October 11, 2020

Alma Matters is a Poynter newsletter designed to provide ideas, news and insight to those in the journalism education community. Subscribe here to get Alma Matters delivered to you.

I heard a lot of comparisons of last Tuesday’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden to dumpster fires, which frankly besmirches the good name of hard-working dumpsters everywhere. (I know what a few of you were thinking as you saw “dumpster” repeatedly on Twitter, but AP Style changed it to lowercase in 2013.) Still, watching that debate put a teensy, squirmy little monster in my belly — you know the one. It tells you when things aren’t right, don’t pass the smell test, don’t add up … and all the other savvy editor phrases that we’ve come to rely on when we know in our gut something isn’t right. And it’s going to reveal itself Nov. 3.

This will be an election night unlike any other, and the press wants to get it right (and we want to teach our students how to get it right).

The most notorious American newspaper election mistake was, of course, this one:

In this Nov. 4, 1948, file photo, President Harry S. Truman at St. Louis’ Union Station holds up an election day edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, which — based on early results — mistakenly announced “Dewey Defeats Truman.” (AP Photo/Byron Rollins)

Here’s the story of the Dewey defeats Truman headline, from History.com: “On Election Day, the (Chicago Tribune) had been required to go to press earlier than usual due to a printers’ strike. Even though not all the votes had been tallied at the time of the Tribune’s deadline, editors were confident in the multiple polls widely favoring Dewey to win. So they reported that he had done just that. (The Tribune wasn’t the only one to mistakenly call the election for the New York governor; in covering the returns, a leading radio announcer, H.V. Kaltenborn, informed his listeners that even though Truman was ahead, Dewey ultimately would wind up on top.)”

Then of course there was the 2000 election, which wasn’t called on election night, and was in fact decided more than a month later, eventually, by the Supreme Court. As a special bonus to my subscribers, here’s a video you can show your class of me interviewing former Tampa Bay Times editor and current Poynter President Neil Brown about his leadership that night. He’s also got some tips for students who are covering their first election!

(So my Alma Matters subscribers got a link to the video. You can, too! Just subscribe here for access.)

Even in 2016, pollsters and Americans were stunned — or elated — when Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college and therefore the election after being predicted to win handily.

So with all those cautionary histories in mind, I rounded up some resources for student journalists to consider and ruminate on well before the election “night.”

I hope this helps!

What we mean when we say ‘Stay safe’

Do you worry your students are putting themselves at risk or not taking the coronavirus seriously as they’re gathering news this semester? If so, show them these links. Here’s an Axios story about the White House journalists who’ve been exposed and are sick, and a letter from the White House Correspondents Association outlining another sick worker. Remind your students it’s real. Encourage themselves not to put themselves in closed indoor circumstances in which sources don’t wear masks. Those White House journalists didn’t have much of a choice … your students do.

Journalist spotlight

I loved this profile in CJR about Ken Klippenstein, the D.C. correspondent for The Nation, as well as this Klippenstein story about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His love of government records makes my heart flutter a little. Here, he’s quoted from the CJR Q&A: “The big untold story about this administration, I think, is that there is a civil war going on in a lot of the agencies, even the agencies that you think of as being really partisan Trump people. … So you’d look at that and think ‘Whoa, [ICE] is made up of really partisan Trump people, you’re not gonna get anything from them!’ But it turns out when you talk to the folks inside, particularly the career people—the bureaucrats, not the political appointees—they don’t like what’s happening. … you will actually find a lot of people who maybe you don’t agree with politically, but have a lot of reservations about the way things are being pursued.

So I sort of become a dissent channel for career people that I think a lot of other reporters pass up.”

Your students may remember him from his Twitter war with Elon Musk.

A truly meta find

During the president’s stay at Walter Reed, The White House released photos of Trump at work, raising more questions about his health. Observers noticed that the metadata embedded in these two photos indicated that they were shot within 10 minutes of each other. Here’s an article on how to check the metadata (on a Mac, for example, you simply right-click a photo and then click “Get Info” to see details).

Checking photographic metadata is a great way to build a case toward verifying information — though metadata can be edited, as this article illustrates. In 2012, Vice accidentally revealed through metadata the location of fugitive John McAfee (who, oddly enough, was indicted in the U.S. and arrested in Spain last week after years of basically being on the lam).

College/helpful headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

And can we make special note of the powerful records reporting done last week, both open and otherwise?

Class discussion idea

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story last week that many outlets amplified: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows gave his daughter away at a lavish wedding in May in Atlanta, despite a new state order mandating social distancing that would have made the wedding impossible in the space in which it was held.

What jumped out at me about that story was the photos of the wedding: There were none.

The story says, “Pictures of the wedding reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show groups of people clustered closely together in the same room throughout the evening.” At another spot in the story we get, “ … pictures of the event reviewed by the AJC and a guest page confirm the details.”

I’ll be honest: I want to see the pictures. I assume there’s a reason the AJC didn’t show them (when other outlets did, and linked to photo URLs https://events.emberwed.com/meadows-kocher/ and https://www.theknot.com/us/guest/pin?id=haley-meadows-and-ian-kocher-may-2020&short_link=false&view=home#the-wedding that have since been locked down and/or password protected).

Discussion questions:

  1. What are the legal and ethical issues behind publishing wedding photos?
  2. Does the newsworthiness of the people involved change the ethics in this situation? Is the White House chief of staff a public figure? Is his daughter?
  3. Why would the AJC decide not to run the photos online?
  4. Would they need permission to run them? If so, from whom?
  5. Was there an alternative to directly publishing the photos?
  6. Why might a bigger publication decide to run them when the AJC didn’t?

My take: There are a lot of considerations at play, but fundamentally I would have liked to see the AJC spell out for readers why they opted not to show or link to the photos. That kind of transparency helps build trust and credibility. Not doing so just leaves audiences with more questions, and we never want to leave our audience with questions.

One last thing

Man, I went long this week. I’ll leave you with this wonderful video of a child tasting salt and vinegar chips for the first time, which felt to me like a 26-second distillation of my workday, every day.

Eat fresh this week, y’all.

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter, @barbara_allen_

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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