Al Tompkins provides best practices & story ideas that you can localize & enterprise.

John Henry

Sox connection to Boston Globe could raise conflicts for journalists

When Red Sox majority owner John Henry takes ownership of The Boston Globe, its newsroom is likely to feel the glare of an old familiar public suspicion: that cross-ownership leads to favoritism.

This is not new ground for the Globe, since the New York Times Co. owned a minority share of the Red Sox from 2002 to 2012.

Red Sox and soon-to-be Boston Globe owner John Henry in his box at Fenway Park on Friday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

“During that period,” The Globe’s Beth Healy writes, “the Globe continued its normal coverage of the team and routinely disclosed in news stories that the Times Co. was a partial owner of the Red Sox.

The Globe-Red Sox history also goes back further — all the way to the early 1900s, when members of the Taylor family owned the Red Sox and built Fenway Park.

Even so, the deal is sure to spark debate in journalism circles and among Globe readers about whether the Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox, which regularly includes critical commentary, will be affected.

Globe Editor Brian McGrory tells Healy the paper has “no plans whatsoever to change our Red Sox coverage specifically, or our sports coverage in general, nor will we be asked.”

Still, the cross-ownership issue is bound to arise anytime the Globe’s coverage appears to favor the Sox. Chicago Tribune writers knew that public glare well from when Tribune Co. owned the Chicago Cubs.  (Tribune sold the Cubs in 2009.)

Tribune Public Editor Timothy J. McNulty wrote about the friction in 2008:

“No matter how fair and even the coverage, readers — especially readers who are White Sox fans — believe that Tribune stories are skewed either in favor of the Cubs or against the Sox. “It’s impossible to change that perception among Sox fans,” said Dan McGrath, the associate managing editor for sports, “even when they won the World Series and we put out a special section almost every day and did two books on the Sox.”

Tribune Co.’s ownership of the Cubs has been a bane not only to those who write and edit sports pages, but to business and metro reporters as well. I hear about it constantly. The Cubs are more than a sports franchise in terms of news coverage. Decisions about zoning regulations and parking in the neighborhood, about renovations to the treasured stadium and the sale itself are issues that have the potential to raise ethical questions.”

Interestingly, far from being seen as favoring the team, Cubs sports writers said they felt the heat of team officials for what some perceived as unduly harsh coverage.

Media companies and sports franchises have a long history of co-mingling business interests. In 1999, the American Journalism Review pointed out that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s ownership “bought a minority share of the Pittsburgh Pirates to help keep the team in town.” (Robert Nutting bought the team in 2007) Gannett, which owns The Cincinnati Enquirer, used to have an interest in the Reds. Ted Turner had many interests in sports teams, and Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, had hockey and baseball interests. News Corp. and Comcast have had interests in franchises as well.

In Canada, the Canadian Journalism Project has raised conflict of interest concerns concerns about media ownership of pro sports teams.

Two years ago, Forbes’ Mike Ozanian pointed out a disambiguation trend that is still unfolding today.

Media companies became interested in sports teams because they could avoid paying high franchising license fees. As media companies became cash-strapped, they sold the sports teams to billionaires with local roots. The Boston Globe story is an reversal of the old cross-ownership trend with the same end-effect, only this time the rich sports owner is buying the media company. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 01, 2013

Navigating the challenges of covering Ariel Castro hearing

Live television coverage gave worldwide audiences a peek into the horrors that unfolded for 13,226 days at the Cleveland, Ohio, house owned by Ariel Castro. Journalists have an obligation to cover the story thoroughly and carefully, knowing the graphic testimony will be hard for the public to handle.

While the hearing was going on, I asked fellow faculty member Kelly McBride, who has led Poynter seminars on covering sex abuse, to offer advice to journalists covering the story. McBride explains how journalists can help the audience digest the details of the hearing, and why journalists may ethically air the information about these rapes.

Today’s hearing reminds journalists that victims sometimes want to be heard. Michelle Knight, one of the young women Castro kidnapped, told the court: “After eleven years, I am finally being heard, and it is liberating.”

In a piece published in May, McBride offered a number of other guidelines for covering rape and sexual abuse:

  • “Describe charges of sex without consent as rape, not anything less. While no rational person will suggest that these women were complicit in their ordeal, sometimes writers minimize the trauma of rape by describing it as sex or intercourse if the rape doesn’t involve the kind of physical violence that requires medical attention.”
  • “Be careful about details that could imply you are blaming people who have been raped. Describing what a girl was wearing, or how she made a choice, can be perceived as assigning blame.”
  • “Avoid dwelling on gratuitous or salacious details about sexual assaults. Specific descriptions of this ordeal are likely to become public over time. Some rape victims I’ve talked with in the past have told me they felt re-victimized when journalists described private parts of their body in news reports.”

Related training: Resources for covering sexual abuse of children | “Reporting on Sexual Violence,” a News University course
Read more


Monday, July 15, 2013

San Francisco Airliner Crash

What KTVU-TV did right after its slip-up

It has been great sport all weekend for media critics to excoriate KTVU-TV in Oakland. There’s no denying KTVU made a big mistake. But when admitting to its mistakes, the station took an approach that other journalists should replicate.

Friday, KTVU aired the names of what it believed were pilots involved in the Asiana Airlines crash. The names were fake, offensive puns that slur Asians and insult victims.  KTVU did not say where the names originated but did say it confirmed the names with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB later apologized and said a summer intern had confirmed the names.

Today, KTVU News Director Lee Rosenthal (whom I’ve known for several years) told me the station cannot say more about the incident because Asiana Airlines says it plans to sue the station for harming its reputation. It’s worth noting that he could have sent me an email denying my interview request, or he could have had a third party call me. But he responded himself.

KTVU has never hidden from its mistake. It corrected the story quickly, on the same newscast where the mistake was made. The station corrected the story online, it apologized on subsequent newscasts, and station management issued apologies.

One of its evening newscast anchors, Frank Somerville, said on air:

“We made several mistakes when we received this information. First of all, we never read the names out loud, phonetically sounding them out. Then, during our phone call to the NTSB, where the person confirmed the spellings of the names, we never asked that person to give us their position within the agency. We heard this person verify the information without questioning who they were and then we rushed the names on to our noon newscast.”

News Director Rosenthal told the Asian American Journalists Association the apologies don’t fix the error: “It doesn’t make things right,” he said. “We can assure you that none of this was premeditated nor was there any malicious intent in any way.”

The station’s actions align with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which says journalists should “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” They also align with the Radio and Television Digital News Association’s Code of Ethics, which says journalists should:

  • “Respond to public concerns. Investigate complaints and correct errors promptly and with as much prominence as the original report.”
  • “Explain journalistic processes to the public, especially when practices spark questions or controversy.”

It seems to me that the station did what journalists should do when they make a mistake; they scramble to make it as right as they can. I think KTVU teaches journalists how to accept responsibility. It is not an excuse for making mistakes, and the station won’t get a second chance to make the same mistake.

Over the weekend, I read many social media and blog posts lamenting that the KTVU incident is a sign of the declining standards of journalism, especially local TV.

I think it’s better to shift the conversation and ask: What protocols could have prevented or mitigated mistakes like the one that happened at KTVU? The station suggested a few in its apology, and I’ve added a few more:

  • Sound out names before they go on the air and ask: Do they sound real?
  • Be transparent in reporting: How do you know what you know and who gave you the information?
  • More eyes on copy before it airs. We do not know who wrote the copy and who approved it because the station has not revealed this information. But a protocol that says more than one set of eyes sees all copy before it airs is a sound one.
  • Mandatory double-check on names. A colleague of mine who worked in print said it is normal for newspapers to have a mandatory double-check on all names, especially unconventional names and unusual words. I would love to know how often that protocol is followed these days. Does your newsroom do a search on names before using them? Does the same protocol apply to online stories and social media posts?
  • How would increased diversity or diversity training have increased the sensitivity to being tricked? A 2012 NABJ study found: “Out
 American.” It seems logical that having a more diverse newsroom raises your chances of catching racial and ethnic errors, as AAJA’s Paul Cheung and Bobby Caina Calvin pointed out in a story earlier today. It will only help, however, if everyone in the newsroom feels a responsibility to contribute to the editorial conversations.
  • When a newsroom makes a correction, especially on Twitter, it might be wise to repeat the correction for those who miss it. Newspapers often place corrections in the same place daily. But look at any TV site and see if you can find a corrections page where all corrections live. has such a page, and it is the one place where I don’t want my name or work posted, although it has been there from time to time over the years.

Smart newsroom leaders will use KTVU’s misfortune less as a chance to pile on and more as an opportunity to revisit the` value of promoting critical thinking in newsrooms.

One of my colleagues said this morning that this case shows the value of having “smart-asses” among us. We need to have experienced people around us who understand the kind of snark that would produce this kind of prank. More than that, we should promote the kind of thinking in newsrooms that questions everything, even when it comes from a usually reliable source.

Nothing here excuses what happened on KTVU’s newscast Friday. But it does recognize that the station tried hard to stand tall when it made a mistake. I respect that.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified KTVU as based in San Francisco rather than Oakland. Read more


Saturday, July 06, 2013


Helpful tools journalists can use to monitor Asiana Airlines crash

When news broke that an Asiana 777 airliner crashed at San Francisco’s airport Saturday, I used some remarkable tools to start nailing down what happened and what would happen next. Here’s an overview of some of them.

Live ATC

LIVE ATC, a site that records and monitors Air Traffic Control towers, posted the audio of the last transmissions from the plane and the tower. You can listen to it here.


As you listen to the audio of the last transmissions from the Asiana Airlines pilot after he crash landed, it can be difficult to know what all of the lingo like “heavy” means. Flightpath offers a helpful glossary of aviation terms. The Federal Aviation Administration has a pilot/controller glossary.

Here’s a link to the official first report of the 1993 Asiana crash from ASIAS, the FAA Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing data file.


One of the most invaluable tools was Geofeedia, which allowed me a draw a circle around the tarmac and airport terminal to find people posting pictures, tweets and Facebook posts. That is where I picked up the most remarkable photo of all so far — the one tweeted out by Samsung executive David Eun. has a section that features photos from plane watchers who photograph planes and post them by tail number. These kinds of photos can be especially useful when you need to determine what planes look like. To find photos of the aircraft involved in the crash, search the tail number HL7742. The collection of photos includes previous photos of the same plane flying from SFO months earlier.


FlightAware offers minute-by-minute details of the flight and crash. Experts are looking at data from this site and saying that the plane’s approach seems slightly steeper than might be expected. Of course, there will be questions about how accurate that data is or what instructions the pilot had.


Broadcastify linked me to the San Francisco Fire and EMS scanner traffic, which was extremely helpful when monitoring what rescuers saw as soon as they got on the scene.


If you want to find NTSB data on the aircraft, NTSB’s website is a good resource; the site has an accident database. NTSB and an active Twitter presence. San Francisco General Hospital, meanwhile, has been tweeting updates about patients.

To learn more about the 777-200 safety record, I turned to forums that attract pilots and air enthusiasts — including, and SOAR.


If you want to see what a normal landing would be like on runway28L, where the crash happened, you can find a YouTube video for a home video of a simulated landing.

This site has a lot of data on crashes through history. It is where I pulled a list of the worst crashes. I also found that Asiana has not had a fatal crash in 20 years.

Aviation Safety Network

The Aviation Safety Network tracks global airline safety issues. It also provides a historic list of every fatal crash globally for the last century. This is the list for Asiana airlines.

Here’s a video of me talking about some of these tools on CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday afternoon.

Read more

Tuesday, June 04, 2013


Miami Herald reporter covers Guantanamo Bay for 12 years, with no end in sight

Miami Herald reporter Carol Rosenberg has been covering the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba for twelve years.

“The only people who have been at Gitmo longer than me are the prisoners,” she said in a recent phone interview.

As she packs her bags to return to Cuba in the coming weeks, she will arrive for the start of hurricane season. Her cellphone video of Hurricane Sandy shredding her tent at Gitmo last year is still fresh on her mind. She has no hopes of breaking a huge story or landing a newsmaking interview — at Gitmo, stories come in the form of tiny details.

It was her short video of a garbage can that helped prove the existence of a growing hunger strike at the detention camp. When that’s your beat, the little details are all you have to work with.

Covering a story with little to no access

Rosenberg cannot interview the prisoners. “The only prisoners I have ever spoken with are the ones who called me or emailed me after their release,” Rosenberg said. “They thanked me for writing about them.”

Carol Rosenberg. Photo by Bryan Broyles.

She is not allowed to take photos of the prisoners or get near them unless the Pentagon says she can. Yet by using everything from WikiLeaks to court records and other public records, she has managed to figure out the names of most of the Afghan, Saudi, Yemeni, Tunisian and other prisoners locked up at the camp.

“I organize the beat like a small town,” Rosenberg said. “It is a blend of being a small-town and a foreign correspondent. It involves court reporting and police reporting. I write about management changes; I follow the money, cover politics, weather and human-interest pieces.”

Every single picture and frame of video has to pass through government censors. Before even arriving on the island she — like the other journalists covering Guantanamo — must sign these ground rules that the government says “encourage open reporting and promote transparency, consistent with the Military Commissions Act.” The rules requires her to travel with government escorts.

The rules say “the Department of Defense is the sole release authority” for photos, videos and sketches gathered at Gitmo. Even if she hears something or sees something she is not supposed to, the guidelines forbid her from reporting it if the department believes the information could damage national security. It is no wonder that other journalists haven’t covered the story nearly as long as Rosenberg has.

As she wrote in a 2010 dispatch:

“Guantanamo’s Camp Justice is a place where you can sit at your laptop or by your phone only if there’s a member of the military within earshot.

It’s a place where you can go to court only in the custody of a military public affairs officer. Inside, if there’s only one escort — this happened recently — and somebody has to go to the bathroom, every reporter has to leave court, too.

It’s a place where a soldier stands over your shoulder, looks in your viewfinder and says ‘Don’t take that picture, I’ll delete it.’

Since 2002, 779 prisoners have been moved to Gitmo. 166 remain. Most are charged with no crime. As Rosenberg reported in 2011, the Obama administration “cleared 56 men for release without conditions, and identified 55 who should be repatriated to their homelands or transferred to other countries. Congressional restrictions prevent the vast majority of those transfers.” (In a recent speech, President Obama cited slightly different figures.) So the prisoners are stuck in Gitmo, with no end of their imprisonment in sight.

Reporting an ongoing story

Rosenberg and the Herald covered Guantanamo long before the first Afghanistan War prisoners arrived. In 1994 and 1995, the prison cells held thousands of Cuban and Haitians who were part of the balsero (“Cuban rafters”) crisis that washed up on Florida shores.

By 1999 the base — once featured in the movie “A Few Good Men” — was being downsized and headed for “caretaker status.”

“Gitmo was a gas station in the middle of the Caribbean for ships and airplanes,” Rosenberg said. “It has a church, a golf course, a school and a bowling alley. There is also one McDonald’s there.”

Three months after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military had collected so many prisoners in Afghanistan that the Pentagon had nowhere to put them. Some were suspected of being terrorists, enemy soldiers or knowing something about terrorist operations.

“The U.S. feared they wouldn’t control them,” Rosenberg recalled. “So the people who were considered truly valuable were put on ships. The government had a desire to gather intelligence. The thrust of their interest was ‘Where is bin Laden?’ and ‘When and where is the next attack coming?’ ”

Rosenberg said the government had to choose where to send the prisoners it wanted to question: “It was either going to be Guam or Cuba. December 27th, 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the ‘least worst place’ was Gitmo.”

In December 2001, Rosenberg’s editor at the time, Mark Seibel, assigned her to cover the story of U.S. prisoners arriving at Guantanamo and to report the story “start to finish.”

Seibel sent her to Gitmo to report on when the first U.S. prisoners from Afghanistan. “I was thinking it would be a couple of months,” Seibel told me.

On January 10, 2002, Rosenberg filed her first story on the Pentagon’s plans to move as many as 2,000 prisoners to Cuba. She called it “A New Alcatraz.” The story, filed just before the first prisoners arrived, included a quote from Marine Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, commander of the prison project: “It will be humane. But we have no intention of making it comfortable.”

More than a decade later, it may be neither.

“They picked [Gitmo] because it would be out of reach of the courts, and because it would be out of the reach of journalism — or at least they could manage the journalism,” said Rosenberg, once again preparing to go back to Cuba via a military flight from Andrews Air Force base. She averages a week per month there.

Rosenberg (in the front row, wearing a blue shirt) at the filing center, where she was covering a State of the Union address. Photo taken by Arun Rath.

“This is the cheapest story we have ever owned,” Rosenberg said, laughing. “It is cheaper for the Herald to keep me in Gitmo than in Miami. The first night I was there I called Mark. My bunk was six bucks a night, there was no food [and] we were eating from vending machines and the drive-thru at McDonald’s. We ate military MRE’s [meals ready to eat]. It is $200 each way to Cuba on a military flight and we pay [an extra] $150 so I can have computer connections, which by the way are horrible.”

She spends so much time at Gimto that she has a footlocker next to a single bed in a tent where she and up to five other female journalists are assigned to sleep.

Since the beginning of her assignment, Rosenberg said it has become more important to file stories from Gitmo online and on social media. Her stories are often not “Page One” fodder, but they get global attention online.

“This is a story that is unbounded by place,” she said.

Covering the hunger strike

Most recently, Rosenberg has been covering the hunger strike at Guantanamo. She begins every day by opening an email from the government giving her the official tally of how many prisoners are on strike. She updates a Herald webpage that shows a spreading crisis. On Sunday,  Rosenberg reported, U.S. Navy medical staff were force-feeding 37 captives. Two of at least 103 hunger strikers were hospitalized.

You can click on the image to go to the graphic, which was created by the Miami Herald’s Lazaro Gamio.

The number of strikers could be higher; the Pentagon does not say whether any of the “high-value detainees” held at the secretive Camp 7 have also stopped eating. No journalist has ever been inside Camp 7.

Rosenberg has been on press tours with other journalists who she says are often impressed by what seem to be humane conditions and good food. But in February of this year, Rosenberg says, “something went wrong. The prison told me they had been tube-feeding five prisoners for years and nothing changed. But lawyers were telling a different story. I went down there in March and I could see prisoners refusing food carts. The official tour that they take journalists on shows the cooks preparing meals, but I recorded a video clip of them throwing the food away.”

That video was key to understanding the size of the growing protest. “Every cellblock but one refused” food that day, she wrote.

The Pentagon and Gitmo workers have given Rosenberg at least five reasons why they will not allow the inmates to starve and become martyrs. Among the reasons: “it’s un-American” and “it looks bad.”

The International Red Cross and other human rights groups say the one thing prisoners do have the right to do is to choose suicide by starvation,” Rosenberg said. The American Medical Association wrote a letter to the Pentagon supporting the prisoner’s right to starve. In 1991, the World Medical Assembly said: “Forcible feeding is never ethically acceptable. Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment. Equally unacceptable is the forced feeding of some detainees in order to intimidate or coerce other hunger strikers to stop fasting.”

Rosenberg has tracked many Gitmo food rebellions, including one that began in 2005 and saw 142 of 575 detainees refuse food. At the time, 30 inmates were being force-fed, a number that more than tripled.

While the Herald published story after story about hunger strikers, the Pentagon offered to force-feed Rosenberg so she could feel what it was like — to, in her description, “snak[e] a tube up a captive’s nose, down the back of his throat and into his stomach before pumping in a can of nutritional supplement.” She refused the offer.

“There is a crisis now at Guantanamo,” Rosenberg said, “They have all but maybe 30 prisoners in lockdown 22 hours a day. “It is not what [the government] wanted. It is dangerous, very dangerous with people being kept in their cells, throwing feces and urine. The guards are in physical contact. There are men who have not had to be in shackles to be taken to the showers for years who are in shackles now.”

Obama says he wants to close the prison camp at Gitmo. In May he said, “I have asked the Department of Defense to designate a site in the United States where we can hold military commissions. I’m appointing a new senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries.”

“Lately I have come to think that I will retire before it closes,” Rosenberg said with a sigh. (She is nowhere near retirement.) “I thought it would be closed when Obama was elected, but as it stands, it could be that we will just be waiting for the last guy to die before it closes. The youngest guy there now is 27.” Read more


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mary Fallin, Albert Ashwood

Oklahoma governor thanks media for tornado coverage

Okla. Gov. Mary Fallin thanked her state’s media Tuesday for saving lives with early storm warnings and non-stop coverage of the recovery efforts. “I just want to thank the media for all that you’ve done to help our community get information that’s critical at a time like this,” Fallin said in a press conference. “So thank you so much for helping with the weather and disaster services and being able to help in our search and rescue. We appreciate you.”

Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb called TV station meterologists “top notch and first-rate.” KFOR, KWTV, KOCO, KOKH along with local radio and news websites like NewsOk have, as the governor said, no doubt saved lives.

The storms found two Oklahoma City TV stations between news directors. KOCO is advertising for a news director and KFOR’s new news director arrives next week from Tulsa. But neither lacked for leadership.

The Vital Role of Online and Mobile

When I spoke with him Tuesday morning, an exhausted-sounding KFOR Interim News Director Steve Johnson was juggling the demands of coordinating another day of storm cleanup and what will likely be another afternoon of heavy storms. At the moment we spoke, he said 2,200 people “are looking at our live stream; 213 are looking at a video story from Moore.”

KWTV’s VP of Digital and Social Content Billy Hendrix said his station set a new record for online traffic, 2.5 million page views. “We have a big metro area and then we have very rural Oklahoma in our viewing area,” Hendrix told me. “The people out in the country tend to watch TV on satellite dishes and when storms come, they lose their signals fast. So during a storm we stream live video online, on mobile and on several apps. During the storm we use Twitter and Facebook to tell the public street by street were the storm is and where it is going.”

Once a storm passes, stations said, they change their strategy to tell the public where to go to get help, where to meet up with their children and what is needed next. Jessica Schambach is an evening news anchor for KOCO-TV and filed non-stop from the scene.

KOCO’s website is bulging with more than 500 user-contributed photos and videos from the storm.

The Oklahoman’s NewsOK website includes some of the most compelling video of the day. Oklahoman journalists captured breathtaking video of the tornado on the ground. NewsOK also smartly interviewed its editor Kelly Dyer Fry and online manager Alan Herzberger about coverage plans.

The Helicopter Shot

Oklahoma City TV stations have a long history of chasing tornadoes with their helicopters. “They fly on the backside of the storm, where the weather tends to be calmer,” Hendrix told me.

Johnson said the chopper pilots in Oklahoma City do the on-the-air reporting and a photojournalist is in the back of the aircraft. “The camera is an HD camera and gives the appearance of being a lot closer than we are. Chopper 4 was away from hail, lightning and rain, east of the storm.” Even from a distance of a couple of miles away, the storm can be strong enough to pull the aircraft toward the funnel.  KFOR pilot Jon Welsh mentioned on the air Monday that at one point he was being pulled closer than he wanted to be and moved away.

CNN viewers watched KFOR’s Chopper 4 live video as the storm grew to more than a mile wide. Welsh is a National Guardsman and a pilot instructor for the National Guard.

Here is a clip of the live Chopper 4 chopper coverage of the tornado roaring through Moore that I captured on my computer screen.

KFOR Live Chopper Video from Al Tompkins on Vimeo.

After the storm finally died out, Welsh got his first look at what we now know is Plaza Towers Elementary School, where children were buried in the debris.

KFOR “warzone terrible” first look at school from Al Tompkins on Vimeo.

You can’t help but be impressed by how, live on the air, while flying a helicopter no less, Welsh provides such specific street-by-street narration. He grew up in the area and had a deep personal connection to what he was seeing.  There was a reason Welsh was able to narrate the storm’s path so precisely.  Welsh lives in Moore. He has two houses there, one he is selling and a new house that he just bought.  While he was live, on the air, he watched as the tornado split between them and rip through his hometown. Oklahoma journalists, unfortunately, have become experienced at seeing such things. Read more


Friday, Apr. 19, 2013

Police Coverage Mass

How journalists are covering the news unfolding in Boston

Boston journalists were awake through the night as they covered the tragic news unfolding in and around their city.

As the country awakes today, it will discover that the person who police believe is “Suspect #1″ in the Boston bombing is dead. The man believed to be “Suspect 2″ is on the run. The men are reportedly brothers.

A timeline of what happened

Around 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday, an MIT police officer was shot and killed. campus officer was shot multiple times while in his cruiser. A transit police office was injured from gunfire. A door-to-door 20-block search was underway at dawn. The MTBA transit service is closed.

Only six hours after the FBI released photos of the two suspects in the Boston bombing,  someone reportedly robbed a convenience store and Cambridge police responded. To get a sense of the chaos that ensued overnight, listen to these chilling police radio transmissions.

Police say a short time later, two men carjacked a Mercedes SUV at gunpoint. Police chased the stolen vehicle, the two suspects opened fire on Watertown police and a transit police officer was shot. One of the suspects was also shot and died at a local hospital. The second suspect got away. The Atlantic has a more detailed breakdown of what happened, and so does Slate. Frontline’s Andrew Golis tweeted a visual timeline and has been tweeting other important updates.

At 2 a.m. Friday morning, the FBI released new enhanced photos of the two suspects.

Boston Police released an image of the man on the loose around 4:20 a.m. Friday. He’s the same man who’s wearing the white baseball cap in the photos that the FBI released Thursday.

As we follow this story today, we should remember that it’s the 18th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. On April 19, 1995, America was stunned that this kind of thing could happen on American soil. Sadly, today, it’s less surprising.

How journalists are covering the news

If you had any question about whether we still need journalists, ask the people of Boston today. WHDH TV’s Adam Williams, whose reporting you can see here, found himself in the midst of the shootout.

WHDH-TV’s Adam WIlliams reports from the scene of the shootout.

Local TV in Boston has been especially effective and has seemingly been “everywhere”; networks have captured video of the first “suspect” sprawled on the street as police gingerly approach his body. Local stations, like WCVB-TV, have updated their websites nonstop with timelines, live audio, video and maps.

A screengrab from WCVB-TV’s website, taken at 5:45 a.m.

NBC News reported at 5:04 a.m. that “the bombing suspects have international ties and have been in the U.S. for at least a year.” Other news outlets were more reserved; Bob Orr of CBS, for example, said at 5:35 a.m. that information is “being reported” but he cannot confirm it to be true. Shortly after 7 a.m., the Associated Press reported: “Boston bomb suspects from Russia region near Chechnya, lived in US at least 1 year.”

The Boston Globe has been updating its live blog coverage throughout the morning. Ten journalists contributed to one of its main stories about what transpired overnight.

In the aftermath of this news, journalists will likely find themselves covering another major story — about gun control. Without a doubt, the pro-gun-rights voices will rise and point to a horrific night in the Boston suburbs as a reason why law-abiding citizens should be able to own guns and protect themselves.

A reminder of why we need journalists

For all of the legitimate criticism there has been of some journalists this week, we have to admit how much we rely on and appreciate journalists who have carefully reported the quickly unfolding events Thursday night into Friday morning.

As I’ve watched live coverage on Boston TV stations overnight, I’ve thought about how valuable it is to have experienced journalists on the air who know the city like the backs of their hands.

I watched a WBZ anchor David Wade, for example, describe street-by-street where police were heading. Say what you want about TV anchors, but here is a guy with years on the street as a reporter and a Massachusetts native.

Boston media are like that. Days like this remind us of why we need journalists who have lived in the market they work in for a long time and who know how to report a story that doesn’t rest.

Mallary Tenore contributed to this report. Read more


Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013


Let’s remember Richard Jewell as we cover Boston ‘suspects’

The New York Post is running a front page headline “Bag Men” with what is reported to be an image of men it says feds are looking for. One of the young men in the Post’s front-page image has since spoken out to ABC to say he was “shocked to see his face pop up on television and all over social media.”

The story accompanying the Post’s front page article says:

“The attached photos are being circulated in an attempt to identify the individuals highlighted therein,” said an e-mail obtained by The Post. “Feel free to pass this around to any of your fellow agents elsewhere.”  The tabloid goes on to say that authorities have “identified two potential suspects.”

Gawker’s Max Read reports that Redditors “managed to figure out pretty quickly that the guy in the blue track jacket almost certainly isn’t a bomber.” Reddit, one of the places where the photos were first seen, has a list of innocent suspects and has been pleading with users not to use the pictures or name the people in them.

Online sites are alive with amatuer guesses of who might be involved in the bombing.  The images are becoming memes and there are even names being given to people who show up in the photos like “the blue robe guy” “the terror team” and the “brown sweatshirt guy.” There is not a shred of evidence — not one official statement — to indicate any of these people are suspects or connected to the bombing in any way other than being on a sidewalk in Boston.

Today’s reporting reminds me a lot of what happened in the days after the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. In that case, a security guard named Richard Jewell was repeatedly characterized by the media as a person of interest. We now know, of course, that he had nothing to do with the bombing. Jewell died in 2007, after he won settlements with NBC and CNN and was still pursuing lawsuits against other media for defamation.

We can cause great harm to individuals and to the investigation when we suggest people are suspects and when we show images with red circles around the people, making them appear to be targets.

In addition to the harm that comes to an individual, there is harm to the investigation in that the public begins to believe authorities know who they are looking for, and there is no need to help further.

Let’s remember this is not the first time the Post has reported there were suspects in this case; on Monday, the Post said that authorities suspected a Saudi national. Others, including The Blaze, are highlighting speculation that there is some sort of high-level coverup involving Saudis and a man who was once a “person of interest.” Some have been reporting the Boston story especially well. NBC’s Pete Williams was notably cautious Wednesday; when others were reporting an arrest in the Boston case, Williams said the information was wrong.

Especially today, it would be helpful for journalists and journalism students to read this essay from his attorney L. Lin Wood about the media’s coverage of the Jewell case.

Here’s the point: Slow down. Today, I am thinking of Jewell. Let’s not repeat that mistake again.

Read more

Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Explosion

Covering what comes next in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions

In the days ahead, journalists will need to be excellent as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon explosions, which have injured more than 100 people and left three dead.

Here are some ingredients of excellence, along with related tips.

Clearly tell the public what you know and what you do not know. With a story like this — one that changes by the hour — do not assume the public is up to date.

Don’t just keep adding information to your online stories. Every once in a while, do a total rewrite, not just a new top to the story. Otherwise, essential information can get pushed down in the story. When you make corrections or changes to your online stories, bring attention to them. For example, as the number of injured or fatalities changes, mention that you have updated that figure. If you have reported information that did not pan out, point that out. Your online stories will become the long-term record of the event.

Choose your words carefully. Be careful how you describe the bombs at this early stage. “Crude” and “unsophisticated” are highly subjective phrases. Some stories have described the lack of a “high-grade explosive.” You will need to explain these terms to your audience.

Acknowledge the emotional impact of the tragedy. Online conversations about the bombings, especially Twitter, have been loaded with people who are in distress, wondering what has become of humankind. Don’t underestimate that feeling. Spend some time and space honoring the good people who performed selfless acts in a time of crisis and beyond. Work with your local crisis lines, counselors and clergy, and stay in touch with the pulse of what they are hearing.

Let people know how they can help. In times of crisis, Americans tend to react by wanting to help. So we end up with warehouses of flowers and unwanted teddy bears. Help the public find productive ways to make the world better. They might not prevent future bombings, but they’re an outlet for people to do something other than worry and be sad.

Pay attention to the images you use now and in the days ahead. We know there were simply awful injuries, including people losing limbs. There have been some very graphic images and frankly, while some may disagree with news organizations airing and publishing them, I see a reason to use such images while the story is initially unfolding. It is not the time to sanitize our understanding of what happened. But as time passes, the reason for showing graphic images becomes less and less defensible because they eventually stop adding to our understanding. If you do decide to use the images, consider whether they could be used in black and white, or at least not in closeup. Lessen the harm while maximizing the truth you are trying to tell.

Make sure the videos you air/publish serve a purpose. If you’re working in television, consider how long you will continue to show the explosion video. For a while, those videos will serve a purpose; they show us what happened. But soon, everyone will have seen those images and there will be no need to keep playing them. Have a discussion about this in the newsroom on an ongoing basis. Just because you decide to use the video today, talk again tonight and tomorrow. You may decide to stop showing the video at some point, then decide to use the video again if it serves a journalistic purpose. Keep the conversation going and stay open to many ideas — including asking the public for input. Then, explain your decisions. Never use the video as “wallpaper” just to liven up your coverage. In addition to it being a matter of taste, re-running that video sends a signal that there is nothing new in your reporting.

Don’t overdo it. Especially to my TV friends, I would resist the temptation to name your coverage or overdo graphics, music and production on TV. This is not time to trot out the “America Under Attack” somber theme music, and it is not time to dust off the flag lapel pins you put away a few months after 9/11. Just do your job, tell me the story as clearly and straight-forwardly as you can.

Covering the injuries tactfully

I am hearing lots of reports describe the injuries in vague ways. Hospitals have fairly specific meanings behind the terms they use. The University of Michigan Health System explains the terms:

  • Good: Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious and comfortable. Indicators are excellent.
  • Fair: Vital signs are stable and within normal limits. Patient is conscious but may be uncomfortable. Indicators are favorable.
  • Serious: Vital signs may be unstable and not within normal limits. Patient is acutely ill. Indicators are questionable.
  • Critical: Vital signs are unstable and not within normal limits. Patient may be unconscious. Indicators are unfavorable.
  • Treated and Released: Received treatment but not admitted.
  • Treated and Transferred: Received treatment. Transferred to a different facility.
  • Undetermined: Patient awaiting physician assessment

Covering suspects as news unfolds

Very early in the coverage, The New York Post began reporting that authorities had “identified a suspect, a Saudi national, who is currently being guarded in a Boston hospital with shrapnel wounds.” Suspects are not necessarily criminals. When someone is suspected of being involved keep asking questions:

  • “How do we know that?”
  • “What harm could come from us reporting that?”
  • “How will this help the public to know this?”
  • “When does the public need to know?”

The NY Posts’ information is pinned entirely on unnamed sources. What is your policy on the use of unnamed sources? NPR’s policy seems like a sensible one to me.

What are your policies about using names of people who are not charged but may be a “person of interest?” When the public hears that term, they may consider that person to be a “suspect.” Late Monday, there was a BOLO (a be on the lookout) report for a “darker skin male possibly a foreign national.” Such a description is so vague it serves next to no useful purpose to report it. How dark is dark? How do they know the person might have been a foreign national? Did the person have a particular accent? Describe it?

Steven Gorelick, professor of media studies at Hunter College, City University of New York, shared this advice with the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma Monday:

“Be very careful about the experts you select as sources. These kinds of high-profile stories are magnets for everyone from legitimate scholars and practitioners to self-proclaimed “profilers.”

“Serious experts are almost always quick to admit that there is no easy explanation for why and how something happened, especially before even the most basic information is released. Beware of the expert source who is just dying to be helpful. And perk up your ears when someone tells you: “’I really need to get more information before I have anything useful to say.”’

Finally, take care of yourself. Some of you journalists have seen some awful things.  The Dart Center has “resources for journalists covering large-scale attacks, including tips for working with emergency services and lessons from incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Oslo/Utoya bombing and mass shooting in Norway.” Take advantage of these resources and others in your newsroom.

Related: Front pages & stories behind the stories highlight tragedy in Boston | How journalists are covering, reacting to the Boston Marathon explosions |, other sites drop paywalls following explosions Read more


Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013


Daytona crash video tests fair use, copyright for fans and journalists

NASCAR’s attempt to have a fan video of Saturday’s horrific Daytona crash removed from YouTube is a perfect example of the pressures that journalists face daily, says Mickey Osterreicher, a former news photographer who is now a lawyer and general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).

Fans like Tyler Andersen, who recorded the crash video, are signing over their rights to do whatever they wish with the still images, videos and audio they record during sporting events. If they read their tickets, “fans can see that they [may] give up their copyrights,” Osterreicher said by phone Sunday. “The tickets say NASCAR owns anything the fans capture as pictures, video or sound.”

Similarly, journalists feel forced to sign over their rights to cover all sorts of events — from high school competitions to professional sports. The American Society of News Editors lists the most common restrictions, which, increasingly, are tilting away from free and open coverage and toward severely restricted access.

Saturday, NASCAR claimed it was a violation of its copyright for a fan to post video of the crash that sent 14 people to the hospital. YouTube took down the video. Later, NASCAR said the real reason it wanted the clip removed was out of concern and respect for the injured fans who might appear in the video. YouTube re-posted the video.

But if you capture “news” — even at an event like a car race or a football game — doesn’t that come under “fair use”?

On the one hand, journalists want wide latitude when it comes to the “fair use” of  copyrighted material. On the other hand, Osterreicher says, photographers and news organizations do not want their work to be lifted and reposted online. And just as you want copyright law to protect your work, NASCAR has a strong interest in protecting coverage of a race for which it has sold revenue-generating licenses.

Copyright law does not precisely answer the questions journalists often ask:

  • How many seconds of a copyrighted video can a journalist use in a news story?
  • How many lines of a book can you use without impinging on a copyright?
  • When can you use an image or a logo that you did not create and still be on solid legal ground?

Rather than answering those questions, the U.S. Copyright Office offers four guiding issues to consider in assessing fair use:

  1. “The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes”
  2. “The nature of the copyrighted work”
  3. “The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole”
  4. “The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work”

A few things are clear: Simply saying where you got the copyrighted work is not enough to claim “fair use.”

Here is the kicker when it comes to the NASCAR/YouTube example: The U.S. Copyright Office says, “Copyright protects the particular way authors have expressed themselves. It does not extend to any ideas, systems, or factual information conveyed in a work.”

If you cannot copyright facts, then it might be difficult to see how a YouTube video of a car tire sailing into a crowd could be copyrighted by anybody other than the person who captured it.

But there is a catch. Fans give up their rights to exclusive photos and video by buying and using that ticket that says NASCAR owns it all. Just as journalists who accept credentials give away the right to do whatever they want whenever they want with the images and video they capture at a race.

Journalists are being asked to sign over a lot — not just by NASCAR but by the NBA, NFL and NCAA too.

“We are now seeing press credential agreements that say by taking these credentials, you promise not to feed more than three pictures per game, not to tweet, not to broadcast during the game,” Osterreicher said Sunday. Some sports organizations now want journalists to agree to sign over copyrights, to hand over any images they capture.

This month, 10 news organizations, including ASNE, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Student Press Law Center, sent a letter to the NCAA expressing concerns over how teams were attempting to control journalists.

ASNE told its members, “We have joined nine other organizations in a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert. … The letter raises concerns regarding the actions NCAA member institutions around the country have taken to restrict ASNE members’ ability to gain access to facilities, persons and information that allow us to cover local teams. The NCAA and various universities are also restricting publication of blog posts and use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, among journalists. Producing good, informative sports stories is not a zero-sum game; it benefits both the local media entities and the institutions, driving our readership and their fan base.”

The Center for Social Media interviewed 80 journalists about issues of copyright and fair use and found sports journalists frequently caught in legal entanglements. Here are just two examples:

While at the aquatic center in Beijing covering the 2008 Olympics, a reporter was recording audio of the water polo team in the pool for a multimedia piece. A representative from NBC, who owns the broadcast rights to the games in the U.S., told the reporter that the media corporation owns the copyright to all sound at Olympic venues. “She stood there and made me erase the tape,” a sportswriter for a large metropolitan daily said.

Other reporters cited similar restrictions with Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the U.S. Open – and have expressed that counsel from those organizations actively police the licensing guidelines. “You can’t hold onto that stuff forever,” says one television producer about sports content. “Those are very strict rules. And the sports leagues enforce those quite a bit.”

Osterreicher said there was once a time when journalists had the option of just saying “Fine, we won’t cover it,” and it might have been enough pressure to strike a different deal. But now, the sports teams can publish photos, videos or entire games online, over the air and on social media. NASCAR itself has more than three million Facebook followers. Drivers take their messages straight to the public too. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has 1.4 million followers.

The Center for Social Media found that journalists often don’t know what qualifies as fair use and what does not. A public broadcaster told the researchers that since public radio is non-profit, it could use copyrighted work more freely. (This is not true.)

Other journalists told researchers that as long as they only used less than 300 words from a book they could claim fair use. (Not necessarily.)

And what if you take a picture of a couple on a bench and a famous work of art is in the background? Can you publish your photo without worry that you are harming the copyrighted art? Probably the new photo is fine, since it is “transformative” in that it is using the copyrighted work in a new way, not just re-using it in the old way. It may depend on how prominent the original work is in the new piece or whether the new work in any way harms the value of the original. If, for example, the new photo shows a vandal cutting the original to pieces, fair use would apply because the new photo is certainly transformative.

The Center for Social Media also says this issue of “fair use” is rapidly growing in importance for journalists, partly because we want to use videos like the NASCAR crash and because journalists want to protect themselves from others who would snag their work and use it.

The issues are so confusing that journalists may be self-regulating at the public’s expense. “Several journalists reported that fair use around photography was so unclear to them that sometimes editors will run a story without art to avoid the issue completely,” the report said.

Like these journalists, you may be unnecessarily avoiding use of valuable photos and videos, like Saturday’s race car crash — just because someone (in this case NASCAR) questioned it. Instead, learn your rights and exercise them. Read more