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Should journalists stay away from Newtown this weekend?

According to The Washington Post, a long list of respected journalism organizations including ABC News, CNN, CBS News, Fox News, NBC News, NPR, The New York Times, USA Today and the Post itself say they plan to stay away from Newtown, Conn., Saturday, the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. WFSB-TV in Hartford announced a few weeks ago that it would not be in Newtown Saturday barring an unforeseen event.

It is the second strong show of restraint in a month. Barely anybody aired the 9-1-1 calls from the schools that officials released.

The reasons to stay away Saturday are the same reasons not to air the tapes. There isn’t enough news there to justify invading the townpeoples’ privacy. There are no public memorials or ceremonies scheduled for Saturday.

Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra told reporters, “Our request is as a community, that you not come here.” Llodra said townspeople don’t want a bunch of TV trucks and cameras clogging the streets. “That has a chilling effect on every resident of our community,” she said.

Interim Superintendent of Schools John Reed, said, “These people have wanted their own privacy. They’ve had their doors knocked on at 9 o’clock at night, 9:30 at night. They’ve been approached and approached and approached. And they’re concerned about being defined by a 30-second clip in the evening news. ”

Longtime journalist and now Poynter senior faculty Butch Ward said, “If somebody called with a great story and the only way to get it is to go there, I would go there. In the absence of a great and important story, I don’t know why you would go other than to say you went. That is a news decision, not based on whether somebody called you and said ‘don’t come.”

“It’s NOT whether we cover this story, it is HOW we cover the story of what happened at Sandy Hook,” Bob Haiman, the former editor of The St. Petersburg Times and retired president of The Poynter Institute told me. “You have to ask if the most important stories about this shooting are on the streets of Newtown a year later. I saw a study that pointed out there were many more state laws passed after the Sandy Hook shooting to weaken state gun laws than to strengthen them. That is a story worth exploring,” Haiman said.

Many Sandy Hook parents became public figures when they campaigned for new gun laws. And still, they deserve privacy when they choose to mark moments of grief and reflection. It’s not like the families have not been accessible. On Monday, families stood in front of the media, said how they would be remembering their lost children and they unveiled a new memorial website. Thursday, families held a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and TV stations covered the event live. So there no shortage of coverage.

Journalists have become reliant on anniversary coverage. When NBC didn’t carry the 2012 “9/11 Moment of Silence” live, they caught hell for it and apologized. The New York Times and the New York Post also moved coverage of 9/11 off their front pages in 2012, a move that created public conversation about when it is time for journalists to move on.

But let’s be clear, restraint does not always equal ethical. Sometimes 9-1-1 tapes are both sensational AND newsworthy, consider the police calls at the center of the Trayvon Martin case for example.  Sometimes journalists must go even where they are not wanted because it is their job to be there and tell the story of what happened. The whole nation had something at stake after the Sandy Hook shooting as Congress and then states debated new gun and ammo laws.

“There is nothing new about anniversary coverage, especially coverage of a tragedy,” Haiman said. “When I was a newspaper editor, anytime we failed to say something about Pearl Harbor on the front page of the December 7th edition of the paper, we would get calls accusing us of being anti-American and uncaring. The same was true on the anniversaries of VE Day and VJ Day.” So there are two ways to disrespect the families — covering it insensitively is just one way. Ignoring the story can be harmful, too.

While the families may walk away from the TV cameras this weekend, others won’t.  A group called “Mom’s Demand Action” is launching an ad and YouTube video and says it will hold gatherings in 35 states to mark the shooting. The ad, called “No More Silence” shows children standing in a classroom with a clocking ticketing down to the exact time of the Sandy Hook shooting. A person with a bag, presumably carrying a weapon, walks through a school door. The announcer says, “On December 14th, we’ll have a moment of silence for Newtown. But with 26 more school shootings since that day, ask yourself — is silence what America needs right now?”

Even if journalists decide not to go to Newtown for the anniversary, there is plenty of reporting to be done around guns and gun laws. The easiest way to tell the story of the anniversary is to gather soundbites from townspeople, attend a memorial service and call it a day. Deeply exploring the complexities of gun issues, politics, mental health, violence, criminology and America’s deeply rooted gun ownership culture is a lot harder to cover than a press conference. It’s also likely more meaningful.

Avoiding Newtown is not the same as avoiding the issues surrounding it. At least it shouldn’t be.

 Related: Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs
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Newtown’s media blackout forces journalists to do their jobs

The one-year anniversary of a tragic event is a significant moment. But for journalists, such moments too often become opportunities for emotional exploitation rather than real journalism.

The citizens of Newtown, Conn., and the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims have drawn a hard boundary around their homes. No media, they’ve said to the outside world. Don’t talk to the media, they’ve said to the 28,000 people who live in the community.

In doing so, they’ve deprived newsrooms of the easy visuals and rote storytelling that have sometimes substituted for meaningful journalism. And that’s good: It forces journalists to do the hard work they should be doing on the first anniversary of the mass shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults.

In a way, it’s a gift to the audience everywhere that Newtown is spurning public events. Without requisite sights and sounds such as flickering candles, tolling bells, and names read aloud, journalists have to do something other than tap into the grief and rehash the horror of that day.

But it would be wrong to leave the anniversary itself unnoticed. Anniversaries, especially the one-year mark of a tragic event, are sometimes the best opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on the world. This is why counselors tell grieving people not to make major decisions for the first year after a loved one dies. A year later, the world looks much different — maybe not better, but certainly not as fuzzy as it looked then.

Here’s what the best anniversary stories will look like:

  • Many will offer updates on the national debates we are having about guns and mental health. Sure, these are obvious subjects. But done well, they can advance the conversation by describing the likely paths forward. And the best stories are those that bring new data or studies into the narrative. USA Today’s Behind the Bloodshed interactive graphic is a particularly good example, while this New York Times update on gun laws and Frontline’s look at the gun lobby are both sobering.
  • Any perspective from the families will come through newsrooms that have established strong ties with the families of the slain children and teachers. This blog post by Emilie Parker’s mother is a strong example, and this AP story is particularly well done.
  • Outside essayists will offer their thoughts in a variety of op-eds and columns.
  • The journalists who do go to Newtown will have a plan. They will document the town and its people from a distance, instead of fighting with each other to interview everyone and anyone. And I’m OK with that. I don’t want to live in a world where journalists are afraid to cover important stories in ways they think serve the story. I want some journalists to be in Newtown, just not hundreds of them.

How to cover the Newtown anniversary depends on your audience. Local news providers need to focus on local stories, turning to their own communities. The wider your audience, the tougher the task of finding a relevant story.

Finally, here are a few things to avoid:

  • Gratuitous use of images from that day. This may be tempting given the absence of fresh visuals, but using the image of the children in a line rushing from the school or the crying woman on the phone will likely cue the audience to move on.
  • Political grandstanding. It’s possible that politicians and pundits will try to use the anniversary of these deaths to make a political point, and that cable news, talk radio, or other media with lots of time but few resources will allow them to do so. But let’s hope not.
  • Oversimplification. It’s tempting for journalists who are used to making sense of complicated things to try and make sense of this. But some things defy such efforts, however well-intentioned. And trying to change that causes us to fall back on clichés about good and evil that will never be universally embraced.

We live in a media world of excess. With self-discipline, restraint and a sense of service to our audience — rather than to our ratings or web metrics — journalists should be able to provide meaningful stories a year after Newtown. And possibly such efforts can set the tone for future tragedies.

* * *

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” is now available. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. Read more

Anne Alzapiedi

Whether to publish Newtown 911 tapes: A good question but not the best one

Even before Newtown, Conn., released recordings Wednesday of 911 calls made during last year’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, news organizations were wringing their hands admirably. MSNBC decided it would not broadcast them. As did NBC, whose president, Deborah Turness, told The New York Times “I listened to the tapes. I can’t see any editorial imperative.” Read more

A bus drives past a sign reading Welcome to Sandy Hook, Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, in Newtown, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

TV station pledges to stay out of Newtown on shooting anniversary

WSFB-TV | The New York Times | Mediaite | CNN | Associated Press

On December 14, Hartford’s WFSB-TV will not be in Newtown, Conn.

“As we approach the somber anniversary of the mass shooting inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, Channel 3 Eyewitness News has made the decision to stay out of Newtown that day out of respect for the community,” the station announced on its website Tuesday.

A Newtown First Selectman asked media to stay away and give the town the chance to be together without an audience, WFSB reports.

“As a result of the request, Channel 3 Eyewitness News has made a promise to keep our crews away from Newtown, barring any unexpected event, to give people in the community time to be with each other to reflect on the events of that day.”

Attorneys for Newtown released recordings of 911 calls during the Newtown shooting Wednesday. Most media outlets have so far handled the Wednesday release of the 911 tapes from the Newtown shooting with caution, Bill Carter reported in The New York Times.

While two local Connecticut newspapers rushed to make the full recordings available on their websites, the state’s largest paper, The Hartford Courant, initially posted only a story about the tapes, before adding a video with excerpts later in the afternoon.

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Newtown 911 calls will be released today

The Hartford Courant | The Christian Science Monitor | The Washington Post | RTDNA

A law firm that represents Newtown, Conn., will on Wednesday release 911 calls from last year’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Connecticut State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III said Monday he wouldn’t fight a decision by Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott to release the documents. Read more

A report on the Sandy Hook shooting names gunman Adam Lanza once and none of the children who were shot. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks, File)

Sandy Hook report names shooter only once, won’t name children

State of Connecticut | Associated Press

A report on last year’s mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School names Adam Lanza in its body text only once — “Throughout the remainder of this report Adam Lanza will be referred to as ‘the shooter,’” a footnote reads.

The report’s author, Connecticut State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III, also says the report “will not list the names of the twenty children killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School, nor will it recite 911 calls made from within the school on that morning or describe information provided by witnesses who were in the classrooms or heard what was occurring in the classrooms.” Read more

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How The Huffington Post is mapping news reports of gun-related deaths

The Huffington Post has compiled and mapped news reports of gun-related homicides and accidental deaths in the U.S. since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

For 98 days, a team of Huffington Post researchers scanned news reports from around the country and added them to a spreadsheet to be sorted by date, city and state. The maps were part of Jason Cherkis’ series about gun violence in America.

Cherkis writes, “In the first week after the Newtown, Conn., massacre on Dec. 14, more than 100 people in the U.S. were killed by guns. In the first seven weeks, that number had risen to at least 1,285 gunshot killings and accidental deaths. A little more than three months after Newtown, there have been 2,244.”

The resulting interactive map, “Mapping the Dead, Gun Deaths Since Sandy Hook,” is a breathtaking display of where 2,244 people died in America. You can see the names of each one of the victims, and the map links every data point to a news story about the incident.

“To us, the most shocking thing is the magnitude of it,” Huffington Post Data Editor Andrei Scheinkman said by phone. “You can see how many reported deaths there were and how it affects every corner of the country.”

How they created the map

Scheinkman said his team considered many colors for the display but settled on red. The team did not add any sounds to the map, but did add animation “to give a sense that as time passes, these incidences keep happening.”

The red coloring on the map gives the reader a sense of where gun-related deaths have taken place. The bar charts show the rise and fall of deaths since the Newtown shooting.

The team built the map using geo-coding from MapQuest. To build the interactive elements of the map, they chose an open-source program called D3, which describes itself as a JavaScript library for manipulating documentsbased on data.”

D3 allows users to move in on a section of a map just by clicking on it.

“A lot of news organizations are using this,” Scheinkman said. “It is a designed for exactly this kind of project, displaying data and letting users interact with the data.”

A look at the data

The Huffington team did not try to analyze the data by comparing it to previous years. The data is not weighed by population density or by weapon or ammo used, and it does not specify which shootings were out of self defense and which were not.

“Our focus was on trying to just convey the sheer number of incidents and emphasis the tragedy of each one,” Scheinkman said.

Given that the map only features deaths that the news media have reported on, there’s no question that the map under-reports the number of people who died in the 98 days the team collected the data.

Slate and the Twitter feed @GunDeaths is trying a different method. They are crowdsourcing gun deaths and have collected details of more than 3,000 gun deaths since the Newtown shooting.

That display is sortable by the victim’s age, gender, location and date. When the user clicks on one of the icons representing a death, a victim’s name, the city and date of the shooting appears. The site also asks the readers to report any inaccuracies and links to the source of the information.

What makes these types of projects work

The Huffington Post has found that while these interactive projects require significant time investments, they pay off.

Scheinkman says previous interactive data projects his team built increased “time spent on page” to more than five minutes, which is significantly more than any other feature on the site.

Accompanying stories help add context to the data projects. One of the hallmarks of the map is how Cherkis puts a face on the story of some of the individuals who make up the 2,244 victims.

Stories about a random shooting that killed a 9-year-old in a passing car, an innocent bystander who was shot, and a 21-year-old woman who was an unintended shooting victim reflect the heartache behind the statistics.

Related training: The Poynter Institute is helping journalists cover the debate over guns, gun control and gun violence by holding a McCormick Foundation-sponsored seminar in Chicago April 1-3. We will live stream coverage of our “Covering Guns” conference from Loyola University on 

Because of the overwhelming demand from applicants for our Chicago event, Poynter and the Scripps Howard Foundation are going to hold a second “Covering Guns” conference on the campus of the University of Maryland, July 10-12. You can choose how much you pay for the training. 

Correction: This article originally stated that the map increased time spent on site to more than five minutes; it has increased time spent on the page to more than five minutes. Read more


AP stylebook adds entry on mental illness

AP Stylebook | NAB
The Associated Press has introduced guidance on how to use information about mental illness in coverage. “Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced,” the new Stylebook entry begins.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 20 children and 7 adults dead, there was much speculation about the mental health of shooter Adam Lanza.

By email, AP spokesperson Paul Colford acknowledged that shooting was a factor.

“Newtown was certainly among the reasons we considered this carefully, as well as the run of other mass shootings where the state of the shooter was an issue. Editors heard from and sounded out mental health experts and welcomed their input,” he said. Read more


Programmers explain how to turn data into journalism & why that matters

By now you’ve heard about how The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., published the names and addresses of thousands of local gun permit holders.

And you’ve heard that many gun owners felt The Journal News was either insulting their character (by associating law-abiding gun owners with coverage of a mass school shooting) or invading their privacy (by publishing their names and home addresses). Some outraged critics retaliated by publishing personal information of journalists at the paper, threatening staff members and mailing envelopes of white powder to the newsroom.

We can all agree that sort of violent retaliation went too far. But there’s less agreement about whether the paper erred when it published the information in the first place.

Some of my Poynter colleagues have said yes, it was handled poorly.

Other journalists disagreed. Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer argued in a column that public records are public, so anyone can do what they want with them. Max Brantley, columnist and former editor of the Arkansas Times, wrote us to complain as well. Here’s part of Brantley’s email:

Since when does a newspaper have to justify publication of a public record? It’s done all the time. New vehicle registrations. Changes of address at the postoffice. Marriages. Divorces. Births. Building permits. Real estate sale prices. Salary lists. Campaign contributors. Homes hit by burglars including accounts of property stolen. Bankruptcies. Signers of ballot initiative petitions. On and on.

Where the hell does Poynter, of all people, get off deciding that only in the case of gun permits should a newspaper have to demonstrate “purpose and meaning” for sharing interesting public record data?

That seems to be the real sticking point in the broader discussion: Do journalists have a free pass to do whatever they want with public-record data?

Why they don’t

Yes, public records can be obtained by anybody. That’s thanks to public policy decisions that certain government-held knowledge ought to be passively accessible to any individual upon request.

But when a journalist chooses to copy that information, frame it in a certain (inherently subjective) context, and then actively push it in front of thousands of readers and ask them to look at it, he’s taken a distinct action for which he is responsible.

Good data journalists (I talk to some of them below) will tell you that data dumps are not good journalism.

Data can be wrong, misleading, harmful, embarrassing or invasive. Presenting data as a form of journalism requires that we subject the data to a journalistic process.

We should think of data as we think of any source. They give you information, but you don’t just print everything a source tells you, verbatim. You examine the information critically and hold yourself to certain publishing standards — like accuracy, context, clarity and fairness.

I asked Texas Tribune data reporter Ryan Murphy how his publication, which relies heavily on publishing databases like government and school salaries or state prison inmates, how they think about this. His response:

Data reporting at the Tribune is dictated by the same standards in place for “traditional” reporting. We ask ourselves the same questions:

  • Why are we publishing the data?
  • Are we adding context or additional value to the data, or are we just putting it out there for the sake of doing it?
  • Are we fair in our representation of the data?

…We are driven primarily by our goal to ensure that what we present is useful and fairly reported. When you do the extra leg work to provide fair context, you are able to justify your work.

Protect individuals while serving public interest

WNYC faced a controversial decision early last year about publishing the individual performance ratings for 18,000 public school teachers. Data about the quality of teaching in local schools is obviously of great public interest, but many complained about the accuracy of the data.

Statistical margins of error for any single teacher were huge. And the rankings relied on a mathematical formula to predict how certain students were expected to score, and ranked teachers based on whether the students exceeded those expectations. Some students changed teachers mid-year. Some classes had multiple teachers.

As a result, individual teachers feared unfair ridicule or shame from publication of misleading ratings.

WNYC and The New York Times, who at the time were partners on the SchoolBook website, decided to publish the data but also reported extensively about the flaws and let each teacher submit a defense or explanation to be published along with their record.

“We thought really hard about it, and we thought about how best to do it,” John Keefe, WNYC’s senior editor for data news and journalism technology, told me. “We felt we were on firm ground, but we also … made an effort to treat it as fairly and honestly as possible.”

Mugshots are another example of personal information in public records.

When developer Matt Waite was creating a mugshots website for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) in early 2009, he and others thought carefully about the impact it would have on the people whose photos appeared there.

“We immediately recognized that because we were a news organization, because we had an audience and because we thought this thing would get some traffic, that the first record in Google for somebody’s name was going to be this site. And we were absolutely not comfortable with that,” Waite said. “We took multiple steps to prevent that from happening.”

Google’s bots can’t “see” the Tampa Bay Times mugshot pages.

The Times blocked Google’s Web crawlers from indexing the page, and automatically deleted every photo after 60 days. They also attached a unique code to each mugshot image URL that expires every 15 minutes, to prevent embedding of the photos on other websites.

None of that was legally required. The mugshots are a public record and, in fact, are all available on the sheriff’s department website. But as journalists, Waite felt the paper should be accountable for the impact its use of the data would have on the people shown.

Mugshots are taken when a person is arrested on suspicion of a crime. Many of those people are never convicted or even charged with a crime. That unflattering, prejudicial mugshot could tarnish an innocent person’s online reputation for the rest of her life if the newspaper were careless with it.

“The power that you wield as a journalist is attention. You bring attention to a thing, and that attention has good and bad consequences. And decisions that you make are often about what happens when attention is brought to this thing,” Waite said.

He encourages other journalists to make sure they are using data toward some journalistic end:

If you’re just dumping public records on the Internet, what are you doing? It’s a feat of computer programming. OK, great, I’m happy for you. … But is it journalism?

I hate these “is it journalism?” arguments, but this is one I’m particularly fond of, because journalism is about context and understanding and enlightenment and education, and all these high-minded ideas. Is dumping a raw database of public records out on the Internet doing anything to enlighten or educate the public? You’d like to hope so, but if you’re not doing any kind of analysis or any kind of value-add to it, then what are you really doing?

How to know if you’re doing it right

Here are the main questions to ask yourself to ensure you publish data responsibly.

1. Why publish this?

You should have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish by publishing the data. What effect do you intend to have? Does this really create value for a reader? Does it relate to the other elements of your reporting?

If you can’t come up with a better reason than “because we can” or “because we think it would look cool,” stop here, you’re about to data dump.

2. Why not publish this?

Spend some time thinking about likely problems that could arise from publishing a certain set of data.

Who could be harmed? This questions is especially important if your data set includes information about specific individuals. Would publishing it invade their privacy, subject them to undeserved embarrassment or expose them to burglars, identity thieves or other criminals?

Is the data accurate? Unless you built that data set yourself, you probably can’t be sure. Even if it comes from a government source, like the gun-owner database did, there’s a chance it contains inaccurate data.

The gun database in question, for instance, is not really a database of gun-owning households. It’s a database of what the government has recorded as the last-known addresses of pistol permit holders. Any given address could be wrong — outdated, inaccurately recorded or inaccurately provided. Or maybe some permit holders keep their guns somewhere other than their residences, or don’t actually own a gun even though they have a permit to do so. In any of those cases, your data point is misleading.

Is it relevant to your story? Have you added enough context about why you’re presenting the data and how the reader should interpret it?

Part of the problem The Journal News faced was that its map of gun permit holders was initially published with little explanation (a FAQ has since been added). Because the coverage was tied to the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, some people thought the paper was implying all these gun owners are potential public safety threats.

So think about whether you are implying anything untoward or prejudicial by publishing your data in connection with your reporting on another subject.

It also wasn’t very clear how The Journal News map related to that main news article, which debated the amount of data publicly available in New York about gun owners. You could explore that question — the nature of available information — without a data dump that distributes all the available information.

In fact, if The Journal News was serious about having the discussion that its article started (what data should be available?), it jumped the gun by publishing all the data simultaneously. What if the community considered the issue after the article ran and the consensus was that less gun-owner information should be available?

Instead, The Journal News published an inconclusive and unengaging he-said-she-said news article and tacked on a loosely related map of gun owners’ addresses, without connecting the two concepts, starting a real discussion or explaining its decisions.

3. How best to publish this?

Finally, you have to decide how to present the data in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the harm.

What facets of the data are truly essential, and which could you restrict or redact?

Journalists writing articles frequently have to decide whether to use a quote verbatim, or to paraphrase it. The same is true in presenting data — you can manipulate the raw source data to enhance clarity, context or other principles.

For example, if you’re trying to show readers where gun ownership is concentrated in your community, you can map that data at the neighborhood or ZIP code level without mapping individual names and addresses. In fact, that’s a better way to show that information.

This is the basic principle followed by the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s extremely valuable that the census gather, analyze and map all sorts of data about we the people of America, but it’s always presented in aggregated tables or maps and never personally identifiable.

In every situation you face, there will be unique considerations about whether and how to publish a set of data.

Don’t assume data is inherently accurate, fair and objective. Don’t mistake your access to data or your right to publish it as a legitimate rationale for doing so. Think critically about the public good and potential harm, the context surrounding the data and its relevance to your other reporting. Then decide whether your data publishing is journalism. Read more


New York politicians will push for law to keep handgun records secret

The Journal News | USA Today | NBC Connecticut
New York state Sen. Greg Ball and Assemblyman Steve Katz said at a press conference Thursday they want a law making information about handgun permits confidential.

We have received calls from victims of domestic violence,” Ball said. “We have a Journal News editorial board that has created an interactive map that allows those who seek to harm these people a way to their doorstep.”

At the same time, Putnam County officials said they’d fight a request from The Journal News to release data about gun owners. Ball, John Ferro writes, “said he envisioned legislation that would limit release of the gun database to law enforcement agencies, which could then decide whether or not to disseminate the information further.”

Rockland County, N.Y., officials also want to change New York Freedom of Information law to shield gun owners. Read more

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