Best Practices: Ethics and Diversity

Crime scene

Hyperbolic to sensitive, how news outlets treated dramatic car crash video

The 55-second cell-phone video of an SUV going the wrong way on the Interstate, smashing into a sedan and exploding into a fiery ball that killed five people quickly sky-rocketed to one of the most viewed videos ever on the Tampa Bay Times’ website. It’s also a case study to examine how different newsrooms treat difficult content.

The Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, ran the whole video, unedited, along with the sound. The Tampa Tribune ran the video without the sound. WTSP and WFLA used small portions of the video in a package, but then stopped using it, as did Fox 13. ABC Action News used a tight clip of the video in two packages. Bay News 9 ran the video but truncated it before the crash. Read more

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Lessons learned from Grantland’s tragic story on Dr. V

By editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ own admission, ignorance was the biggest mistake Grantland made in reporting and publishing the story of Dr. V and her innovative golf putter. Ignorance about one of the most vulnerable minority groups — transgender people.

Plenty of writers have dissected Grantland’s mistakes in reporting a story about the entrepreneur with a checkered past who happened to be transgender.

But this case need not only be a tragic example of what can go wrong. This can also be a moment for news organizations to learn how to get smarter, make stronger ethical decisions and compensate for weaknesses that can lead to harm. Read more


BBC launches ‘expert women database’ to help its journalists diversify sources

The BBC has launched an “expert women database” and a related YouTube channel to try to get more female sources on air.

Emma Barnett writes that the database features the names of 60 women who attended BBC Academy’s “Expert Women” training days, as well as contact information for 120 women who “showed promise” in their BBC Academy applications.

More than 2,000 women applied for the first training day, and only 30 spots were available. During the training, women received voice coaching tips and talked about their areas of expertise. The BBC Expert Women YouTube channel features some of these talks.

Barnett says it hasn’t been easy getting more female subject matter experts on air. Read more


Why journalists have trouble with bullying

Stories about bullying often follow a predictable narrative with a “villain v. victim” arc that leaves little room for nuance.

Slate’s Emily Bazelon raised this issue on Monday in her South by Southwest talk, “Digital Drama: Growing up in the Age of Facebook.” Bazelon, who wrote a just-released book about bullying called “Sticks and Stones,” was joined by The New York Times’ Bill Keller, researcher Danah Boyd, and MTV’s Jason Rzepka.

Together, they talked about how journalists can capture the complexities of bullying.

Ask: Is this really bullying?

One of the problems with words like “bullying” and “cyberbullying” is that they mean different things to different people.

“Scholarly definitions of bullying often differ from what the public thinks,” Boyd said. “Bullying becomes synonymous, especially among adults, with all forms of meanness and cruelty.”

While researching bullying, Boyd found that adults were quick to define rude behavior as bullying. Children, meanwhile, didn’t see it that way.

“Young people,” she said, “kept telling us over and over again, ‘bullying really isn’t a problem; that’s a middle school thing. Oh, but gossip and drama — oh my gosh, we have so much of that.’”

Part of the challenge for journalists, then, is figuring out what word to use – and refraining from overusing the word “bullying.”

“When you define all meanness as bullying,” Bazelon said, “it seems like an intractable problem.”

Avoid sensationalistic headlines, tweets

The panelists said journalists use the word “bullying” too much.

Journalists’ use of the word has created “an attention economy,” Boyd said. “They put so much monetization around grabbing people’s attention with sensationalist headlines and juicy tweets.”

This has been especially true in the past couple of years with the rise of “cyberbullying.”

“When cyberbullying appeared on the scene in 2009 there were a lot of alarmist stories saying that there was this new monster on the block,” Bazelon said. “In fact, there is no epidemic of bullying; the rates of bullying have been pretty consistent.”

Keller agreed that the media often sensationalize stories about bullying.

“I should feel obliged to leap up to the defense of media, but actually I don’t,” he said. “The fundamental problems are not created by the digital age; they’re inherent in what we do. There is a tendency in media to oversimplify. Stories require protagonists and antagonists, and victims and villains, and we sometimes strain to supply them.” It’s much easier, for instance, to report a generalized “victim v. villain” narrative than it is to look into the nuances that differentiate each bullying case.

Keller said he also thinks journalists jump on bullying stories because of the “quest for the trend.”

“Journalists like to be able to say something is a trend because that makes it important and that makes it go to the front page or the home page.”

Report before drawing conclusions

Journalists have a tendency to prematurely draw conclusions in stories about bullying. Bazelon alluded to this when talking about Tyler Clementi – the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate tweeted that he had seen Clementi kiss another man via his Webcam.

At the time, news organizations reported that the tweet caused Clementi to commit suicide. Journalists and their audiences want to make sense of tragedies, but the question that’s hardest to answer is “why?” Trying to answer it when we haven’t done much reporting can lead us to make assumptions and draw inaccurate conclusions.

“Sometimes in stories there’s this very quick move from cause to effect … We see this direct line from texting or cyberbullying to blaming those phenomena,” Bazelon said. “It’s misleading and does a disservice to the complexity when we try to make everything fit into this narrative.” She praised Ian Parker for his in-depth New Yorker story about Clementi, which shows the complexities of suicide and bullying.

Bazelon acknowledged the challenges of reporting on bullying. “I often struggle between the choice of fearing I’m going to be wrong and taking too long to form an opinion,” she said. “I also think the 24/7 news cycle and incredible speed of the Internet has really exacerbated this.”

Deeply report both sides of the story

One of the problems with bullying situations is that people — particularly the media and schools — are quick to assign blame.

Boyd argued that media coverage can make bullies feel vulnerable and victimized: “Kids who are being aggressive,” are often “really hurting.” Instead of getting help, she said, they get punished.

The media doesn’t do a good job of telling that story, though. Instead, journalists tend to portray bullies as villains. Bazelon was reminded of this when reporting on Pheobe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager who committed suicide after being bullied.

Bazelon thought Prince’s high school “must be this really scary, bad place,” based on the stories she had read about the bullies there. But when she visited the school, she realized it was different than she expected.

“That black and white narrative fell apart as I started spending time there,” she said. Bazelon, wrote a three-part series on Prince, learned that the “villains” weren’t all bad, and that the victim wasn’t all good; they were much more complicated than that.

Bazelon asked tough questions while reporting the series, and was at times accused of blaming the victim. “To question the dominant narrative,” she said, “is a risky thing to do.”

Offer context about social media & bullying

Keller, who has three children, believes social media has made it easier for kids to bully one another.

“I think that there is in our society a general increase in meanness, aggression, and polarization, and I do not begin to blame the Internet for that. Rush Limbaugh is a mean son of a bitch and he doesn’t need the Internet to make him a mean son of a bitch,” Keller said. “But there’s something in the nature of social media that rewards partisanship. You tend to hang out with people who think the way you do. Most people don’t hang out in a spectrum of opinion; they hang out in a niche of opinion, and I think that tends to reinforce a kind of closed-mindedness.”

Additionally, he said, anonymity and the immediacy of the Web make people less likely to stop and think before sharing information.

Boyd sees social media as a force for good — particularly when it comes to media coverage. People, she said, can use it to “call out lazy journalists” and “make a challenge to the media to make coverage that’s more nuanced.”

One way to make it more nuanced is to explain how social media affects teenagers’ interactions — and to probe tough questions. How do we help teens deal with bullying, or digital drama, online? What do the words “privacy” and “public” mean to today’s youth? And how do those definitions change from site to site?

Boyd explained that privacy isn’t the opposite of being in public; it’s the ability to have control over one’s social situation. With some sites, privacy is more complicated. Teens understand that Twitter is a public platform, Boyd said. But the frequent privacy shifts on Facebook make it harder to know who can and can’t see your posts.

Boyd said it would be great if all social media sites had built-in alert systems to make teens more aware of who they’re sharing information with (i.e. popups that say “You’re about to share this post with 4,000 people”).

Perhaps those systems could help curb cyberbullying. Ultimately, though, change has to come from people — not technology. Read more


ONA winner highlights 5 ways to create interactives that inform & engage readers

Around the same time this summer that North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriage, the Guardian published an interactive that showed just how differently each state defines gay rights.

The interactive displays information in ways that a traditional story never could — by using color wheels to show how gay rights vary from state to state and region to region. The wheels help organize what would otherwise seem like an overwhelming amount of information, and they offer readers a visual representation of just how divided America is over gay rights.

I talked by phone with Guardian Interactive Editor Gabriel Dance and Interactive Designer Feilding Cage about the project — which has since won a 2012 Online Journalism Award — and asked them to share advice about what goes into creating an effective interactive.

Tackle an ongoing news story

When deciding whether to turn a story into an interactive, the Guardian’s four-person interactive team considers whether the story’s subject matter has staying power. If it does, Dance said, then the interactive probably will too.

He noted that topics like gay rights, women’s rights, gun control and the death penalty work well for interactives because they regularly come up in the news.

“If I’m going to have a team member work on something for two or three weeks, we don’t want it to be only be for one day or one event,” Dance said. “We want to make it an evergreen, living reference so that as these topics come into the news again and again, the interactives will still be timely, contextual and relevant.” Whenever gay rights comes into the spotlight, The Guardian can resurface the interactive and help extend its shelf life.

One of the challenges of tackling an ongoing news story is that there’s often a lot of research involved. It helps, Cage said, to look for organizations that track the kind of information you’re looking for.

“Researching this project was an incredible challenge; each state has their own definitions and they often vary widely,” he said. “I did a significant amount of reporting on my own and discovered late in the process that several organizations keep track of variations of what we were looking for.”

Create something unpredictable

More often than not, state by state data is displayed on maps. Cage wanted to take an unpredictable approach, though, so that the interactive would stand out.

“I originally went into this project with the goal of telling the story of gay rights without using a map. There are many maps of gay rights on the Web, and they do a good job of looking at one aspect,” said Cage, who spent about three weeks working on the interactive. “I ended up going with the circle because I was able to convey the regional aspect of the story while addressing many types of rights at the same time.” (Here’s a detailed piece on how he actually created the circles.)

The main wheel in the interactive breaks down gay rights by certain topics. The bold colors represent the states with the most rights.

The Guardian interactives team places a strong emphasis on taking different approaches to tell stories visually. The goal, Dance said, is to design interactives in a way that not only informs, but generates interest and engagement.

“We strongly believe that one of the most effective ways to communicate information is to do it in a way that interests the reader,” Dance said. “This interactive could have been done in a table. Could that table have been more effective from a purely data standpoint? Maybe. But nobody wants to look at a table of data. We’re much more interested in what’s going to engage the audience.”

Make it easy to share, personalize

Cage didn’t just want readers to engage with the interactive; he wanted them to share it and personalize it. The interactive lets readers connect to Facebook to share gay rights stats for their state, and it lets them see the stats for states where their Facebook friends live.

“It was really neat to see the feedback loop on Facebook and Twitter, and see what people were getting from [the interactive] and the connections they were making,” Cage said. “Some of it was stuff that I hadn’t even noticed, and I’d been staring at the data for weeks.”

It helped, he said, to tap into the knowledge of others at the Guardian; he and Dance worked closely with Guardian Open Editor Amanda Michel and her team to brainstorm ways to integrate social media into the project.

The interactive ended up being one of the most-read stories on the Guardian’s site for a few days after it was published, and people are still sharing it on social networks 10 to 20 times a week, Cage said.

Dance attributes the popularity to the execution of the interactive and the subject matter. “Gay rights is an issue a lot of people feel passionate about,” he said.

When I interviewed Online Journalism Award Co-Chair Josh Hatch about the project, he too said the interactive works well because of the subject matter. Many of the ONA finalists’ projects this year are diversity-related. Hatch doesn’t know for sure why this is the case but thinks it’s a reflection of a diverse group of judges — and the fact that stories about diversity often resonate with people.

“We know that people are drawn to stories that are unique or that connect with the reader in a personal way. It’s possible … that stories that zero in on diversity-related issues might resonate particularly well on both of those counts,” Hatch said. “Almost by definition, stories that focus on underrepresented subgroups — LGBT community, various minorities, etc. — are unique, and because so many people so closely identify with these various groups, then those stories also offer that personal connection. One can imagine a reader thinking, ‘Hey, here’s a story about *me,* (or my brother or sister or son or daughter) and I *never* see that!’”

Integrate it with the rest of the site

Too often, interactives and long-form narratives get lost once they leave a site’s home page. One way to extend the life of an interactive is to link to it in related stories, and to retweet links to it from time to time.

The Guardian’s gay rights interactive appears in all articles that have the gay-rights tag, making it easy for people to find.

The site’s content management system also allows for a deeper level of integration.

State names in gay rights stories are all highlighted. When readers scroll over the state name, a circle pops up and prompts them to click through to the interactive, which will show them data for that particular state. 

“It’s more powerful than a related tag and related article; we get into the copy, analyze the word and add deep links and further context on a word by word basis,” Dance said. “I give a lot of credit to our content management system; it provides the flexibility to do that.”

In this excerpt from a story about how gay rights affects foreign aid, the word “Texas” is highlighted. When you click on it, you’ll see a pop-up that links to the interactive.

Update the interactive

Shortly after the interactive was published, Cage and Dance heard from readers who said they wanted more information about states that don’t recognize same-sex partners.

Based on this feedback, Cage updated the interactive to include data on relationship recognition. In November, Cage plans to update the interactive to reflect gay rights initiatives that several states are considering.

When doing research for the project, he had asked a LGBT association — the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) — to add him to their monthly newsletter so he could be aware of their latest research and update the interactive as necessary.

“When I was talking with the folks at the MAP project, it was a conversation about their definitions and research, but I was able to contribute and am still encouraged by them to share research that’s relevant,” Cage said. “Google News alerts are incredibly useful for monitoring a topic. In our case, the data doesn’t change frequently, but it’s useful to know what’s coming.”

Winners of the Online Journalism Awards will be announced Saturday night at the ONA convention in San Francisco.
Read more

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How journalists can stop the spread of misinformation when reporting on the occult

Police in Fairfield, Conn., say new DNA evidence may help them catch the suspect who strangled a newborn boy and left his body by the banks of Lake Mohegan 26 years ago. But as police and reporters return the case to the public eye, they’re also resurrecting rumors that Santeria or Palo Mayombe were involved in the killing.

The infant’s body was laid on a piece of burlap pinned with crosses of St. Lazarus, surrounded by pieces of fruit, coins and food, according to police. Some inspectors claimed these were signs that the killing was part of a ritual, even though neither faith practices human sacrifice.

Police admitted the connection to Santeria was just a guess: “We called it Santeria because we had to label it something,” Fairfield Police Lt. Mike Gagner told the Fairfield Citizen. “There are similar religions; we just don’t know enough about the practices to say.” Local television took it further, connecting the crime to Palo Mayombe, which a reporter erroneously called “a dark offshoot of the Santeria religion.”

Santeria and Palo Mayombe, which are not related faiths, both developed in Africa. Neither is particularly well understood in the United States. Santeria has just tens of thousands of followers, most of whom keep their beliefs to themselves. It’s unlikely most Americans will knowingly encounter someone who follows Santeria or Palo Mayombe. Most of their exposure is through horror movies and the news, which usually don’t portray them accurately.

That leaves the public’s imagination wide open to suggestion when it comes to crimes with an occult element. Because reporters are eager to grab readers’ attention, it’s tempting to include an occult hook when there is one. Doing so without evidence, however, means spreading false — even defamatory — information about minority faiths and their followers.

There are plenty of ways to avoid these mistakes. Here are some tips for reporting on such crimes responsibly.

Don’t take what police or other sources say at face value

Police aren’t experts on the occult or minority faiths. Police academies don’t teach these topics extensively. Once in a while, an officer decides to self-educate, but it’s rare. Most police — like most people — don’t encounter Satanists, Wiccans, Santerians or Thelemites every day, so they don’t necessarily know more than we do about their practices.

When officers enter a crime scene, they seek items that might inform the investigation. For example, when Milwaukee, Wisc., roommates Raven Larrabee and Rebecca Chandler were arrested last fall for cutting an Arizona man 300 times, police noted the presence of two books at their apartment: the humorous “The Werewolf’s Guide to Life” and the more serious “Necromantic Ritual Book.” They also found a black folder titled “Introduction to Sigilborne Spirits.”

Reporters ran with the information and speculated about sexy werewolf rituals. It was remarkable how this story spread for the week or two after it broke. This spring, one of the women denied any occult inspiration for the incident.

Without in-house expertise, police have sometimes consulted self-styled “occult experts,” such as the late Don Rimer, whose handbooks and seminars for police departments were full of misinformation. If police claim a link between a crime and a specific faith or occult practice, be skeptical.

Likewise, crime-scene neighbors aren’t occult experts. In January, when a Cornwall, UK, woman’s horse was slaughtered, locals Googled the date and linked it to a holiday found on an online “Satanic calendar” — which had been fabricated by a fundamentalist Christian organization. Several news outlets, including the BBC, ran with the rumors before backing off in later reports.

Find & interview real experts

If the police say a crime has Satanic elements, find a local Satanist leader to vet the claims. If the neighbors say it’s Santeria or Palo Mayombe, talk to the nearest botanica owner. Many of these faiths have leaders or public figures who are happy to discuss the facts and clarify whether elements of a crime bear any resemblance to their practices.

Over time — particularly if you’re on the crime beat — you’ll build up a list of reliable contacts who can respond quickly when you’re covering a breaking crime story.

Relying on books is tricky, because so many are full of sensationalistic or false information. The Internet is worse; while there are reliable sites describing minority faiths and their practices accurately, it’s tough to know which ones are legit, particularly when you’re unfamiliar with the field and you’re racing a deadline.

Write carefully, with attention to relevant details

When it comes time to write, be as clear as you can. If the police claim a murder was a specific religion’s ritual sacrifice, but the expert you’ve talked to says his or her faith doesn’t practice such sacrifices, spell that out. This is a chance not only to report facts about a newsworthy crime, but also clear the air of readers’ preconceived ideas.

If you’re stuck and can’t find reliable information on the faith in question, be conscientious in your phrasing. There’s a big difference between saying “the police are investigating a Satanic murder” and saying “police say they found a pentagram at the crime scene.” Such information doesn’t necessarily belong in your lede; most crimes are attention-grabbing enough on their own.

Confessed suspects may provide their own clues, as well. When Murfreesboro, Tenn., police arrested John Lotts, Jr., in January on charges of stabbing a 5-year-old, they quickly latched on to his status as a member of the Church of Satan. Lotts told a reporter that he’d hurt the child after losing his temper — and that Satanism was not involved. Even so, his faith got more play than the fact that Lotts is a convicted sex offender — a much more relevant factor.

Prior criminal history and mental illness are more likely culprits in such crimes. And they make reader-luring headlines, too. Let these details take the lead, and tread carefully when police raise the specter of the occult. The reputation of the suspect, and of anyone who belongs to the faith in question, is on the line. Read more


How to respond when the Internet calls you names

@shawnpwilliams Yeah, you’re a dumb n****r.

When I read these words written by a stranger last week, I wasn’t sure how to react. It wasn’t the first time I’d been called the n-word, but it was in a place that I least expected it — on Twitter.

Over the years, I’ve received plenty of racially charged emails based on my columns and blog posts. The comment sections of my websites can be cesspools of bigotry and intolerance. And as the recollection of my college days slowly fade, I still vividly remember the first time I was called an “N” as a freshman in a grocery store parking lot.

One of the comforting and ironically sad things about social media is that we tend to friend and follow people that we already have a lot in common with. We spend most of the day “liking” or retweeting things we see from people who think like us or look like us. We cosign on thoughts and ideas that tend to re-enforce our personal beliefs.

It was in that very place where a person who I didn’t know called me out of my name, potentially in front of the entire Internet. I assume he was upset with my commentary on the Republican presidential debate that night, but I really wasn’t sure.

What should I do? Do I respond with some sort of harsh and clever attack to show that I wasn’t afraid of his hate speech? I could just let it slide, chalk it up to ignorance and act like the whole thing never happened.

After taking a few minutes to calm down and breathe, I decided to just share the racist tweet with my followers, along with the words “this is what we’re up against.”

As far as I knew it was over, and I had probably let the guy off easy.  Yet as someone who continues to have an abundance of faith in the Internet to do more good than harm, I saw a tweeter (again someone I didn’t know) call out the offending party, a student at a state college in the Midwest. The tweeter also referred to the guy’s fraternity, which appears in his bio.

By the next day, I received an apology via email from the president of the Intrafraternity Council at the guy’s school. The student in question tweeted his own apology: “I am sorry for my words last night, it was late and I was in over my head. Truly I do not view myself as a racist.”

He followed that up with an email which spoke to how badly he felt and how poorly his actions reflected on the organizations to which he belongs.

Some of my own followers had my back too:

GetItGirlStyle – @shawnpwilliams YOU are a good man to take that apology and I dont even know what he said.

The hate speech casually spewed by this young man has become acceptable in many circles. Inflammatory rhetoric is reaching a fever pitch as Republicans search for a presidential nominee. We hear code phrases that assert blacks youth need to be hired as janitors and make African-Americans synonymous with welfare and food stamps.

I’m ashamed to admit my surprise at how our political differences have become so severe that still today a college student would choose to drop the n-word on the grandson of a World War I veteran. That the divide is so great, a sitting governor feels well within her right to wave her finger in the face of the grandson of a World War II veteran who happens to be President of the United States.

While the thought of both actions infuriate me, I’m saddened by how these acts are rewarded. A Congressman who breaks with House decorum and yells “you lie” to President Obama is able to parlay blatant disrespect into political donations. And Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was able to turn her heated conversation with the president into an increase in book sales.

As for my Twitter hater, I accepted the guy’s apology. Part of me wishes I had fought his fire with a flamethrower. I could have tried to shame the guy and his fraternity and college.I could have thrown up links to the tweet and asked my followers to make a big deal about it.

But frankly, shaming a college student by adding to the toxic tone of our national discourse won’t solve anything. As politicians and pundits continue to drag us towards the gutter, it’s up to the rest of us to rise above the fray, possibly dragging some unwitting combatants with us.

Shawn Williams is founder and editor of Dallas South News and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. Read more


How to interview, report on immigrants when you don’t speak their language

Growing up, I discovered the easiest way to get rid of someone soliciting from door to door: Just say your family doesn’t speak English. Most visitors turned away quickly.

Occasionally, a church group would really persist and invite themselves in. After some awkwardness, they managed to communicate with us, even though my parents’ preferred language was Vietnamese. They used me as a translator, showed books with photos and after patiently sitting around for a couple of hours, found out that my father did speak a little English, albeit slowly and shyly.

Many journalists could take some inspiration from those Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited our North Carolina home. Immigrant communities are rich with stories, but reporters often cite language as an obstacle.

Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Sunday and enterprise at the Dallas Morning News, told me that some reporters he’s supervised have assumed they wouldn’t be able to get much information. In truth, he said, they feel uncomfortable. “It’s fear of the unknown,” he said.

Hiring more bilingual reporters is one solution for media outlets. But that has limitations, too. In many communities, dozens of languages are spoken, from Arabic to Yiddish. Moreover, reporting on people who don’t speak English shouldn’t be handed off as the responsibility of one or two journalists. Immigrants are important sources for every beat, from city government to public health to religion.

Here are some ways to maneuver around the language barrier:

Realize that there may be more English speakers than you think.

Being an immigrant doesn’t mean a person doesn’t speak English. As a reporter for The Washington Post, I wanted to do a story about Koreans immigrating to suburban Maryland so their kids could attend the well-regarded public schools.

I worried about my ability to do an in-depth story about a family with an interpreter tagging along for hours at a time. But eventually, I found a family in which both father and mother spoke English — they had been educated at American universities years ago.

Seek out long-time residents and younger people as “cultural brokers.”

Use them to help you get an overview of the community, brainstorm story ideas and meet others. Many immigrants who have lived in the community longest serve as church leaders, social workers or hired translators at nonprofits and governments. They’re often trusted by other residents and can smooth the way for you. On the other end, the younger people provide a different perspective. The generational divide is a terrific narrative thread.

Many reporters, including myself, have also used community leaders or young people as translators. This should be done with some caution. Be aware that some people may have self-interests or conflicts — as in any reporting situation. Teenagers, for example, might not tell you everything their parents are saying — that’s a fact that crosses all cultures.

Take your time.

The longer you’re with people, the more comfortable they’ll feel. In-person visits are infinitely better than on-phone interviews because you can see and respond to the source’s body language. Multiple visits are essential for more complicated stories. Shajia Ahmad of the Garden City Telegram in Kansas, who has reported on Burmese and Somali immigrants, said she doesn’t bring in a photographer until after she’s visited several times. Her theory is that most families probably prefer one stranger in their home at a time.

Spending time with sources is also important for the sake of accuracy. You might need to go over a point several times, to make sure you understand it correctly. WCCO-TV in Minneapolis recently aired a story saying that a New York City Chinese-owned market was selling dog meat from Minnesota.

The employee that a reporter interviewed by phone likely meant “duck” not “dog,” but the station ran with the story anyway. New York inspectors found no basis for the allegations, and the story has since been erased from WCCO’s website. News Director Michael Caputa acknowledges the station was wrong, but still seems to be defending the story. “The person we spoke to said he didn’t speak English, but then gave an interview in English,” he wrote in a staff memo.

Use your other senses.

Reporting shouldn’t be limited to interviewing. Look at what’s on their walls. Notice their gestures. What type of music is playing? What type of photos or written materials can they show you?

Sometimes, I’ve used what I notice in someone’s home as an icebreaker. People talk more openly and are less embarrassed about their language abilities when they’re at ease. When I asked one woman to tell me about the family pictures on her shelves, she lit up. By the time she got to the last photo, she was even comfortable enough to tell me that it was of the daughter she had left behind in El Salvador. The years of distance had made them strangers.

Matt O’Brien of the Contra Costa Times told me via email that he relied on his observations when he interviewed an elderly Taiwanese immigrant through a community worker. He noticed her family looking uncomfortable at the woman’s responses and then moved the interview to another room.

Develop a network of translators.

Reporters I know have depended on friends, parents or colleagues at other newsrooms. Alhambra Source, an online news site in southern California, taps into a team of more than 30 community volunteers. The site, a project of the University of Southern California’s journalism school, publishes in three languages — English, Spanish and Chinese. The volunteers serve as citizen reporters and translators, and they’re given credit at the end of stories.

Daniela Gerson, the site’s editor, has relied on the volunteers to help report on stories such as a health center serving elderly Chinese that is facing budget cuts. (Gerson speaks Spanish, but not Chinese.)

She wondered whether other media outlets could use community translators just as they ask citizen reporters for news and photos. “We’ve found that people really want to help us,” Gerson told me in an interview. “People value that they’re able to provide a bridge to their community.” Read more


Is new Essence managing editor the right person for the job? / Journal-isms

Michael Bullerdick, a white male, has been named managing editor of Essence, prompting Danielle Wright to ask whether he can represent the interests and views of the magazine’s African-American, female audience. “Are you able to suggest topics that have been affecting the community for years? Can you reminisce or relate to the stories of historic Black women who overcame struggles and portray them accurately, and make suggestions to ensure that the story is told through a relatable voice? Are you able to manage pitches to ensure they won’t offend your African-American, woman audience?”

Essence Editor-in-Chief Constance White, however, told Richard Prince that Bullerdick “is responsible for production and operational workflow. He has no involvement in editorial content.”

Related: Prince examines white ownership and leadership of ethnic websites. Read more

Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Photographers debate what should replace staged photo opps now that White House is ending the practice

Calling it a “bad idea,” the White House has decided that it will no longer re-enact speeches for still photographers, as it did the night President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden. That re-enactment was the subject of a story that sparked industry conversation about the ethics of staging photos, particularly one of such a historic event.

Photographers take pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama after he announced live on television the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

On May 1, continuing a practice in place for decades, the White House barred still photographers from photographing the live presidential address because of the disruption the still cameras would cause. After the speech, President Barack Obama walked down the hallway toward the microphones for a second time and spoke for a few minutes, just so still photographers could capture what they missed.

Photojournalists defended the practice to, in part because captions disclosed that the photos were not taken during the live speech. But the captions weren’t all that clear that the photos were staged, and our audit found that in many cases those captions didn’t run with the photos.

The question now is what will take the place of the re-enactments. Kenny Irby, Poynter’s visual journalism faculty, said the easiest option would be to move to a single-camera pool. That means one photographer, from a select group of news outlets, would document the event, and those images would be shared with all the news outlets that cover the White House. The easiest option, though, is not the most inclusive, Irby said.

Photojournalists who spoke with on Thursday evening oppose that approach for still images, saying it limits photographers’ storytelling options and creativity.

If the White House moves to a pool, said Doug Mills, White House photographer for The New York Times, “we are taking one step forward — we get live coverage — and four steps backward — we will lose four photographers from the room. “

He continued, “We clearly lose out in terms of perspective. There will be no wide shots or risk-taking, for that matter.”

A meeting is scheduled for next week between the White House and the White House Correspondents’ Association to discuss a new approach. Mills is the representative to that group, which is separate from the White House News Photographers Association.

Photojournalists lobby for more access

Photojournalists who spoke with Poynter on Thursday night expressed concern that a new arrangement might be even more restrictive, forcing them to become more reliant on pool photos or worse, photos supplied by the White House.

“Any decision that leads to greater transparency is a good decision,” said Santiago Lyon, director of photography for the Associated Press. “What remains to be seen is what level of access we will have.”

The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), along with the White House News Photographers Association, has complained about access to presidential events before. Sean Elliot, NPPA president, said the Obama administration has a history of “pushing the press to take handouts from the White House photo staff.”

“The simple reality,” Elliot said, “is that the official White House photographer is a staffer and any photos they produce are essentially PR photos. Coverage of the White House and of our government need to be done by an independent press — not by handouts.”

A technological solution?

Harry Walker, director of McClatchy-Tribune Photo Service, thinks there are alternatives to going to a single-camera pool or using handout photos. Still photographers could use blimps (cases that help to quiet the noise of SLR cameras) or set up farther back with long lenses so the photographers don’t ruin the live event with their actions or mistakes, such as dropping a camera. (An NPPA story on the White House decision describes one such incident that happened this week in Austin.)

A couple of weeks ago, Walker said, he saw plenty of great images of the royal wedding that were documented with long lenses. “I think we know that everyone can pull back 20 or 30 feet and still get a very good image, both video and stills.”

Other possibilities include using “frame grabs” from the high-definition television feed, but wire services resist this because, they say, the frame grabs would not be of high enough quality.

Another option: using a still camera with the mirror “locked up,” so the camera can operate almost silently. One of the official White House staff photographers captured still images during the president’s speech this way, according to a story by Don Winslow on the NPPA website.

NPPA’s Elliot says without a doubt, the technology exists to quiet cameras that would allow photojournalists to do their job without interrupting a speech. “Still cameras have been working on movie sets for decades,” he said. “It is about time for this staging to end. Arguably there have not been enough protests to this for a long time.”

Pool photography limits competition

And while television often uses a pool camera — and did that night — Elliot opposes pools for still photojournalists. “Pool situations often don’t work because of the competitive nature of the industry,” he said, and because multiple still photographers can capture different angles and elements of a news event.

The competition that photojournalists spoke of is journalistic, but it’s also financial. The few news organizations that got access to the re-enactment on May 1 are part of the so-called “tight pool,” which has five slots: AP, Reuters, AFP/Getty (the two have a partnership), The New York Times, and a rotating independent photographer. These news organizations commit to covering the White House at all times, at great expense. They have access to scenes that others don’t. And they can sell and distribute those images.

A single-camera pool “limits the amount of images and competition,” Mills said. He said he would fight to prevent this from becoming the “precedent for other sensitive and intimate situations.”

If the White House moves to a single-camera pool, that could mean that the photographer who captures a particular news event will have to share those images with all members of the White House press corps. Any of those news outlets could use and sell the images, which decreases the benefit for the few that follow the president’s every move.

It’s also possible that the five members of the “tight pool” could come up with an agreement with the White House that enables them to share images only with each other. “It is not fair [that] the people who don’t commit to covering the White House consistently will be able to sell those pictures via the pool,” Mills said.

Donald Winslow, editor of NPPA’s News Photographer magazine, told that he believes wire services’ resistance to a pool approach is less about journalism than it is about competition and ownership of content.

“Is this really about the principle of having an independent journalist in the room?” he asked. “Because if it is, a pool journalist is acceptable and ethical. If they want an AP byline in the room, a Reuters byline in the room, an AFP byline in the room, then that’s about pride – and it’s not about principle. Pride or profit?”

Al Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty for broadcast and online, interviewed Sean Elliot for this story. Kenny Irby, Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity, interviewed Doug Mills and Santiago Lyon. Steve Myers, managing editor of, interviewed Harry Walker and Don Winslow. Read more


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