his own life story.

My favorite phrase here is “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” This feels like a mature literary allusion rather than the ramblings of an alienated teenager. Note the alliteration, the repetition of hard “c” sounds: Copperfield, kind, crap. Perhaps Holden sees himself as a Dickensian character like David Copperfield who experiences an endless series of traumatic events in his young life. Or, perhaps, the reclusive author is sending a secret signal: Just as David Copperfield is considered Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, Catcher contains, we now know, many parallels to the young life of J.D. Salinger.

I must note that Catcher remains on many lists of banned books. However mild the word “crap” appears to us, it signals to the reader the rougher words to come, including some f-bombs that excited students, but traumatized some parents and School Board members.

By the end of the novel, Holden reveals that he is in therapy and repeats a key phrase from the beginning: “If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it, ” that is everything that he has told us. There is a kind of group therapy feel to the language from the beginning, as if he’s answered a question from a shrink about his childhood and parents: “If you really want to hear about it….”

In summary, it takes skill to create prose that sounds like someone speaking directly to the reader. We have a name for that effect: voice. It’s hard enough to achieve when the narrator is the author. It’s even more challenging when the author turns over that task to a teenage boy who likes to wear a red hunting cap. Read more

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Tuesday, Sep. 23, 2014

budweiser-225

Storytelling lessons from Budweiser puppy commercial

Budweiser strikes again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He watches, then he waits, watches, waits.

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

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

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

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

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

Think of this story frame as:

  • Tension
  • Context
  • Explosion of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, Sep. 22, 2014

A call for really good daily stories

Daily news concept.Earlier this month I offered some ideas for how journalists can produce better daily stories.

The need is obvious. Thanks to the production demands confronting understaffed newsrooms, reporters and editors are increasingly favoring stories that can be done in a day (or less.)

But that doesn’t mean those stories need to be thin, predictable or boring. They don’t have to be kiss-offs.

Daily stories can be good stories. Sometimes, they can be great stories.

I’d like you to send me a daily story that you’re proud of.

Send me a daily story that you took beyond the routine. Maybe you elevated a straightforward assignment with a great interview, a vivid scene or strong character development. Maybe you offered your audience thoughtful analysis of an important issue. Maybe you told you story from an unusual point of view. Maybe you effectively used multimedia.

The only requirement is that you reported, wrote and produced the story in one day.

In addition to a link to the story, send me a paragraph explaining how you approached the story. Did you take a risk? Try something new? Mimic a device you saw elsewhere?

How did you do it?

Send links to your stories to bward@poynter.org. I’ll share them in the coming days. Let’s help each other do better daily stories. Read more

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Wednesday, Sep. 10, 2014

Janay Rice

Diverse voices are missing from the debate over showing the Rice video

Once TMZ posted its video of “the punch” — the blow Ray Rice dealt his then fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer Rice, knocking her unconscious and igniting controversy about how the NFL deals with domestic violence — editors throughout the country faced a single question of journalism ethics: Do we post the video?

Poynter’s resident writing coach, Roy Peter Clark, argues that such violent videos need to be made public because they create “the public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions of the NFL.”

Janay Palmer Rice in May.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Janay Palmer Rice in May. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

His reasoning points to a growing chasm of compassion, dignity and empathy in U.S. media that has grown from our fault lines of race, class and gender.

What Clark implies is that it’s OK to use a person’s private experience — in this case, one that Janay Rice did not consent to or have knowledge of — if it serves a greater good. I take issue with his failure to mention how media routinely ignore the voices of women of color, especially those who are victims of intimate partner violence — until it happens that one of those women is a public figure.

“The sad part is … We do need the narratives,” said Kimberly Ellis, an independent social media scholar and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Bombastic Brilliance of Black Twitter.” “For the sake of preventing additional instances of domestic violence, it’s the black woman’s body that is put on the altar for sacrifice.”

Having diverse voices in the conversation around this video is necessary to contextualize media management decisions on whether to re-post it. As sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes about the forces of race, class and gender that minimize the experiences of black women, “the same situation can look quite different depending on the consciousness one brings to interpret it.”

Using the video without consent violates our ethical obligation to treat Janay Rice and other survivors of intimate partner violence as people rather than vehicles for social change. Their stories — especially the ones from women of color who have been historically overlooked or shamed into silence — need to be told. But how to do so is a complicated question, and one that requires diverse voices as part of formulating an answer.

I’m troubled by Clark’s rationale, and the argument by Poynter’s resident ethicist Kelly McBride makes in his piece, because neither acknowledges any context of the black experience in arguing that this video should be made public.

For people of color in the United States, whether victims of police brutality or intimate partner violence, the moral outrage that greets the release of “gotcha” surveillance videos and photographs peters out often before we are afforded legal redress.

The names of women like Marlene Pinnock, who was repeatedly punched by a California Highway Patrol officer during an arrest, and Jada, the 17-year-old Texas student whose naked, drugged body became the Internet meme #JadaPose come to mind.

Remember them? Their images became public. There was outcry. They’re still waiting for justice.

It’s been 31 days since an unarmed black teen was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. And to date, despite local, national and international outrage and outcry, no one has been indicted. No one has been arrested. The Ferguson Police Department has yet to announce a change in its policy on use of force.

Some good the video, pictures, ongoing media coverage and prolonged moral outrage surrounding Mike Brown’s death have done. Why should we expect that video of a woman being punched by her partner will effect greater social change?

Objectifying Janay Rice and recasting her experiences to serve the interests of elite white men who make the decision to publish and repost the video, to paraphrase Collins, means subordinating a black woman’s humanity in the name of journalism.

It is a misguided and unethical practice.

In the media ethics class I taught as a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I emphasized ethical news values that accompany our traditional values of timeliness, prominence, and conflict.

Those values include empathy and dignity. Students learn to question whether their actions will send the victim into further trauma, and if they, as media workers, are acting with compassion. The video footage of Janay Rice being posted to news websites and shown via broadcast is a violation of her most intimately held territory — her body.

“You know what bothered me most? Her lying there on the floor, exposed,” said Rebeccah Lutz, managing editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, a survivor of intimate partner abuse (and in the interest of full disclosure, my best friend).
“The violent act itself was difficult enough to watch, but seeing her exposed and vulnerable, not even able to cover herself, crushed me. She was powerless in that moment, and now the world has seen it.”

Janay Rice was robbed her of her humanity once when Ray Rice hit her. She was victimized a second time when the NFL delayed in taking decisive action. The assault continues each time the tape of her fiancé hitting her is presented as news.

Meredith D. Clark is an assistant professor of digital and print news in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She’s worked as a copy editor, reporter, columnist and community news editor at newspapers including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Tallahassee Democrat. Read more

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Tuesday, Sep. 09, 2014

Ray Rice, Janay Palmer

How the media can and does help domestic abuse victims

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

janay-rice-statement

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

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

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

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

Osmundson offers this advice to journalists:

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

Resources for Journalists

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

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

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

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

The Department of Justice reports:

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

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

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

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

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

The survey also found this statistic that journalists could explore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, Sep. 08, 2014

Fast Food Restaurant

Three ways to serve up better dailies

Back when I was doing my communications gig for Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia, I received a phone call one morning from a reporter who was playing catch-up on a new state insurance regulation.

“I’ll be happy to explain it to you,” I said, “but be patient. It’s a little involved.”

About two minutes into my explanation, the reporter interrupted me.

“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s way too complicated. I’ll get something else for tomorrow.”

Another story falls victim to media bias.

No, not the liberal political bias that journalists so often are accused of having. This was another, perhaps more disturbing bias. It’s called:Production Bias.

Simply defined, Production Bias holds that if a story can’t be done in a day, we won’t do it.

I first heard the concept of Production Bias in 2001 when I was working with Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach, authors of The Elements of Journalism, and they were developing a newsroom curriculum based on the book. Production Bias was among a number of terms identified to help journalists understand that the first step in mitigating a bias is to acknowledge its existence.

I joined them in a number of newsrooms where we asked the staff if Production Bias existed. Without fail, the journalists said yes.

And let’s be honest: it’s more prevalent today than when I got that impatient reporter’s call more than a decade ago. In fact, in some newsrooms it’s mutated: If the story can’t be done in two hours, we won’t do it.

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But spend a few hours scanning the web sites of news organizations around the country, and tell me how many meaty profiles, in-depth analyses and just plain surprising stories you find.

Clearly, a whole lot of good stories are not being done.

Could this have anything to do with our disappearing audiences?

We’re all familiar with the changes that have contributed to the spread of Production Bias. Less staff to do more work. The 24/7 news cycle. Publishing on multiple platforms. The demands of multimedia.

But the biggest reason, I’d suggest, dates back to a notion that held forth long before we were tweeting or blogging or gathering multimedia.

Our newsrooms are preoccupied with filling.

Fill the show. Fill the book. We can’t do that story because we need everyone to help us fill.

One newspaper editor told me that several years ago, he flat-out told his staff to stop worrying about filling the book. “I want everyone, every day, to write for the front page,” he said. “If we do that, we’ll have plenty of good stories left over to fill the book.”

I asked him how it’s going. Slowly, he said. A few more good stories are getting done each day. “Everyone says they want to take risks, but they don’t,” the editor said. “They find a great deal of safety from filling the book.”

Filling is a hard habit to break.

But we’ve got to get started. How about this modest goal: if our news reports are going to be dominated by one-day stories, let’s make them better. Even memorable.

How?

Here are three ideas, inspired by a handful of print and broadcast stories that were reported, written and produced in one day.

The first story was reported in 2009 by Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis. Watch and then we’ll talk.

Idea Number 1. Frame the story tightly. Think about where this story was reported and during what time frame. One Checkers, one shift. I can think of many similar, but less powerful, stories done by reporters who visited multiple businesses over several days. Stories, no matter how quickly they are reported, benefit from a well-defined, tight frame.

David Barstow, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the New York Times, says that the tighter the frame you put on your exploration of an issue or event, the deeper you can go. His tick-tock on nine crucial minutes aboard the burning Deepwater Horizon is a classic example of tight framing. (And no, it was not done in one day.)

But Huppert’s Checkers story shows that it’s just as important to place a tight frame around your daily story. The frame helps the writer decide what pieces of reporting to put in and what to leave out. It helps you identify your lead and your ending. And it can help you choose your story structure.

So when you embark on a story, don’t just think about the issue or event you’re covering. Spend some extra time thinking about how you’ll tell that story—how you’ll frame it. And remember: the sooner you identify the frame, the sooner you can zero in on the reporting you need to do.

Here’s another daily story that teaches a great lesson. It’s by Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times. Have a read.

Idea Number 2. Do some planning. Often we know in advance—sometimes weeks in advance—that that we will be doing a daily story on some event or issue. Thinking about the story ahead of time (and how we might tell it) affords us the chance to identify reporting opportunities, set up some interviews. DeGregory had covered Officer Yaslowitz’s funeral, and knew that at some point, she wanted to follow up with the policeman’s widow. Once she decided to tell the story through the frame of Mrs. Yaslowitz’s first day back at kindergarten, she could make the calls necessary to give her access.

When our daily stories involve breaking news, we’re left to scramble to find sources and arrange interviews. But many of our best one-day stories don’t involve breaking news—they involve the community’s ongoing life. If we can identify more of those stories, and plan in advance how we’ll do them, we’ll have more time during our one-day window to devote to reporting and writing.

Now here’s a story by Diane Tennant of the Virginia-Pilot that was done in a day and takes some creative risks. Have a look.

Idea Number 3. Ask yourself, “What’s this story’s purpose?”

Some stories are meant to expose wrongdoing. Others aim to inform. Some help members of a community better understand each other.

And some just plain entertain.

Along the way, Tennant’s story also demonstrated to readers of the Virginian-Pilot the role that social media is playing in their community. But at its heart is a cute story that caused one reader to say in an email: “Thank you, what a pleasant surprise to read such a tender story in the paper this morning!”

One of my former editors used to say that every day’s news report should include a surprise—a story that readers and viewers would find nowhere else, and which would remind them why they valued us. Tennant’s story was a surprise.

I asked her about her story’s purpose, and she said she had not thought much about that.

“When I saw Binky’s picture on Facebook, I called my family’s attention to it, and then it kind of struck me that if Binky’s story amused me and my family, and had amused the restaurant’s followers on FB, then it would probably resonate with The Pilot’s readers, too.”

Her answer made me think she knew exactly what she wanted her story to accomplish. She wanted it to amuse me. It did.

Oh, and just to make sure no one thinks the Virginian-Pilot has eschewed serious journalism, “Binky’s Big Adventure” ran in a paper whose front page featured the “Defiant Governor” vowing to expand Medicaid over the legislature’s objections; and an enterprise story on how the history of accidents involving military drones raises questions about the possibility of increased drone traffic.

Bonus time. Back to Lane DeGregory for a story that puts this all together. Take a read.

Did this story make use of all three ideas?

Tight frame: The focus was on one woman, returning to confession on one night, at one church.

Advance planning: DeGregory obtained advance permission for a reporter and photographer to attend the service and approach attendees. (She avoided wasting half her evening wandering from church to church in search of someone she could interview—and photograph.)

Purpose: The story explored a question as old as the human race—what propels a person to seek forgiveness from God?

DeGregory explains her process:

“I had seen an ad on TV about the Catholic Church opening its doors for people to come ‘home.’ My husband is a recovering Catholic, as he calls it, and I was interested in who might return, and why they left, and what they hoped to get out of it. I called a couple different churches, mostly ones where I knew people who attended so I could drop names, and got that one to agree to let me in. We weren’t allowed to go into the confessional, which was a bummer, especially for the photographer. But we came early, not knowing who—if anyone—we would find, and the line stretched around the church. We approached probably 20 people who didn’t want to talk before finding this one sweet woman who was hesitant, but willing.

“I left about 8 p.m., I think, and wrote it by 10 p.m. for the next day.”

Lane said she was attracted to this story by plain old curiosity.

“I was brought up being made to go to Methodist church, where we didn’t confess. And I’ve never gotten why anyone would want to spill their sins. But I just thought something powerful must be happening to draw someone back to the church after all these years, not to go to a Sunday service but to confess something. I knew there would be drama and mystery and God and sorrow and regret there. And a quiet, reverent scene.”

For me, these three ideas add up to a sound strategy for writing better daily stories. Start by choosing stories with the potential to be memorable. Yes, cover breaking news—but stop chasing it to the exclusion of stories that readers and viewers might, just might, consume in their entirety—and remember.

There is much about the disruption of the media landscape that individual editors and reporters cannot control. What you can control are the stories you choose to do.

Let’s not squander that opportunity.

  Read more

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