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

The short shelf life of today’s heroes, in sports and in journalism

Michael Wilbon was on ESPN radio discussing Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o when he posed this rhetorical question: “What is the shelf life of a hero today?”

An excellent question: What is the shelf life of heroes in a world overflowing with instant communications, the need for instant gratification, and instant (and too often bitter, obscene and mean-spirited) rebuttals?

The talk show conversation and Wilbon’s question registered a stronger reaction than it may have on other days; it came at a time when I was thinking about one of my personal heroes, Gene Patterson, at a time when the news of his death was still raw.

There was a time when the answer seemed so simple, in the long ago years when we cheered for Johnny Lujack, the All America quarterback and the Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon; when we listened on the radio to Joe Louis’ latest victory or President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, or in theaters watched Sugar Ray Robinson, who may have had some flaws outside the ring but was unflawed inside the ropes.

Or when we lived vicariously through Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Mr. Inside for Army, who graduated from high school with my oldest brother. Or certainly when we tuned into KMOX from St. Louis and visualized the quiet man Stan Musial crouched at the plate, a cobra in baseball knickers ready to strike. Or when we first saw a Brookhaven, Miss., high school kid named Lance Alworth and realized we had witnessed unmatched athletic talent of any generation, or a Louisiana youth named Billy Cannon.

And for someone who grew up working on my dad’s weekly newspaper, Hap Glaudi and Bill Keefe, New Orleans sports columnists, Turner Catledge, who also started his journey on a Mississippi weekly and rose to become executive editor of The New York Times, Hodding Carter, the courageous Mississippi Delta editor, and my dad provided enough day dreams about the future to keep me going.

But most of all, there were the heroes who went off to wars:

  • My Godmother, who served as a nurse in World War Two and came home an Army major.
  • Her brothers, one in the Navy and one in the Marines, who, one or the other, fought in and survived every Pacific battle, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day.
  • My cousin Donald, who was more of a brother and who is buried in Normandy.
  • Five brothers who wore various uniforms and served during various wars
  • And so many more from that small town we shared.

Then as we aged and became more selective of those we admired, mentors and colleagues filled a number of the slots. My thank-you card is jammed with the names of the men and women who served as teachers, who enriched my career with their contributions, who gave unselfishly of their wisdom — mentors such as Gene Patterson, Pulitzer Prize winner, an officer under General Patton, an editor of courage, whose moral compass always pointed in the right direction.

He is gone, but the lessons he left to so many of us who admired him will live on. He seemed to always know what to do and what to say when you needed a guardian angel. You never had to ask. And he was an editor to the end, even in his hospice bed, cutting a half-million words from the Old Testament and publishing it through Amazon. “I always wanted to read it completely, but I never could get through it, “ he told me. “Now I can.”

Hearing him speak on subject after subject was pure joy. Perhaps another friend put it best when he said that after listening to Gene one night talking about journalism, the Constitution, ethics, Broadway, the Bible, and also filling the evening with laughter, he felt he had graduated to the big boys’ table. I felt that way every time we interacted.

Gene would reject the label of hero. But he was one to me, as were and are a number of others who have acted and often sacrificed to make a difference in people’s lives.

So maybe the answer to Wilbon’s question is simple after all: Be selective and sparing about whom you put on the shelf in the first place. Then you won’t have to ask how long they will remain there. Read more

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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013

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Sports journalism faces moment of truth in week of Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o hoax

Almost exactly a year ago, “This American Life” did what it did best: ran a story that tugged at the heartstrings and enraptured its audience. The piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” so perfectly suited TAL’s storytelling style, none of the talented journalists on staff took enough time to wonder if it might in fact be a lie.

And of course it was a lie. Mike Daisey did not uncover underage or disfigured workers in China, a fact that should have become obvious under proper scrutiny. At the time, it seemed like too good a story to let fact-checking get in the way. “This American Life” would deeply regret that decision.

This week, the entire field of sports journalism is facing a similar moment of self-reflection after learning that several reputable journalists unwittingly helped spread the tragic — and completely false — story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend.

Deadspin’s jaw-dropping deconstruction of the Lennay Kekua hoax on Wednesday called out a litany of top-tier news outlets for spreading the story of a grieving Heisman candidate and his beautiful girlfriend lost to leukemia. Mentioned by name in the piece were Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The Los Angeles Times, The South Bend Tribune, “CBS This Morning,” The New York Post and Fox Sports. There were, of course, many others who carried stories about Te’o and Kekua, turning the fiction into a widely accepted reality.

It was a painful and embarrassing day for the mainstream sports media, doubly disheartened by the fact they were disrobed by — shame of shames! — a blog. It also broke the same week that Lance Armstrong owned up to a career full of infractions, which some observers felt were tacitly suppressed by U.S. sports journalists who were overly dubious of doping allegations against a beloved national hero.

It’s a gut-check moment for sports reporters, and if they’re wise, they’ll use this opportunity to do three things “This American Life” did when it ended up in a similar situation last year.

Full transparency and accountability

When “This American Life” host Ira Glass learned that one of his own public radio colleagues, Marketplace’s China correspondent Rob Schmitz, had serious concerns about “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” Glass quickly green-lit a follow-up investigative piece helmed by Schmitz himself.

On March 16, 2012, “This American Life” aired an episode called “Retraction,” in which the staff spent the better part of an hour picking apart their own failed fact-checking and (albeit too late) cornering Daisey into kinda, sorta admitting that yeah, maybe he made a lot of that stuff up. It was a painful hour of radio for any journalist to hear, but it was a far more painful hour for the “This American Life” crew to record.

“I and my co-workers here at ‘This American Life’, we are not happy to have done anything to hurt the reputation of the journalism that happens on this radio station every day,” Glass told listeners. “So we want to be completely transparent about what we got wrong and what we now believe is the truth.”

Each news outlet that ran the Te’o-Kekua story owes it to its readers to give a similar full accounting of why it did not appropriately check the story’s veracity. So far, the process is off to a slow start.

Initial coverage of Deadspin’s exposé by the news outlets involved has primarily highlighted Notre Dame’s version of events: that Te’o was the blameless victim of an online scam. If you have faith in Deadpsin’s coverage, then this explanation is riddled with holes that journalists should be prodding mercilessly. If Te’o never met his cyber-girlfriend, why did the South Bend Tribune describe them meeting after a 2009 game in Palo Alto? Why did Te’o’s dad tell the same newspaper that Te’o and Kekua would meet in Hawaii to spend time together?

The first test of transparency for these news outlets will be the level of skepticism they bring to bear on the emerging narrative favored by Te’o and Notre Dame. To its credit, The South Bend Tribune is obviously working quickly and dilligently to put the pieces together and find out why they were fed information from Teo’s father that simply couldn’t have been true.

Improved process

When I was a regional news reporter for an Indiana daily, I once had to interview a small-town editor in our coverage area after his newspaper helped raise money to send a young cancer-stricken girl to Disney World. During her trip, a relative revealed to the paper that the cancer was likely an elaborate hoax by the girl’s mother. Sure enough, the story quickly unraveled, and the mother was soon in police custody.

“I don’t want to live in a world where I have to ask a mother to prove that her daughter has cancer,” the editor told me. But he then proceeded to list all the procedural safeguards he had put in place in the newsroom to keep something similar from happening again. He didn’t want to live in that world, but he knew he had to.

 

Harpo Studios Inc. provided the Associated Press with this photo of cyclist Lance Armstrong with Oprah Winfrey during the taping of their interview in Austin, Texas. The two-part episode of “Oprah’s Next Chapter” will air nationally Thursday and Friday, Jan. 17-18, 2013. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc., George Burns)

“This American Life” also moved fact-checking to the fore, even when it meant asking difficult questions of people in sensitive situations. A TAL piece in June 2012 about comedian Jackie Clarke’s highly dysfunctional family, for example, ended with Ira Glass detailing all the ways his staff had tried to confirm her story with her estranged relatives. It was an awkward coda, breaking the storytelling structure by closing with footnotes and minutia, but it was one of the clearest signs that the program had learned to put accuracy above narrative.

Sports journalists are clearly dealing with a similar realization. ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski seemed half-contrite, half-naïve when he explained to “SportsCenter” why he ran with the Te’o-Kekua story despite a lack of factual evidence to back it up:

Well, I sat across from him and I was moved by his story and it was heartbreaking and heartwarming and as it turns out totally untrue. But short of asking to see a death certificate, I’m not sure what most people would do differently in that case.

He later says that he asked for photos of Kekua and contact info from her family, but backed off when Te’o didn’t want to supply them. When a story requires no factual support despite a lack of what should be obvious evidence, it’s clear that there is little or no process in place for ensuring accuracy.

Earnest self-reflection

When “This American Life” ran its retraction and apology, Glass sounded like a man who had been sucker-punched by his own child. He was clearly exhausted from a week not only of intensive reporting but also intensive reflection. He had revisited the moments that led to his error in judgment, and he had judged himself guilty.

“We should have killed the story right there and then,” Glass admitted. “And to do anything else was a screw-up.”

It’s never easy to admit you screwed up. It’s far easier to find excuses, like being lied to or misdirected by an otherwise reliable source. The easy way out for news outlets who wrote about Te’o and Kekua would be to write about Notre Dame’s version of events and move on. But that would leave too many questions unaddressed – questions more important than who was behind Te’o’s fictional girlfriend.

Sports journalism has always inhabited a murky ethical zone that can make hard-news reporters uneasy. By nature of their jobs, sports reporters typically have a closer relationship with the players, coaches, venues and institutions they cover compared to their peers on the City Hall or crime beats. Their rules on everything from free food to fraternizing with sources are often more liberal than those for news reporters.

But this relaxed approach to sports coverage — which certainly isn’t universal — is only part of the problem. More problematic these days is the fact that sports writers and producers are always on the hunt for a narrative, something that can elevate games above boring statistics and leaderboard shuffling.

All journalists love telling a good story, but sports coverage and presentation have become reliant on it. A game can’t just be a series of pre-prepared tactics and random interventions of chance. These days, it needs to be a clash of iconic personalities, the heroes of our modern mythology playing out their epic storylines one installment at a time.

In the case of Manti Te’o, the quest for a storyline appears to have clouded the judgment of otherwise sensible journalists. And Notre Dame helped fuel the story, likely hoping that it would make Te’o a more compelling case for a Heisman.

While Te’o so far denies knowing his girlfriend was fake, it seems from Deadspin’s coverage that he (or at least his father) continued to spool out more details of his faux relationship as it became clear how much positive press it was generating for him and his team. In other words, each piece of the sports machine benefited from the narrative, and in the end each suffered for it.

It is my hope that this week – the week of Armstrong and Te’o – sports journalists across the country will have vigorous debates among themselves and their colleagues about how they should approach their work. That process begins by admitting there is a problem — several, in fact. Read more

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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013

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Gene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism: ‘Get over the pain, new stuff happens’

In late November 2012, Eugene Patterson, who died Saturday, prepared his thoughts about journalism in advance of a visit from an old friend. His edited reflections are reproduced here, direct from Patterson’s IBM Wheelwriter typewriter.

Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling.

How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. Technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Journalists breaking out of the wreckage of old news delivery ways carry in their bones known elements of the character which, in handling news, needs to be.

Be truthful; if it hurts, just say ow.

Be fair; let all speak.

Be ethical; if it feels wrong, it is.

Be careful; get facts right.

Be skeptical; ask, what’s missing here?

Be above conflict; if in doubt, don’t.

Be beyond price; fear no threatener, favor no pal.

Be an example of integrity; people know it when you show it.

Be vigilant; to defend the First Amendment, deliver on its purpose: question authority; watch the empowered; right wrongs.

And be easy in the going; clasp the comical, and dance it around the floor.

We aren’t just saying the Sunday school lessons here while the church burns. We’re fighting the fire. Salvage the steeple, reshingle roof that’s left, and keep a lot of kneelers. Start the annex and pay the preacher frugally to match the faint rattle of the current collection plate. Cut your sackcloth to fit the pattern. Believe in gladsome days to come.

News work in the new era is bound to ask more and pay less until new revenue can rise.

The lower-cost newsroom is likely to be limited to a compact cadre of the expert few, directing a force of carefully chosen free lancers. They used to be called stringers. They had day jobs but earned a little extra by calling in the happenings in their places. They gained hometown stature as correspondents for bigtown media, and their bigtown editors tapped their local knowledge while professionally shaping their stories. The editors verified facts and scrapped junk. This certified it as community journalism, not prattle. Cost was a pittance compared to the expense of fulltime staffers. An elite few of staffers will still parachute in to cover the big ones. But day-to-day expense for people must come down until revenues can revive. Coverage can be kept up by the time-tried means at hand. Giving it up is not an option. Among smaller tragedies, that would leave nothing for the aggregators to curate.

Editors looking to whisk up savings are already syndicating their staff writers’ accounts of events within their states. Thus they cover more of the distant stories at less cost by swapping and sharing their staffs’ work. Sorry, sports: that includes you. For a little competitive pride lost, a lot of sinew in news reach balloons.

Scratching for revenue at newspapers extends through advertising and circulation to the pressroom where commercial printing may put idle iron to use. The country weekly of my Depression boyhood printed individual labels for farmers paying to paste their names on their half-gallon tin cans of syrup when they boiled up a kettlefull at cane grinding time.

Back at the ranch, all of this still leaves some bunks open for the skilled hands who can saddle up and sit the bronc of news that bolts bucking out of the chute daily.

For sure there’ll be hunters (to investigate wrongs), gatherers (to harvest the hay and bale it), explainers (to answer the reasons why), and commenters (to argue for a verdict). They can’t be afforded if they’re numerous. So the few will have to be good.

There’s no room for the ordinary in the future news medium that earns dominance in its community, whatever its delivery system looks like.

Arid acres of jump page stuff will now be continued to a link after a couple of paragraphs. Explanatory journalism is the new spot news. Wired readers are already up to their who-where’s in what happened. They want to know why and how come, reliably. That’s what they’ll buy, along with sensible comment so nimble they’ll eagerly make it regular reading for pleasure. Think Krugman, Dowd, Nocera, and certainly Gail Collins, as you’ll know unless you’re strapped to the roof of a car somebody’s driving to Canada.

Commit to signed columns. They connect a community to a living person, not an inanimate institution. The column is a daily hello, like its view or not. Its mortal sin is to bore. Write a yawner, you’re out of here. Writers of explanatory stories can rival comment columnists for readers’ favor if they excel. Call up personal journalism to reach the reader’s answering heart. Keep arm’s length from the conniver but let the reader come in close.

Opportunities will be ample when the press re-casts this page of its history. Get over the pain. New stuff happens.

We’ve crossed the edge of the information world before and found the horizon still beckons. The fearful saw the end of printed news first in radio, then in television, and here we are, still around answering the new alarms. Open mike talk shows, game shows, gossip and gore blew through before tweets, texts, posts and careless blogs gained primacy at wasting time.

Serious and saleable handling of news is feeling its way slowly but surely to modern means of delivery that will pay the cost of newsgathering. That’s inevitable because it’s essential. And the new product worth delivering has to carry forward its old character whose commandments are graven in the printer’s stone.

This statement by Gene Patterson lives in the courtyard of The Poynter Institute.
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Friday, Dec. 07, 2012

Tampa Bay Times looked for clues that source might commit suicide

When they learned of their source’s suicide, the Tampa Bay Times journalists who had recently published a story about Gretchen Molannen’s medical condition looked back over their communications for clues. But they found nothing, Tampa Bay Times Managing Editor Mike Wilson told me Thursday in an interview.

Molannen died some time between Thursday evening and Saturday evening. The story about her persistent state of sexual arousal was posted online Friday and was distributed in the printed edition of the paper on Sunday.

“We had concerns about Gretchen as a person because we knew she had attempted to take her life before,” Wilson said. The paper “sought to find out if she felt strong enough, well enough to talk about this issue with us.”

Molannen repeatedly reassured the Times journalists that she was committed to the story, Wilson said.

Leonora LaPeter Anton listened to Molannen tell her story for three and half hours during their first interview, Wilson said. Molannen called later and advised Anton that a friend had advised her to withdraw her consent. But Molannen did just the opposite. She told Anton she wanted to see the story published.

In reply, Anton stressed to Molannen that it really was her choice, Wilson said. More than a month passed and the two had no contact. As the publication date for the story approached, Anton reconnected with Molannen, Wilson said, and took the unusual step of reading her the story word-for-word. The reporter wanted her source to know exactly what the story would say.

Journalists often tell stories of people who are emotionally debilitated by their circumstances, whether it is a war veteran, unemployed worker or a person suffering from a medical condition.

Wilson, who’s done some reading on suicide, pointed out that researchers have a very hard time predicting who, among those who’ve attempted suicide in the past, will commit suicide in the future. And it’s impossible to say the Times’ story was directly responsible.

When people commit suicide, the logic is complicated and researchers caution journalists and lay people to avoid drawing a direct line between one event and the suicide.

“It’s impossible to tell” if the story contributed to her choice to take her life, Wilson said. “Ultimately I think the question is beyond my understanding. I only know that I’m sorry she made the choice and that I’m proud our journalists treated her in a humane and sensitive way throughout.”

When reporters call me, concerned about a source’s mental health, I suggest this checklist:

  • Does this person seem to have a support system of family, friends or professionals?
  • Does she seem to be making rational choices in the rest of her life? Does she get out of bed? Eat? Go grocery shopping? Have normal interactions?
  • Can she imagine the story online? Does she understand how others will see and consume the story?
  • Have you asked her if she’s suicidal? (Professionals often say if you are worried about someone, ask. You can’t plant the idea to commit suicide by asking about it.)

Related: Suicide by source: What do you do when a story is followed by the worst possible outcome?

Reporters sometimes come up with creative alternatives, when they feel a source is in danger of harming himself. One reporter once called a law enforcement friend of a man he was about to expose as corrupt. Another gave a source the phone number to a mental health hotline. In cases where there is no urgent need to run a story, reporters often give a source a month or so to think about it and back out, as they did at The Times.

Gretchen Molannen’s story will stay online because the journalism holds up, Wilson said. Other people suffer from this condition and they get very little understanding, he said. The Times story has been updated to reflect Molannen’s death.

Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times though the two organizations operate independently under the same Chairman, Paul Tash. Read more

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Monday, Nov. 12, 2012

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Poynter concludes tenure as ESPN ombud with 6 lessons learned

With this column, the Poynter Review Project’s work comes to an end.

After nearly 40 columns reviewing ESPN content across all platforms, we’ll close with lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, examining their successes and failures, and investigating how ESPN works (and sometimes doesn’t).

We offer these observations not just as a starting point for the networks’ next ombudsman but also because it’s increasingly ESPN’s own viewers and readers who serve in that role, sharing their links, thoughts and criticism in real time. This is a relatively new phenomenon for ESPN and other media companies, and ESPNers are of two minds about the torrent of discussion, simultaneously appreciating being the center of so much conversation and worrying about a discourse they can’t control.

We hope what we’ve learned will help readers and viewers understand ESPN better, so they can make more informed judgments — whatever those judgments may be — about the network’s decisions.

ESPN isn’t a monolith

ESPN’s television presence includes multiple channels. ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes and ESPNU stand alongside the likes of the Longhorn Network, the broadband channel ESPN3 and the many flavors of ESPN International. The same could be said for ESPN’s digital operations. ESPN.com gets most of the attention, but there’s also espnW, Grantland, the quintet of powerful local city sites, and overseas, sport-specific outposts such as ESPNFC.com. And we haven’t even mentioned ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Radio, the company’s 30 for 30 documentaries or the unrelenting waves of information ESPN pushes out to mobile subscribers.

Why should readers and viewers keep this startling breadth in mind? Because we all fall into the trap of thinking about ESPN as a monolithic organization with a single point of view, mission and set of values. That’s a reflection of ESPN’s brand power, not the day-to-day reality of what sometimes happens there. To think there is a single ESPN can leave you baffled by ESPN’s decisions, making it tempting to ascribe motive and agency to what sometimes are the mixed messages, mistakes and messy realities of a very big organization pursuing different agendas.

Yes, the ESPN brand is amazingly strong. As its networks and media properties proliferated and diversified, “ESPN” should have become an increasingly meaningless umbrella brand — but that hasn’t happened. Instead, those four letters have proven more powerful than the divergent missions they encompass.

But the strength of that brand can blind us to the fact that ESPN is a news organization, an entertainment company, a broadcast partner for sports leagues and a business in its own right — and each of those areas has massive power and reach. On top of that, ESPN is constantly acquiring and shedding other media operations and services, such as those that rank high school recruits or create events like the X Games.

It’s a big family, with different priorities and cultures, and most of the time ESPN maintains an uneasy balance between those competing entities. But sometimes they wind up working at cross-purposes or get eclipsed by each other. And some of ESPN’s worst moments have come when things fall out of balance, as we would argue they did with Tebowmania and most famously with the debacle that was “The Decision.”

Repetition is method as well as madness

If you watch large blocks of ESPN, you sometimes feel like you’re being cudgeled, subjected to the same stories and narratives over and over again with only the name of the show and the identities of the hosts changing. But here’s the thing: Most ESPN viewers don’t watch this way. They’re more likely to watch a show or two, not an entire afternoon’s worth of programming, and ESPN’s programming strategies are tailored for them.

Wall-to-wall ESPN watchers are outliers, with a very different experience from that of mainstream viewers. But they’re also the people most likely to tweet and blog about the company. This means vocal megafans (not to mention media critics and ombudsmen) have a big social-media footprint that considerably outweighs their value to ESPN as viewers.

That’s important to keep in mind when criticizing ESPN for putting a story in heavy rotation; the network’s strategy is designed to catch viewers who tune in for a single show or game, or drop in and out even within individual shows. Churn is ESPN’s challenge; its producers must figure out how to hold the attention of ever-shifting amalgamations of viewers, so they think of this fickle, ephemeral audience almost as if it’s made up of on-demand viewers, viewers who don’t want to wait long to hear about the big story in sports.

This is not to excuse ESPN’s excesses (again, we’re looking at you, Tebowmania). And it highlights the fact that ESPN’s reach gives it a critical responsibility as a news organization. Even in today’s universe of websites and blogs, lack of attention from ESPN can starve a story, and repetition by ESPN can amplify one until other stories feel crowded out.

ESPN deserves criticism for its excesses, and it must remain aware of its power in creating and shaping the dominant narratives in sports news. But if you’re one of those wall-to-wall viewers, understanding the network’s perspective on programming and audiences makes it clearer why certain stories and subjects are repeated until they can feel inescapable.

We get the ESPN we deserve

With a few exceptions, during our tenure, we shied away from media criticism except where ESPN’s own standards and practices came into question. Media criticism wasn’t our job, and there’s no shortage of thoughtful critics keeping an eye on ESPN.

But we still got an earful of such criticism from readers who emailed us. And some of what they consistently decried came down to questions of taste — which, ultimately, are questions about ratings.

For example, take comments from “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith at the recent Blogs With Balls conference. We once called “Numbers Never Lie” a bait and switch — a show that purports to be about advanced stats but is really just another venue for arguments about heart, momentum and other sports generalities.

Smith’s comments at the conference fell along similar lines: He said that “Numbers Never Lie” began with different goals but “now is a debate show, like most other shows on ESPN. … I hate to say it’s not about analytics, but it’s not about analytics.”

Unfortunate, but why did that happen? Because, Smith said, ESPN’s research found most viewers didn’t want to watch a show with statistics that had to be explained to them. We’ve heard similar things from other ESPNers; they like smart, dispassionate shows such as “Outside the Lines” as much as we do, but those shows don’t consistently pull in the ratings of, say, “First Take.”

A steady diet of debate shows rather than programs such as “Outside the Lines” might strike some viewers and critics as an unfortunate choice; we said as much, in fact. But such choices don’t amount to violations of ESPN’s standards.

Yes, ESPN “plays the hits,” to use the expression we heard a number of times. But television is a hits-driven business. The real question might not be why we get so few shows such as OTL – it’s why we get such shows at all. If readers want such fare — say, more “30 for 30” and less “Around the Horn” — they need to vote with their remotes.

The Bristol bubble

There really is a Bristol bubble – the central Connecticut town that houses ESPN’s ever-expanding campus is a nice place but not particularly exciting, offering little to do except eat, sleep and breathe ESPN. This setting — and the sheer unlikeliness of what ESPN’s founders imagined — has shaped the network, and continues to do so.

It was a bubble we ourselves found difficult to penetrate. Quite simply, from our perspective, there’s a wariness of outsiders — including, at times, the Poynter Review Project — that runs deep through ESPN, and we think it’s amplified by setting.

In ESPN’s early days, the forced insularity of Bristol life fostered a scrappy us-against-them attitude that was a big asset for ESPN, as well as creating a certain boys-will-be-boys cabin fever that the network came to regard as a problem. Those wild days are largely gone, and it’s been a very long time since ESPN could be called scrappy. But some prominent ESPNers date back to that era, and both those times and Bristol continue to shape how they see the world.

We don’t want to overdo the psychoanalysis on this point, but it’s a mindset we think is worth keeping in mind when trying to assess ESPN’s decisions, particularly how it reacts to outside criticism.

The numbers game

In a given year, more than 1,000 content contributors — anchors, reporters, columnists and analysts – provide coverage across ESPN properties. If you count guests who call in or contribute via satellite on breaking news stories, the number tops 5,000. Most of its entities are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. ESPN.com says it posts more than 800 new content items a day.

With numbers that large, the standards for quality of writing, reporting, editing, production as well as for fairness and accuracy, evolve with the platform. There’s a lower bar for information that makes it onto Rumor Central on ESPN.com, for example, than for what appears on “SportsCenter” — and that’s as it should be.

But because the ESPN brand is so powerful, when someone makes a mistake in the middle of the night on a relatively obscure blog (such as a notorious “KKK-Rod” lead-in that lived online long enough for someone to get a screen grab), critics react as if the error had happened on “SportsCenter” during prime time.

Yes, ESPN makes mistakes every day, mistakes of commission and of omission. But given the amount of content ESPN produces, daily mistakes are neither surprising nor necessarily alarming. The question isn’t whether ESPN makes mistakes; it’s what kind of mistake, and what ESPN does about them.

Is there a pattern of young editors using racially charged language carelessly in the middle of the night? (There have been two such cases this year, a number we’d classify as in the gray area between “isolated incidents” and “troublesome pattern.”)

Are slips of the tongue treated differently when anchors relatively low on the totem pole make them, compared with what happens to high-profile personalities? Are there types of stories in which ESPN is slow to recognize the broader significance of the issues involved?

It’s hard to judge because ESPN rarely reveals the internal changes it makes in response to external criticism. Often we heard privately that policies were being revised and training was being implemented. But even then, we were often told those changes had been under review before any external scrutiny.

Early in the tenure of the Poynter Review Project, ESPN issued a revised Standards and Practices manual, which addressed many of the contemporary issues, including social media protocols and endorsement guidelines. So it’s clear the network is listening and adjusting, when necessary. The leadership just seemed reluctant to publicly connect the dots between cause and effect.

Maybe that’s the competitive nature of the sports culture or the fact that there is a financial advantage to keeping some internal conversations private. Or perhaps that’s the Bristol bubble at work.

Whatever the case, ESPN can be secretive about its internal operations, often to a fault, when your stated goal is transparency. That doesn’t help its image — or its brand — in a supersaturated media world in which both critics and consumers increasingly expect openness and responsiveness.

The big picture

ESPN’s critics seize on every mistake, which can make the company’s editors, producers and PR folks defensive at times. That’s understandable; it’s not easy waking up each morning knowing you’re a big target.

But to put it simply … tough. ESPN’s sheer size and power demand such scrutiny. Media analyst SNL Kagan estimates ESPN will make $8.2 billion in revenue this year. It controls the rights to a huge range of live sports, using that content as fuel for its sports-information engine. ESPN’s fulfillment of its ambitions in recent years has been nothing sort of breathtaking. It understands the primacy of live sports rights in broadcasting today, has the financial muscle, in theory, to buy whatever rights it sees as necessary, and has the ambition to think on an amazing scale.

As a result, ESPN has come very close to being synonymous with sports in the United States, with its business deals reshaping the very landscape of college sports conferences, to name just one high-profile example of its power and influence.

This places considerable strain on its journalists.

ESPN draws lines between its news division and its business and production arms, and we never heard of an executive storming across that line and telling ESPN journalists what to do or what not to do. At its best, ESPN’s reporting is thorough and uncompromising about matters of great concern to its business partners: Take its recent series on football concussions, or the throw-the-script-away “SportsCenter” that followed the debacle of an NFL replacement ref’s blown call that cost Green Bay a victory in Seattle. Both storylines served fans and undermined the business interests of the NFL.

But although ESPN has sought to separate its divisions and so preserve its journalists’ integrity, there is a massive and inherent conflict of interest here, so the arrangement demands constant monitoring. Read more

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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012

Why ethics and diversity matter: The case of Trayvon Martin coverage

If anyone asks why ethnic, cultural and gender diversity is important in journalism, advocates have a ready answer: Greater diversity equals greater accuracy and fairness.

This belief is based, in part, on bitter experience. From turn-of-the-century lynchings in the American South to the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights protests in the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. history is filled with stories journalists got wrong because they excluded the perspectives of anyone who wasn’t a white male.

Coverage was so distorted during the civil rights era, newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi all apologized for their misguided work decades after the initial mistakes were made.

Beyond hurt feelings or appearances, a diverse newsroom better reflects the population, which enables fairer, more accurate or incisive reporting. But what if that idea isn’t entirely true?

Over the course of 2012, journalists faced a number of blockbuster news stories with race and culture difference at their core. And reporters stumbled over a host of pitfalls as their work was affected by the perspectives of those reporting the story and their audiences.
The shape of modern media has only multiplied these problems. With a range of politically partisan, specifically-targeted cable newschannels, social media platforms and websites adding to the noise, ethical journalists face even more complicated questions.

What separates an opinion journalist from a news reporter and a straight-up pundit? And what are the ethical requirements for each of these figures, especially in covering a race-based controversy?

In the age of Fox News Channel, the Huffington Post and Breitbart.com, is there such a thing as a completely honest broker in today’s news media?

This chapter will look at several race-centered news stories, examining the ethical flashpoints in each, suggesting better techniques going forward and exploring how these problems connect to larger issues at the intersection of race and journalism in the modern media age.

The biggest lesson at hand: leveraging diversity in newsrooms without ethical decision making, is a risky, partial solution.

Real success in covering race comes when perspectives are tempered by a clear strategy for preserving fairness and accuracy.

And the first story under examination, unsurprisingly, involves the fate of an unarmed 17-year-old male shot dead while walking back from a convenience store in a small, central Florida town.

Case Study: Dissecting Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman

What stands out about Trayvon Martin is how easily his name might not have become a household word.

Martin, 17, was shot dead by George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012 while walking to an apartment he was visiting at a subdivision in Sanford, Fla.

Later, after his case became a worldwide cause, people around the world learned the youth was unarmed, holding a bag of Skittles and a container of iced tea after a trip to a nearby convenience store.

Zimmerman was a volunteer neighborhood watch captain who killed the youth with a gun he was legally licensed to carry after they got in a fight; the state’s Stand Your Ground law provided possible justification for using lethal force if he felt his life was in jeopardy.

But one of the first reports on the shooting, an 86-word piece printed in the Orlando Sentinel Feb. 27, noted simply that “two men were arguing before shots were fired.” The next day, the newspaper published another, 152-word story naming Martin, citing his age and noting his Facebook page listed Miami as his hometown, quoting a local TV station’s report that there had been a fistfight before the shooting. But the newspaper didn’t name Zimmerman, it wrote, “because he has not been charged.”

By March 2, the Miami Herald had published a report noting erroneously that Martin was shot dead at a convenience store, quoting the teen’s uncle. It did name Zimmerman, but understated the 28 year old’s age by three years.

None of these stories, however, had the detail which would turn Martin’s case into an international media tsunami:

Martin was black and the shooter who killed him was not.

Race was the engine which turned Trayvon Martin’s death into the first story to briefly eclipse the presidential race in coverage during 2012; sparking “million hoodie” marches across the country (emulating the hooded jacket the teen was wearing when he was killed) and eventually costing Sanford police chief Bill Lee his job.

With the race difference, police reticence to arrest Zimmerman took on a new light, raising fears of a Southern town’s good ol’ boy network in action.

And journalists had an angle which could elevate the unfortunate shooting of a young boy into a story with implications about racial profiling, small town justice and the struggle for a working class, black family to get fair treatment from a mostly white police force and criminal justice system. …

Early Problems

Because people want race issues to be simple, often news stories centered on race are crafted simply, as well. They feature shocking tales complete with heroes, villains and injustice, often with people of color presented as the noble victims.

But the drive to fit real-life circumstances into these molds can be the enemy of ethical journalism, unless reporters are careful.

In the Trayvon Martin case, journalists quickly found themselves balancing conflicts between several different journalism values.

1) The social justice imperative: Journalists often seek to pursue social justice in their work, living up to Fourth Estate ideals of speaking up for those who lack power in society, opposing unfair treatment in government systems and holding big institutions accountable. In the Martin case, early reports suggested a white man might have gunned down a black teenager and received no prosecution or punishment, allowing journalists to feel free to even the score by bringing attention to the situation, amplifying the family’s calls for more information and prosecution of Zimmerman.

2) Accuracy and fuller context through diversity: In the early days of the case, as calls grew for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution, journalists of color added insights and urgency to the case by sharing their own experiences.

Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart wrote “one of the burdens of being a black male is carrying the heavy weight of other people’s suspicions,” recounting the instruction he got as a teen on how to deal with police to stay safe.

Referencing Ralph Ellison’s classic novel The Invisible Man, the Miami Herald’s Pitts wrote “That’s one of the great frustrations of African-American life, those times when you are standing right there, minding your business, tending your house, coming home from the store, and other people are looking right at you, yet do not see you.”

What’s obvious, is that some media figures of color felt a personal stake in the Martin case that those unaffected by race prejudice or racial profiling may not have felt. And it led to some compelling pieces.

But was it fair for non-columnists and journalists who don’t express opinions to assume the case centered on racial profiling, when the man at the center of the case, shooter George Zimmerman, wasn’t telling his side of the story publicly, yet?

3) The need for accurate, yet impactful coverage: Forget political bias; most journalism outlets are biased toward being first to break news, dominating the story everyone is talking about and influencing the direction of the story by continuing to reveal information no one else has.

As interest in the story began to explode, news outlets crossed a number of lines in trying to find new information, from CNN using audio analysis of a 911 call to mistakenly conclude Zimmerman used a racial slur, to ABC examining blurry video of Zimmerman’s arrival at police headquarters in Sanford the night of the shooting to mistakenly theorize he might not have been injured in a fight with Martin as he claimed.

These three values, already in conflict as interest in the case began to heat up, collided with each other in earnest when the story took another turn:
The 911 tapes from the shooting were made public.

Lessons learned

The most maddening part of the Trayvon Martin shooting is a question which may never be fully answered: Was this killing motivated at all by race?

Absent direct evidence, the struggle for answers often pushed media into a fight over the images of both victim and killer.

If Zimmerman could be shown to have racial bias in his past, perhaps he acted on those biases when he saw a 17-year-old black kid he didn’t recognize in his housing development. If Martin could be shown as a “thug” – which increasingly seems a nice way of saying “violent, criminally inclined person of color” – then perhaps he was the one who began the confrontation which ended in his death.

This leads to one of biggest problems in covering race for journalists: the temptation to try and “prove” the person at the center of a controversial story is racist.

The impulse isn’t just misguided because it is often impossible to judge someone’s thinking on race by outside factors; such notions also assume that only bigots can act on unfair prejudices.

It is entirely possible that a person who doesn’t usually prejudge people of color might do so in a special circumstance – say, encountering that type of person at night on the street in a neighborhood where burglaries have been a problem. One of the early statements Zimmerman made in his 911 call was to tell the police dispatcher the area had a problem with break-ins.

Still, if trying to read minds is one of the biggest pitfalls of race coverage, the next biggest problem is equally troublesome: We only talk about race issues on a national level in a crisis.

I’ve written about this issue in the Tampa Bay Times and my own book, 2012’s “Race-Baiter”; too often, the impulse in race-tinged controversies is to hang lots of ancillary discussions on the event, because this is the only time the world is really paying attention.

A local TV news director once told me about the “myth of life” pitfall journalists can fall into while discerning what is newsworthy. He noted, too many journalists assumed that news was defined as events which violate the myths of how we think life should work – white suburbanites rarely are shot to death or black teens from poor neighborhoods never get into Ivy League colleges.

But such attitudes can keep journalists from seeing news in what happens every day – even when what happens daily is so horrific it would make the front pages of newspapers in most every other city instantly.

Given the “myth of life” issues with mainstream press, it’s no wonder so many commentators addressing the Martin case tried to talk about racial profiling, the stereotyping of young black males, the history of law enforcements role in enabling profiling and more.

It’s a dynamic which only gets worse as online and social media speeds up the news cycle. With so few nuggets of news connected to the real questions the audience wants answered, a default for some media outlets can involve talking about ancillary issues which can distract and complicate.

Years ago, you might have space in a news event where the focus would first fall on fact-gathering and reporting the story, with follow-up pieces devoted to the implications of the news and connected issues.

But these days, that process runs together. In the Zimmerman case – when news consumers needed as many facts about the case as journalists could provide – they instead got commentary, fact-based reporting and prognostication all wrapped up in one, often-toxic ball.

Other problems with covering issues of race often fall into four categories:

  • Reflex – We cover issues a certain way because we’ve always done it that way. Trusting police reports too much or failing to see the news in a teenager killed could be a result.
  • Fear – We fear being criticized for injecting race into a story, particularly if it isn’t the central issue.
  • Lack of history – We don’t understand the community we’re covering and their specific issues. Black resident in Sanford had specific gripes about how police treated them that many national media outlets didn’t discuss.
  • Avoidance – When a newsroom is diverse, sometimes staffers of color are expected to provide the bulk of coverage on issues relating to race. That’s not fair to the staffers or to the community, which deserves news outlets where every journalist is attentive to such stories and issues.

In this situation, the toughest task a journalist may face is ignoring the perceptions and judgments of the outside world to focus on telling the most accurate, incisive story possible.

This paper is being presented at a Poynter journalism ethics symposium in New York today at the Paley Center for Media, in partnership with craigconnnects, the Web-based initiative created by Craig Newmark. The event — which features John Paton, Clay Shirky, Eric Deggans, Ann Friedman, Gilad Lotan, Vadim Lavrusik, danah boyd, David Folkenflik and more — is being live streamed here. You can also follow and participate at #poynterethics, and catch up on the highlights in the Storify. || Related papers to be presented: Clay Shirky, “We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth” | danah boyd: Fear undermines an informed citizenry | These essays and symposium are part of a book on digital ethics to be published by Poynter and CQ Press. Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

shirky

Shirky: ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’

Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.

The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a platform for orthographically-challenged wingnuts to rant about the President. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.

But what would that look like, an America where there was broad agreement on the facts? It would look like public discussion was limited to the beliefs held by straight, white, Christian men. If the views of the public at large didn’t hew to the views of that group, the result wouldn’t be agreement. It would be argument.

Argument, of course, is the human condition, but public argument is not. Indeed, in most places for most of history, publicly available statements have been either made or vetted by the ruling class, with the right of reply rendered impractical or illegal or both. Expansion of public speech, for both participants and topics, is generally won only after considerable struggle, and of course any such victory pollutes the sense of what constitutes truth from the previous era, a story that runs from Martin Luther through Ida Tarbell to Mario Savio, the drag queens outside Stonewall, and Julian Assange.

* * *

There’s no way to get Cronkite-like consensus without someone like Cronkite, and there’s no way to get someone like Cronkite in a world with an Internet; there will be no more men like him, because there will be no more jobs like his. To assume that this situation can be reversed, and everyone else will voluntarily sign on to the beliefs of some culturally dominant group, is a fantasy. To assume that they should, or at least that they should hold their tongue when they don’t, is Napoleonic in its self-regard. Yet this is what the people who long for the clarity of the old days are longing for.

Seeing claims that the CIA staged the 9/11 attacks or that oil is an unlimited by-product of volcanism is enough to make the dear dead days of limited public speech seem like a paradise, but there are compensating virtues in our bumptious public sphere.

Consider three acts of mainstream media malfeasance unmasked by outsiders: Philip Elmer-DeWitt’s 1995 Time magazine cover story that relied on faked data; CBS News’s 2004 accusations against the President based on forged National Guard memos; and Jonah Lehrer’s 2011 recycling and plagiarism in work he did for the New Yorker and Wired. In all three cases, the ethical lapses were committed by mainstream journalists and unmasked by outsiders working on the Internet, but with very different responses by the institutions that initially published the erroneous material.

In Elmer-DeWitt’s case, he was given what seemed to be an explosive study on Internet pornography, but was in fact largely faked, and which he and the Time staff did not vet carefully. This was the basis for a Time cover story, his first. But the conclusions he drew seemed fishy, and a distributed fact-checking effort formed in response, largely organized on the digital bulletin board system called Usenet. It quickly became apparent that the research was junk; that the researcher that had given the report to Elmer-DeWitt was an undergraduate who faked the data; that the professors listed as sponsors had had little to do with it, and so on.

Elmer-DeWitt apologized forthrightly: “I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll just repeat what I’ve said before. I screwed up. The cover story was my idea, I pushed for it, and it ran pretty much the way I wrote it. It was my mistake, and my mistake alone. I do hope other reporters will learn from it. I know I have.”

Almost no one saw this apology however, because he only said it online; the correction run by Time sought to downplay, rather than apologize for, misleading their readers, even though the core facts reported in the story were faked: “It would be a shame, however, if the damaging flaws in [the] study obscured the larger and more important debate about hard-core porn on the Internet.”

In 1995, Time could count on there being very little overlap between their readership and the country’s Internet users, so Elmer-DeWitt’s ethical lapse and subsequent apology could be waved away with little fear that anyone else could dramatize the seriousness of the article’s failings.

Contrast the situation a decade later. In 2004, when CBS News based a “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about President Bush’s time in the National Guard. Like the Elmer-DeWitt story, the CBS story was based on faked documents; like Elmer-DeWitt story, the forgery was discovered not by CBS itself or another professional media outlet, but by media outsiders working on the Internet; like the Elmer-DeWitt story, CBS spent most of its energy trying to minimize its lapse.

Unlike the Elmer-DeWitt story, however, the strategy didn’t work. Charles Johnson, blogging at Little Green Footballs, produced an animated graphic demonstrating that the nominally typewritten documents from the early 1970s were actually produced using the default font in Microsoft Word. By 2004, Internet use had become so widespread that the Time magazine tactic of writing off Internet users as a cranky niche was ineffective; Johnson’s work was so widely discussed that CBS couldn’t ignore it. When they finally did respond, CBS admitted that the documents were forged, that they did not check their authenticity carefully enough, that their defense of the reporters involved compounded the error, and that the lapse was serious enough to constitute a firing offense for the senior-most people involved, including Mary Mapes; Dan Rather resigned after some delay.

A more recent example of this pattern, almost a decade after the National Guard memos, was the science writer Jonah Lehrer’s use of recycled, plagiarized, or fabricated material, including, most famously, invented quotes from Bob Dylan. Again journalistic ethics were breached in mainstream publications — in Lehrer’s case, in writings for Wired and the New Yorker, and in his book “Imagine.” His lapses were uncovered not by anyone at Conde Nast, however. His most serious lapse was uncovered by Michael Moynihan, a writer and editor at Reason and Vice, who published his discovery of the Dylan fabrication in Tablet, an online-only magazine of Jewish life and culture. Moynihan’s revelations, the most damning of the criticisms Lehrer was then facing, precipitated his resignation from the New Yorker.

The Lehrer example demonstrates the completion of a pattern that we might call “after-the-fact checking,” visible public scrutiny of journalistic work after it is published. After-the-fact checking is not just knowledgeable insiders identifying journalistic lapses; that has always happened. Instead, the new pattern involves those insiders being able to identify one another, and collaborate on public complaint, and the concomitant weakening of strategies by traditional media for minimizing the effects of such lapses.

The difference between Elmer-DeWitt and Lehrer isn’t that the latter’s lapses were worse, it’s that the ability to hide the lapses has shrunk. The nominal ethics of journalism remain as they were, but the mechanisms of observation and enforcement have been transformed as the public’s role in the landscape has moved from passive to active, and the kind of self-scrutiny the press is accustomed to gives way to considerably more persistent and withering after-the-fact checking.

* * *

“Truth Lies Here” and related laments have correctly identified the changes in the landscape of public speech, but often misdiagnose their causes. We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth, but not because we have recently become pigheaded, naysaying zealots. We were always like that. It’s just that we didn’t know how many other people were like that as well. And, as Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba put it long ago, the Internet is a truth serum.

The current loss of consensus is a better reflection of the real beliefs of the American polity than the older centrism. There are several names for what constitutes acceptable argument in a society — the Overton Window, the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy — but whatever label you use, the range of things people are willing to argue with has grown.

There seems to be less respect for consensus because there is less respect for consensus. This change is not good or bad per se — it has simply made agreement a scarcer commodity across all issues of public interest. The erosion of controls on public speech have enabled Birthers to make their accusations against the President public; it also allows newly-emboldened groups — feminists, atheists, Muslims, Mormons — to press their issues in public, in opposition to traditional public beliefs, a process similar to gay rights post-Stonewall, but now on a faster and more national scale.

There’s no going back. Journalists now have to operate in a world where no statement, however trivial, will be completely secured from public gainsaying. At the same time, public production of speech, not just consumption, means that the policing of ethical failures has passed out of the hands of the quasi-professional group of journalists employed in those outlets, and has become another form of public argument.

This alters the public sphere in important ways.

The old days, where marginal opinions meant marginal availability, have given way to a world where all utterances, true or false, are a click away. Judgement about legitimate consensus is becoming a critical journalistic skill, one that traditional training and mores don’t prepare most practitioners for.

Journalists identify truth by looking for consensus among relevant actors. For the last two generations of journalism, the emphasis has been on the question of consensus; the question of who constituted a relevant actor was largely solved by scarcity. It was easy to find mainstream voices, and hard to find marginal or heterodox ones. With that scarcity undone, all such consensus would be destroyed, unless journalists start telling the audience which voices aren’t worth listening to as well.

A world where all utterances are putatively available makes “he said, she said” journalism an increasingly irresponsible form, less a way of balancing reasonable debate and more a way of evading the responsibility for informing the public. Seeking truth and reporting it is becoming less about finding consensus, which there is simply less of in the world, and more about publicly sorting the relevant actors from the irrelevant ones. They can no longer fall back on “experts,” as if every professor or researcher is equally trustworthy.

This is destroying the nominally neutral position of many mainstream outlets. Consider, as an example, Arthur Brisbane’s constitutional inability, as public editor of The New York Times, to process universal public disdain for his arguments against fact-checking politicians. His firm commitment to avoiding accusations of partisanship, even at the expense of accuracy, helped raise the visibility of the fact-checking movement in the 2012 Presidential campaign, as pioneered by PolitiFact and its peers. These fact-checking services have now become a new nexus of media power in the realm of political speech.

Yet Brisbane is onto something, though it may have more to do with self-preservation than with commitment to truth: a world where even mainstream news outlets tell their readers when politicians lie, or publicly assess various speakers’ relevance on any given issue, is a world where neither powerful public actors not advertisers will be automatically willing to trust, or or even cooperate with, the press.

Even as the erosion of consensus makes for an unavoidable increase in oppositional reporting, it also makes the scrutiny journalists face from their audience far more considerable than the scrutiny they face from their employers or peers. Trust in the press has fallen precipitously in the last generation, even as the press itself increasingly took on the trappings of a profession.

One possible explanation is that what pollsters and respondents characterized as “trust” was really scarcity — like the man with one watch, a public that got its news from a politically narrow range might have been more willing to regard those reinforced views as being an accurate picture of the world. Since Watergate, however, followed by increasingly partisan campaigning and governance, the lack of shared outlook among existing news producers, coupled with the spread of new, still more partisan producers, may have made this sort of trust impossible.

There’s no going back here either. Each organization will have to try to convince its audience that it is trustworthy, without being able to rely on residual respect for any such entity as “the press.” Any commitment to ethics will involve not just being more reactive to outsiders’ post-hoc review, but being more willing to attack other outlets for ethical lapses in public, more ready to publicly defend their own internal policies, rather than simply regarding ethical lapses as a matter for internal policing.

The philosophy of news ethics — tell the truth to the degree that you can, fess up when you get it wrong — doesn’t change in the switch from analog to digital. What does change, enormously, is the individual and organizational adaptations required to tell the truth without relying on scarcity, and hewing to ethical norms without the ability to use force. Read more

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Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Journalism has an originality problem, not a plagiarism problem

Professional journalism isn’t facing a plagiarism problem. It’s facing an originality failure.

And you can’t blame the Internet. Our originality breakdown results from many pressures — the overwhelming volume of writing incessantly pushed out into the digital space, the pressure on writers to feed a content beast that’s never satiated, the diminishing economic forces that support professional writing.

The Internet preceded all of these changes, but it isn’t itself the cause.

The methods we use to groom writers to become original thinkers in the modern media environment are suspect. In fact, they’re largely absent.

This week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s work was scrutinized for relying too heavily on the work of others. She’s not alone.

We have no way of knowing whether, proportionally, there’s more plagiarism in journalism today than there was 20 years ago. But we do know that commentators now work in very different circumstances. It used to be that local columnists used the phone and their feet. They spent time out of the office, just like their reporter colleagues. They went to the bar, the barbershop, the local college, the courtroom.

Why? Because, that’s where ideas took shape. Talking and thinking, thinking and talking, then trying it out on the keyboard. That’s how writers write.

Sometimes, the work was good; more often, it was mediocre. Sometimes, editors sent it back. Whatever the quality, the ideas belonged to the columnist, informed by her reporting and research but grown in the writer’s head.

This isn’t to condemn the research patterns of modern journalists, who start their thinking with a Google search. We can’t pretend the media world hasn’t changed. These days, we must see always what others have written before we begin – and there’s so much that’s been written about any given topic because writing now is mostly the continuation of a conversation already in play.

Before the Internet, newsrooms were lucky enough to stumble into a method for growing writers. It wasn’t perfect and there certainly were scandals, such as when The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke fabricated a character in a story that went on to win the Pulitzer, or when Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle stole material from comedian George Carlin and others. But those were few and far between.

These days, it feels like hardly a week goes by without a professional journalist being exposed for plagiarism, fabrication or patchwriting, which is a failed attempt at paraphrasing that over-relies on the original writer’s syntax and vocabulary. That last transgression is likely today’s most common sin, according to Rebecca Moore Howard, the Syracuse University professor of writing and rhetoric who coined the term.

Originality is elusive today in every place that people write – not just in journalism, but in academia, professional writing, book publishing, speech writing and politics.

In our panic to keep up with a changing world, we’ve failed to identify new methods for originality. We need to look to the writer-editor relationship, to the community of writers and thinkers, and to the very process that writers use to go from nothing to something.

We’re mystified by the prospect of building a culture that breeds original thinking and writing in today’s digital world. Yet, we can look to writers who are successfully hitting the mark of originality and imitate their methods.

Today’s most original successful writers often combine the new and the old to foster their thinking. Writers such as Anne Lamott or columnist Connie Schultz test out their ideas in social media settings such as Twitter or Facebook. And they stay grounded in the real world, allowing for the influence of other people and experiences.

If we’re going to solve the problem of unoriginal writing, we need to focus on the process of writing, instead of simply careening from one failure to another.

A version of this originally appeared on the Globe and Mail website. Read more

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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012

Dirty Politics: View live stream of Poynter Kent State ethics workshop

Poynter’s eighth annual ethics workshop with Kent State University begins at 9:15 a.m. This year’s theme is “dirty politics.” Speakers include:

  • 9:15: Poynter’s Kelly McBride and Ellyn Angelotti
  • 10: PolitiFact’s Bill Adair is part of a panel on “The role of a responsible press”
  • 11:10: “Why Can’t We All Get Along?” Civility & Social Media in Politics
  • 12:15: Best practices
  • 12:45: Lunchtime keynote with columnist Connie Schultz
  • 1:45: Gender and politics
  • 3:15: Political advertising & campaign communication
  • 4:30: Closing session

Watch the live stream below (actual times may vary). Read more

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Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012

copy

‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest

The Columbia Spectator writer fired for plagiarizing from The New York Times earlier this month was actually employing a dishonest writing technique that is common on college campuses and among journalists.

It’s called “patchwriting.” And it’s not quite plagiarism, but it’s not original writing either.

A 2008 study directed by Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, suggests that much of the writing by college students is intellectually dishonest, but falls short of actual plagiarism. She is preparing to publish her findings in a book.

What is patchwriting & how common is it?

Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.

In her study, called the Citation Project, Howard and her colleagues wanted to see exactly how students were using sources in their papers. Their theory is that if professors know what the weaknesses are, they can teach students to make better use of their sources.

Howard and her partners coded 174 composition papers written by students enrolled at 16 different colleges, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities. Howard concluded that 17 percent of writing in the average college term paper is patchwriting. She didn’t find much plagiarism at all.

I first heard Howard describe patchwriting at a conference on writing integrity earlier this year at Poynter. And when I looked closely at her examples, I realized that journalists utilize patchwriting as well.

Howard speculates that most of the time, writers employ patchwriting because they don’t have enough time to craft original thoughts, or they don’t have enough time to understand their source material beyond the surface conclusions.

At the very least, patchwriting is bad writing, she said. And that might be the strongest reason that newsroom editors would object to it, although I concede that not all editors would object. Some would be just fine with this type of writing. College professors don’t like it because it indicates an absence of true critical thinking and understanding behind the writing.

After all, we teach college students to write not because we expect them to become writers, but because writing is the evidence that they are mastering intellectual concepts.

What we expect of journalists is different. I’ve consulted with dozens of editors while they examine potential cases of plagiarism. Based on those consultations, I believe most editors would deem patchwriting problematic, but not plagiarism.

Patchwriting case study

The quote lifting was what doomed the Spectator writer. Here are the three paragraphs (thank you Ivygateblog.com for originally publishing this) from the Spectator, as compared to three paragraphs of the original article in The New York Times.

Spectator:

“Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for saving everything, from his personal correspondence to scribbles on Plaza Hotel napkins. Since Wright’s death in 1959, these relics have been locked in storage.”

New York Times:

“The Modernist architect Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t a hoarder. But he did save just about everything — whether a doodle on a Plaza Hotel cocktail napkin of an imagined city on Ellis Island, his earliest pencil sketch of the spiraling Guggenheim Museum or a model of Broadacre City, his utopian metropolis. Since Wright’s death in 1959 those relics have been locked in storage at his former headquarters —Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Ariz.”

Spectator:

“Among the University’s future collection are the famous original drawings for Wright’s Fallingwater, a home designed amid a rushing stream in Pennsylvania, and the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the campus of the University of Chicago.”

New York Times:

“Among the gems in that material are drawings for Wright’s Fallingwater, a home cantilevered over a stream in Mill Run, Pa.; the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the University of Chicago campus; Unity Temple, a Unitarian Universalist church in Oak Park, Ill.; and Taliesin West.”

Spectator:

“ ‘While Wright is typically thought of as a lonely genius, you move him into the Museum of Modern Art, and he’s dialoguing with Le Corbusier in the company of Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn,’ said Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at the MoMA.”

New York Times:

“While Wright is typically thought of as ‘a lonely genius,’ Mr. Bergdoll said, ‘you move him into the Museum of Modern Art, and he’s dialoguing with Le Corbusier in the company of Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn.’”

The quote-lifting is clear deception. The Spectator writer implied that she got that exact quote from the museum curator in an interview herself. That type of deception is not tolerated in professional journalism, but it happens often and people don’t always get fired for it. It’s also the easiest problem to solve. The writer could simply have said, “…MoMA chief curator Barry Bergdoll told the New York Times.” Or, she could have actually called the museum curator and done her own interview.

But the other two paragraphs pose a more classic problem. In both of them, New York Times writer Robin Pogrebin has used her editorial judgment to pull out a few items from a broader group, like a “doodle on a Plaza Hotel cocktail napkin,” or the drawing of “the Robie House, a Prairie-style building on the University of Chicago campus.”

Sarah Darville, editor in chief of the Spectator, said what she found heart-breaking about the whole incident was that the writer had done a decent job reporting the story. She had interviewed the curator, as well as a librarian and other sources. But the side-by-side comparison made it clear that the writer was inappropriately using the New York Times piece as a crutch.

“I don’t think there’s any way that’s close to being OK,” Darville said. “There’s no need for it. To me it’s still pretty clear cut and it’s completely unacceptable. You didn’t have to start the story that way.”

Unless the Spectator writer was prepared to duplicate Pogrebin’s reporting and select different items, her only choice was to copy it whole cloth (and cite it) or rearrange it slightly (and also cite it).

Why is the rearranging without citation dishonest? It was the original writer’s skill and expertise that led to the selection of those specific items. Stealing the selection is stealing the intellectual work of that writer.

The problem for journalism

But we do that all the time in journalism, I suspect we do it now even more than we used to. Because now, if you look at all the work that populates the marketplace of ideas, it is written by reporters, bloggers, aggregators, commentators, curmudgeons and both professional and amateur opiners. A greater portion of that material is absent any original reporting and instead built upon the work of others.

Much of that is valuable, original thinking. But a good chunk of it is merely the rearranged work of other writers. It’s patchwriting. This could be a rewritten press release, or a re-written story about a player trade in the sporting world. We get away with this in journalism because many of the facts that we write about quickly become generally accepted as truth and therefore do not need attribution.

Many will rationalize journalistic patchwriting by arguing that the audience isn’t expecting journalists to develop intellectual mastery of a topic. Journalism at its most basic level is about meeting an information need. But journalism is also often about telling a story, conducting an investigation, or explaining something complicated. In these cases, patchwriting is more problematic.

In today’s ecosystem, some new types of journalism (that weren’t around 10 years ago) repackage information that’s already out there and get it to a new audience. This very column is an example. There are very few facts here that haven’t been reported elsewhere.

The litmus test is new value or new ideas. Writing that brings new value to the audience, maybe even writing that merely attempts to bring new value to the audience, is likely to be intellectually honest. And writing that doesn’t do that, that merely rehashes the work of others, that’s patchwriting.

I’m hoping this distinction will help journalists working in a variety of platforms separate good original work from content that’s merely repurposed, but brings no new journalistic or audience value.

For journalism to continue to serve democracy, a portion of it has to serve a democratic function. It can’t just be about repackaging material to gobble up audience.

The opportunity for journalism

Perhaps the best way to do this – and to avoid patchwriting – is to approach each assignment with a clear idea of the new value it should bring to the audience. If editors and writers did this, I suspect a lot of the repetitive dishonest writing would fall away.

This can be done in a short aggregated column, in a news brief and in a news story that’s already been written 50 times by other journalists. It starts by asking this question: What can we provide to our audience that’s different than what’s already been published? Maybe it’s opinion or expertise. Or maybe it’s asking new questions, or introducing new material into the body of knowledge.

Whatever the answer is, that will be the foundation of originality. That should make it easier to attribute the rest of the information. It’s as if the writer is in a conversation with the rest of the world. In a real conversation, you might point out that this person made point A, and this person made point B and lots of people made points C, D and E. But you won’t claim them as your own, unless they really are your own.

That’s easier to do when you have a clear understanding of what your own original idea is. Read more

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