Adam Hochberg, Bill Krueger, Steve Myers and Latoya Peterson explain the emerging ways that information is created and consumed, from the Fourth Estate to the Fifth Estate.

caution

Public fear and ‘an abundance of caution’

I wonder how George Orwell would react to a phrase that has been repeated time and again by government and university officials to justify recent stringent actions — such as quarantines and dis-invitations — in response to the Ebola crisis.

These officials say they are acting “out of an abundance of caution.”

It seems to be one of the phrases of the day, expressed by leaders who are trying to limit or eliminate contact, not just with sick people or people who have cared for the sick, but with almost anyone who has worked or traveled through countries where Ebola has spread.

Orwell was a famous critic of political speech, especially of the kind that used euphemism or passive constructions to cloud misbehavior or avoid responsibility. Mistakes, after all, are made.

To my ears, “an abundance of caution” is a peculiar phrase. It sounds like a parody of collective nouns such as “a gaggle of geese” or “an exaltation of larks.” How much caution will you exercise, Governor? Why, an abundance of caution, of course, sir.

“Abundance of caution” also carries the kind of tension you might find in an oxymoron (such as “jumbo shrimp”). “Abundance” is not the opposite of “caution” at the literal level. At the level of connotation, however, abundance suggests expansion while caution suggests contraction.

Which leads me to this strategy for journalists: Any time a political figure or thought leader wants to operate “out of an abundance of caution” – especially when the risk is demonstrably slight – look for the many ways in which they are operating out of a “scarcity of caution” – my term – when the risk is great.

Not a single American, to my knowledge, has contracted Ebola in the USA and died from the disease in the USA. On the other hand, here is a list of much more serious dangers to life and limb, based on statistics taken from the CDC. After each real danger is my fantasy of what a leader might say “out of an abundance of caution.”

  • About 35,000 Americans were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009. Twenty-two percent of them were people 15 to 24 years of age. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to raise the legal driving age to 25, and to greatly improve the quality of mass transit in our community.”
  • 16,250 people were victims of homicide in 2010, most of them from handguns. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to initiate a Constitutional Amendment that will allow reasonable restrictions on gun ownership.”
  • 38,360 Americans took their own lives in 2010. “Out of an abundance of caution, we will establish community based mental health facilities, whatever the cost, to create a safety net for those suffering from mental illness.”
  • According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 22 American war veterans, maybe more, take their own lives every day. That’s more than 8,000 per year. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to multiply by ten the budget for the care of soldiers and other first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress, and will raise taxes to pay for it. Out of an even greater abundance of caution we have decided to no longer send our sons and daughters into protracted distant wars that we cannot win.”

Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. That message still hasn't reached many Americans, judging from stories ER doctors and nurses swapped this week at a Chicago medical conference. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. . (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Fever? Headache? Muscle aches? Forget about Ebola, chances are astronomically higher that you have the flu or some other common bug. Misinformed patients with Ebola-like symptoms can take up time and resources in busy emergency rooms, and doctors fear the problem may worsen when flu season ramps up. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

There are many more real things to be afraid of in the USA. Influenza and pneumonia caused 53,826 deaths in 2010, and yet we don’t require folks to get immunized for these common diseases. Using the logic of the governors, perhaps we should “out of an abundance of caution.”

Here are some possible translations for various uses of the phrase “out of an abundance of caution”:

  • Because our lawyers told us to.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t believe in science.
  • Because I know my constituents don’t trust the government.
  • Because I don’t want to get blamed for something outside my control.
  • Because I don’t have the backbone to do the right thing.
  • Because I’d rather demonize heroic caregivers to make myself look decisive.
  • Because our lawyers told us to. (Oh, sorry, I already said that one.)
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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

crimemap2

Disputes over crime maps highlight challenge of outsourcing public data

Colin Drane is an unlikely warrior in the fight for open government.

An inventor and TV infomercial producer, Drane spent much of his career marketing products like the Trunkanizer  for organizing car trunks, a toy called Bendaroos, and Invisi-lift self-adhesive breast enhancement pads.

Six years ago, Drane started a different kind of business – a company called ReportSee, which operates the website SpotCrime.com. The site obtains publicly available crime records from police agencies and graphically displays them on colorful maps.

Drane says the site attracts a million views a month from people curious about the burglaries, shootings, and other bedlam in their towns. The site makes money through advertising and from partnerships with television stations and other media organizations.

“Its primary appeal is folks involved in neighborhood watches and people who want to know what’s going on their communities,” Drane said in a phone interview. He said the information on SpotCrime, which typically is culled from police department logs and incident reports, can make communities safer.

“If an unusual van is in the neighborhood, and everybody knows there’s been a rash of burglaries, maybe somebody takes time to call the police, where maybe in the past it would have been brushed off,” he said.

More than 300 law-enforcement agencies around the country cooperate with Drane and provide him electronic access to their crime reports. But he’s had conflicts with dozens of other agencies, which either deny him access entirely or provide information that’s dated or incomplete.

Often, he finds that agencies already have struck deals with one of his larger competitors. The owners of sites such as CrimeReports.com, CrimeMapping.com, and RAIDS online compile and publish similar maps.

“Police departments contract with a vendor and give them preferential access to very important public data,” Drane said. “If you’ve got agencies controlling the information through a vendor, that’s not full transparency, and it limits accountability.”

Public data: profitable and contentious

Drane’s situation isn’t unique. As private companies have discovered there’s profit to be made from some kinds of government records, public agencies increasingly are outsourcing parts of their recordkeeping. That’s led to disputes over whether private firms can receive exclusive or preferential access to public data, copyright it, or withhold it from business competitors and other parties who request it.

“Conflicts are becoming more common,” said Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit California group that advocates for open government. “The demand for data and the perceived value in data has been rising exponentially, and that’s raising thorny legal-access questions.”

California, Connecticut and Wisconsin are among the states that have seen lawsuits over GIS data — the mapping technology local governments use to track property records. Scheer’s group successfully sued to access Santa Clara County’s GIS database, which the county claimed was a copyrighted “trade secret.” In the Wisconsin case, courts ruled that municipalities’ land records are in the public domain and forced a private contractor to release records to its competitors.

Drane has been sued, too. In 2010, the owner of CrimeReports.com – a company called Public Engines — discovered SpotCrime was robotically “scraping” CrimeReports.com for police data. Though Drane claimed he was entitled to scrape his competitors’ sites because the original police reports are public records, he agreed to stop the practice as part of a legal settlement. (Nieman Lab summarized the issues raised by the lawsuit in this 2011 analysis.)

Indeed, Drane is at the center of much of the tension in the crime-mapping industry, not surprising for an unconventional and sometimes brash entrepreneur who describes himself as a “disrupter.” SpotCrime is a relatively low-budget operation that Drane said he started because “moving data seemed a lot easier than moving Trunkanizers.”

In many ways, his business couldn’t be more different than that of his competitors, such as Public Engines, the Omega Group — owner of CrimeMapping.com, and Bair Analytics — owner of the RAIDS online site. Those companies are larger firms that develop and market technology for law-enforcement agencies. They sell software that not only powers public crime mapping websites but also provides an array of tools the agencies use internally to compile and analyze data.  (Think of an electronic equivalent to those big maps with pushpins that used to hang in police stations.)

“People look at our website and see that obviously as a public-facing manifestation of the law-enforcement data,” Public Engines CEO William Kilmer said in a phone interview. “But our primary mission is really to help law-enforcement agencies unlock the power of their own data for their own analysis.”

Those computerized crime mapping systems have become important tools for law-enforcement agencies over the past two decades. For a relatively small investment, the software allows police to identify crime patterns and “hot spots” in their communities and make decisions about staffing and resources.

Kilmer said his company is aware it’s dealing with records that belong to the public. While Public Engines doesn’t allow competitors to scrape its website, he said there’s nothing in its contracts that prohibits police agencies from releasing crime data to anybody else who requests it.

That point was echoed by the Omega Group, which provides software and mapping tools for more than 600 law-enforcement agencies.

“The agency has the right to give whatever data they want to give,” said Omega spokeswoman Gabriela Coverdale.

Police agencies try to control information

Still, some police departments appear to treat their contracts with Public Engines or Omega as exclusive or at least preferential.

When Drane’s company requested access to Las Vegas police records under the Nevada public-records law, he said the police department’s public information office wrote him in an email that “we have no need to join with more of these kinds of services such as yours than we already have in place.” Las Vegas contracts with Omega and its crime reports are posted online via CrimeMapping.com.

Likewise, the Omaha, Neb., police department contracts with Omega and won’t release electronic records to Drane.

“The reason we signed a contract with CrimeMapping.com is so we have control over the information released,” Lt. Darci Tierney told me in an email. “There is no legal obligation for our department to provide additional information beyond access to records that we provide to the general public upon request in hard copy format for a nominal fee.“

But that policy — which allows CrimeMapping.com to access police records electronically, but restricts other requestors to “hard copy format” — likely violates Nebraska’s open-records law, according to several legal scholars.

“Since some company is getting these records in electronic form, you can also get them in electronic form,” said Nebraska Press Association attorney Shawn Renner. It doesn’t matter that one company has a contractual relationship with the city, that SpotCrime is small and not well-known, or that Drane’s motive in requesting the records is to profit from them.

“The records are open to all for any purpose,” said Mark Caramanica of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. “We define journalism quite broadly, so an online outfit that’s in the business of taking data and presenting it in an informative way is engaging in a journalistic activity.”

Caramanica worries that if police agencies are allowed to withhold crime data from for-profit websites that compete with their preferred vendor, they may start denying information to mainstream media organizations (most of which, of course, also are in business to make money), bloggers, advocacy groups, or individuals.

It’s not a big jump. Part of the reason police departments contract with the crime mapping services in the first place is to ease the workload on their often overburdened staffs. Public Engines boasts on its website that CrimeReports.com helps “free up time for employees who used to try and answer [citizen] questions by phone.”

“Some of it is just administrative ease,” said University of Missouri Journalism Prof. Charles Davis, co-author of two books on public records. “They can kind of wash their hands of the whole issue, and say ‘if you want that stuff, it’s on the website.’ ”

Likewise, some agencies may see their relationship with a crime mapping vendor as a way to bypass the traditional media.

Public Engines’ website highlights the experience of the Boca Raton, Fla., police department, which stopped sending press releases to local media. The site says that when police agencies partner with CrimeReports.com,“[t]he power to interpret crime data has now moved out of the hands of the traditional media gatekeepers and into the hands of citizens themselves.”

Computerized data, ‘manila envelope’ laws

In and of itself, direct public access to information isn’t a bad thing. Police reporting in the mainstream media can be simplistic or sensationalistic and lack context about the actual risk of crime in various communities. An accurate online crime map can offer information that’s more complete, more local, and easier to access than a newspaper police blotter or the murder-and-mayhem stories that are nightly staples of many TV newscasts.

But in order for online crime mapping to live up to its promise, police agencies need to see it as a way to broaden access to information, not narrow it. The raw data generated from modern crime analysis tools — such as those marketed by Public Engines or the Omega Group — should be considered public information and made available to the public, the media, and even those companies’ competitors. That will allow such data to be disseminated more widely and analyzed in more ways.

And because police generally include in crime mapping databases only a portion of what they know about each particular incident — for instance, names of victims or suspects are usually deleted — the standard long-form police reports and daily crime logs must remain easily available, too.

Davis expects more disputes and litigation as governments increasingly entrust public data to private companies, especially in states where public-records laws fail to clarify contractors’ obligation to share information. He said only a handful of state laws even contemplate the possibility that public recordkeeping may be outsourced.

“These are laws written in the age of manila envelopes and the typewriter,” Davis said. “This is one of a dozen different issues where technology has raced in front of the law.” Read more

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Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2013

Boston explosions a reminder of how breaking news reporting is changing

Terrible events such as yesterday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon have always meant “all hands on deck” for news organizations, with staffers pulled off their regular beats to contribute.

But the endpoint of the newsgathering and reporting is no longer a front-page package of stories explaining — the best one can — what happened, why it happened and what might be next. Now, there is no endpoint — events are reported in real time, with stories in constant motion, and the front page is a snapshot of an organization’s reporting at the moment when the presses needed to roll.

Boston was a reminder of that, and a look at what’s changing in real-time journalism. Through Twitter and various live blogs, I found myself looking over my shoulder at the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Reuters and other news organizations, and was able to make some observations and draw some conclusions.

My first observation doesn’t speak to what’s changed in journalism, but to what’s remained the same. The Boston Globe’s impressive reporting was driven by having boots on the ground — quite literally, since the newspaper had reporters and photographers at the finish line very near the site of the two bombs.

That’s how John Tlumacki captured the image that seems likely to become the iconic photograph of this tragic day in Boston, and how reporters such as Billy Baker and Chad Finn contributed a wealth of detail — by turns horrifying and surreal — from the scene.

The tools have changed, with Twitter an instant printing press for bite-sized bits of news, but the skills — a keen eye, empathetic ear, and a good list of contacts — have not.

But these days there’s another layer to reporting such events. Besides boots on the ground, news organizations also need an eye in the sky — someone charged with gathering information, deciding what’s credible and what’s not, and presenting it to readers.

Such traffic cops have been part of covering breaking news for generations, but once their role was an internal one aimed at producing those front-page packages. Now, the role is external — and the assets they use can no longer be limited to their own news organizations. The roster of reporters (and those acting like them) for a breaking-news event is ever shifting and changing, bound not by whose ID tag someone wears but by where they are, what they see and what they know.

Other journalists are seeing and hearing things and tweeting them, and must be incorporated into what an organization knows and communicates to its readers. That’s also true of all the people once bundled together under the heading of “sources” — government officials, hospital spokespeople and others now release information directly to the public, without funneling it through the media. And so do people who are participants in an event or observers.

Take the tweets from Bruce Mendelsohn, a marketer who was attending a party just above the site of the first explosion. Mendelsohn is the kind of witness reporters hope to find but rarely do — a former Army medic with an eye for detail and the ability to assess spectators’ injuries and what might have caused them. A photo he took was picked up by the Associated Press, and news organizations quoted him — but only after they discovered his tweets, which were available to all.

 

 

(By the way, next time journalists are quick to dismiss citizen journalism, point them to Mendelsohn’s tweets and photograph. He was reporting on his own, and quite capably.)

The role of a news organization’s eye in the sky demands far more than just aggregating the work of others. It requires the ability to juggle all the parts of a developing story, continually account for new information, and quickly vet tips, photos and descriptions. In a situation such as the Boston Marathon, few bits of information will be able to be vetted the way news organizations would like. The eye in the sky will have to make those calls, relying on another old tool: the reporter’s gut instinct. (Though lessons like these will help.)

Which brings us to the most wrenching change for news organizations confronted by an event like Boston: News gathering and reporting — an intrinsically messy hodgepodge of verifying facts and debunking chatter — is now done in front of readers. Instead of waiting for a carefully crafted report on the news or a front page, readers are now in the “fog of war” with the participants and reporters and officials and everybody else.

Whether we like it or not, this isn’t going to change — given readers’ hunger for news on such days, news organizations can’t remain silent about reports until they’ve been verified with officials and subjected to the organization’s own system of scrutiny. The chaos of breaking news is no longer something out of which coverage arises — it’s the coverage itself.

One of the many difficulties with this is none of us — reporters, officials and readers alike — is used to it. Reporters want to be first but fear the consequences of being wrong. Frustrated officials seeking to figure out what’s going on may pass along a reporting mistake, seemingly verifying it and thereby amplifying it. Readers want information from the beginning of the reporting process but still hold news organizations to the same standards that governed the final product. All of this adds up to a profound change — one we’ve only begun to grapple with.

In a situation like this, the best way forward for news organizations is acceptance and transparency. We have to tell readers what we’re sure we know and how we know it, acknowledge and assess things that we’re hearing, and provide constant updates and cautions that what we think we know is changing rapidly. Establishing facts has value, of course — as does wise analysis. But so too does providing information, publicly asking questions (and providing a forum for answers) and debunking rumors. Former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s rules of a crisis are good advice here:

 

In time, all of us will become more accustomed to reporting in the fog of war, with the entire newsgathering process taking place in public. We will develop language, standards and procedures for such reporting, shaped in part by readers — who will in turn learn how to use them to assess and respond to our work. Those standards and procedures are already emerging. But there is much thinking and work still to be done — and the lessons of days like yesterday are part of that process.

Previously: Covering what comes next in the aftermath of the blasts | How journalists are covering, reacting to Boston Marathon explosions | BostonGlobe.com, other sites drop paywalls following Boston Marathon explosions

Correction: This post originally misspelled Tlumacki’s last name. Read more

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Friday, Apr. 12, 2013

Gosnell story raises questions about when national media should cover local stories

The media question of the day is why the Philadelphia trial of Kermit Gosnell is not garnering national media attention.

Gosnell is a Philadelphia doctor on trial for murder for performing late-term abortions that resulted in living babies that he then executed by snipping their spinal cords.

Kirsten Powers wrote an OpEd for USA Today detailing the horrors of this case, stating that none of the three major television networks have mentioned it in the last three months and claiming that The New York Times has only run one original story since the trial began on March 18. Conor Friedersdorf wrote a similar piece for The Atlantic.

Powers, Friedersdorf and other critics point out that, given how lurid the details of this case are, it’s surprising that national media outlets haven’t covered it more. It is surprising that more outlets haven’t covered it, but it’s not entirely fair to say that national media haven’t reported on it.

A quick search of the Associated Press archives turns up dozens of articles going back to when the indictment was handed down, AP Spokesperson Paul Colford told Poynter. Likewise, The New York Times ran several stories in 2011 and 2012, both staff-written and AP generated. Although, since the trial began, the Times has only run one story. Philadelphia media, meanwhile, has been covering the case extensively for years.

The Gosnell story raises questions about how national media decide when to report on a local story. Stories go from local to national for a number of reasons. You can look at the Stuebenville sexual assault case or the Trayvon Martin case and see examples of a local story with national implications.

Some news organizations may have considered the national angle to be a stretch. Although possible, it’s a bit difficult to draw the connection between a doctor delivering premature babies, then murdering them and calling it abortion, to the overall debate that we are having in this country over who should have access to abortions and how they should be paid for.

There are important questions journalists can be asking to determine whether local stories like the Gosnell case are worth national media attention: Does the story inform our public debate about abortion? Is there a larger meaning to be gained? Or is there interest because it’s shocking and abhorrent?

The answer to all three questions is likely yes. But it will be a hollow answer if the debate about Gosnell focuses more on the media’s alleged crimes. Read more

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Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013

Are you really willing to go to jail over your anonymous source?

When reporters want my advice about whether to grant a source anonymity, this is the question I ask them: Is your story significant enough that you’re willing to spend six months in jail?

When they’re working on a substantial story, the kind that changes our understanding of power or responsibility, reporters don’t even blink at the prospect of jail. But most of the time, journalists aren’t working on that kind of story.

This week, two uses of anonymous sources have been in the news. Mother Jones released a recording of Sen. Mitch McConnell and aides discussing bare-knuckle tactics they might use in a 2014 campaign against actress Ashley Judd. And Fox News reporter Jana Winter got a temporary reprieve from revealing the name of the person who told her about the notebook that suspect James Holmes allegedly sent to a health-care professional before the mass shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo.

Anonymous sources come with a lot of baggage. The public is usually suspicious of their motives and they expose a newsroom to potential legal liability. Because of that, many in journalism have preached that anonymous sources should be used rarely, and only on the most important stories. But on a day-to-day basis, it can be hard to judge which stories rise to that level. And such decisions are complicated by the rampant use of anonymous sources for frivolous reasons.

If newsrooms would limit the use of anonymous sources to watchdog stories that hold the powerful accountable, journalists might gain a bit of credibility with the public.

For me, Winter’s story about the notebook meets that test — but I question whether that’s true of the Mother Jones expose.

After the Aurora shooting, Winter reported that police found a package from Holmes addressed to a University of Colorado psychiatrist who’d treated him, sitting in mail waiting to be delivered. The package, Winter reported, contained a notebook of drawings depicting gun violence and carnage. The package was reportedly postmarked July 12, eight days before 12 were killed and 58 injured when Holmes allegedly opened fire on theatergoers gathered for the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

In the Mother Jones piece, readers are given a fly-on-the-wall listen into a political strategy meeting where aides to McConnell discussed attacking Judd for her political positions, religious beliefs and history of depression. The expose came courtesy of a secret recording that Mother Jones says it received from an anonymous source.

Winter’s story raises the possibility that if the mail been delivered, someone might have intervened and prevented the tragedy in Aurora. With the country debating how to improve mental health services, prevent the mentally ill from getting guns and respect the rights of gun owners, that story has real significance.

The Mother Jones story, on the other hand, explores how politicians spend a lot of energy looking for ways to slime each other. As a rare look inside the workings of a political machine it’s certainly valuable, but I question whether it’s worthy of using an anonymous source. For one thing, it doesn’t change our understanding of anything. For another, it was published after Judd announced she wouldn’t challenge McConnell in 2014, meaning most of the substance of the meeting had been rendered moot. Read more

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Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith interviews Sen. Marco Rubio in February (Screengrab

Three lists about BuzzFeed’s serious journalism

A little more than a year ago, BuzzFeed made the leap into the realm of serious journalism. It hired some known journalists and a lot more hungry young writers, expanded its verticals, and announced a plan to create serious content to go alongside the site’s trademark clever lists.

Now, with BuzzFeed creating a home for its long reads, building a business vertical and trying to figure out how to expand into breaking and international news, it’s a good time to assess.

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith interviews U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in February (Screengrab from BuzzFeed video)

BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith told me in a phone interview that he’s mostly pleased. “I’m psyched about the amount that we’ve been able to punch through,” Smith said. “We are advancing stories. I think that’s what we want to do.”

He emailed me a list of what he considers BuzzFeed’s greatest hits, including Rosie Gray’s story on the GI Bill not working, McKay Coppins’ coverage of Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith and Reyhan Harmanci’s profile of an anonymous Google contractor who had to look at porn and violence all day.

  • On hiring: Smith says he looks for people who are fearless, have raw talent and aggression and take themselves “seriously in a good way.” Also, he doesn’t hire big names for the sake of their star power. “I hired Michael Hastings because he’s a workaholic, not for his name or his good looks.”
  • Current size of the staff: 225 people with roughly 80 working for Smith on the editorial side, making it larger than most mid-size newspapers.
  • The 2012 presidential election was BuzzFeed’s year. “Presidential elections are unique. Every cycle there is a news organization that breaks through. That was our cycle.”
  • You may not be in the target audience. “Most of our stories are written for someone who cares about the Twitter front page. Not all of them, but many of them.”
  • Good stories succeed wherever they are, but entertainment stories rule: “Good stories get a lot of readers. That’s true across journalism and history. But more people care about entertainment. A great Beyonce story will get more attention than anything else.”

I interviewed two staffers who work for Smith, reporter Rosie Gray and political editor McKay Coppins. They described a creative, exciting environment where they have a lot of freedom to select their own stories and ignore the competition, two workplace benefits that would make lots of other journalists jealous.

  • They’re still a little sensitive about their serious efforts not being seen as a novelty. “A year ago we started doing serious journalism,” Gray, who is 23, told me. “We have to combat the idea that we are just about fun lists.”
  • Three days is a long time to spend on a story. Gray and I first talked about her piece on foreign governments using NGOs to disperse propaganda within in the United States. “It took like two days to report. I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday focused on it. We published it on Thursday. That’s a long time. I don’t usually take that long.”
  • They get it that their target audience is not Mom and Dad. Coppins, who is 26, told me: “It’s clear that we are having some success in producing serious, in-depth journalism in a way that is digestible for people who spend all day on the internet.”
  • Why BuzzFeed is like a Parisian café. Quoting BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, Coppins explained the site’s philosophy this way: “You have people sitting at a table reading philosophical text, a religious text, or a newspaper and sometimes they stop to pet a dog that walks by.” On the day we talked, the Top 5 stories on the site illustrated that outlook.
    1. A story about how “The Bible”‘s Satan character looked like President Obama.
    2. A piece about how folks discussed gay marriage at CPAC.
    3. 13 ways Republicans Can Win The Internet.”
    4. A classic: “23 Kitties Of Congress.”
    5. And rounding out that list was a scoop about Democratic activists who sneaked into CPAC hoping to catch attendees jeering Ashley Judd.

Yet BuzzFeed isn’t quite the major player it wants to be. The site has yet to prompt a major investigation, resignation, firing or any of the other measures of watchdog impact. Some of that’s because it just hasn’t been in the game long enough. Eventually that will happen. BuzzFeed will have the equivalent of Deadspin’s Manti Te’o moment. Here are three things I’m looking for in the evolution of BuzzFeed during its second year of grownup journalism.

  • Stronger editing. With with the exception of BuzzReads, the long pieces especially need more structure and precision. Some stories run 6,000, even 7,000, or 10,000 words. That’s New Yorker length. If you want to write that long, you have to make it that good. So pieces like this one on a staffer’s sleep disorder, which Smith named one of the highlights of 2012, need to be rethought. It’s not a bad piece. But a rigorous editing process ensures that the story has a tight-enough architecture to move it along and keep the reader engaged. BuzzFeed’s long reads have to be even better than that, because they might compete with a banner teasing absurd items of clothing or a story predicting which character will die next on “The Walking Dead.”
  • Mentoring and growing expert journalists. The benchmark of a journalism staff is not how great they are today but how much each individual can continue to grow. Some of this comes through the editing process described above. Writers get better by writing a lot, which BuzzFeed writers do, and by working with transformational editors. Writers also grow through developing expertise, critical thinking skills, and doing increasingly sophisticated analysis that works. Writers also have to be allowed to occasionally fail, or start working on pieces that never make it through the publication process.
  • Getting the attention of people who make things happen. When Anne Hull and Dana Priest wrote their Washington Post series on the failures at Walter Reed Medical Center, people in Congress introduced legislation to shake things up even before their constituents started writing. Even though some of the issues BuzzFeed takes on have that potential, the stories aren’t delivered with the authority and heft and that compels people in charge to respond. BuzzFeed Brews has the potential to become a place serious politicians go to have serious and cool conversations.

BuzzFeed’s journalism model is a bit like ESPN’s, an organization I’m familiar with. They both produce a large volume of highly entertaining information, sprinkled with some regular journalism and some high-end stuff. BuzzReads reminds me of ESPN’s 30 for 30 film documentary series, not least because both are produced mostly by outsiders. BuzzFeed should occassionally free its writers to do that level of work.

I was asking Smith to describe the difference in traffic between the serious journalism and the silly stuff. That’s an artificial distinction, he told me. There’s a way to make a serious or poignant statement that people want to share. In an email exchange after our phone conversation, he pointed out that a political piece will reach hundreds of thousands, while animals reach millions, but perhaps the greatest hit ever on BuzzFeed was an aggregation of the most powerful photos of 2011. “Do you think it’s unserious?” he asked.

And that may be the point. It’s emotionally powerful. It took a skilled editor to assemble it. But it doesn’t change anything. The sheer size and growth of BuzzFeed gives it the opportunity to be a major player in American journalism for years to come. To fully step into that role, BuzzFeed will need to harness its existing genius of poignant aggregation, and apply it to the creation of new information. BuzzFeed has the potential to invent a new form of journalism.

Steve Kandell, who edits BuzzFeed’s longreads, disagreed with my assessment that there is too much distance between BuzzFeed staffers and what he is producing with the help of outside writers. He pointed to BuzzFeed’s work last week covering the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“From where I’m sitting, there’s a lot of editing, a lot of mentoring, and I just watched our entire DC bureau work on nothing but the DOMA case all last week, which seems pretty deep to me, as an observer,” he wrote in an email.

Later this year when the Supreme Court announces its rulings in the gay marriage cases will be a good test for BuzzFeed. Can it create and aggregate in a way that furthers understanding, advances the conversation and influences those in power?

BuzzFeed doesn’t really need to make great journalism to be successful. But journalism sure could use the boost a fully formed BuzzFeed would give it. Read more

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Tuesday, Mar. 19, 2013

Steubenvillerape

Why railing against CNN for the Steubenville coverage is a waste of time

Momentum is building against CNN for clumsy things anchors said about the teenagers convicted of rape in Steubenville, Ohio.

It’s a misplaced anger that will do nothing but further confuse the public about issues of rape and sexual assault, particularly as the crime affects children and teenagers, who make up 44 percent of rape victims.

This discussion is not just about what has happened in the news and what has transpired in Steubenville; it’s an opportunity to have an honest conversation about the sexual assault of children and teenagers, and about misguided perceptions of healthy sexuality and the role of sports culture.

A petition on Change.org – which is asking CNN to apologize for mourning the tragic end of the boys’ promising football careers rather than acknowledging the impact of the rape on the girl — had more than 100,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. Started by Gabriel Garcia of Knoxville, Tenn., the petition states:

That CNN decided to paint the tears of the convicted Steubenville rapists in a sympathetic light and say how their lives were ruined — while completely ignoring the fact that the rape victim’s life is the one whose life was ruined by these rapists’ actions — is disgusting and helps perpetuate a shameful culture in which young people never understand the concept of consent and in which rape victims are blamed and ostracized. Changing that culture must be done brick by brick, and it can start by heaping public shame on this major cable news network and forcing them to admit that they are wrong. Publicly.

In other media criticism, some are condemning Fox News for airing the victim’s name, even though others did it too. It’s hard to tell if this was an honest slip, but it really doesn’t matter.

For more than a decade, I’ve worked with rape survivors and organizations that advocate for survivors to improve media coverage of rape. I’ve led workshops, written model policies and counseled newsrooms through difficult, high-profile cases.

Here’s the problem: Rape and other forms of sexual assault are incredibly common. (For more information and statistics go here or here.) Researchers estimate that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18.

That means there are a lot of rapists out there. Sure, some rapists are responsible for multiple attacks and some are dangerous predators. But that many victims suggests profound confusion about rape on the part of both men and women, boys and girls.

Portraying all rapists as monsters and refusing them any sympathy creates a dynamic in which it’s impossible to acknowledge how many ordinary and common rapists live among us. (According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim,” and “38 percent of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.)

Likewise, concluding that all rape victims’ lives are ruined, that they are damaged goods condemned to a future of stigma and shame, ignores the fact that most rape survivors manage to put their lives together. This is not to minimize the trauma, because there is substantial harm. But almost every victim I’ve met lives a normal, productive life. They aren’t all ruined.

The Steubenville teenage victim, along with her family, have demonstrated the resilience of survivors. Her family members are a model for the rest of us; they didn’t insinuate that because she’d been drinking, she brought this on herself. Instead, they insisted on justice, even when they met resistance.

Rape is complicated. It is also common. We have to find ways to discuss the nuances of an epidemic that hurts so many children. Hyperbole undermines this goal. If all rapists are monsters, that means that mom’s boyfriend, or the coach, or star athlete can’t be a rapist. If all victims are destroyed, or worst yet, destined to victimize others, then healthy, intelligent men and women can’t be victims. And that’s just not true.

So don’t sign the petition demanding CNN apologize. Instead, draw attention to the good coverage.

ESPN’s Michael Smith and Jemele Hill devoted their entire His & Hers podcast this week to the topic. Hill discussed her own childhood assault as a 12-year-old and the fact that her mother was sexually assaulted as well. They talked about the responsibility parents have to educate their sons and daughters, about the pervasiveness of male entitlement in sports cultures and how difficult it is to achieve justice. Smith explains his sympathy for the convicted boys. Hill describes how she would counsel a teen girl to protect herself in a world that won’t respect her right to say no.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center tried to draw attention to a study suggesting that more than half of teenagers would find it tough to intervene; 40 percent said they wouldn’t know what to do.

And blogger and former Steubenville resident Alexandria Goddard describes her role in uncovering the documentation of the assault on social media.

It’s not wrong to feel sympathy for two boys crying over their ruined lives. Because of the perceived stigma, we don’t name the victim or see her image. I’m not suggesting that we change that, until victims voluntarily ask us to. But we in the media have to do more to put a face on the victims of childhood rape. We need to find ways to tell their stories, the way David Holthouse did in his moving first-person stories for Westward and This American Life.

Railing against missteps or an imbalance in coverage makes us less likely to take up powerful stories that will change the way we as a society understand the extent of the rape problem and the power we have to change it. Read more

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Friday, Mar. 01, 2013

violence

Powerful photo essay on domestic violence stirs backlash

A photo essay vividly documenting domestic assault lit up the Internet this week after Time Magazine published it as part of its LightBox series.

Ohio University graduate student Sara Lewkowicz didn’t set out to take pictures of domestic violence. Instead, according to the photo captions, she spent much of her first semester of graduate school photographing a young mother and her boyfriend who was newly released from prison, to demonstrate his struggle to integrate back into the community.

The relationship, tense from the beginning, ended with the man’s arrest after a violent argument unfolded in front of the photographer and the woman’s 2-year-old daughter.

Time published Lewkowicz’s 39 photos Wednesday on its website. As of Friday morning, more than 1,340 commenters had offered their opinions on the startling images. Some questioned the victim’s fitness as a mother. Others defended her.

But many questioned whether it was appropriate for Lewkowicz to continue shooting pictures rather than intervening in the assault.

Motrbotr wrote: as disgusted as I am by Shane’s actions I am equally disgusted by the inaction of photog to try to stop it.

Slaphapii wrote: Come on, getting hired by a newspaper doesn’t turn you into a wildebeest. Journalists don’t have instincts; they have jobs. Sara CHOSE to get an awesome photo spread rather than to provide critically needed help. If it was you, would you pick up the crying two year old, carry her into another room and comfort her

Lewkowicz met similar criticism in January when she posted the essay on Fotovisura.com. She wrote this response in the comments under that post:

I understand your feelings, and I understand why you may feel upset seeing the photographs. Allow me to clarify. I am a 5’2″ woman. I am not physically equipped to do what you are suggesting. There were two other adults there who were much larger than I am, and both individuals were too scared to do anything.

It was my phone that called 911, I had to steal it back from him in order to do so. In putting my hand in his pocket, I already risked being attacked. Thankfully, I wasn’t.

It will be my photographs that are used to put Shane in jail (and I have my own mixed feelings about that fact, as well.)

Intervening physically would have not only put me in danger, but potentially endangered Maggie and her daughter as well, as it would have made Shane angrier.

To say I should have clocked him over the head with my camera also doesn’t make sense, as I probably would have been charged with assault. According to the law, I am only allowed to attack someone if they are committing a life-threatening act of violence against another person, and I would have had to be the one proving that. This is why we call the police in a crisis situation, rather than trying to handle it ourselves. I made sure the police were called, I stayed with them and didn’t let Shane get Maggie alone with him, I surrendered my photos after being subpoenaed, I rubbed Maggie’s back while she was throwing up after the attack, and I drove her to her best friend’s house after the assault and slept on the couch in the same room as her and held her as she was crying.

I’m sorry you feel this wasn’t enough, but frankly, you sound very self-righteous. I have no regrets about how I handled that situation…Regards, Sara Lewkowicz

What to do in the moment is one thing and it seems like Lewkowicz explains a reasonable series of decisions.

But what to do leading up to that moment and what to do after that moment are just as important.

I emailed Lewkowicz and am hoping she agrees to an interview. Until then, here are some questions that could have been considered during the documentation and publication of this essay.

For Lewkowicz:

  • It seems there was a potential for violence before the evening of the assault. The pictures document the tension between Maggie and Shane, and more disturbingly, between Shane and Maggie’s son. Did you discuss with your teachers or fellow photographers what options you should consider if Shane became violent?
  • You document Shane’s clear affection for Maggie’s daughter and his distaste for her son. How did you think about your responsibility to report any suspicions you might have had of abuse?
  • After the assault, you comforted Maggie, rubbed her back, held her as she cried and drove her to a friend’s house. How might your actions have influenced Maggie’s independent ability to continue to consent to be part of the story?

For editors at Time:

  • What could you have done to anticipate the response to the story of Maggie and Shane? Could you have provided more information about the photographer’s decisions?
  • As the comment section lit up with good discussion, how could Time or Lewkowicz engage with the audience?
  • What other contextual information on the issue of domestic violence might the audience find useful or helpful as they digest these photos? (Time recently updated the story with this tag line: UPDATE: Readers who feel they–or people they know–need assistance can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.)

Powerful journalism is often controversial. Asking questions early — as material is gathered — and often — as material is published — can often surface alternatives that minimize the harm stories caused. When journalists and newsrooms do this, they often diminish distractions and encourage the audience to focus on the message of the story, rather than the method in which it was reported.

Related: Reporting on Sexual Violence (a Poynter NewsU self-directed course in partnership with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center) Read more

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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013

goatpig

Fake news: Pig rescuing goat is really a dog

Dave Itzkoff of the NYTimes asked me last week to look at a 30-second video of a cute little pig rescuing a cute little bleating goat that was somehow trapped in a pond.

My first reaction was: fake. Yet several news organizations, including “NBC Nightly News” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” had shared the video as a demonstration of a heartwarming moment that had gone viral.

Here’s how I concluded it was fake (and they could have too):

  • When you see a video like that, your first instinct is to ask questions, like, “What was trapping that goat in the water and how exactly did the pig help free the goat?” “Where did this happen?” You immediately want more context. So I went to the original YouTube posting, where I expected to find a short paragraph answering these questions. But there was nothing there except these sentences: “Pig saves goat who’s foot was stuck underwater at petting zoo. Simply amazing.” Hmm, that’s suspicious. If you’re really cynical, the grammatical misuse of “who’s” for “whose” is suspicious too.
  • I wanted to know a bit more about jebdogrpm, the user who posted this video. So I clicked on his profile. But all I found is this one video. Jebdog joined YouTube Sept. 18 and posted this video on Sept. 19. So clearly this profile was created for the sole purpose of posting this video. Strike two.
  • So now, with two strikes against it being real, the only way I could justify suggesting this might be real was if I had some sort of contradictory evidence. So I messaged jebdogrpm to try and get more information. He didn’t respond. Itzkoff told me that at first, the only queries jebdog (Nathan Fielder, star of a new show at Comedy Central) got were from journalists asking for permission to use the video. Eventually Fielder stopped answering queries. If anyone did ask him for more context, he never responded. When the guy who uploaded the video won’t talk to you, there’s another huge red flag that this is not meeting standards of verification.

Comedy Central has provided a video explaining the hoax:

Here’s what I don’t get: If you’re a journalist and you’re interested in a piece of viral video, shouldn’t your instinct be to learn more about it? At the very least if you share it provisionally, without verifying it, wouldn’t you also share what you were doing to verify it, rather than just saying “we don’t know if this is true”?

This work is part of the new role for professional journalists in a transformed information environment. Before the Internet, journalists created and distributed much of the information that entered the marketplace of ideas. But now, lots of people do that, including guys from Comedy Central who stage fake goat rescues.

Journalists move up the information chain. Instead of just creating new information, now they are sorting through the information that’s already out there, adding context, verifying facts, saying what it all means.

Newsrooms that just pass along information because it’s cute, or viral, or intriguing — without saying what it all means — debase themselves and their role in democracy.

Related:If all a media outlet is doing is sharing the latest video from Reddit or a tweet from a celebrity, how is that adding anything meaningful to what viewers can get elsewhere?” || Best practices for online verification | How to verify content from social media in real time Read more

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Friday, Feb. 15, 2013

manhunt

A tale of two cop-killer hunts shows shifting role of Twitter from Seattle to LA

Three and half years ago, the Seattle-Tacoma area was paralyzed as police searched for a cop-killer, much like greater Los Angeles this past week. On a Sunday morning in 2009,  a gunman walked into a coffeshop in Parkland, Wa., fired on a group of police officers, killing four of them, and fled in a waiting vehicle.

For 48 hours, police throughout the region were focused on little else. They searched locations up and down the I-5 corridor near Lake Washington, the University of Washington, as well as closer to the original shooting near Tacoma.

The community lived in fear. And Twitter quickly became a clearinghouse for information. Organizing under the hashtag #washooting, citizens and journalists alike shared updates and expressed their condolences and fear.

When Seattle Times Editor David Boardman addressed the Seattle Chamber of Commerce after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage, he said, “First of all, I want to say this belongs to all of you. We want the whole community to share in this prize.”

The Seattle Times included portions of the Twitter stream in its supplemental entry to the Pulitzer Board.

Twitter played a slightly different role in Los Angeles this past week, where law enforcement was also hunting across a widespread area for Christopher Dorner, a man who had killed cops. In that manhunt’s final hours, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office asked the media to stop tweeting.

Law enforcement hoped to prevent any accidental release of strategic information, like how many SWAT officers were assembling and what type of assault they were planning on the cabin where Dorner had holed up.

It was a ridiculous request, many now agree in hindsight. Twitter is one way that people talk to each other. And people can’t possibly not talk about the most gripping and dramatic events in their community.

It was clear throughout the manhunt that Twitter has “revolutionized” the way the public gets and shares information about breaking news events, said Robert J. Lopez, a Los Angeles Times reporter who mans the LA Now news blog for the paper, in addition to his investigative work. Twitter quickly became the place where people shouted back challenges and criticisms of law enforcement. “They had legitimate questions,” he said, during a phone interview on Thursday.

Twitter took on a different role in LA. Rather than one single organizing hashtag, there were many different hashtags, including #manhunt, #dorner, and at the end #bigbear.

And rather than unifying and reassuring the community, Twitter became the safe and acceptable space for folks to criticize law enforcement, express their doubts about the narrative that was being reported and share their own information.

Lopez, who Tweets using an older version of TweetDeck, said he was impressed by the number of citizens re-tweeting his posts. People naturally wanted to be part of sharing new information and prompting reporters to pursue specific lines of inquiry.

When San Bernardino officials asked journalists to stop tweeting on Tuesday night during the standoff in the mountains, Lopez didn’t notice much of an impact. “I’m not really sure how many of us knew that request was out there,” he said. “I didn’t hear about it until afterward.”

As the pace of new information dwindles now that Dorner is confirmed dead, the #Dorner hashtag remains active. On Thursday it was mostly dominated by people who are still suspicious that law enforcement deliberately burned the cabin to the ground in an act of revenge.

The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and the L.A. Police Department deny this, stating that the fire was a result of tear gas canisters and other incendiary canisters fired into the cabin.

What do we learn by comparing the use of Twitter during the two different manhunts, Seattle in 2009 and LA in 2013? Twitter morphs to reflect a specific community or event. Seattle, a tech haven of early adopters, is more homogenous in that respect, and in 2009 Twitter users were a smaller group. As a community it reacted to the murder of cops with a more unified voice. In LA, a sprawling metropolis, the reaction to events was more diverse and unpredictable. And Twitter became the place to start that investigation.

“Twitter is like a roadmap,” Lopez said. It’s full of signs and signals that need to be vetted and interpreted. Read more

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