Best Practices: Ethics and Diversity

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 May 1, 2011. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Reuters, AP photojournalists describe staging of Obama photo

Editor’s note: On May 12, news broke that the White House had decided to stop its practice of re-enacting photos for still photographers. Our story on that decision is here. Below is’s original story on this issue.

Until Wednesday, the White House debated whether to release photos showing Osama bin Laden’s body. In theory, the photos would be proof to any doubters that the terrorist is dead. But not all photos can be believed — not even when they seem to show the president of the United States making a historic speech.

Reuters White House photographer Jason Reed describes how the president made his speech to a single TV camera, then immediately after finishing, he pretended to speak for the still cameras.

Reed writes:

“As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent. Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the President then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”

That means the photograph that appeared in many newspapers Monday morning of Obama speaking may have been the staged shot, captured after the president spoke. This type of staging has been going on for decades.

This is the cutline transmitted with this AP photo: “President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, May 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)”

John Harrington, president of the White House News Photographers Association, tells me that the Obama Administration has used this technique before and they are not the first.

“I am aware of it happening in previous administrations. I believe Bush 41 [George H.W. Bush] did it too,” Harrington says. “The times where I have known of it happening before is when the president is in the Oval Office and you are working in a very tight space.”

Other photographers who work at the White House told that since the Reagan era (and possibly before) it has been the standard operating procedure that during a live presidential address, still cameras are not allowed to photograph the actual event.

“AP understands why the still photographers are not allowed into the live address area and the captions disclose that these are re-enactment situations as well,” says David Ake, the Associated Press’ assistant bureau chief for photos in Washington.

Because of the noise from the camera shutters and the placement of the teleprompter, “we are not able to photograph those events.”

Senior AP Staff Photographer Pablo Martinez Monsivais was called in from vacation on Sunday to cover the White House announcement.

The AP’s Pablo Martinez Monsivais, who took this photo, told Poynter, “What was very unique this time was that the White House actually allowed the still press photography pool to photograph the president’s ‘walk in’ so that images could be distributed prior to the late, 11:45 p.m. address.”

“There is nothing that we do as photojournalists that is unethical” about this, he says. “We fully disclose in our captions that this is a re-enactment, after the live announcement. We put that in.”

“The statement for the photographers took place two to three minutes after the live speech and it happened very quickly — extremely fast — with each photographer rotating into the center position.”

Doug Mills, New York Times photojournalist and former Associated Press staffer, says it has been done this way “always, always … well, as long as I have covered the White House, going back to the Reagan administration. We [still photographers] have never, never, never, ever been allowed to cover a live presidential address to the nation!”

Poynter’s Senior Faculty for Visual Journalism, Kenny Irby, explains, “The most obvious concern is noise. The 35mm cameras emit shutter noise, that would be multiplied by several photographers and increased by the echo which resonates off of the marble floors. The other visual distraction is the placement of the teleprompter that impedes the photographers’ line of sight to the president.”

Harrington says there are alternatives to staging the photographs.

As video images are increasingly detailed, it is easier to use screen captures that meet still photograph standards. He also points to devices like the “Jacobson blimp,” which he demonstrates in a YouTube video.

The blimp is a hard case with a cut-out for the camera and a remote control that allows a photographer to capture images while the case mutes the sound of the camera. Harrington says other photographers have customized still cameras to make them quieter. In fact, a camera was customized to take an unusual photo of Obama during his inauguration.

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)

But this practice of re-enacting a historic speech flies directly in the face of the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, which includes this relevant passage: “Resist being manipulated by staged photo opportunities.”

Harrington says, “I know we are splitting hairs here, but the White House photographers covering those re-enactments did not stage, request or direct them. They are covering an event. They photograph what they are presented with.”

Harrington says the re-enactment is an alternative to just handing out a White House photo. “Obviously you should refer to it as a re-enactment in the cutline of the photo; it does need to be disclosed.”

Both Reuters and the AP did disclose the re-enactment in the cutlines they transmitted with photos. For example, the AP cutline reads:

“President Barack Obama reads his statement to photographers after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, May 1, 2011.”

However, not all newspapers reprinted those disclosures.

Some newspapers disclose

Poynter’s Library Director David Shedden searched 50 newspaper front pages from Monday morning to see if papers that used the staged image disclosed it. Keep in mind, newsrooms were scrambling to create new front pages late Sunday evening.

This cutline was transmitted with this Reuters photo: “U.S. President Barack Obama is pictured after announcing live on television the death of Osama bin Laden, from the East Room of the White House in Washington May 1, 2011. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday in a firefight with U.S. forces in Pakistan and his body was recovered, President Obama announced on Sunday.” (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Some newspapers that we viewed used both the AP photo and its cutline, which disclosed the image’s origins.

The Wausau Daily Herald, Wisconsin State Journal, Biloxi Sun Herald, Lodi News-Sentinel, Yuma Sun, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The Wichita Eagle and The Orange County Register used the AP photo and its cutline (or a variation).

The Orlando Sentinel page simply states, “President Barack Obama is shown after his announcement about Osama bin Laden Sunday.” The San Jose Mercury News had a similar caption with a Getty image.

Thirty other front pages we reviewed used an AP, Reuters or Getty photo, credited appropriately, with a caption that implied or strongly suggested it was an image of the live address.

The remaining nine front pages don’t say where the photos came from; although several look like the re-enactments, they could be screen captures from the live address.

What should happen next

It is time for this kind of re-enactment to end. The White House should value truth and authenticity. The technology clearly exists to document important moments without interrupting them. Photojournalists and their employers should insist on and press for access to document these historic moments.

In the meantime, anyone who uses these recreations should clearly disclose to the reader the circumstances under which they were captured.

Kenny Irby conducted interviews with David Ake, Pablo Martinez Monsivais and Doug Mills for this report. He also received the photos we used and obtained permission to reprint them here. David Shedden researched front pages. Thanks to Charles Apple, whose post on this subject inspired our reporting.

To learn more about making ethical decisions on deadline, take this free, self-directed NewsU course. Read more


Barroom meetings one way St. Louis Beacon engages people where they really are

When the St. Louis Beacon launched three years ago, its staff made a conscious effort to get out into the community. They wanted to engage with readers not just online, but in person — at museums, coffee shops and hipster bars.

The nonprofit site, which covers a range of topics in the St. Louis region, frequently hosts meetups for community members who want to talk about diversity. And it has created local partnerships that have enabled it to reach new audiences in-person, online and on air.

Recently, I talked with St. Louis Beacon Editor Margaret Freivogel and Associate Editor Robert Duffy to find out more about how the staff’s engagement efforts have helped both the site and the community.

Meeting with members of the community

Every other Monday, Duffy heads to a local bar to lead a conversation about diversity. He’s led the conversations at various places throughout the city — at the Royale, a hipster bar in South St. Louis; the Schlafly Tap Room near downtown; and most recently the Six Row Brewing Company in midtown.

The conversations tend to attract a variety of community members, ranging from college students to an octogenarian college professor. Some weeks, two or three people show up. Other weeks, a dozen or more do. Participants have talked about tensions between African Americans and Jews, discrimination in housing, and “the brown paper bag test,” which distinguishes light-skinned African Americans from dark-skinned ones.

Duffy, who’s sometimes joined by other Beacon staffers, said he’s developed a connection with participants by sharing his own experiences.

“We talk freely about discriminations we have felt personally; I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am gay, and that raised some eyebrows at first,” Duffy said, noting that diversity coverage is integral to the site’s mission. “I think because we are all so frank about our situations, the participants feel it is safe to be frank.”

Freivogel said it helps that the St. Louis Beacon has a diverse staff — diverse in gender, age and race/ethnicity. She’s attended some of the conversations and taken note of the impact they have on both the staff and the participants.

“Frequent comments we hear go something like this: ‘I never thought about it that way. I never realized that the things I do could offend someone. Now I can see why you might feel that way,’ ” Freivogel said in a phone interview. “That tells us that we’re engaging people — and helping them engage with each other — in a way that builds the kind of deep and continuing relationship we aim to develop with our community. We haven’t yet figured out a way to quantify this, but we feel this kind of anecdotal information is an indication of what makes us valuable to people.”

The conversations give the site a way to promote their content, and they inform the Beacon’s reporting.

“What’s a question that’s on people’s minds? What are they grappling with? What do they want to know, and what can we do to offer that to them? You can ask these questions digitally, but it’s also nice to ask them face-to-face,” Freivogel said. “That’s one of the opportunities we have as a regional news organization. We’re not just a virtual community; we’re an actual community.”

Partnering with the local museum

Freivogel said that early on, the Beacon recognized the value of partnerships. One of its biggest partnerships has been with the Missouri History Museum. Last year they co-sponsored a series of race-related talks and events, which helped draw attention to the Beacon’s year-long “Race, Frankly” series.

The Beacon also helped provide material for the museum’s national exhibit, called “Race: Why Are We So Different?” The exhibit didn’t have any local content, so the Beacon wrote scripts for audio recordings of some of the site’s race-related stories. The recordings ultimately served as the audio tour for the exhibit, which attracted about 22,000 visitors.

The Beacon is partnering with the museum again this year and has launched a new series to complement the museum’s new series of speakers on class. The year-long series, called “Class: The Great Divide,” looks at how class divisions shape the lives of St. Louis residents.

Similar to “Race, Frankly,” the project has given the Beacon a chance to put a different spin on timely topics. On Opening Day, for instance, the series featured a story about how class divisions have played into the history of St. Louis baseball.

Freivogal said these types of stories add depth to the city’s diversity coverage, which she believes has suffered as a result of newsroom cutbacks.

Other local news organizations say they still value diversity coverage, but they’ve faced challenges. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch launched a “Conversation about Race” blog in 2009 but ended it last year after about half the staffers who wrote for it left the paper. Doug Moore, who covers diversity for the Post-Disptach, said the blog wasn’t generating the kind of conversation that he had hoped it would.

“It was really just becoming a depository for people who wanted to get into racists commenting,” Moore said by phone. “It was one of those things you had to constantly monitor. How long do you want to provide a voice for those folks to continue spewing ignorance?”

Partnering with other news orgs, building a loyal audience

Part of the St. Louis Beacon’s goal is to dispel ignorance and partner with other news organizations that want to do the same. During Black History Month, the Beacon provided the local Fox station with a series of vignettes that it hoped would educate local residents about the African American community.

The vignettes were drawn from the Beacon’s coverage of the African American community, which included a story on a local civil rights leader and a piece on Westland Acres — a historic African American neighborhood that’s now surrounded by a wealthy growing suburb. The Beacon wrote scripts for the vignettes, which ran on air and online.

By partnering with the station, the Beacon engaged new audiences on different platforms.

“We think part of our job is to reach people where they are with coverage they will find useful and interesting, not force them to come to us,” Freivogel said. “So working with partners like this is an end in itself because it helps us share our work with people who would not otherwise see it.”

While the site’s diversity initiatives aren’t directly funded, they’re the type of projects that the site’s donors value.

“Most of our money at this point comes from individual donors in St. Louis, and I think a lot of those people are very civic-minded people who want good things to happen in the future in St. Louis,” Freivogel said. “They see diversity as an important piece of that.” Recently, local donors contributed $2.6 million to the site.

The site’s diversity-related stories aren’t huge traffic drivers, but they’ve generated an engaged and loyal audience over time. From the beginning, this is what the Beacon staff had hoped to do.

“So often, people who work online make the assumption that your goal is always to build traffic,” Freivogel said. “Of course, we love to have a lot of people looking at what we do, but we try to think of measuring what we do in terms of the value of what we’re bringing people — and the quality of the engagement.” Read more


4 years, 150 stories later, Pulitzer finalist recognized for investigating Louisiana Klan murder

For four years, Stanley Nelson has investigated the death of Frank Morris, a shoe repairman who died from fatal burns after his shop was torched in 1964.

As editor of The Concordia Sentinel in Ferriday, La., Nelson has written more than 150 stories about Morris’ murder and other civil rights era cold cases that he wants to help solve.

“It’s hard to solve a murder in the first place; it’s really hard to solve one that’s over four decades old,” Nelson said in a phone interview. “It’s a project of epic proportions to go that far back in time.”

Nelson, whose efforts have led him to identify a suspect in Morris’ killing, was recognized earlier this week as a Pulitzer finalist for local reporting. Debbie Hiott, who chaired the jury for the local reporting category, said she was impressed that a journalist at a 5,000 circulation weekly could find the resources to write such an in-depth series.

“We call newspapers the first draft of history,” Hiott said by phone. “In this case, that first draft was never made, so [Nelson] went back and made sure people knew what really happened. The fact that he kept digging — that was impressive.”

Nelson, who has been reporting for The Concordia Sentinel for about 30 years, is used to digging. And juggling. As one of only three editorial staffers at the paper, he has reported on Morris while also editing the paper, writing a weekly column and reporting on the court house, the school board and criminal court, among other things.

“It takes every ounce of your energy to work through these types of cases,” said Nelson, who has gotten some reporting assistance along the way. “But if you consider it important work, you’re going to figure out a way to do it, and I think that’s true with any size newspaper.”

Nelson first reported on Morris in February 2007, after the FBI published a list of unsolved civil rights murders, many of which were thought to have been linked to the Ku Klux Klan. Of all the names on the list, Nelson was drawn to Morris’ because he was from Ferriday. The more Nelson reported, the more questions he had: What kind of man was Frank Morris? What did the crime say about the racial tensions in Ferriday at the time? And who was to blame for Morris’ death?

In search of answers, Nelson kept reporting. Within weeks after his initial stories ran, the FBI officially re-opened the case.

It hasn’t always been easy to work with the feds, who have vowed to solve Morris’ murder, Nelson said.

“I’ve talked to the FBI and justice department folks and I think they’re sincere, but it’s definitely a one-way street,” said Nelson, who won a Payne Award for Excellence in Journalism earlier this year. “They want to know things from you, but they don’t want to give you any perspective as to why they want to know. I understand that’s probably how they have to work, but it’s not a comfortable situation.”

It’s also been challenging to find sources for a crime that occurred when Nelson was just 9 years old.

“I’ve talked to people all across the country, but some of the hardest ones to find are the people who may have only moved 20 or 30 miles away and who have just lived quiet lives,” said Nelson, 55.

When he finally does find the right sources, he agrees to meet them wherever they want. He’s done interviews in cemeteries and in front of churches, noting that at times the locations are “a little bizarre.” When sources are reluctant to talk, he explains that their input could help solve a murder, and tries to “appeal to their sense of justice.”

Nelson made a list of all the law enforcement officers who worked in Concordia Parish during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and interviewed whoever he could find. As he worked his way down the list, he came across Bill Frasier, who was a deputy under a former sheriff in the parish during the ’80s. When Nelson asked him if he knew anything about Nelson’s death, Frasier said: “I had somebody tell me he did it.”

Frasier explained that his brother-in-law, Leonard Spencer, had allegedly admitted to attending Ku Klux Klan meetings in the 1960s and had said he accidentally killed someone one time. Nelson followed up with Spencer’s son and ex-wife, who said that Spencer was part of a Klan hit squad that torched Morris’ shoe repair shop, not knowing Morris was inside. Nelson eventually tracked down Spencer, who denied having been involved with the Klan or the arson.

Nelson’s subsequent story about Spencer, “A Suspect Revealed” was ready last December but was delayed after the FBI and justice department requested that he hold it so as not to disrupt their investigation.

Stanley Nelson (right) interviews Arthur Leonard Spencer at his home in Rayville, Louisiana. (Photo by David Paperny, copyright Civil Rights Cold Case Project, 2010)

The paper waited a few weeks and then published it on Jan. 8. Within days, the story caught the attention of The New York Times, CNN, NPR, the CBC and others. Within a month, the FBI convened a grand jury to begin hearing testimony about Morris’ death. Spencer has not yet been indicted.

Nelson speaks about Morris as though he knew him personally, as though he were his friend. He tries to convey to readers the challenges that Morris faced as a black business owner in an area predominately run by whites.

“I thought it was important to understand the balancing acts that Frank Morris had to do all of his life to serve a black and white clientele,” Nelson said. “Back then, people had one pair of shoes. [Morris] could put a heel on that shoe. He could stitch that shoe. At that time we had a lot of ranchers in that area, and he could fix saddles. He did good quality work and he was a good man in the community.”

Nelson says he wants to keep immersing himself in the case, but fears he’s running out of time. Many of his sources are getting older, and Spencer is the only one of several suspects or persons of interest in the Morris crime who is still alive.

Ending his reporting before justice is served, Nelson says, would seem immoral.

“Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of newspapers to do this type of work, especially in small communities,” said Nelson, who admits he sometimes falls asleep with court documents by his side. “You can’t stop until you’ve come to some sort of resolution, until you’ve exhausted every avenue you have.”

Ralph Izard and Jay Shelledy of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Communication recognized Nelson’s perseverance when nominating his work for a 2011 Pulitzer. Part of their nomination letter reads:

“Occasionally, a clear sense of courageous journalism confronts those who hold the journalistic mission dear. This is one of those times. The dedication, scope, integrity and impact of  Nelson’s reporting, and the support provided him by the Hanna family, owners of this 4,700-circulation weekly newspaper, surely stand as a model of what is journalistically possible, no matter the size or the resources, if the fire in the belly burns bright.

“…Stanley Nelson and the family ownership believe in the people of Concordia Parish. They believe a majority of them, like themselves, know that confronting a community’s collective history, however uncomfortable, makes a community stronger, especially when justice is served. And they believe it is the duty of the community’s newspaper to lead.”

While Nelson has received praise for his work, the reaction to it hasn’t all been positive. Some readers canceled their subscriptions, questioning why Nelson had to resurrect an issue that they believed would have been better left in the past.

But as time went on, more readers began telling Nelson that they appreciated his efforts. “I think people are talking about those days now, and those animosities,” he said, acknowledging that racial tensions still exist in Ferriday. “There’s a better understanding between both races.”

Shortly after he started reporting on Morris, he heard from the shoe repairman’s granddaughter. Rosa Williams, who was 12 when her grandfather died, had called Nelson to say thank you. “I read your articles,” he recalls her saying, “and I learned more in the past three weeks about my grandfather than I have in the past 40 something years.”

It’s comments like hers, Nelson says, that remind him why his work — and journalism — matters.

(Related training: Learn what makes a Pulitzer prize feature story in this News University Webinar.) Read more


Coverage of Japanese citizens’ ‘stoic’ response to tragedy both accurate, stereotypical

A master narrative has developed around the media’s coverage of Japan’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, leading us to believe that there are cultural roots in the Japanese citizens’ stoic response to all the horrors of the past few weeks.

In The Christian Science Monitor, Gavin Blair writes: “Amid all the destruction, shortages and despair, one thing stands out: the character of the Japanese people, which remains almost unflinchingly respectful, honest and conscientious through these darkest of times.”

In Canada’s National Post, Kathryn Blaze Carlson describes how lines “for water and fuel are single-file. Shoes are neatly arranged in the shelters. … There have been no reports of looting, as there were in earthquake-ravaged Haiti or after Hurricane Katrina or in a flood-riddled England in 2007.”

Even my journalism hero, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, opines: “So maybe we can learn something from Japan, where [the disasters] haven’t caused society to come apart at the seams but to be knit together more tightly than ever. The selflessness, stoicism and discipline in Japan these days are epitomized by those workers … risking dangerous doses of radiation as they struggle to prevent a complete meltdown.”

What’s behind the resilient spirit of the Japanese?

John Nelson, a cultural anthropologist who works at the University of San Francisco, explained to the National Post’s Carlson that, “In Japanese culture, there’s a sort of nobility in suffering with a stiff upper lip, in mustering the spiritual, psychological resources internally. There’s even a word for quietly enduring difficult situations: ‘Gaman.’ ”

The basic idea here is that, through centuries of war and natural disaster (not to mention the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), the Japanese took on the cultural concept of “toughing it out.”

And who am I to question whether this is true?

When I traveled through Japan in 1998 and 2005, I saw how caring, polite, respectful and orderly its citizens are.

Whenever I got lost, people went out of their way to help me find my way. I could walk the streets of Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo late at night and never feel unsafe. And, this may seem a small point, but the trains always arrived and departed exactly on time.

There is something special about the Japanese people and their culture — not just their resilience, but their attention to style and detail, their spirituality, and their strange juxtaposition of modern and traditional.

It’s why I’ve long been drawn to Japan. It’s why I dream of visiting again.

But: I’m worried that the portrayal of the Japanese as a stoic people is too much of a shorthand, if not a stereotype, as positive a stereotype as it may be.

The problem with what I call “reporting in shorthand” is that it allows journalists to cover people at a superficial level — especially those from a less than familiar culture — and not probe any deeper.

As long as we can rest on cultural generalizations, we believe we understand the situation. Unfortunately, the situation in Japan is more complex than that. People are more nuanced than that.

Let’s push for more precise, shoe-leather reporting like that of Martin Fackler of The New York Times, who in recent days has traveled to destroyed hamlets and cut-off community centers.

Fackler describes how those “in the shelters try to maintain the orderly routines of normal Japanese life, seen in the tidy rows of shoes and muddy boots at the doorway to the shelters, where everyone is in socks. But there are also stressful differences: the lack of privacy, the growing odors of hundreds of unwashed bodies and the cries of fear every night during the countless aftershocks.”

The fact is that not all Japanese people are stoic, just as not all Japanese people are militaristic like the soldiers in all those old war movies.

When I look at the photos from Japan, I see people in deep grief and utter shock. And many others, no doubt, are masking their strong emotions — anger, sadness, bewilderment.

“Such apparent calm is not necessarily evidence of a uniquely Japanese type of hardiness,” argues Gavin Rees, the director of Dart Centre Europe, a branch of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “In fact, scientific research from other mass-casualty disasters around the world shows that panic is more rare than we imagine. In traumatic situations, people commonly experience elevated emotional states, but may appear quite restrained and calm on the surface.”

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of “The Unthinkable,” a book about how the brain works during disasters, makes this point in her blog: “There’s something a touch patronizing in all of this, and I suspect it says more about the rest of us than it does about the Japanese. Namely, that we expect panic and hysteria and are awed when we don’t see it.”

She cites previous news stories that described stoicism in calamities that hit far-flung places ranging from Chile and Cameroon to China and Missouri.

“Why do we expect people to behave otherwise?” she asks. “When humans endure trauma and stress, they are usually quiet, passive and obedient. That’s not because they are superhuman. That’s because in most circumstances, it is in their survival interest to gather information and help each other.”

Still, why can’t we admire the Japanese for how they have endured these disasters? Well, we can. And we should. But just because they may appear stoic now doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing profound inner turmoil, or that they won’t have related problems later. Once the Japanese get past the basic issues of survival, their struggles with mental health will become significant.

As Rob Gifford of National Public Radio reports, there’s still a stigma in Japan about going to see a counselor. A grief counselor told him that “Japanese patience and inner strength are admirable. But … whatever culture you are from, keeping it all bottled up doesn’t help.”

Let’s make sure that our perception of Japanese stoicism doesn’t prevent us — whether we’re journalists, aid workers or concerned readers — from understanding just how devastated Japan is, and just how much support its people need. Read more

Authorities say an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in this abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

New York Times follow-up on Cleveland, Texas rape story corrects, repeats original mistakes

In a follow-up story, The New York Times has offered new context while also repeating some of the same mistakes it made in its previous coverage of an 11-year-old Texas girl who was allegedly raped by 19 young men.

The story published Tuesday features an exclusive interview with the girl’s father and provides details of the six attacks authorities say occurred over several months.

Authorities say an 11-year-old girl was sexually assaulted in this abandoned trailer in Cleveland, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

The report also describes the sixth-grader’s home and family environment. It identifies the ethnicity of the girl but not the race or ethnicity of the suspects, who were described in the story as “an eclectic group of young men.” Some say the men have been targeted because they are African-American.

People quickly criticized the Times for its initial story, saying it blamed the victim. Executive Editor Bill Keller called it “ham-handed.” In a petition, 47,000 people asked the news organization to apologize for its coverage.

Several days later, Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane weighed in. In his piece, headlined “Gang Rape Story Lacked Balance,” Brisbane wrote that the story was seriously flawed:

“The story dealt with a hideous crime but addressed concerns about the ruined lives of the perpetrators without acknowledging the obvious: concern for the victim. …

“I hope it [the follow-up story] delves more deeply into the subject because the March 8 story lacked a critical balancing element.”

Today’s Page One story received much less attention. The little notice it did receive was mostly positive, with praise for the the new information about the crimes and the victim.

The follow-up story may offer the “balancing element” Brisbane sought, but in attempting to do so it raises additional concerns.

As of last week it wasn’t clear whether the follow-up would even run. But plans changed this week, according to Philip Corbett, associate managing editor of the Times.

“The reporters kept working at the story and eventually came up with new material that provided more detail and a fuller picture — most notably, by interviewing the victim’s father, which added more perspective on the family and more information about the whole sequence of events,” he said via email. “That persuaded editors that there was now enough new material for the follow-up story.”

Racial issues remain muddled

While the initial story was criticized for not identifying the race of the suspects, the follow-up makes the same questionable call.

Tuesday’s story says that the victim is “a sixth-grader whose parents are immigrants from Mexico.” However, the story doesn’t mention the race of the 19 black suspects, and it doesn’t show photos of them as many other news organizations have. It seems odd, then, that the victim’s race would be included.

Corbett explained the decision:

“In providing a fair amount of detail about the victim’s family — including their economic troubles and health problems — it seems reasonable and appropriate to mention in passing that the parents are immigrants from Mexico. That certainly wasn’t a focus of the story.”

Corbett’s explanation doesn’t seem to line up with the Times’ policy, which says that race should not be included unless it’s relevant to the story and that relevance is clear to the reader.

When I interviewed Corbett for a story earlier this month about the relevance of race in the Cleveland rape coverage, he elaborated on the Times’ policy:

“We would mention race in a physical description only if it really is a detailed physical description that readers would learn something from … But if the description is a ‘white man in his 40s’ or ‘a black man in a hoodie,’ then you’re not really providing any useful information and it could be sort of boiler plate.”

When I originally asked him if the Times follow-up would include the racial tensions that have played out between blacks and Hispanics since the crime, he said it would make sense to address it. “It may be that race has nothing directly to do with the initial events, but it seems clear that race does factor into the reaction within the community.”

So why weren’t these racial tensions addressed in the follow-up? Corbett said it came down to a change in focus. “The new information shifted the focus of the story somewhat away [from] the community reaction,” he said. “The angry community meeting and the issue of race had been reported widely elsewhere, and weren’t central to this story.”

Still, there are likely some readers who haven’t followed the news about the racial tensions. Their familiarity with other coverage could affect their understanding of, and reaction to, the Times’ new story.

If the Times, like other news organizations, had addressed the racial tensions, then it would have made sense for the story to include both the ethnicity of the victim and the race of the suspects. But why mention just the victim’s race or ethnicity? And how might the inclusion of the victim’s ethnicity perpetuate stereotypes or affect readers’ perception of her and her family?

There are additional ways the Times story raises more questions than it answered. Take this scene:

“The small house where the girl lived is on a dusty road on the outskirts of town, about 10 miles from Precinct 20. There were chickens in the yard and a trampoline out front, where her father sometimes slept during the afternoons. She lived there with her parents, two older sisters who were in high school and a younger brother.”

As a reader, you wonder why the father sometimes slept on the trampoline. It’s such an interesting detail, and yet it’s not explained. There’s value in offering details and setting a scene for readers. But when details aren’t explained, they could confuse readers rather than offer clarity.

Unexplained details can also lead to assumptions and unanswered questions: Was the father sleeping on the trampoline because he had back problems, as the story noted? We don’t know.

Deciding what context is relevant

The New York Times was criticized, in part, because its initial story included comments from a segment of the community that appeared supportive of the accused and accusatory toward the victim.

Those community members spoke this way about the victim:

“They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

” ‘Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?’ said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. ‘How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?’ “

Today’s follow-up story, in contrast, appeared to take the perspective of the victim and her family. It reads:

“The father said he had been worried about his daughter’s safety for months before the assaults. She had been sneaking out of the house two or three nights a week, he said, climbing out a bedroom window. Some nights she would come home as late as 11 p.m. or midnight, saying she had visited girlfriends. He said he and his wife had scolded her almost daily.”

Phrases like “sneaking out of the house” and “slipped out without permission“ and “scolded her almost daily” portray a girl who circumvents vigilant parents. Some readers may find in those phrases a lack of accountability for either the young girl or her parents — just as others questioned how the young, accused men could be missing, unnoticed, during Thanksgiving.

Similarly, the initial story used “have sex with” as a euphemism for the alleged rape, while the follow-up was more precise in labeling what happened, and who described it that way.

In Tuesday’s story, the reporters carefully distinguish between language used by the young girl — who describes “having sex” with the young men — and the Times’ own language, which consistently refers to an assault, attack or rape. For example:

“The affidavits said the girl told investigators that she then ‘engaged in sexual intercourse and oral sex’ with several of the men present, among them Jared G. McPherson, 18, a high school basketball player, and Jared L. Cruse, also 18, who has since been charged with robbing a grocery store in the next county.

“During the sexual assault, the girl said, she heard Mr. McGowen call someone on the phone and invite him to the house to have sex with her, the affidavits said. Four more men whom she did not know arrived.

“The assault was interrupted when Timothy Ellis’s aunt arrived at the house, the affidavits said, and the men took the girl out a back window to a squalid abandoned trailer a block away, where the sexual attack continued. Her underwear was left behind.”

Notice how the story stays very close to attributed language in this report. “Engaged in sexual intercourse” is in quotation marks because it comes from the affidavit; “have sex with her” is also attributed to the girl’s affidavit. This language does not convey the beliefs of the reporters, as it appeared to in the first story. It simply reflects the testimony provided.

What balance really means

Given the limitations of its original, one-sided story, the Times had a dilemma..

Brisbane suggested one way to address the imbalance; he said the follow-up should “take care to interview mental health and legal experts who can provide context to a story about a vicious sex crime against a young girl.”

Instead, the Times followed a traditional narrative arc in covering crime: First, tell one side of the story, and then tell the other. Often, we hear the victim’s side first, as told by police; then we hear the suspects’ side, as told by lawyers, family or others. In this case, the order was reversed.

But alternating, incomplete accounts do not create balance. At best, they allow readers who follow the coverage closely to form a more comprehensive picture of what happened.

The truth is not somewhere in the middle for each of us to discern independently. It is in the community whose story has been explored but remains half-told. Journalism’s job is to tell this community’s story fully.

“Journalism is a form of cartography,” write Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach. “It creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map.”

This community needs that map. We all do. And I hope The New York Times will continue to mark its boundaries.

Editor’s note: Mallary Tenore and Julie Moos collaborated on this story. Tenore interviewed Corbett and wrote the first two sections; Moos wrote the last two sections.
Read more


Upcoming chat: How to bring new ideas, people to journalism conversations

When finding speakers for journalism talks, it’s easy to turn to the usual suspects — well-known journalists who appear regularly on panels related to their expertise. It’s more challenging to step outside your network and find new, diverse speakers who can bring different ideas and experiences to the discussion at hand.

Columbia Journalism School’s Sree Sreenivasan renewed attention to the lack of diversity on panels last week when he posted this Facebook update: “I can’t believe it when event planners in NEW YORK CITY put together panels in 2011 consisting of five white men and no one else.”

He called it “unacceptable” and “ridiculous,” and told me in a follow-up note that this issue “is not about quotas or token diversity, it’s about having diversity of all kinds — race, gender, points of view, class, etc. Diversity doesn’t happen by  accident. There are specific things you have to do to make it happen.”

Sreenivasan’s post generated nearly 80 comments from folks who shared similar experiences of attending talks with mostly white, male speakers.

Technology-related talks in particular are notorious for featuring only white males. At South by Southwest, for instance, women make up only 30 percent of panelists.

In addition to offering tips on how to find diverse panelists, we want to provide you with the names of possible panelists you can turn to. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Emma Carew recently helped create a minority talent bank, so we hope to talk with her about what she thinks the next steps should be to advance that effort.

We will let you know once we have a date and time for the chat. Read more


10 ways to find stories other journalists are missing

Bringing diversity to our storytelling has to be an intentional act — one that requires strong leadership and coaching. Finding untold stories, covering hidden communities, making sure our source lists capture wide-ranging perspectives and experiences — these things don’t always happen naturally. Here are 10 steps that can help you coach for diverse storytelling.

1. Step out of your comfort zone.

Take a different route to work. Eat lunch at a neighborhood you haven’t spent much time in. Drop in on a random community meeting. Visit a church you’ve never been to. If you’re a sports fan, go to a concert. If you’re a music fan, go to a game. Get out of your routine.

2. Find a guide.

If you want to learn more about a neighborhood or community, find a respected, trustworthy person who can guide you through unfamiliar terrain. This person needs to understand your mission as a journalist, communicate that mission to community members, and persuade community members to help you. This person can also help you with language and cultural barriers. Some examples of guides include a pastor, a social worker or a street cop.

3. Accept the fact that you don’t always know what you don’t know.

As veteran journalists, we often feel that we’ve seen it all. But great journalism is all about constant learning. So look for stereotypes and assumptions — yours and others — and find ways to step beyond them.

4. Understand your own filters.

We’ve all grown up within our own cultures and traditions. Our families and friends taught us how to think, and we’ve either submitted to that or run away. But whatever our histories are, we all have filters — ways of seeing things. Be aware of your biases and prejudices, and try to compensate for them.

5. Be a diplomat.

When venturing into unfamiliar terrain, move slowly and delicately. Be honest about who you are and why you’re there. Ask questions with sincere curiosity. People can sense when you ask questions with an open mind, and when you have an agenda.

6. Break bread.

There’s nothing like eating with somebody to foster trust and intimacy. And you might even like the food.

7. Take the time. Then take some more.

You build trust and credibility over time. Spend time in different communities, building relationships, even when there’s no breaking news there. Get to know people before the next controversy or tragedy occurs. People don’t like it when you only drop by their neighborhood when bad things happen.

8. Invite folks into your newsroom.

Bring diverse groups into your newsroom to meet with your staff and to get some sense of how your news org works.

9. Travel for difference.

If you have the opportunity, get out and travel. There’s nothing like being far from home to see things differently.

10. Remind others that we’re pushing for accurate and complete coverage.

We could argue that there are moral and business reasons to support diverse coverage and staffs. But diversity is also about making sure that our journalism is accurate and complete. Read more


Live Blogging Holovaty, Steiger & Cohen at Kent State Ethics Workshop

By Jeremy Gilbert
Jan Leach

The “NEXT Ethics?” Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop, hosted by the Kent State University school of Journalism and Mass Communication, will bring together professional journalists, professors and students to engage in a lively dialogue about media ethics and its role in an ever-changing online environment.

The workshop will not presume to create rules for media practitioners, but instead will try to create a foundation for further work and study. Please join us in helping media consumers and creators discuss key issues of online news and information.
You can watch a live stream of Thursday’s entire workshop (from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET); here is a full speaker schedule.

We will live blog two of the sessions:

  • 10 a.m.: Data Mining: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, with Adrian Holovaty of and and Sarah Cohen of Duke University (facilitated by Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti)
  • 12 p.m.: New Issues, Enduring Values: Emerging Ethical Questions for Journalists, Paul Steiger of ProPublica (moderated by Poynter’s Kelly McBride)

Live Blog

<a href=”” >Live blogging Poynter-Kent State Ethics Workshop</a>


Journalists Share Disclaimers about What They Endorse on Twitter, Facebook

Reporters who follow their sources’ activities on Facebook are finding ways to explain that the relationships are just business.

Leslie Perales, local editor of’s site in Herndon, Va., has this high on her Facebook page: “Full disclosure: I’m a journalist. If I ‘like’ something on Facebook it may not be because I actually like it, but instead it is something I’m trying to keep track of for the news cycle.”

Spacer Spacer

Perales wrote in an e-mail, “When I was covering an election in April/May, I was trying to keep track of all the candidates on Facebook. They were writing posts there, had updates about their campaigns and campaign events there. I tried to find and ‘like’ all of them.

“A local PR person I know reamed me out in a Facebook message saying a journalist shouldn’t ‘like’ anything in terms of politics on FB, even if it’s MY personal FB profile and not the newspaper’s page (granted, nothing is personal anymore). I chose at the time to ‘unlike’ everything so no one else would get upset.”

Perales and other journalists I’ve talked to say they feel their independence appears to be compromised when, in Facebook speak, they must “friend,” “fan” or “like” someone or something just to follow it.

With more sources breaking news on Facebook, the problem intensifies.

Chad Graham, social media editor at the Arizona Republic and since December, has issued guidelines helping reporters there through the Facebook thicket.

In a phone interview, he said, “We have general social media guidelines … that we have released to the staff. “The concerns about Facebook came up lately. Reporters wanted people’s Facebook news to show up in their news feeds.

“These ‘friend,’ ‘like’ and ‘fan’ terms are kind of used by many different people, but there was a concern that you were somehow a fan or a friend of these people we were covering on a professional level.” Graham said that the newsroom wanted to be as clear as possible with readers that following news sources this way was part of the reporters’ jobs, and not a declaration of favoritism.

“More and more politicians news leaders are releasing news on Facebook,” he said. For our reporters to be able to do their job, they have to do some Facebook monitoring of the people they cover.”

Graham cited Lisa Halverstadt as one reporter who “has gotten a sense of where people stand on an issue, and Facebook enriches her understanding. It is a necessary tool for her.”

Halverstadt’s Facebook page says, “As a reporter, I may become a fan of a group or befriend a person or organization to gather news and information. This is not meant to be construed as an endorsement.”

Graham said, “a majority of our reporters use Twitter professionally. “There is a limited number that use Facebook professionally.

“We’ve created what we call a Twitter network, which is a group of reporters who Tweet professionally and we can come together to cover breaking news. We’ve started putting people through official Twitter training in groups of 25. We’ve asked them to put something that says retweets and links do not constitute endorsements in their beat area.”

Graham said that the newsroom tries to guide reporters without dictating what they say on their social media sites. “We want them to be able to show their personality and to be engaging, if they can do it in a way that let’s them show their personality,” he said. “People should be as authenticate as possible on social media.”

Political reporter Dan Nowicki’s Twitter page says, “Dan Nowicki is The Arizona Republic’s national political reporter. He blogs at Retweets don’t imply support of the message or the messenger.”

Style reporter Jamiee Rose has a variation on the theme on her Twitter page: “Following and retweeting do not imply endorsement, and yes, my office asked me to say so.)”

Graham said journalists should maintain the ethics they live by in every part of their lives. “This can be akin to not placing a campaign sign on your yard,” he said. “You can give the impression that you are not neutral. With any social media issue, you have to be flexible because this is changing so quickly.”

Coming Thursday: Find out why studies about vanishing jobs only show half the story.

Questions about managing your career? E-mail Joe for an answer.
Read more


How to Report on Quran Burning and Other Hate Speech

By now it’s clear that the Rev. Terry Jones is a lone voice with a tiny following. On any given Sunday he has 50 worshipers, according to reporters who have attended his services. Far from being the leader of a megachurch, he is an isolated preacher who has scheduled an act of hate speech to commemorate Sept. 11. The world religious community and many others have denounced his plans.

“It’s Terry Jones and his congregation against the rest of the world,” NPR reporter Greg Allen said on “Morning Edition” on Wednesday.

Covering Jones’ small event on Saturday has the potential to cause great harm. The images of radicals in Gainesville may be used by other radicals halfway around the world to justify violence. Burning the Quran in the name of a perverted interpretation of Christianity is an act designed to fuel the discord between groups of Muslims and Christians. Showing images of people burning the Quran furthers that plan. How you choose to cover Saturday’s stunt says something about your values.

One of the great flaws of modern journalism is the preference for dramatic developments and pithy commentary over context. Jones may be isolated in his beliefs, but his actions play out in a world where conversations involving Islam and America are constantly poised to explode. Whether it’s the coverage of the plans to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan or reporting on the United States’ interrogation of potential terrorists, misinformation is as common as good information.

Many in Gainesville, Fla., and beyond argue that pointing a camera at Jones is like giving a toddler attention in the middle of a tantrum. Ignore him and he’ll go away. They have a point. Yet part of our job as journalists is to document events. When we ignore acts of hate, no one has the opportunity to react, to condemn them or to proclaim a different belief system.

This may be the most unified the world’s public figures have been on a single issue in recent history. Everyone from the Vatican to Angelina Jolie to Sarah Palin thinks burning the Quran is offensive. Virtually no one is defending it.

Journalists and bloggers must explore choices that could minimize harm, while still upholding their duty to document universally offensive points of view.

Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-competitive environment, it seems that journalists who must travel the farthest to get to Gainesville, Fla. are most likely to fall into the traps that exacerbate the harm. Meanwhile, the journalists who must wake up next week in Gainesville and face their neighbors are most likely to consider alternatives that tell the story while keeping the spotlight off Jones.

If you are considering covering Jones’ Quran burning on Saturday, consider these alternatives:

  • Don’t go. Unless Gainesville is part of your coverage area, or you work for a wire service, look for other ways to get raw material from the event. There will be plenty of cameras and satellite trucks on hand, as well as amateurs with their Flip cameras. In fact, there are likely to be more journalists than members of the Rev. Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center. Will you have access to other material? Then use it, rather than gathering your own and contributing to the circus-like atmosphere.
  • Give your audience what it needs to understand the big picture. The moment-to-moment developments on Saturday will most likely be dull. But even if there is a confrontation or other drama, volumes of pictures or live video footage aren’t likely to enhance anyone’s understanding of what this really means. In fact, because Jones is so isolated in his beliefs, his actions don’t really mean anything. Making him seem more significant than he is distorts the truth.
  • Be judicious about the material you publish, especially images. Burning anything in protest is meant to be offensive, whether it’s a flag, an effigy or a sacred text. How you use the images can be interpreted as an endorsement or a rejection of the message. Just because you have a lot of material available doesn’t mean you have to publish it.
  • Take a stand. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that Jones is wrong. If you believe that, say so.
  • Cover the reaction, not the fanatic. There are some creative responses to Jones’ lunacy. Mother Jones wrote about a group that is rallying people to send a Quran to Afghanistan for every text Jones burns. Local churches and other organizations have planned dozens of events to draw people away from the Quran burning. Already the response is greater than the event itself. Your coverage should reflect that.
  • Talk about how you will react to confrontations ahead of time. A little pushing and shoving can look like a big kerfuffle depending on how you describe it or crop the image. Have a plan to ensure the events are accurately portrayed, so that production work, like creating a video tease or sending out a tweet, doesn’t mislead your audience or undermine your journalistic purpose.
  • Help your audience understand why this is hate speech, not a simple protest. Hate speech targets an entire group for a particular characteristic. In this case it’s belief in the Quran as a holy scripture. A protest denounces a certain action or set of circumstances, not an entire group of people. Jones has justified his plan by claiming the Quran is “evil” and “Islam is of the Devil.” He and his followers will burn the Quran with guns holstered at their sides. He admits the act is likely to incite violence.

Jim Osteen, executive editor of The Gainesville Sun, has put a lot of thought into his plan for Saturday. He hopes to focus on the community’s reaction to Jones and avoid Jones himself. He wrote in an e-mail to me:

Spacer Spacer

“We are trying to keep our readers informed without alarming them, or giving this misguided pastor more of a stage than is deserved. We are trying to give coverage to the reasoned voices of our community to show that Gainesville is not a haven of extremism, but a college town of understanding and tolerance. While we can’t escape the reality of what is likely to happen Saturday, we are committed to not sensationalizing the event.”

After all, a handful of people burning Qurans is hardly the biggest story in Gainesville this weekend. You’ll find a much better story, as well as a healthier ratio of journalists to participants, at the Florida Gators vs. USF Bulls football game. Kickoff is at 12:21 p.m.
Read more


Get the latest media news delivered to your inbox.

Select the newsletter(s) you'd like to receive:
Page 2 of 6123456