Archive | January, 2012

Fabrication shouldn’t be the new direction

31 Jan

It seems that fabricating stories is becoming more common in journalism. Good writing and good plots can cloud the editor’s judgement. This means editing for grammar errors is no longer the most important part of an editor’s job. Combing every story for holes and confirming every source is more important than ever before. Editors need to “cross examine” every story they print or release to the public.

Some stories, such as Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches are short and it is easy to see how they could be made up. These stories still require skeptical editors to catch them. But some fabricated stories are much longer and much more detailed. It’s hard to believe some of these can be made up. It’s also hard to believe that reporters who we trust to bring us true news are very aware that they are bringing the readers completely false news.

But reporters like Jayson Blair, formerly with the New York Times, are guilty of exactly that. When looking through his stories at the New York Times, it’s hard to believe that these personal and detailed stories came solely from his imagination. The amount of details in these stories makes readers believe that the stories they are reading are true and are about real people. But editors need to look beyond the amount of personal details included and see the true story beneath them.

Another example of a fabricated story is Jimmy’s World. Jimmy’s World is written about an eight-year-old heroin addict. Jimmy’s World is also completely made up. If you were just reading the story as a casual reader, you would probably have no idea that the story is false. The story is filled with details. The quotes are lengthy and full of character. The article is personal and unique.

But if you read the story again after being warned to be skeptical of it, it becomes obvious that the story probably isn’t true. Reading through it again, the article sounds like a movie script. Some things don’t seem to fit. First of all, the only reliable sources identified never refer directly to Jimmy. They only talk about the drug situation in the area.

Another dubious fact is that Ron, the drug dealer, was identified. I don’t think many drug dealers would agree to be mentioned in a newspaper. And if he was, I don’t know if he would admit that he was the on responsible for getting the eight year old hooked on heroin. This point also makes me question how Janet Cooke, the reporter, could have gotten this family to trust her well enough for them to share these personal details. People in their situation are probably unlikely to trust many new people, nonetheless a reporter who is intending to print their story for anyone to read. It could put them in danger.

I also found a couple other details in the story pretty suspicious. First of all, very few kids in fourth grade are eight years old. This is a fact that could have easily been checked by editors. Also, at the end, Cooke describes Jimmy actually shooting up. I find it very doubtful that the family would have allowed her to remain there while this happened. On top of that, Cooke allowing it happen in front of her brings her ethics into question for me.

Overall, this trend goes to show me how important it is for editors to be even more skeptical than ever before. Critical thinking and double checking every fact can go a long way to end these fabricated stories.

Editors should be skeptics too

31 Jan

For years, there have been accuracy problems in journalism. Sometimes these mistakes are minor grammar or spelling errors. But other times, these errors are major fact errors resulting in inaccurate or false stories. Writers should always be skeptical of their stories and sources, but editors need to also check behind them. In some unfortunate instances, the reporters can’t be trusted. A fairly recent instance proves this point. Jayson Blair‘s editors were not skeptical enough of his stories. They may have trusted him to turn in honest stories with reliable sources. But in the end, Blair’s stories were revealed to be fabricated. If his editors had caught on to this and investigated his stories, the New York Times could have saved itself a lot of embarrassment.

Some people may ask themselves why false stories or fact errors occur in the papers. Sometimes time gets in the way. When a paper is on deadline, accuracy naturally becomes less important. Editors prioritize getting the story in the paper in time over spelling, grammar or fact errors. Other times, editors and reporters can both be blinded by an interesting story. If a story is really good, editors can forget to be skeptical because they are caught up in the excitement of possibilities instead.

All of these are reasons mistakes appear in stories but I think the most common reason news organizations get stories wrong is the urgency to get the story first. In some cases this results in small errors, but in others it results in reporting things that simply aren’t true. Both Joe Paterno and Lee Roy Selmon were reported dead by some news organizations long before they actually passed away. Mistakes like these are offensive to both the subjects and their families. They also result in the loss of the organization’s readers and its reputation. False reports can also cause both the editor and the reporter their jobs.

On the other hand, these mistakes can be avoided. With certain training, the chances of making fact errors are greatly reduced. There are many tips and tricks editors can use to catch mistakes and find holes in stories. It’s easy to add up the math, check names or confirm dates. But other holes and inconstancies are harder to spot. So editors should receive special training to help them be more skeptical editors. All journalists should receive a basic education in all general topics so they can spot when someone is feeding them a line. Critical thinking is also a skill that should be drilled into editors’s heads. If an editor can think critically about every story, he or she should never be fooled by a good story.

Blogging: the new direction

24 Jan

When most people think of blogs, I think people sharing their personal thoughts come to mind. Most people see blogs as anonymous diaries that can be shared with people worldwide. But to me, and others, blogs are much more. Blogs are tools journalists can use to keep up with the changing times and technology. They’re no longer limited to people ranting about their day or sharing their opinions. If journalists can embrace this new technology, like NPR did in its Argo project, it’ll open new doors and introduce new advantages.

The introduction of blogging has drastically changed the field of journalism.  It has brought the journalists closer to their readers. In the past, journalism was a lecture. The reporter would tell their story to the reader and the reader would take it in. The only way to send feedback to a newspaper was to send letters in the mail. And even then, the chances of getting a response from that reporter were slim. Now journalism can be a conversation. The reporter tells the story and the readers can respond instantly. Thanks to blogs, readers can write comments at the end of articles, the reporter can respond publicly and other readers can benefit from also reading this exchange. Making the news process a conversation rather than a sermon brings the reader and the journalist closer together.

Blogs can also affect the audience an organization reaches. Right away, the audience is bigger. By using the internet as your medium, you can reach millions of more people. An organization’s reach is far greater when it doesn’t have to rely on a man in a truck to deliver the news to every doorstep at 4am.

The online medium also appeals to a greater number of people. The young generation is constantly connected to technology. Most of these people are probably more likely to read the news on the internet than they are to sit down every morning with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. Not only do blogs appeal to younger people, but they also allow journalists to target a tighter group of readers. By having a blog on a specific topic, such as local nightlife, a journalist will have a lot more people who are interested in that topic paying attention to their blog as opposed to having just an article or two on it in the general paper. Specified blogs also allow a single news organization to expand the topics they cover. With unlimited internet space, there is no longer a problem about how long articles can be, how many articles can be included or how many topics can be touched. Space is now unlimited.

Especially in NPR’s case, by using the blogs, they brought more traffic to their affiliates. In this case, the affiliate was the radio station. By promoting the radio station on the blog, it led more people to listen to the radio after they found that they enjoyed the blog. Blogs have the potential to expand news organizations in ways we can’t even imagine.

Another advantage to using blogs as journalists is the ability to break news faster and keep people updated. There are no time zone issues to worry about since the news will reach everyone at the same time no matter where they are. Though updating on blogs can be confusing, if journalists can keep it organized, blogs are a convenient way to keep the public updated on breaking stories.

Though blogging could be the journalism of the future, it’s important to note the increasing need for good editors. Breaking news so quickly means that the reporter must be an efficient and capable editor. If the reporter is not able to go through his or her work with a fine tooth comb in a fast manner, it could result in embarrassing mistakes or someone else breaking the news first. The increased importance on good editing is something to keep in mind as we adapt to new technologies.

Case Study One

23 Jan

Reading Eagle Snatches Dog and learning about how the article isn’t based on facts makes me consider how sometimes journalists seem to be missing the point. Oftentimes, journalists are more interested in getting a good story first than getting the facts right.

In the eagle story, there were many clues that should have tipped off the reporter that the article might not be completely factual. Only one of the sources, the gas station attendant, was named. Journalists should be wary of stories where only one source is identified. Not only was the sourcing weak, but the details were missing too. There were no names of the victims, the dog’s wasn’t accurately described and the gas station wasn’t identified.

Most importantly, the facts should have been checked more thoroughly. How common is this kind of occurrence? Is it even possible for an eagle to lift this kind of weight? The desire of the news organization to print a good story and print it before everyone else got in the way of running accurate and true news.

Another recent example of this happened Saturday night when CBS prematurely reported Penn State’s Joe Paterno dead. Though Paterno was sick in the hospital and he requested friends and family come say their final goodbyes, he was still alive. His family had to come out and deny the rumors that he had passed away. Thanks to journalists at CBS, a tough time for a family was made even more unnecessarily difficult.

Reporters heard rumors and failed to check their facts before spreading the story. Our desire to break every story first has overcome our basic duty to bring the readers accurate news. Twitter hasn’t helped this problem either. Now that so many journalists are connected instantly to all their readers, all they have to do is hit one button on a whim and millions of people, including other news organizations, see it and believe it to be true. Social networking sites have made it more important for journalists to be absolutely sure their information is accurate and their sources are trustworthy.  Twitter is especially guilty of spreading false news, most notably, famous people’s deaths.

The new direction of journalism: Curation and aggregation

18 Jan

As I read the article Mindy McAdams wrote about journalists as curators, I couldn’t help but wonder what the difference really is between what journalists have traditionally done and what McAdams is suggesting the journalist’s new role is in society. She said the journalistic equivalent of curation involves seven steps. Journalists should select the best representatives, sort through links, provide context, arrange individual items, organize the whole product, add expertise and update the “exhibit.”  Though the technologies involved with each of these duties may have changed over time, the basic essence of them still remains. The journalist’s job is to bring the readers accurate, up-to-date news in the most clear and concise manner. According to a Mashable.com article  by Josh Sternberg, other journalists share my same viewpoint. Andy Carvin, of NPR, Carvin describes the media as being the middle between the public and sources. That has historically been the basic role of journalists and this fact hasn’t changed at all with the times.

One thing that has changed over time is the amount of information available. Ernie Smith, editor of ShortFormBlog sees journalists as tour guides here to help the public navigate through all this information. Sternberg says “Curators help navigate readers through the vast ocean of content, and while doing so, create a following based on several factors: trust, taste and tools.” Steven Rosenbaum writes an article describing the sheer volume of information the public is now expected to digest in order to remain informed citizens. He explains that citizens now have cameras, blogs and other ways to gather and share news in ways like never before. He stresses that we aren’t losing the need for journalists, but journalists are instead becoming even more important to help the public find the news they need and want to access amid all the other data now being generated.

As far as aggregation goes, there is a thin line journalists should be careful not to cross. The problem with this thin line is no one is certain where it is drawn. In order to keep aggregation under control and protect our journalistic integrity as a unit, there should be some universal standards set to control the volume of news aggregated as well as the way journalists go about it.

A GigaOm article demonstrates how aggregation causes rifts between news organizations that disagree with each other over how it should be used in journalism. This is a problem because not only is it important for journalists to remain united, but it’s also damaging for the journalism industry’s reputation when one journalist is calling into question another’s integrity.

As far as I can see, as long as there aren’t so many links that the story becomes confusing and credit is still given to the original reporter, aggregation shouldn’t pose a huge problem in journalism. (Though I did find it interesting that the Miami Herald is accused of not linking to the original stories they gather information from.) Our job is to deliver the news and aggregating other works and linking them in our story can help give our readers the full picture. Our main goal as journalists is to provide our readers with the news and we should be working together to do this to achieve the best result possible. The same article that accuses the Miami Herald of skipping links on their aggregated stories also points out that Google uses links in their formula when ordering search results. When done right, aggregation should be a win-win-win situation for both reporters involved as well as the readers.

And for old-school journalists, I can’t help but wonder what the difference is between aggregation, where the reporter gathers information from other articles, and using stories from the AP wire. Both situations involve a publication printing stories from other reporters in order to bring the news to the readers.

Aggregation, on the other hand, I think can take away from our jobs as journalists in certain cases. As pointed out here, some journalists view aggregation as an excuse to cut out their own commentary and character. Both aggregation and curation pose this problem. If journalists spend too much time delivering the news as other people have written it, it strips away all their personal identity as journalists. Individual journalists will become dehumanized and simply be machines with the purpose of searching out and delivering news from other sources. We have to be careful that we don’t use these practices so much that we lose our individuality as journalists. This individuality is how readers identify their favorite reporters and news organizations. Individuality and character as a journalist is one thing that makes our profession special and unique.