Updates on ethical decision-making in newsrooms big and small, written by Poynter’s Kelly McBride, Bob Steele and colleagues.


Bill Simmons’ ESPN suspension and the challenges of editing star talent

Whether you think Bill Simmons is the latest sacrificial lamb at ESPN, or that his suspension is really theater in the vein of professional wrestling, there are important issues behind the suspension that we could all pay some attention to.

  • Too much content, too little editing: From podcasts to blogs to social media posts, there is a fair amount of content that goes straight to the audience with very little editing. With small changes (see word choice, below) to his rant, Simmons could have stayed within the boundaries of ESPN’s acceptable journalistic standards. In broadcast, that’s the producer’s role. In writing it’s the editor’s role. There is editing and production that takes place. But do those people do their work with an ear toward editorial standards? It’s hard to say if that’s even possible with a marquee talent like Simmons (see Stars, below.) But they could and they should.
  • Word choice: Simmons was on solid ground when he called Goodell’s response “fucking bullshit.” Suggesting the football commissioner take a lie detector test was clever. But calling him a liar went over a line, because it draws a conclusion that we cannot draw.  The best reporting has demonstrated that the Ravens’ staff were aware of the contents of the elevator video and that someone at the NFL knew as well. It’s easy to assert that Goodell should have known. But that doesn’t add up to liar. When you make accusations you can’t verify, you have moved outside of journalism into something else – politics, spin, deception? Even opinionated journalists should base their work on established facts.
  • Stars: When I served as the head writer for the ESPN-Poynter Review Project, several ESPN employees told me, in confidence, how difficult it was to edit Bill Simmons. ESPN is not unique. This is true of many big stars in many newsrooms. Stars that operate outside the rules of engagement leave the organization exposed. It’s good for ESPN to have commentators pushing the boundaries of taste and journalistic ethics, that’s what the audience wants. Provocation is tried and true meme. But it’s even better to have a process that prevents stars and everyone else from blowing through those boundaries because they don’t realize it or they don’t care.
  • Consistency: Ethics codes and editorial standards are fabulous, but if an organization inconsistently applies them, they become a weakness not an asset. That’s because they can be used against you. An organization as big and spread out as ESPN has steep challenges. How can it apply to same standards to its premiere investigative show, Outside the Lines, as it does to blog posts and podcasts? The answer lies in constant attention to process.

It’s hard to measure whether an organization has healthy processes. We never hear about the times that ESPN dials a writer or on-air talent back. We don’t see the great catches that editors make. We only see the gaffes. And given the volume of content that ESPN produces, there will likely be plenty of fodder for critics like Deadspin.

That said, when your biggest star declares himself above his newsroom’s standards, the boss has to respond. Read more


Sunday, Sep. 14, 2014

Statues of Socrates and Apollo in Athens, Greece

Ray Rice video sparks ethics questions

After a series of famous journalism scandals in the early 1980s, I was asked to kick-start an ethics program at the Poynter Institute. I felt fully prepared to be a writing teacher, but not an ethics one. So what would I do?

I read what I could; studied professional codes; consulted ethics scholars; became pals with the influential bio-medical scholar Arthur Caplan; and took part in countless conversations and debates about duty, truth, privacy, plagiarism, conflict of interest, and much more.

Perhaps my one contribution to the field was in the distinction between Red Light and Green Light ethics. In journalism, and in other fields, I expressed a preference for the articulation of what we should do (Green Light) over what we should avoid (Red Light).

That, as they say in the age of transparency, is where I am “coming from.”

Where, then, am I headed? At a time of seismic convulsions on the media landscape, I find myself leaning toward an approach articulated by public scholar Peter Levine in his book Living without Philosophy. What follows is not a summary of the book, but how I am using it as a compass.

At a moment when new codes of ethics are being drawn or revised, let’s begin with the inherent weaknesses therein. Codes, in my opinion, work the way early maps of the world worked: They provide you with the general shape of the cosmos. But they are of less use as a GPS system to get you from one specific place to another. Some elements are obvious (“Do not plagiarize”). Codes tend to put the onus of moral action on rank and file practitioners rather than on the owners and top managers of news enterprises. And they leave so much open for interpretation.

Legal scholar (and my college friend) Austin Sarat once explained at a Poynter seminar how unhelpful were certain codes of ethics. One might say “Lawyers must charge a fair price for their services.” Now think of the range of opinion and practice on the way to arriving at “fair.”

Beyond the codes, here is the other dilemma I learned from Levine: The history of philosophy (especially ethics) has left us with a series of “theories of justification,” ways of thinking designed to lead us to good decisions. To learn those, you study Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls (John, not Lou), and Carol Gilligan. And you immediately confront a dilemma.

Say, for example, that a popular NFL Football player has beaten his wife in an elevator. Eventually, the video of that violent act and its immediate aftermath becomes available. You are the editor of a news organization. Will you show the video on your television program or website? How will you show it? And how often? And why? If only I had some ethics experts to guide me, you wonder. You are tempted to call up the folks at Poynter, but then think again. You reach higher. You roll out your Rolodex to Parnassus. You call on Aristotle, Jesus, Kant, Bentham, Rawls, and Gilligan.

Here’s the problem with those experts: Not only will they tell you different things; some of the most important things they have to say will contradict the others.

With apologies to anyone who has tried to teach me ethics, here are my thumbnail descriptions of these key theories of ethical decision making:

  1. Aristotle: My favorite Greek articulated the value of the “golden mean,” an approach to decision making that avoided the extremes and looked for some middle path. With Aristotle whispering in my ear, perhaps I would use the video of the crime, but use it just once. It’s first use would create a public clamor for justice and reform; but withholding it from subsequent use would prevent exploitation of the image and the victim. Or perhaps my middle path would be not to show the video itself but to describe in texts what it depicts.
  2. Jesus: From Aristotle to Jesus takes us from the golden mean to the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. The work of Carol Gilligan might lead us to a platinum rule: Do unto others as others want to have done to themselves. To accomplish this, you must escape the myopia of your own vision. You must go out and find out how the other person wants to be treated. The golden rule would have us identify with the victim (and to some extent with the abuser) depicted in the video and, through non-violent means, care and protect them.
  3. Kant:  When the Germans got in the act, they gave us the “categorical imperative.” That’s a big phrase, which may not be wise to throw around on deadline. Kant asks us to take our ethical decisions and be willing to turn them into universal laws. If we decide that lying is wrong, we must imagine it is wrong in all such cases. Let’s take someone who argues: No victim of domestic violence or sexual abuse must endure seeing her private life on public display without her permission. Or reporters should never use false identities in pursuit of the truth; or we will never use an anonymous source, even if we miss out on some important stories; or we will never ever pay a source for the story. That recurring word “never” is a sign that the author is on some Kantian wavelength.
  4. Jeremy Bentham: I associate Bentham with a school of ethics called “utilitarianism,” which offered, perhaps, the simplest moral algorithm: “the greatest good for the greatest number.” This, at times, requires using a person as a means. Within this frame, the privacy of the victim of abuse in the video must be sacrificed (or “utilized”) for some greater good. What might that be? The exposure of her pain brings to light the real experience of abuse in a way that motivates people to seek reform. Men and women are outraged. Crimes are prosecuted. Enablers of abuse lose their jobs. New rules and regulations are imposed. But what about that abused woman unconscious on the floor of the elevator? She needs John Rawls.
  5. John Rawls:  Rawls is considered one of the great scholars of politics and justice in the 20th century. In ethics, he is known for a process of decision making called the “veil of ignorance.”  The idea is to take all the potential stakeholders of a decision and place them behind a veil. Since the person who is most affected by a decision might be you, you are best off identifying with the most vulnerable stakeholder. By walking in the moccasins of the most vulnerable person, you protect the interests of most if not all parties.

    This model of thinking is an expression of what is often called “social contract” theory, that human beings make certain spoken and unspoken agreements among themselves to protect individuals and communities from harm. At first glance, it would appear, then, that the most vulnerable person behind the veil would be the abused woman. Publication of these images can be predictably embarrassing, hurtful, and damaging to her. She may, time and again, become a witness to her own humiliation, and the consequences to her and her abuser may feel destructive to her long-term interests. But wait! Perhaps this particular woman is not the most vulnerable stakeholder. Perhaps it is one – or any number – of unknown women who continue to be, or will become, victims of abuse because of the lack of reform.

  6. Carol Gilligan: In a critique of her teacher, who only used male subjects in his experiments, Gilligan argued persuasively that women would respond differently to ethical situations and case studies. While men tended to revert to law and other absolutes, women were more likely to take into account complex human relationships into their decision making. This is a philosophy of “difference,” that a diversity of perspectives will help enlighten stakeholders and lead agents to a better decision. Countless issues of race, gender, age, and social class, for example, are revealed in the circumstances surrounding cases of intimate partner abuse. When people argue for more inclusion in the discussion around such cases, they align themselves with an ethic of difference.

So what is a good journalist to do?

What has worked for me is to think of these various theories as tools rather than as abstract schools of thought. I don’t have to be a Kantian or a Christian in order to see the practical relevance of an idea or strategy from one of those ethics clubs. To help myself, and others, I have translated those theories into practical questions, what I might call, borrowing from the composition theorists, a process approach to ethics, especially on deadline. These questions have, shall we say, earned tenure at Poynter, being articulated, revised, adapted by teachers such as Bob Steele, Keith Woods, Kenny Irby, Kelly McBride, Aly Colon, and many others.

  1. What is my journalistic purpose in this case? What public good will it do? (Time to drag out Jeremy Bentham’s mummified body and raise a toast to the old man. There is a strong utilitarian stream in the thinking of journalists. While they might write about individuals, they imagine good things flowing through the social order)
  2. Who are the stakeholders and what are the likely consequences to them of publication? (A Rawlsian question, of a sort.)
  3. Are there any rules, laws, or standards that I should know about? (Kant is smiling.)
  4. Is there any way to avoid or minimize any harm that might come from publication? (Thank you, Jesus.)
  5. Whose voices would be a valuable part of the conversation? (Carol Gilligan)
  6. What are my alternatives? (Aristotle may point us to another way.)

In Living without Philosophy, Peter Levine suggests that good decisions can be made with a combination of common sense informed by practical conversations among practitioners and potential stakeholders. This appeals to me, but part of its appeal is to allow me to ask and discuss these questions, and to sort through, however quickly, the ideas that inspired them.

So here is my take on our case study.

  1. If the tape from inside the elevator was made available to me, I would view it, test its authenticity, take into consideration the biases and interests of the source.
  2. I would publish it in the public interest because: spousal abuse is a terrible social problem; because justice may not have been done in this particular case; because the abuser is a celebrity and public figure; because the events, however, personal, took place in a public place and immediately involved the intervention of public institutions; because he and others may have been enabled by people at the highest levels of his team and one of the world’s most powerful and profitable professional sports leagues.
  3. After initial publication, I would discontinue publication, even if other news organizations continued to make it available. This is an attempt, however insufficient, to minimize additional harm that may come to the victim and those closest to her.
  4. I would devote the resources I could afford to report and comment over time on this important issue. My Green Light sensibilities tell me to go, go, go; rather than no, no, no. My reporting would attempt to include as many key perspectives as possible, taking into account gender difference, race, social class, law enforcement, the judicial system, professional cultures, the status of children, and much more.

More questions: Would I pay to obtain the video? Would it be legal to obtain it? Are there ways to get access without payment? How would payment distort the reporting process in this case and others? Are powerful interests trying to prevent access or keeping it secret? As an occasional Kantian with escape hatches, my answer would be: “If I could afford to buy it, I would do so if I thought there was no other way to obtain it, and that it revealed enough information in the public interest that it would justify such a rare action.” If I bought it, I would disclose that to my audiences.

Finally, from an academic ethics point of view, what are the ethics of turning a person, such as the victim in the elevator, into a case study, where her name and image might exist in perpetuity for students and professionals to examine? I wish there were some experts around here to consult. Oh, wait….

Poynter’s News University has a free ethics course. It includes 20 questions for ethical decision making.
Read more


Monday, June 30, 2014


Time clarifies: Ruined images in D-Day video were photo illustration

After two stories questioning the authenticity of what looked like ruined images in a video for Time, “Robert Capa’s Iconic D-Day Photo of a Soldier in the Surf,” Time has added photo illustration credits, Daniel Kile, vice president of communications for Time Inc., told Poynter in an email.

“TIME’s video and story have been updated to include a photo illustration credit. The film now includes a prominent label on the negatives and on the end credits (see attached for screen grabs). Our story has been updated to include an editor’s note about the change.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 12.43.51 PM[5][2]

A.D. Coleman wrote about the images on June 26 on his blog Photocritic International, with a guest post by Rob McElroy, entitled “The ‘Magnificent Nine’ Faked by TIME.”

As a professional photographer for the past 34 years, with a wealth of experience developing film, I could not explain why the “ruined” negatives shown in the video looked the way they did. Then, after carefully scrutinizing all the negatives shown in the video, I figured it out.

I had just discovered a journalistic no-no, a breach of trust, a total fraud. TIME had faked nine photographs in their documentary video and never explained to the viewer what they had done.

Coleman wrote about the images again on June 29, calling for an ethics investigation by the National Press Photographers Association.

“I’m glad Time has owned up to the fact that the negatives were indeed fabricated by them,” McElroy told Poynter in a phone interview. “As a former journalist, when I’m misled by something, I’m extremely disappointed.”

Poynter’s Kelly McBride said it sounds like Time did the right thing in adding the photo illustration credits, but they weren’t transparent about them before “and that’s unfortunate. It sounds like they’re trying to make the situation right.”

Even if Time didn’t specify that the images were real, McBride said, if the audience looking at the package might assume they’re real, then transparency is required.

“They’re certainly taking this very seriously, and I appreciate that,” Coleman told Poynter in a phone interview. (He’s also written extensively about Capa and questions about the photographer’s work.)

Read more


Thursday, June 19, 2014


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

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

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Monday, June 16, 2014


Advice on publishing graphic photos from Iraq

It’s just a matter of time.

That’s what I told a Kalish Visual Editing workshop on the campus of Ball State University just last week. I told the group that it was a matter of time before they were forced to make a decision on a graphic photograph and they needed to be prepared to defend their decision. Read more

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

9 best practices for publishing provocative opinions in a polarized world

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Watch the flippancy, especially in headlines. It implies a lack of respect for those on the other side of the debate. When issues are highly polarized, go for a straight, descriptive headline. Clever headlines may gain traction on social media, but when they cause folks to debate your opinions without reading them, they do more harm than good.
  • Jump into the stream and defend the decision to publish when the comments take off. That may be on Twitter or Facebook or in a comments section.  You don’t have to respond to every knucklehead out there. But when someone asks a rational question, answer it. You’ll elevate the sophistication of the debate and increase respect for your publication as an idea broker.
  • Curate the best of your critics and follow up. Dialogue implies back and forth, give and take. When people feel ignored or dismissed, they often get louder. Particularly when things start to get a bit uncivil, sometimes a few civil voices can refocus a conversation.
  • Ask genuine questions of those who oppose a point of view. When you invite others to share their experiences or their views in response to a piece they disagree with, you indicate a sportsman-like approach to the debate, rather than a take-no-prisoners battle.
  • That said, avoid dialogue with trolls and idiots. A good rule of thumb on Twitter or in the comments section is to respond to civil questions the first time you hear them, then move on.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the conversation you are in. If you are merely using a hashtag to introduce a new idea, be honest about that.
  • Offer support to the writers and editors who throw themselves out there. We live in a democracy where unpopular ideas sometimes emerge as good ones decades later. We depend on people to challenge conventional thinking.
  • Offer a diversity of opinions. You don’t necessarily have to do it all on the same day. And it won’t buy you credibility with everyone. But if over time, you can demonstrate provocative, well-written, original opinions across a wide spectrum, your audience will keep coming back.
  • Admit it and fix it when you make a mistake, whether it was a miscalculation in tone or a misinterpretation of data. No sense handing people the stick to beat you with.
Read more
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Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013

Correspondent Lara Logan of "60 Minutes" is on a leave of absence following an internal review by CBS News of her story on the Benghazi embassy attack. (AP Photo/Robert Spencer)

CBS memos suggest Logan had bias, but don’t say why no one addressed it

The CBS memos from Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, and Al Ortiz, executive director of standards and practices, suggest that correspondent Lara Logan had a preconceived bias that prevented her from fully vetting her source before airing his story about the attack on the Benghazi embassy compound that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

But the leaked memos don’t explain why Logan’s superiors allowed her to pursue the story in the first place and why others at CBS didn’t compensate for her potential blind spots.

CBS announced the unspecified leave of absence for Logan and her producer Max McClellan. The Huffington Post ran memos from both Fager and Ortiz. Ortiz offered a summary of CBS’ findings that included these points:

  • It was possible to know that Dylan Davies’ account to the FBI was inconsistent with what he told CBS.
  • Logan and McClellan did not try to tap into the wider resources at CBS to get at the FBI information.
  • That Logan had good sources for her claim that Al Qaeda was behind the attack but that she didn’t cite them in the story.
  • That Logan’s public assertion more than a year earlier that the U.S. government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda indicated that she had created a conflict that should have precluded her from further reporting on the story.

Ortiz doesn’t specifically say that Logan’s bias is to blame, but he strongly implies it. The summary also doesn’t say why Logan and McClellan didn’t do more to check out Davies’ story, how they explain that failure, or why the broader system within CBS didn’t kick in to rescue the reporting team from their blind spots.

Fager states in his memo, “I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have.”

It’s a bit unsatisfying that CBS can’t answer these questions. A news organization can’t possibly remove the blind spots from every staff member. Instead, the key is to create a system that identifies biases and compensates for them. It’s not so bad that Logan had a preconceived notion of what went wrong. What’s bad is that she didn’t use her extensive reporting skills to confirm what she thought were facts. And what’s worse is that the newsroom systems of editing and fact-checking didn’t kick in to force her to do so.

Logan’s original “60 Minutes” report had two significant elements. The first part of the report reviewed previous assertions that Stevens and his staff had expressed concerns over the security situation in Benghazi. The second element was Davies’ unique (and questionable) account of the attack that night.

We now know that Davies’ dramatic account of the attack is at best suspicious. But we don’t know whether to dismiss his and others’ claims about what happened before the attack. Because Davies’ turns out to be such an unreliable source, and because the political rhetoric around the attack and the U.S. military’s response to it has been so explosive, it is virtually impossible for the average citizen to sort out what happened and who was or wasn’t doing their jobs.

CBS’ high-profile failure on this story further clouds an already murky conversation in the public marketplace of ideas.

This is the real consequence of reporting failures. In a politically charged debate, where opinion peddlers are constantly making assertions about what happened and who was responsible, the possibility of grasping the truth slips away for the average citizen.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect spelling for Max McClellan’s name. Read more


Thursday, May 09, 2013

Beth Serrano

How journalists can provide fair coverage when reporting on rape charge in Cleveland case

Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus are household names. The three women, freed from a house in Cleveland after they were separately kidnapped as teenagers about a decade ago, are the central characters in a story that has dominated the news this week and will likely pop up sporadically for years.

All three are survivors of a stolen life and a failed police investigation. Police charges filed Wednesday confirmed that investigators believe all three are sexual assault survivors as well. Unlike most sexual assault victims, all three will be the opposite of anonymous in the media.

Their names are central to their story, and that cannot be avoided.

As details of their ordeal come out — through formal charges, investigative documents, personal interviews and leaks — journalists and others will have to decide what, if any, privacy can be attained for these survivors. Here are a few things journalists can do to report fairly on this difficult story.

  • 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 victims. 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.

When we don’t name people who have been sexually assaulted, we spare them from the shame and stigma associated with the crime of rape.

But in some cases, we can’t avoid naming victims, especially when their names are so central to the story. Think Elizabeth Smart. Then compare that story the recent case involving the Steubenville football players. Both were high-profile cases. But the Steubenville case followed common newsroom protocols of not naming victims. The Smart case did not.

Stories like the one in Cleveland have the power to change our common understanding of rape. When rape accompanies other sensational crimes, like kidnapping, we seem to have fewer discussions about the victim’s culpability. We will name Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus as we tell their story and, for the most part, people won’t wonder why.

Because of the magnitude of their ordeal, they won’t be subject to the questioning and doubt that many rape victims endure. Over time, maybe their stories will help extend that acknowledgement of suffering to other victims who have an entirely different experience. Read more


Thursday, Mar. 07, 2013


Most everyone gets asked to write for free, only some people say yes

The debate over how much professional writers should be paid — sparked by Atlantic’s request to publish Nathan Thayer’s work without paying him — is a window into how dramatically the Internet has changed the system of creating and distributing news and opinion.

What’s a writer’s work worth? After reading dozens of posts, hundreds of tweets, lurking in an online chat, and talking to two of my favorite freelancers, I can tell you this: It’s complicated. Really, really complicated.

The Internet, it seems, has totally messed up a simple pay scale. Back in the day, freelancers got paid roughly by the word. Sometimes it was as low as 10 cents a word. Everyone was shooting for $1 a word, and some people got more than that. Hotshots might get $10,000-$20,000 for a fabulous magazine piece. There was a lot of variation, but there was also a standard rate that people were shooting for.

Now, trying to pin down how much a writer should be paid is an impossible task. It’s simply unknowable.

“I had this notion that, after six months of freelancing, I was going to set a ‘base rate’ and stick to it,’’ former editor turned freelance writer Ann Friedman told me during a gchat Wednesday (while she was on a plane).  “And now that seems so funny to me. I decide whether to pursue or accept work based on a whole host of factors.”

Like what? Friedman said she’ll go below her established rate if she has other money coming in, if it’s an outlet she really likes, if it’s an editor who will help her grow as a writer, if it’s a publication where she’s trying to get a foot in the door, if it’s a steady gig, if it’s a piece she really wants to write and no one seems willing to pay for it, or if “I get to put the goddamn New Yorker on my clips page.”

(Disclosure: We arranged to pay Friedman for a chapter in an upcoming book. We paid substantially below her established rate and we’re afraid to ask why she agreed to do it.)

By contrast, Beatriz Terrazas, a writer and visual storyteller, former Nieman fellow and Dallas Morning News reporter and photographer, doesn’t work for free anymore, ever. But she does occasionally write for very little money.

“If you as a publisher feel you don’t need to pay or can’t pay for content, it seems to me you don’t value that work,” she said in a phone interview. “And if you don’t value it, how can you justify it to your readers, or your audience, or your advertisers?”

Publishers clearly have the upper hand. Ever since Mayhill Fowler quit the Huffington Post when she still couldn’t command a price after breaking a number of stories that headlined the 2008 presidential election, it’s been clear that good writing and intriguing information can be had for very little.

When everybody has a blog, or at the very least a Facebook page, fresh ideas are widely distributed and manage to float to the top of the marketplace of ideas surprisingly fast. Felix Salmon points out that “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made its way to both the Huffington Post and Gawker, where it was seen and liked by millions.

That’s the beauty and the bane of a digital universe. When everything had to be published on paper, the hole was finite, the profit margins substantial, and the process for finding content more discerning. Now the amount of space to be filled is infinite, profit margins are miniscule and the process for finding content is like running on a hamster wheel.

We end up in a world where Thayer’s expertise on North Korea has to compete with the personal narratives of mom bloggers – at least in theory. In practice, the marketplace for an individual writer’s work is wider than it ever has been. Hundreds of factors impact specific demand, including reputation, experience, skill, reliability, talent, availability, and uniqueness.

It’s easy to tell a young writer to write for cheap or free. It’s harder to say the same thing to an experienced writer. But if anything can be said about this new reality, it’s that the scale slides for everyone. The more experienced you get with the whims of the market, the more competent you will be at negotiating the best price for your work.

Related discussion

  • Om Malik, GigaOm: “…if you are going to take freelance contributions, then pay something — just as a sign of respect (if not the true worth) of a writer’s capability.”
  • Editors and writers debate the numbers: How much should a writer be paid?
  • Paul Carr, PandoDaily: “The reason professional journalists need to be paid is not because money somehow magically makes them better at their job, but because real journalism is their job.”
  • Stephanie Lucianovic, The Atlantic Wire: “Every piece I write has the potential to be a paid piece. I want every piece to be a paid piece, but the messed-up reality is that it just doesn’t always work out that way.”
  • Atlantic senior editor Alexis Madrigal responds and elaborates: “…the biz ain’t what it used to be, but then again, for most people, it never really was.”
Read more

Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013


It’ll take a village to redeem Jonah Lehrer, not just repentance

Jonah Lehrer played to his strengths Tuesday when he lectured and apologized at a Knight Foundation lunch. But in his extended examination of conscience, he lost sight of his own flaws and missed his opportunity to really explain and remedy what happened in his spectacular downfall.

Lehrer concluded that he needs rules, and he will in the future impose rigid rules of fact-checking on himself to avoid the mistakes he made. “Standard operating procedures will one day restore the trust I have lost,” he said.

I don’t think the rules are enough. Lehrer needs a community. He needs a group of peers, of equals, to challenge his ego and inspire his creativity.

His speech Tuesday was at times like reading a good Lehrer article. He explained the pathology of scientific weakness and human self-deception. He quoted Charles Darwin and told a story about tragic and avoidable mistakes made by FBI forensics experts.

But the mistakes he described were mistakes of “confirmation bias,” the kind of mistakes you make when you think you know what the answer is and as a result, you dismiss contradictory evidence. And sure, journalists have that problem.

But Lehrer’s problems were creativity failures. In his quest to become the great science writer he set out to be, he fabricated stuff. He copied work from himself and others and passed it off as genuinely new and original.

The disconnect between what he did and how he proposes to redeem himself was difficult to spot, because at the beginning of his speech, Lehrer gave an accurate litany of his transgressions:

I’m the author of a book on creativity that contains several fabricated Bob Dylan quotes. I committed plagiarism on my blog, taking without credit or citation an entire paragraph from the blog of Christian Jarrett. I’ve plagiarized from myself. I lied to a journalist named Michael Moynihan to covered up the Dylan fabrications.

Yet, as the speech went on, Lehrer told stories of scientific failures that were not the result of outright deceptions; they were failures of self-delusion. The failures that Lehrer suggests were parallel to his own, like the FBI agents who mistakenly who locked up an innocent man as a result of bad fingerprint analysis, were not the same.

Lehrer said his own examination of his flaws started with an attempt to describe and name what “part” was broken. His conclusion:

My arrogance, my desire for attention, my willingness to take shortcuts (provided I don’t think anyone else will notice), my carelessness matched with the ability to explain my carelessness away, my tendency to believe my own excuses.

These are all flaws that many journalists struggle with. This list would work if he had repeatedly misinterpreted data or accidentally attributed a real quote to the wrong person. But Lehrer didn’t do that. He wrote sentences down, put quote marks around them and attributed them to Bob Dylan. An entire paragraph written by another person made its way into his work. Other sentences and paragraphs were recycled and posited as originals.

While a rigid fact-checking system, a “standard operating procedure,” as he called it, might catch such deceptions in the future before they make it into publication, it won’t address the underlying problem of dishonesty.

Knight Foundation President and CEO Alberto Ibargüen’s first question to Lehrer laid bare the flaws in Lehrer’s thinking. Ibargüen asked Lehrer about the role arrogance played in his downfall, and he pushed Lehrer to draw a parallel to the arrogance granting organizations in the audience might succumb to when funding new projects.

Lehrer replied that his problems stemmed from a disinterest in grappling with his mistakes. He returned to Darwin’s method of confronting confirmation bias. Lehrer’s inability to completely label his own failure is a liability.

During his prepared remarks, he told a story about some research he was reporting on that suggests that everybody cheats, given the opportunity. Looking back, he told the audience that he was blind to his own flaws, using the detachment of the third person to condemn others as weak because, “It’s all too easy to shade the truth … to engage in the dirty business of rationalization.”

That revelation, he said, led him to his remedy.

“If I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others,” he said. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong if only so that I can show myself that I am willing to listen. That is the test that matters, not the absence of error, but a willingness to deal with it.”

With this statement, Lehrer comes so close. But rather than tapping into the necessity of human relationships in the creative process, he assigns them the role of policing his work.

Communities provide a constant loop of feedback, not just on the product heading for publication, but on the method for coming up with ideas, on the ideas themselves and on the behavior that we exhibit as we execute the research and writing.

That’s why many solo writers seek out communities of other writers, to test their drafts. We’ve all got flaws that we are constantly in the process of addressing. Those flaws turn into fatal flaws when no one is challenging you on them, or you accumulate so much power you can easily dismiss your critics, especially the ones who know and love you.

Rules are great for setting a base level of expectations in journalism. Get things right, correct them when you get them wrong. Check your quotes. Allow your sources and other experts to give you feedback on the premise of your work. Those are rules that provide for a lowest common denominator of expectations.

But rules won’t help anyone address their most fatal flaws. For that, we need relationships with other human beings, editors, work friends, writing colleagues. Because writing is inherently isolating and can make us insecure, it’s easier to go solo, distancing ourselves from these relationships. And I suspect that’s the path that Lehrer found most comfortable.

Community — close friends, colleagues, cyber acquaintances — serve better as partners than as a police force. Read more

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