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

Kyle Larson (32) goes airborne and into the catch fence during a multi-car crash involving Justin Allgaier (31), Brian Scott (2) and others during the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Larson's crash sent car parts and other debris flying into the stands injuring spectators. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

YouTube restores Daytona crash video after NASCAR blocks it out of ‘respect’

Kyle Larson (32) goes airborne and into the catch fence during a multi-car crash involving Justin Allgaier (31), Brian Scott (2) and others during the final lap of the NASCAR Nationwide Series auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Larson’s crash sent car parts and other debris flying into the stands injuring spectators. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

On the eve of the biggest race of the NASCAR year, The Daytona 500, a horrific crash sent 14 fans, including a child, to the hospital after debris — a tire and car engine — went flying into the crowd during the DRIVE4COPD 300 Nationwide Series race Saturday afternoon. NASCAR quickly blocked an online video of the crash and went nearly silent on social media.

NASCAR officials held a brief news conference Saturday night confirming the Daytona 500 would go on, but said almost nothing to its 3.2 million Facebook followers. This is all that has been posted to NASCAR’s Facebook page as of 8:30 Sunday morning:

The social silence is a head-scratcher considering the accolades NASCAR has been getting for encouraging more social media interaction. That same message is all that NASCAR had shared with its 913,000 Twitter followers three hours after the crash:

But NASCAR’s control of information does not stop there. Social media users are boiling angry that at least one eyewitness video of the crash has been blocked on YouTube. YouTube says in its on-screen announcement that it was blocked because NASCAR claims a copyright violation.

So, was it a violation? An old ticket to an Indianapolis event explicitly states that “NASCAR owns the rights to all images, sounds and data from this NASCAR event … The bearer of this ticket agrees not to take any action, or cause others to take any action, which would infringe on NASCAR’s rights”:

NASCAR claims that it owns:

  • All footage of race action and event subject matter
  • Ancillary activities in the infield regardless of the source of such footage

Lawyer and Texas Christian University professor Chip Stewart, a former journalist, told me by email that NASCAR may not have the rights it asserts on tickets:

Fans to a sporting event typically agree to a contract contained on the ticket. NASCAR’s ticket, for example, says that NASCAR has all rights to the images of the event itself.

But this flies in the face of copyright law, which classically does not allow one to copyright news and facts. To me, a recording of a fact is a fact. I thought back to the 1997 case of NBA v. Motorola, in which the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said that the NBA couldn’t prevent Motorola from broadcasting live game scores on a pager service — those were facts, not something the NBA could copyright and own.

The logic underlying that decision was that the NBA could copyright its official recordings — but not necessarily all recordings by anyone in the building. That’s what NASCAR was trying to do through its ticket policy.

The way copyright works now is that the copyright automatically attaches at the moment the work is created; in this case, when the fan recorded the video. Now, NASCAR was asserting that it actually owned those images because of the ticket. But to enforce the copyright, NASCAR would need to actually register it. And I don’t think NASCAR could actually walk into the copyright office, carrying the recording and a copy of the ticket, and be granted enforceable rights to that video.

For their takedown request to be honored by YouTube would basically require that — YouTube would need to acknowledge that NASCAR actually had a copyright to those images.

Stewart said it would have been more difficult for a fan to defend rights to the video if he had been streaming it live, because sports venues typically sell the live broadcasting rights and would not allow somebody to undermine that license.

At 8 p.m. Saturday, Yahoo! sports writer Jay Busbee quotes NASCAR as saying it did not block the video out of copyright concerns. Busbee says Steve Phelps, NASCAR SVP/Chief Marketing Officer, offered this explanation:

The fan video of the wreck on the final lap of today’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race was blocked on YouTube out of respect for those injured in today’s accident. Information on the status of those fans was unclear and the decision was made to err on the side of caution with this very serious incident.

ESPN said this week that social media use is spreading quickly among NASCAR fans. Facebook users are especially active, and increasingly, drivers are getting involved. Danica Patrick tweeted her concerns over Saturday’s crash shortly after it happened.

So did the young man who captured the crash video and posted it on YouTube:

He posted prayers for those injured and voiced his support for NASCAR:

The video was restored to YouTube late Saturday night:

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple provides a statement from YouTube that explains the reversal:

Our partners and users do not have the right to take down videos from YouTube unless they contain content which is copyright infringing, which is why we have reinstated the videos.

Read more

Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012


Where The Journal News went wrong in publishing names, addresses of gun owners

In the days since The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News published and mapped the names and addresses of local citizens who hold gun permits, outraged critics have published the names and addresses of journalists at the paper. New York State Senator Greg Ball has also responded by announcing plans to propose legislation that would make the permits private, no longer subject to open records laws. I suspected that legislative backlash might follow, and it would be a worse mistake than publishing the data.

The problem is not that the Gannett-owned Journal News was too aggressive. The problem is that the paper was not aggressive enough in its reporting to justify invading the privacy of people who legally own handguns in two counties it serves.

When I asked reporter Randi Weiner, who wrote a story about the criticism, how the news organization reached its decision to publish the information, she sent Poynter a statement from Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson:

Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular. One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings.

Timeliness is not reason enough to publish this information, though there are important reasons — including public safety — that journalists regularly invade people’s privacy.

Journalists broadcast and publish criminal records, drunk driving records, arrest records, professional licenses, inspection records and all sorts of private information. But when we publish private information we should weigh the public’s right to know against the potential harm publishing could cause.

My former colleague Bob Steele used to compare the journalist’s role in this situation to a doctor who had to decide whether to perform surgery, knowing she would have to cut through healthy tissue to get to a tumor. The damage caused to the skin is outweighed by the good that comes from removing the tumor. But, as Steele used to say, the surgeon uses great care and years of training to cause only the damage that is justifiable — and no more.

Journalistic invasions of privacy ought to produce outstanding insights into an issue or problem, as The Washington Post did in “The Hidden Life of Guns.” The package included reporting about the NRA’s influence over politicians and “time to crime” ATF data showing how guns from one store move quickly to the streets to be used in crimes. That story links specific stores to a huge number of crimes. Yes, name the stores, and find out why they are so popular among criminals.

WRAL-TV in Raleigh, N.C., stirred up a hornet’s nest by investigating concealed-carry permits. The station went well beyond the controversial database to examine the questionable claims that concealed weapons alone lower crime.

Those are the kinds of stories that make public records data vitally important, the kind of stories that opportunistic lawmakers and anti-media pundits would have a harder time attacking.

Alternatives The Journal News could have considered

Here are some stories any newsroom could explore as part of publishing some version of a gun permit database.

If journalists could show flaws in the gun permitting system, that would be newsworthy. Or, for example, if gun owners were exempted from permits because of political connections, then journalists could better justify the privacy invasion.

If the data showed the relationship between the number of permits issued and the crime rates, that serves a public purpose. You would have to also look at income, population density, housing patterns, policing policies and more to really understand what is going on and why.

If a news org compared permit owners with a database of felony offenders in local counties, that could be a public service. Years ago I recall a Minneapolis TV station doing this and they found the state issuing hunting licenses to felons.

But none of those stories would require the journalist to name the names and include the home addresses of every permit holder. The mapping might be done by ZIP code or even by street.

I am not a big fan of the maps that show sex offenders, but at least there is a logical reason for posting them, even though the offenders often no longer live where the maps show them to be. And even when they do, how much risk do they pose? The maps can’t know that. The difference between the sex offender maps and the gun permit maps is that sex offenders have been convicted of a crime. The permit holders are accused of nothing.


A few readers contacted me to say the database is the kind of thing parents can use to learn whether their kids are safe at a friend’s house. I disagree. I am a gun owner. When my kids were growing up my pistol was locked in a safe at a friend’s house on the other side of town. A permit map would have shown it at my house.

The Journal News database does not show shotguns, rifles, even the much discussed “assault weapons.” The data could give a parent a false sense of security. It might be more useful to ask the parents of your child’s friends about guns in the house, rather than rely on a database that may not provide a clear picture.

The Journal News says it was flooded with criticism that publishing the maps makes the permit owners targets for thieves. I understand the concern but am not sure I buy it. I wonder if the homes without permits are bigger targets, there may be no guns there to fight back. In any case, I have seen nothing yet that leads me to believe publishing such data results in a higher incidence of burglaries. As my colleague Julie Moos pointed out in an earlier article, several other news organizations have published similar but less specific lists over the years.

One argument for publishing the database might go something like this, “We are not implying anything by publishing this data. We are not vilifying anybody. It is a public record. The public is smart enough to figure that out. Trust the public to make good decisions if we supply them with information.” I accept that argument if the data has some context. Don’t just show us numbers, tell us what they mean, or we draw our own conclusions based on our own biases, which is dangerous.

What’s the journalistic purpose?

If publishing the data because it is public and the public seems to be interested in the topic right now is reason enough, then there are endless databases to exploit.

If your county required dog and cat licenses would you publish that interactive map? I suspect the licenses would be public. I sure would like to know if there were three dogs living behind me before I moved in.

I have seen news organizations publish the salaries of local and state government employees for no reason other than that they can. Why? Did we think they all worked for free? If somebody is playing the system, expose them. But use the surgeon’s tools, not a chainsaw approach.

I like it when journalists take heat for an explosive, necessary, courageous investigation that exposes important wrongdoing. There is journalistic purpose and careful decision-making supporting those stories. But The News Journal is taking heat for starting a gunfight just because it could. Read more


Friday, Dec. 14, 2012


What journalists should know about school shootings and guns

In the coming days, journalists will have to provide clear-eyed context to help the nation come to terms with the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Without question this incident will once again spark heated debates over gun-control and school safety. Let’s step back to see what we need to know to cover those stories.

Schools are safe.  After days like this, it can be hard to remember that schools are usually the safest place for a child. School violence has been in a steep decline since 1990.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice points out: “A 2010 report on school safety found that during the school year 2008/2009 there were 38 school-associated violent deaths — in a population of about 55.6 million students in grades prekindergarten through 12.”

The same report said, “This report also noted that 83% of public schools reported no serious violent crime; 13% of public schools reported at least one violent incident to the police. The rate of serious violent crime at school was 4 (per 1,000 students) compared to a rate of 8 away from school.”

NPR reported, “School violence in the U.S. reached a peak in 1993, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That year, there were 42 [total] homicides by students and 13 ‘serious violent crimes’ — rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault — per 1,000 students at primary and secondary schools. By 2010, the latest figures available, those numbers had decreased to two homicides and four violent crimes per 1,000 students.” Update: After a commenter pointed out the implausibility of 42 homicides per 1,000 students, we checked the NCES data. The total number of homicides during the 1992-1993 school year peaked at 34. NPR is updating and correcting its story as well.

What journalists need to know about guns and gun control. In the days after the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado theater, I wrote this primer to help you use words like “semi-automatic” correctly. In addition to what I wrote in that piece, I would add some context about gun laws in Connecticut.

The Connecticut law (as in most states) affirms the right to own a gun. The statute says “…every citizen has a right to bear arms in defense of himself and the state.” Although Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven have more restrictive laws than the rest of the state, generally any law abiding citizen age 21 and over can own a rifle or shotgun without a permit. The state does allow concealed weapons to be carried with a permit.

The state has a ban against so called “assault-weapons” (a vague term). Early reports from the Sandy Hook shooting said police recovered two semi-automatic pistols. The Glock 9mm pistol is similar to what police officers nationwide carry. The Sig Sauer pistol is the standard issue pistol that Secret Service agents use. CBS News and others have said police found a “Bushmaster .223″ rifle in the suspected shooter’s vehicle. That rifle is similar to the better known AR-15 that critics commonly call an “assault weapon.”

Gun ownership is down but so is support for gun restrictions. The popular thought is that mass shootings will produce a movement toward stricter gun control. History indicates that is not true. Pew Research shows us that support for gun control changes very little after big incidents.

The LA Times points out that gun ownership is dropping in the United States. CNN said, “The number of households owning guns has declined from almost 50% in 1973 to just over 32% in 2010, according to a 2011 study produced by NORC at The University of Chicago. The number of gun owners has gone down almost 10% over the same period, the report found.” But at the same time, those who own guns sometimes own a lot of them. By some estimates, 20 percent of gun owners own 65 percent of the guns in America.

Some believe that the consistent drop in the nation’s violent crime rate may be related to the declining gun ownership.

But even after the mass murder in Aurora, Colorado, and even after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, there was no increase in support for gun restrictions. Right after that shooting, Gallup found that Americans resist gun control mostly because they do not trust the government.

Gallup said, “Almost half of Americans say they perceive the federal government to be an ‘immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens,’ and this percentage is up in recent years.”

Look at this trend described by Gallup, which has been asking about gun control for years:

Listen to kids. I have gotten quite a number of media calls in the last 24 hours from journalists who wonder what I think of journalists interviewing the children who witnessed the horrors at the Newtown school. In the non-stop viewing I have done since the shooting, I saw journalists talking to kids, but in every instance there was a parent in the video frame. I did not see one single child crying during an interview. I hear caring questions from  journalists. In some cases, the kids gave amazing detailed answers about what they did or did not see.

I especially appreciated that CNN has made an effort not to show the faces of children running from the school, masking the photo that has been so widely used online. Here are some guidelines I offer about interviewing children. In general, treat other people’s kids the way you would want yours treated.

When you talk with kids who have lost friends, focus on what they liked about the person, not so much about what they will miss. What did their friend like to do best, what made them such a great friend? Let the interviewee share their best memories, not their worst memories of what happened.

Give the kids space. If they start getting upset, back off. Kids can feel pressure to say what they think you want them to say, act as they think you expect them to act, remember what they think you expect them to remember. Keep the conversations mercifully short and be a real person, check up on them short term and long term. Leave your card with the parents in case they have concerns after the interview. If the kids have second thoughts, kill the interview even if you have put a lot of time and energy into it. Realize that could happen before you start interviewing a child.

Take care of yourself.  Journalists cover people in trauma and experience trauma themselves. This story will take weeks to unfold. You will hear many sad stories. Pay attention to your own emotions. Be honest with yourself and your bosses. When it is time to take a break, talk to somebody about your experiences. Remember what you learn on an airplane: If you do not have your mask on, you cannot help anybody else. We need you to be excellent right now. Read more


Wednesday, Nov. 07, 2012

Backgrounds become foreground in election night images

Elections provide journalists great lessons about the power of visual journalism, especially election nights.

When Mitt Romney delivered his concession speech, he was standing on a stage, alone, with flags and a big red, white and blue screen behind him. He accepted the loss alone. His running mate, Paul Ryan, is spared the damage of being photographed at a low moment. Romney spoke lovingly of his wife, but out there by himself, his statement — “She would have been a wonderful first lady” — took on a genuine pain that might have felt forced if she were standing there with him.

Image captured from CBS News coverage

Contrast that with Obama’s victory speech, when cheering throngs surrounded him and his family. In 2008, on election night, Obama stood outside in the Chicago cold with his family. Standing outside sent an “outsider” message that a decked out convention hall with high tech visuals cannot. It also sent a “connected” message: I am one of you. Especially in his first campaign, that feeling was vital to Obama’s victory. He was connecting with the disenfranchised. It is harder for an incumbent to pull off.

Election night 2012, Obama stood behind the seal of President of the United States. But the crowds that surrounded him sent the visual message that “although he is President, he still is a man of the people.” He hugged his daughters, while supporters in the background wept.

Image captured from coverage

The old fashioned bunting is more quaint. The reason for using the bunting may be to include the flag colors without blocking anybody’s view with big flags on the stage.

For me, one of the most powerful images of election night was NBC’s Rockefeller Plaza set, lined with giant American flags snapping in the stiff breeze of a new Atlantic storm on the way.

NBC used Rockefeller Center for its election coverage.

The network projected the electoral vote onto the side of the skyscraper. One media watcher wondered if the New Yorkers without electricity could see it.

CNN meanwhile used the Empire State Building to show the colorful results.

To truly appreciate the effect of backgrounds, consider what you would have seen watching NBC on election night in 1960. Black and white images, no waving flags, no patriotic drums and trumpets and moving graphics and interactive maps. Just white men delivering facts and figures.

Even while the networks and wire services declared winners and losers, even after the outcome was no longer in doubt, the images of Floridians standing in line waiting to vote will be an enduring reminder of another Florida election failure.

From WTVJ Miami

The Miami photo reminds me of the pictures we saw from Baghdad’s first election after Saddam Hussein or South Africa’s vote in 2009.

“People queue to cast their votes at a polling station in the Katlehong township, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, Wednesday, April 22, 2009. Voters lined up before sunrise Wednesday in an election that has generated an excitement not seen since South Africa’s first multiracial vote in 1994,” reports the AP. (Denis Farrell/AP)
Read more

Monday, Nov. 05, 2012

The 8 commandments of tweeting on Election Day

It is going to be especially tempting to share and retweet information in the heat of Election Day. My colleague Mallary Tenore wrote about the six social media mistakes journalists are most likely to make and how to avoid them. I’m going to boil my advice down to a few guidelines.

Be careful.

As the day goes on, there will be reports of fraud, frustrations, polling problems and dirty deeds. This is an election.

Be aggressive.

Without a doubt, there will be leaked exited polls and rumors of leaked exit polls.

Be skeptical.

How do you know what you know? What’s your hurry?

Be certain.

There will be projections and data released while voters are standing in line and polls are still open.

Be fair.

It will be tempting to think that you are just passing along what somebody else wrote.

Be responsible.

It is normal to get caught up in the excitement of Election Night and want to tweet your emotions and opinions about the candidates and campaigns.

Be credible.

Your reputation and your news organization’s reputation is at stake.

Be accountable.

Attribute everything. Assume nothing.

Good luck. Read more


Friday, Nov. 02, 2012

Cassandra Thompson votes at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012, in Cleveland. Early voting began Tuesday in Ohio's March 6 presidential primary. Early in-person voting is set to continue until March 2, the Friday before the election. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

What journalists need to know & explain about the Electoral College

Three times in United States history, the person who became president did not receive the most votes — 1824, 1876, 2000.

Polls have consistently shown a large majority of Americans want the system changed. The National Popular Vote bill would change the way we elect presidents; it has passed in nine state legislatures.

So why do we have this system and how does it work? Permit me to go back a couple of hundred years. Stay with me, this won’t take long.

How the System Works

The main framework of the Electoral College comes from Article II Section 1 of the Constitution and was revised by the 12th Amendment in 1804.

When you vote for the President in the United States, you are not actually voting for your favorite candidate. You are voting for a slate of electors. There are 538 electors, typically people who are active in state and local politics. Oddly, even for a federal election, each state can have different rules about how to elect the electors. Usually they are elected at a state political convention. It would be a rare voter who could name more than one or two electors, even though the electors are the core of the voting process.

Each state gets one elector per member of Congress. So some states like Florida have more electors than Wyoming. (See state-by-state list.) It is a winner-take-all system, so whoever wins the popular vote in a state wins all of that state’s electors. There are two exceptions, Nebraska and Maine, where the electors are doled out differently. In those states, whoever wins the popular vote gets two electoral votes. Then the rest are awarded by whoever wins each Congressional district.

States can decide if they are winner-take-all states, or if they are proportional by Congressional districts or if they want to dole out electors by popular vote. It is a state decision. But the federal government requires electors and decided how many each state gets. So states could meaningfully change the system without Congress changing the Constitution.

Even though Washington, D.C. is not a state, the District gets three electoral votes as set out in the Constitution.

The Constitution does not allow electors to be sitting Members of Congress.

In some of this country’s earliest elections, the popular vote didn’t even elect the electors. In 1824, for example, one fourth of the states used a system where the state legislature, not voters, chose electors.

On December 17, 2012, the electors in each state meet to sign the “Certificates of Vote.” Then on January 6, 2013, the state’s certificates are examined and electoral votes counted. Whomever has 270 electoral votes is the new President.

There are lots of electoral systems around the world. Look at this list of systems. Some make our system seem logical.

What if Election Day produces a tie?

In a tight election year like this one, the “tie” is a “what if” parlor game worth playing. If President Obama won Ohio, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, and Romney won all of the other “swing states” and other states went as expected, it would result in a dead-on electoral tie: 269 to 269. The Washington Post has concocted five ways a tie could happen.

The first thing that would happen would be recounts and legal challenges in the most contested races. Think of the 2000 election on a larger scale. It could last months and cost many millions of dollars.

Then, if the courts and recounts don’t solve the issue, we turn to the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. A few key parts:

“The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;–the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.”

So, in a tie, the 12th Amendment tosses the election into the hands of the House of Representatives.

In 1800, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr got equal numbers of electors and the House of Representatives had to vote 36 times to break the tie. In fact, the 12th Amendment was a direct product of that debacle. Before that election, the top vote getter was President, the guy who ran second was Vice-President.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson got 151,271 votes, John Quincy Adams got 113,122. Jackson got the most electoral votes, but not enough to win a majority since there were three other contenders in the race. The election went to the House to resolve and John Quincy Adams won the election there. According to election lore, Adams cut a deal with Henry Clay, the fourth place candidate. Adams appointed Clay to be Secretary of State. Four years later, Jackson got his revenge and beat Adams handily.

But when an election goes to the House, things get weird. Under the 12th Amendment each state gets one vote. That’s right, Rhode Island’s vote is equal to California’s. Read it for yourself:

“But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.”

The House members from each state must agree on who will get their vote. What a fight that would be.

You might assume that House members would vote for whomever carried their state, but that is not required. Some states might say they are unable to reach a consensus and not vote at all.

So, a candidate needs 26 electors to win. The House can vote again and again to break the tie.

While the House is locked up in a 25 to 25 tie, the U.S. Senate steps in to choose a Veep. Each Senator gets one vote. So, once again, all states are equal regardless of population. The candidate who gets 51 Senate votes is the new Vice-President.

Then, if the Senate cannot come to an agreement on a Vice-President before Inauguration Day, the Speaker of the House serves as acting President.

If the Senate reaches agreement on a VP and the House remains deadlocked, the Vice President acts as President.

Cassandra Thompson votes in the presidential primary at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Why the system works

The National Archive says in the last 200 years more than 700 bills have been introduced in Congress to change the system. After the 2000 election, a flurry of bills floated around Congress and went nowhere. Some suggested we just do a direct vote, whoever gets the most votes wins. Some said it should be based on Congressional district, more like what Maine does. Some said it should be a coalition based majority system, more like Canada.

Some proposals said a candidate should have to get 40 percent of the national vote or face a run-off.  Imagine that, a primary, a general election and then a run-off? The rationale is that a president should have at least 40 percent support or the country would be too divided to stand behind him or her.

Many of the proposed reforms did away with electors.

The strongest argument for the current system is that it forces candidates to build a national coalition of voters. They have to stitch together big and small states to get the needed electors.

Eleven states account for more than half of the population. California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas have the majority of voters.

In a popular vote system, small states might never see the candidates, who would spend their time in vote-rich, highly-populated states. But those who favor changing the system point out that the most populated states are evenly split. The big 11 states are split between Democrats and Republicans. So the smaller states would be necessary to break a tie.

Some argue the electoral system is right for a country of our size because in a tight election it would take forever to recount and litigate every state outcome. The nation would be thrown in a tizzy. The electoral system, even with its flaws, settles the matter with a system that has worked for two centuries.

There is also a state’s rights argument. Each state currently makes its own rules and counts electors and sends them to the federal government. A national popular system would be more of a federal election.

How the system fails

The more than 200-year-old system is clearly not one-person-one-vote. Sometimes the person who gets the most votes doesn’t get elected. The electors get adjusted after each census. But population shifts happen faster than that.

Plus in a winner-take-all state, the people who vote for the losing candidate lose all of their voice. It might as well have been a 100 percent vote, even if the winner won by only one vote. Opponents of the Electoral College say the current system allows candidates to write off states where they have no chance of capturing a majority. But if they could pick up pieces of states, Congressional districts for example, they might visit more states during the campaign.

Under the current system, third party candidates are marginalized. But under a proportional system, where electoral votes are doled out based on the proportion of votes you receive, a third party candidate could get enough electoral votes to become a significant power broker. A candidate who got say 5 percent of the electors could toss the entire race into the House to decide.

Under the current system, states appear Bluer and Redder than they actually are. There is no room for nuance.

In almost half of the states, electors don’t have to vote for the candidate they were elected to represent. Seriously. Even though a candidate wins the electoral vote, in those states the elector is not bound by law to vote for the winning candidate. The U.S. Archives website explains:

“There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires Electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their States. Some States, however, require Electors to cast their votes according to the popular vote. These pledges fall into two categories—Electors bound by State law and those bound by pledges to political parties.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Constitution does not require that Electors be completely free to act as they choose and therefore, political parties may extract pledges from electors to vote for the parties’ nominees. Some State laws provide that so-called “faithless Electors”; may be subject to fines or may be disqualified for casting an invalid vote and be replaced by a substitute elector. The Supreme Court has not specifically ruled on the question of whether pledges and penalties for failure to vote as pledged may be enforced under the Constitution. No Elector has ever been prosecuted for failing to vote as pledged.”

“Today, it is rare for Electors to disregard the popular vote by casting their electoral vote for someone other than their party’s candidate. Electors generally hold a leadership position in their party or were chosen to recognize years of loyal service to the party. Throughout our history as a nation, more than 99 percent of Electors have voted as pledged.”

It is rare, but it does happen. Project Vote Smart says, in fact, it happens for all kinds of reasons:

“On 158 occasions, electors have cast their votes for president or vice president in a different manner than that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represent. Of those, 71 votes were changed because the original candidate died before the elector was able to cast a vote. Two votes were not cast at all when electors chose to abstain from casting their electoral vote for any candidate. The remaining 85 were changed by the elector’s personal interest or perhaps by accident. Usually, the faithless electors act alone.”

The Congressional Research Service said “the faithless vote” has never influenced the outcome of the election.

The U.S. Archives assembled a list of which states require electors to vote for a specific candidate. Check the list to learn more about your state’s law.

Learn more from some of the places I went to flesh out this story:

  • The Congressional Research Service has written briefings on the Electoral College system, including citations to various proposed reforms over the decades.
  • I learned a lot from this Smithsonian Magazine article on the Electoral College vote of 1800. The craziness of that vote set the stage for the passage of the 12th Amendment, but it also gives insight as to the kind of chaos that a locked up vote would cause.
  • The Washington Post calculates as many as 32 ways the election could end in an electoral tie. But if it did, the Post concludes,”a tie, in all likelihood, would lead to President Mitt Romney.”
  • Harper’s Weekly set up a special website that explores the awful election of 1876-77 in which Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York seemed to have gotten more votes than Rutherford Hayes of Ohio.
Read more

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012


NBC News President: ‘It’s just lazy’ to use journalists in campaign ads

Journalists have been unable to stop candidates from using copyrighted news clips in campaign ads, but maybe “Sesame Street” can. Ever since Mitt Romney said during last week’s debate that he would cut federal funding to PBS even though “I love Big Bird” — a sentiment he repeated Tuesday night — the Obama campaign has been attacking.

The program wants no part of the political campaign, saying:

“Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns. We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.”

Using Big Bird in an ad may present different legal issues than using a network anchor, said Alison Steele, a lawyer who represents The Poynter Institute and the Tampa Bay Times. Unlike a journalist, the character “is the intellectual property of a not-for-profit, IRS qualified 501(c)(3) and as such there are legal issues with its being involved, or the appearance of its involvement, in partisan political campaign activity,” Steele said by email.

The Obama campaign said it is considering Sesame Workshop’s request to remove Big Bird from the ad.

The idea was to provoke a discussion and create a little viral activity, and we’ve done that,” strategist David Axelrod told The New York Times.

Big Bird might find solace in the fact that even the heads of big news networks can’t make the candidates back off.

Monday night, at the Edward R. Murrow Awards ceremony, NBC News President Steve Capus asked both campaigns to stop using clips from newscasts in their ads.

Capus said:

While we’re hard at work telling the story of the election, I’d like to take a minute — and I think you’ll enjoy this part — to urge the candidates and campaigns to do a better job of telling their own story. In this election cycle, we have seen the campaigns take advantage of and misrepresent journalists in their advertisements, pulling short soundbites and in some cases, taking that reporting out of context for the sake of driving a different message. NBC News has dealt with this issue with both candidates, and this has to stop.

It’s not fair for our journalists and producers and it’s not fair to our citizens and it’s just lazy. I know that campaigns want to be associated with Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell and Brian Williams in their commercials. But let’s be honest. That’s good company, but those folks are journalists and they do not endorse this message. Tonight, while I’m among all of my colleagues and acquaintances, I’d encourage all of you to join us in this effort to ask the campaigns to stop — respectfully — ask them to stop using news material in their advertising.

(Editor’s Note: This is about 4 minutes in to the video below)

Capus mentioned the January 2012 dust-up that NBC had with the Romney campaign, when the GOP nominee ran an ad featuring former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw reporting on the 1997 ethics problems that then House Speaker Newt Gingrich faced. The ad (below) showed Brokaw talking, with no announcer voice-over.

Romney defended the ad at the time, saying:

This was the news from the night the Speaker was sanctioned and reprimanded by his own members. And so people heard the news, they didn’t hear it filtered, it was just straight on, no heavy music that suggested some kind of sinister background. Instead just Tom Brokaw, a very credible and respected journalist, reporting the news. I think it was pretty devastating. It pointed out that what Speaker Gingrich has been trying to hide is now out in the open.

By one estimate, the ad aired 2,225 times despite Brokaw’s and NBC’s protests.

This week, President Obama’s campaign attacked the Romney tax plan by co-opting an NBC report featuring Andrea Mitchell:

Why do they do this?

The New York Times explained:

“When people see political ads, they think someone’s lying to them,” said Mark McKinnon, an ad maker who worked with Mr. Rove on both of George W. Bush’s winning presidential campaigns.

“We try really hard to get credible third-party messengers to deliver facts,” Mr. McKinnon explained. “A fact coming from you is much more believable than a fact coming from us.”

It is also cheap and easy to use a clip from TV or YouTube. There is no need to rent a studio or an actor. And the ads can come together quickly. They are particularly devastating when the ads are timed to a hot topic, like whether Big Bird will lose his funding.

How do they get away with this?

Campaigns tiptoe around copyright and fair-use questions all the time.

Copyright is one issue. The copyright holder must grant the license to the user for the work to appear in an ad. But the Supreme Court has said time and again that the most free speech of all, the speech that has to have the most protection, is political speech.

The Continuing Law Education Center explains:

Because political advertising appears to represent the ultimate exercise of constitutionally protected free speech, campaigns may be tempted to believe that it is beyond the reach of intellectual property law. After all, it is well settled that “the First Amendment ‘has its fullest and most urgent application’ to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.” (Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Council Comm., 489 U.S. 214, 223 (1989), quoting Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 272 (1971).) Political speech has been declared “at the core of the First Amendment” (Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 318 (1988)), which has also been deemed to reflect a “profound national commitment” that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964)).

Does that mean that as long as it is political speech, you can trample copyright protections? Certainly not. Even political speech would not be protected if a campaign used an entire copyrighted work.

For example, if Romney had used an entire network newscast or special about Gingrich, he could have had a problem. If Obama’s Big Bird ad used a whole skit, it would be an infringement.

Who started it?

Newspapers and TV networks can thank Hustler Magazine’s Larry Flynt for the proliferation of ads that include newspaper headlines and newscast clips. It was in the 1985 case of Hustler v. The Moral Majority that the Federal District Court in California ruled:

“Although the First Amendment does not provide a defense to copyright infringement, when an act of copying occurs in the course of political, social or moral debate, the public interest in free expression is one factor favoring a finding of fair use.” (Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Moral Majority, Inc., 606 F. Supp. 1526, 1536 (C.D. Cal. 1985).)

So the court held that the mailings and television use were permissible under the “fair use doctrine.” It is worth noting that Flynt was generally on the side of free speech and fair use in other court cases, but this time, Flynt sued the religious group for using copyrighted material attacking him, and he lost.

What is fair use?

Generally there is a four-step test to determine if a campaign can use a copyrighted work under fair use. The questions are:

  1. Is the work bona fide news? Facts can be commonly attained, fiction is created and more closely protected.
  2. What is the purpose of using the copyrighted material? Is it being used for education? For a non-profit cause? In this case, one could argue it is being used to educate voters about a critical matter, which could fall under fair use.
  3. How much of the copyrighted work is used? Is it a soundbite, a music clip a photo that was part of a large collection of photos? Is it a quote or newspaper headline? Or is the campaign reprinting a 5,000-word article? The shorter the selection, the more likely it is considered fair use.
  4. In what way does the infringement harm the copyright holder’s ability to make money from the work? If NBC News could prove, for example, that the infringement caused ratings to drop or advertisers to jump ship, it might have a case.

Short of that, journalists would do well to explain when a candidate misrepresents news content in their ads. We have seen ads that used newspaper headlines attributed to major publications that were not from news articles, but from editorials. We have seen ads that edit out the context of what a candidate says and in so doing creates a whole new and untrue narrative.

The campaigns are confusing voters and in the process are undermining the credibility of journalism at a time when we don’t need more of either. I would like to see the candidates take a pledge to knock it off. We have a VP debate coming up Thursday night. I hope the question comes up. Read more


Tuesday, Oct. 02, 2012


Local TV anchor criticized for her weight: ‘I don’t take a lot of crap from people’

Wisconsin TV news anchor Jennifer Livingston has gained thousands of supporters this week by publicly taking on one critic who called her fat. Her story has since been broadcast on NBC’s “Nightly News” and she has appeared on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” and “CBS This Morning.”

Last week, the WKBT-TV morning newscast anchor received an email from Kenneth Krause, a La Crosse man who says he is an occasional viewer. Krause criticized Livingston for being overweight, saying she was not a good role model for her three daughters and for others who watch.

Livingston, who told me by phone Tuesday night, “I don’t take a lot of crap from people,” said she emailed back and forth with Krause a few times. “I said, ‘Whoa buddy, this is far beyond what is OK to write to somebody in an email, even somebody who is in the public like me.’ ” But, Livingston said, Krause would not back down. “He kept saying I was a poor role model.”

Jennifer Livingston has anchored the morning news for more than a decade.

Livingston is well known to her viewers. She shared her struggles with infertility, and when she got pregnant she shared her experience in a public “baby blog.”

WKBT News Director Anne Paape told me, “Her viewing public really knows her on many levels, not just as a TV news person.” So it seemed logical to take this conversation public.

Livingston’s husband, Mike Thompson, anchors the WKBT 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. news programs. He posted Krause’s email on his Facebook page, but didn’t use Krause’s name:

Hundreds of comments followed, overwhelmingly supportive of Livingston; many people shared their own struggles with weight discrimination. A few of the comments named Krause and one person even posted a home address that Livingston’s fans could go visit and express their displeasure.

Mike Thompson met his future wife Jennifer Livingston when the two were out covering the same story; he was working, at the time, for the competition.

The local radio stations in La Crosse were all over the story, feeding off of the Facebook frenzy.

“I decided Monday night after I put my daughters to bed that I had to say something myself,” Livingston told me.

Tuesday morning, she delivered a four-minute editorial on air about bullying and weight, speaking directly to Krause.

“The truth is, I am overweight,” the anchor said, looking straight into the camera. “But to the person who wrote me that letter, do you think I don’t know that? That your cruel words are pointing out something that I don’t see? You don’t know me, so you know nothing about me but what you see on the outside and I am much more than a number on a scale.”

She then spoke to the rest of the viewing audience. “If you are at home and you are talking about the fat news lady, guess what? Your children are probably going to go to school and call someone fat.”

After the editorial aired Tuesday morning, the station’s website received about 50,000 hits, reported Anne Thompson for “Nightly News,” “almost one for every person in La Crosse.” Schools used the broadcast to talk about bullying, she said. And hundreds of people wrote notes of support on the station’s website and on Facebook:

As the story spread beyond Wisconsin and then internationally, the comments, especially on YouTube, took a rude turn.

Late Tuesday, Krause released a statement re-affirming his original position.

Given this country’s present epidemic of obesity and the many truly horrible diseases related thereto, and considering Jennifer Livingston’s fortuitous position in the community, I hope she will finally take advantage of a rare and golden opportunity to influence the health and psychological well-being of Coulee Region children by transforming herself for all of her viewers to see over the next year, and, to that end, I would be absolutely pleased to offer Jennifer any advice or support she would be willing to accept. — Kenneth W. Krause

I asked WKBT News Director Anne Paape to explain the thinking behind taking this public. She responded by email:

The conversation began when this person emailed Jennifer and accused her of setting a bad example in our community. She did what journalists do, and asked him whether she could invite the community to comment on the conversation. He agreed, and the conversation suddenly got a lot more inclusive. Initially, people seemed to take this personally on Jen’s behalf and rushed to her defense. When Jen decided she wanted to address this on air during our morning newscast today I knew she had the opportunity to do great good and told her she had my full encouragement to comment on how this was impacting her as a professional and as a person.

Though, “airtime is precious,” she said, it was “absolutely” worth spending four minutes on this segment. “I have never been more proud of her or this TV station.”

“Clearly, appearance is part of the package for anyone on TV,” Paape said, “But only part of the package.”

Livingston said she realizes that TV is a visual media and that most people on TV are fit and thin. But her station has been more interested in what else she brings to her audience.

“The pressure from my bosses is not there; any pressure would be from myself. I would not choose to be the weight that I am,” she said, but “I don’t wallow in the fact I am overweight. I am not promoting my lifestyle.”

She said she has not always been overweight but put on pounds when she had children. “I have not had to deal with this my whole life, but I have always been one who would stand up for others who were being bullied.”

Livingston told me that that she has been flooded with interview requests, including from “Good Morning America” and the “Today” show. She appeared on both shows Wednesday morning and on “CBS This Morning.”

On the “Today” show, Livingston said, “I can deal with being called obese. It was calling me a bad role model that rubbed me the wrong way. And not only a bad role model for our community, but for young girls in particular. I’m the mother of three girls.”

It was one of her daughters, in fact, who indirectly inspired Livingston to talk about the bullying, she told Savannah Guthrie, who asked whether Livingston was afraid she’d be insulted even worse if she went public. No, Livingston responded:

I do have a pretty thick skin. I’m a tough gal. I can handle those kind of emails. What I was thinking instead was, I’m having conversations with my 10-year-old daughter about bullying right now and I’m telling her, I’m trying to inspire her that if she sees bullying happen in other people, she needs to take a stand, it’s important to take a stand. What kind of message am I teaching her when my husband and I are talking about this mean email that I received and I’m not taking a stand for myself? I can stand up for myself, there’s a lot of people that can’t. And I’m gonna do it.

Livingston and Thompson said on “Good Morning America” that they told their 10-year-old “she needs to be strong.”

Among the many emails of support, Livingston, who has a thyroid problem that makes weight loss difficult, received an offer to publish a children’s book on bullying. “It’s so easy to be cruel,” she told Guthrie.

Livingston closed her on-air editorial with that same message:

I leave you with this: To all of the children out there who feel lost, who are struggling with your weight, with the color of your skin, your sexual preference, your disability, even the acne on your face, listen to me right now. Do not let your self-worth be defined by bullies. Learn from my experience — that the cruel words of one are nothing compared to the shouts of many.

Livingston told Guthrie the response has been “beyond what I could have imagined when I went on air yesterday. I was hoping to impact the people in our own market, I was hoping to send a message to them. What has happened has been really overwhelming but inspiring at the same time.”

Julie Moos contributed to this report. Read more


Saturday, Sep. 29, 2012


Will TV’s long love affair with car chases come to a screeching halt as Fox broadcasts suicide live?

After Fox inadvertently aired live video of a man in Phoenix shooting himself Friday following a car chase, Executive Vice President for News Michael Clemente tried to explain how it happened. He called it a “severe human error.”  True enough. The network put the live feed on a five-second delay, but even that precaution depends on humans hitting a button to “dump” out of the broadcast.

Clemente also said in a statement provided to Poynter, “We took every precaution to avoid any such live incident.” That is clearly not so. One precaution the network could have tried: Not to air the chase at all. Or Fox could have recorded the footage and waited until the chase ended to air portions of it.

But Fox, CNN and many viewers love car chases. BuzzFeed, Gawker and Mediaite all published the video online. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan explained the dilemma:

This is the ethical problem: a car chase contains a high potential for mayhem, without any inherent news value otherwise. It is simply mayhem porn. And it will always be impossible to predict when something awful and wretched and bloody will happen in one of these situations. And therefore, by running these things on live TV, a news network is running the risk that something like this will happen. The only solution is not to run car chases on live TV, despite the public appetite for them.

In 1998 and 1999, California stations aired live video of people dying on TV. In 1998 in Los Angeles, a man took his own life live on TV. In San Diego in 1999, the suspect died in a police shootout. In both cases, TV stations pledged to rethink their policies, adjust their helicopter shots, maybe use video delay systems like the one that failed to protect Fox News on Friday.

Friday’s suicide aired during the live broadcast of “Studio B with Shepard Smith.” Smith has a long love affair with car chases. In April 2009, he said, “I have been watching and, quite frankly, enjoying car chases for many, many years. We’ve seen truck chases that end up, you know, hitting the side of a mountain. We’ve seen it all, I thought.”

In November 2010, he said, “I’ve been sitting here watching these for a long time, as long as the Fox News Channel has been on the air.”

In June 2009, Smith narrated a chase that ended when the suspect’s car was hit going through an intersection. “The crash that we had all feared has happened,” he told viewers. “Now, innocent people, who do not know that they have a criminal on their hands, are coming up to try to help someone. And think of the danger that they might be in if, in fact, this person inside this vehicle is still of the wherewithal to cause anyone any harm.” And the video continues to roll, live.

Car chases often end badly

An FBI bulletin estimated the risks of a car chase:

Police pursuit records provide some frightening statistics. First, the majority of police pursuits involve a stop for a traffic violation. Second, one person dies every day as a result of a police pursuit. On average, from 1994 through 1998, one law enforcement officer was killed every 11 weeks in a pursuit, and 1 percent of all U.S. law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty lost their lives in vehicle pursuits. Innocent third parties who just happened to be in the way constitute 42 percent of persons killed or injured in police pursuits. Further, 1 out of every 100 high-speed pursuits results in a fatality.

The FBI says 300 people a year die in these chases, including bystanders, police and other drivers. In 2010, a USA Today review found that in one-third of all chase-related fatalities, the victims are bystanders. So, the odds are that if a TV station stays with a chase long enough, it will air some sort of horrific scene.

In 2003, a frustrated Los Angeles Police Department pleaded unsuccessfully with TV stations to stop carrying live chases. Now, nine years later, police referred to live TV coverage of an armed robber tossing cash out his getaway car as a new “bloodsport.” The LA Police Protective League said broadcast journalists have to tone down their coverage.

Over the past few days, media coverage of police chasing dangerous felons in the southland have put thousands of people, including dozens of police officers, in extreme danger. Police chases and the aftermath are certainly newsworthy, but the recent live television coverage has had the feel of a sporting event – with accompanying colorful commentary. In these situations, the responsibility lies with the suspect for not submitting to arrest, the public to stay out of the way, the officers to use good judgment when in pursuit and the media to limit its coverage. We aren’t questioning the news value – when it’s over – and in some cases as a warning for public safety, but many times, and clearly in the latest incident, live coverage endangers the public.

Deciding whether to cover a car chase

I wrote the guidelines below for the Radio Television Digital News Foundation Ethics Project. They are useful for deciding whether to cover a car chase.

Questions to ask before going live:

  • Are you prepared to air the worst possible outcome that could result from this unfolding story? (such as, a person killing himself or someone during live coverage.) What outcomes are you not willing to air? Why? How do you know the worst possible outcome will not occur?
  • Beyond competitive factors, what are your motivations for going live? Why do your viewers need to know about this story before journalists have the opportunity to filter the information off the air? What truth testing are you willing to give up in order to speed information to the viewer?
  • How does the journalist know that the information they have is true? How many sources have confirmed the information? How does the source know what they say is true? What is this source’s past reliability? How willing is the source to be quoted?
  • What are the consequences, short-term and long-term, of going on the air with the information? What are the consequences of waiting for additional confirmation or for a regular newscast?
  • What is the tone of the coverage? How can the journalist raise viewer awareness of a significant event while minimizing unnecessary hype and fear? Who in your newsroom is responsible for monitoring the tone of what is being broadcast?
  • What electronic safety net such as a tape and signal delay has your station considered that could minimize harm and could give your station time to dump out of live coverage if the situation turns graphic, violent or compromises the safety of others?
  • How clearly does the technical crew at your TV station understand the newsroom’s standard for graphic content? How well are guidelines understood by directors, video editors, live shot techs, photojournalists, pilots or engineers who might have to make an editorial call when the news director or other formal decision-maker is not available?
  • What factor does the time of day play in your decision to cover a breaking event? For example, if the event occurs when children normally are watching television, how does that fact alter the tone and degree of your coverage?

When live car chases are newsworthy

I am not an absolutist. I do not believe we should ban all live chase coverage. Live coverage on radio can be vital to drivers near the chase scene. But in the recent case of the L.A. bank robber, radio DJs were making light of the chase and were telling listeners where they could go to grab some of the money. The DJs called him the “Make it Rain” robber and remarked how “funny” it all was.

In 1995, a Miami area school bus loaded with 15 special needs children was taken over by a gunman who claimed to have a bomb. The terrifying hour-long chase aired live before ending in a shooting. To me, that level of public safety concern and community disruption rises to the level of significant news that is worthy of live coverage.

If you are going to air a chase — or any perilous situation — live, be prepared.

  • Practice using the video delay system you’re relying on to bail out of the broadcast. Those systems are tricky. I know, I have used them. The producer and director need to respond quickly.
  • Consider pulling out to a super wide shot when the scene gets tense. If you’re unable to bail out of the live shot as quickly as you want, you will at least minimize the harm you would cause by showing a close-up.

Finally, let’s remember these are humans involved, struggling with their lives as we transform them into “stories.” Think of a police officer’s family that might be watching. Think of the suspect’s family. They are humans, they are not ratings points. Read more


Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012


What journalists need to know about Coptic Christians

This morning I got a call from the editors, who asked: “Could you write a piece explaining Coptic Christianity?” The request comes as law enforcement identifies Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, being widely described as a “California Coptic Christian,” as the person behind a film that may have touched off some of the violence in Egypt, Libya and through the Middle East. (Note how tentative I am about who is responsible for the film and about how directly linked the movie is to the violence. We just do not know yet.)

First: There is nothing new about religious insensitivity fueling the fires in the Middle East. But do not miss this point: There is nothing about Coptic Christianity that leads believers to produce a hateful movie disrespecting the Muslim religion.

The basics

The Coptic Christians are another name for Egyptian Christians. Coptic comes from the Greek word for the ancient capital city of Egypt, Memphis. Along with the Egyptian Christian faith came a distinctive new kind of artwork that became known as Coptic art.

Christians have many connections to Egypt. The most familiar connection: The New Testament teaches that Jesus’ family fled to Egypt to protect the child from being killed by a jealous King Herod.

The Nicene Creed, recited by Christians worldwide every week, has origins in Egypt.

The Coptic story goes that it was Saint Mark who ushered Christianity into Egypt not long after Christ was crucified. Followers believed that the move into Egypt was predicted by Old Testament scripture from the Book of Isaiah (19:19).

The Copts had a disagreement with other Christians about the divinity of Christ. Without getting too deep into the religious weeds, the core of the disagreement was about something called “the nature of the incarnate Word.” Copts believe Jesus was perfect in both his divinity and his humanity and that the two were never separate; he was always divine and always human. (Learn more about that if you have a spare weekend.)

Ancient fragments of Christian scripture have been found in Egypt written in Coptic, which was Egypt’s language at the time. In fact, a couple of hundred years into the Coptic movement, Christianity was Egypt’s main religion. Eventually Muslim Arabs would become the majority and for hundreds of years, really until the 1800′s, the Copts had a pretty rough time of it. They paid a special non-Muslim tax, for example.

Copts eventually gained acceptance and wealth until the 1950′s when Gamal Abdel Nasser took power, closed Christian courts, seized land and confiscated church property. Lots of Copts left Egypt, and now less than 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, according to the CIA Factbook 2011.

After Mubarak

Copts had good reason to worry when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office. Mubarak reached out to the Coptic Pope once in a while, who in returned endorsed and campaigned for Mubarak.

Still, problems persisted. Coptic Christian churches have complained that building permits, for example, can be delayed for more than a decade for no particular reason. In November 2010, the State Department said, “Clashes between police and mostly Coptic rioters began over a church-building dispute and led to the deaths of two Copts.”

Post-Mubarak, things have gotten worse for the Egyptian Copts. In 2011, a car bomb killed two dozen Coptic Christians in Alexandria, the cradle of the faith in Egypt. The bombers were prosecuted. Still, since the revolution, U.S. officials have been hearing increasing stories of violence, especially against Coptic Christian women.

A month ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was increasingly worried about a rise in religious intolerance in Egypt. “Since 2011, and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased,” Secretary Clinton said. (Read the State Department’s annual Report on Religious Freedom.)

Since the revolution, there have been attempts to add a blasphemy law in the Egyptian constitution. Last month, a Copt teacher was arrested and right now awaits sentencing for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Even though the Egyptian constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rites, the U.S. State Department points out, Islam is the official national religion. Islamic law is the primary influence on Egyptian legislation and “all mosques must be licensed by the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf). The government appoints and pays the salaries of the imams who lead prayers in mosques and monitors their sermons. It does not contribute to the funding of Christian churches.”

This week’s violence

The movie trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” is just a backdrop for so many tensions. It is not a reason for the violence and hatred. It may be a spark, igniting an explosion that has been simmering, but even that is unclear.

Whoever is responsible for this video, if he or she is Coptic Christian, is no more representative of the faith than any other fringe element who acts under a banner of belief. Read more