Journalists to BuzzFeed: Grow Up
January 11, 2017
BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a 35-page intelligence dossier about Donald Trump’s dealings in Russia set off a firestorm on Twitter that many of us wish we could un-see and also started a hearty debate over what journalism should look like in 2017.
From the start, BuzzFeed did inform readers that the information they were presenting was not verified. BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith defended the decision to publish the report by claiming that it was an act of transparency.
“Our presumption is to be transparent in our journalism and to share what we have with our readers. We have always erred on the side of publishing.” -Ben Smith
The obvious problem here is that this puts BuzzFeed’s philosophy of publication in direct contrast to most reputable news organizations. The overwhelming majority of publishers and news producers would never run a story based on unverified information. Historically, news publishers have chosen to err on the side of accuracy and risk losing the big story rather than to publish based on unconfirmed rumor and innuendo.
It isn’t transparent, either. Transparency reveals how the news-gathering process works. It is often done after-the-fact by showing the reader how the finished story came together. There was no process here. The only thing transparent about this document dump was that it shed light on the fact that BuzzFeed wasn’t willing to do the difficult work of reporting and finding the facts in the story. Incidentally, the hard work of reporting and finding facts is what most of us would call “Journalism.” If you want to be transparent, tell us who you contacted to verify the information and how many times your reporters attempted unsuccessfully to get in touch with them. Don’t just toss a bunch of information out there, shrug and say, “I don’t know if it’s accurate, but this is what someone sent us. It might not be at all true, but you’ll be entertained, and Twitter’s gonna love it.”
Also, to say you always err on the side of publishing is just silly and amateur. Now, BuzzFeed is relatively new — they were founded in 2006 — so if the organization was a human being it wouldn’t even have gone through puberty yet. But, institutions of journalism who have been around far longer than BuzzFeed can certainly chuckle at the idea of erring on the side of publishing and say “been there, won’t do it again.”
Dewey Defeats Truman is the classic example, but there have been other times when news organizations have pushed out raw data as fast as they could get their hands on it. I seem to recall an election at the turn of the century where Florida was called a few days earlier than it should have been based on exit polls and not actual vote counts. Most reporters have had the gut-wrenching experience of going to press or air with a questionable detail that later turned out to be false and had to be walked back. It isn’t a mistake we would willingly go out there and make.
See, most news organizations err on the side of publishing by mistake not by newsroom philosophy. In fact, we’d rather err on the side of accuracy because then we don’t actually err, and not erring in the first place is the only way to rebuild trust in journalism.
But, what BuzzFeed did wasn’t exactly journalism. It was click-bait, which is how BuzzFeed started and we should always remember that they have their roots in entertainment and not in journalism.
Ben Smith also asserts that publishing the report is part of BuzzFeed’s vision of what reporters’ jobs should look like in 2017. I don’t really know what he means by that, since there wasn’t really any reporting done, but let’s look at one of the core principles of being a reporter and that is questioning and at times taking on the powerful.
It is the job of journalists, whether it is in 2017 or 1917, to question and sometimes take on those in power, but over the years journalists have learned a few things about that. Primarily, we’ve learned that it isn’t wise to take on the powerful unless you are absolutely certain that your information is true. You don’t battle the powerful with rumor, conjecture and innuendo. All that happens when you do that is, you lose ethos and influence and the powerful people you were taking on become more powerful and less accountable.
One last thought about this concept of erring on the side of publishing: how is that any different than gossip? Isn’t gossip just a bunch of people getting together and running off at the mouth about the latest unfounded rumors without any attempt to verify information?
BuzzFeed can do better and the public deserves better.
“Ben Smith” by Neon Tommy is licensed under CC BY-SA
Should the press take a more anti-establishment tone?
December 12, 2016
Riding a wave of anti-establishment enthusiasm, Donald Trump swept the swing states and the electoral college and the Republicans swept both houses of Congress. The victory baffled many in the political and media establishments who were unaware of how powerful the nation’s anti-establishment sentiment truly was.
While much has been written and will be written about this election and the mood of the country leading up to it, one thing is clear in the aftermath: Americans have lost faith in established institutions. A cursory glance at the social media activities of the president-elect’s supporters reveal that not only have they lost faith in the institution of government, but more painfully in the media as a whole.
While some of the cries of bias and “mainstream media conspiracy” may be off-base, there may well be a kernel of truth that journalists need to consider. Have we as an industry become too cozy with the establishment?
The bedrock of journalism is questioning and speaking truth to power. Another key aspect of journalism is discerning legitimate sources of information and maintaining good relationships with those sources. Is it possible that somewhere in that process we have begun to accept government propoganda and rhetoric as gospel without digging deeper and questioning those who are dissemenating the information to us?
In our coverage of state, local and national events, are we allowing institutions of power and influence to shape our narrative rather than answering the concerns of the taxpaying public?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the press should become anti-establishment. The press shouldn’t be pro- or anti- anything outside of being pro-first amendment. What I’m asking is, should we question established institutions more than we do?
The congressman that you interview regularly may be an official source on matters of state, but he is a politician with an agenda. The source you have at a government agency may be an official source of information, but her office is directed by and reports to a politicized executive branch, be it of your state government or the federal government. Perhaps we need to be more critical of how we get our information and how we determine that the official source is telling us the truth and not handing us copious amounts of spin.
Maybe the key to getting Americans to trust journalists more than they trust used car salesmen is for us to trust our institutions of power less than we would trust a used car salesman. This is the era of data journalism, and we need to start making sure that the information our sources give us squares with the data that is available to us.
What the data currently indicates is that journalists, who should be among the most informed and aware voices in society, live in a bubble that does not include the anti-establishment voters who supported Donald Trump.
According to an MIT Media lab study, while verified journalists on Twitter did have both Clinton and Trump supporters in their networks, they were mostly disconnected from the largest and most vocal cluster of Trump supporters.
If we aren’t hearing the voice of the people, we cannot be aware of the issues that are important to them, inform them or be their advocate. It is hard to tell if the disconnect shown in the MIT study is due to journalists isolating themselves in a bubble or conservatives isolating themselves from a media establishment that no longer holds their trust. Regardless of the reason, as journalists we need to make sure we are listening to all perspectives.
And if it turns out a large portion of our audience is distrustful of institutions, perhaps it is in our best interest to be more distrustful of those same institutions.
“Fake” news has always been with us
December 7, 2016
This is just a friendly reminder that both “fake news” and the uninformed people who consume it have been around for a while.
Newspaper editor speaks candidly about journalism during the Trump presidency
December 1, 2016
Marty Baron is the executive editor of The Washington Post. He is also the winner of this year’s Hitchens Prize, which is awarded to journalists and authors who’s work “reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence,” according to the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation’s criteria.
During his acceptance speech, Baron offered his view of the role and importance of journalism in the face of a president who may be more hostile toward the press than previous administrations.Below is the portion of his speech dealing with this topic as well as the full video of his acceptance speech.
“Values are what matter most. And this is a good time to talk about them. A good time to reaffirm what we as journalists stand for.
This is a time we are compelled to fight for free expression and a free press—rights granted us under the Constitution, yes, but also the very qualities that have long set us apart from other nations.
We will have a new president soon. He was elected after waging an outright assault on the press. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign. He described the press as ‘disgusting,’ ‘scum,’ ‘lowlifes.’ He called journalists the ‘lowest form of humanity.’ That apparently wasn’t enough. So he called us ‘the lowest form of life.’ In the final weeks of the campaign he labeled us ‘the enemies.’
It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.
Donald Trump said he wanted to ‘open up’ libel laws. And he proposed to harass unfriendly media outlets by suing them, driving up their legal expenses with a goal of weakening them financially.
With respect to The Washington Post, he ordered our press credentials revoked during the campaign, barring us from routine press access to him and his events, because our coverage didn’t meet with his approval. Even before we were subjected to his months-long blacklist, Donald Trump falsely alleged that our owner, Jeff Bezos, was orchestrating that coverage. And he openly hinted that, if he became president, he would retaliate.
Jeff Bezos himself addressed this perfectly at one point—on several occasions actually.
‘We want a society,’ he said, ‘where any of us, any individual in this country, any institution in this country, if they choose to, can scrutinize, examine, and criticize an elected official, especially a candidate for the highest office in the most powerful country on earth. . . .
‘We have fundamental laws and . . . we have Constitutional rights in this country to free speech. But that’s not the whole reason that it works here. We also have cultural norms that support that, where you don’t have to be afraid of retaliation. And those cultural norms are at least as important as the Constitution.’
Getting elected didn’t change anything. After his election—in the midst of protests against him—Donald Trump resorted to Twitter to accuse the media of inciting violence when, of course, there had been no incitement whatsoever by anyone.
The other night, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour eloquently explained the gravity of such deliberately false accusations emanating from a future head of state. She was speaking when she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
‘Postcard from the world,’ she said, ‘This is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al . . . First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating—until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison—and then who knows?’
When the press is under attack, we cannot always count on our nation’s institutions to safeguard our freedoms—not even the courts.
At times throughout our history, they have shamefully failed to do so—whether it was the Sedition Act of 1798 under President John Adams, harshly repressive Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson in the context of World War I, or the McCarthy Era that still serves to remind us of what comes of a dishonest and reckless search for enemies.
The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work.
Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn?
If so, what do we do?
The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.
Every day as I walk into our newsroom, I confront a wall that articulates a set of principles that were established in 1933 by a new owner for The Post, Eugene Meyer, whose family went on to publish The Post for 80 years.
The principles begin like this: ‘The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.’
The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.
Nor, in my view, should they.
After the release of the movie Spotlight, I was often asked how we at The Boston Globe were willing to take on the most powerful institution in New England and among the most powerful in the world, the Catholic Church.
The question really mystifies me—especially when it comes from journalists or those who hope to enter the profession. Because holding the most powerful to account is what we are supposed to do.
If we do not do that, then what exactly is the purpose of journalism?
God forbid we take on the weaker institutions, the weaker individuals, while letting the strongest ones off the hook only because they can forcefully fight back.” -Marty Baron
Regardless of if your take on Trump’s relationship with the media lines up with Baron’s perspective on it, it is clear Baron is passionate about journalism and the first amendment. What are your thoughts on Baron’s message?
“Washington, DC, June 2011: The Washington Post” by danxoneil is licensed under CC BY
Is it time to get rid of news chyrons?
November 29, 2016
Last week, the method cable news broadcasts use to deliver headlines made headlines. While CNN host Jake Tapper was on vacation, a panel on his show was discussing a speech given by Donald Trump supporter Richard Spencer. The text on the bottom third of the screen read: “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People.” This set off a firestorm that quickly got the attention of Tapper himself, who tweeted his disgust at the poor wording choice.
For the uninitiated, the text feature that runs on the lower third of the screen is called a chyron. While the name isn’t familiar to most, the frequent abuse of this feature and the all-too-frequent mistakes associated with it are well-known.This incident, along with some other recent examples, have brought the practice under scrutiny. Would cable news be better off without the chyrons?
- Chyrons allow viewers who have the volume turned down or who are hearing-impaired to see the headline and some details about the story.
- Viewers at airports, crowded restaurants and shopping centers are able to see what is on the news even if they can’t hear every word. The chyrons allow for passive consumption of news.
- Chyrons can be used to give details on a breaking story that is just coming in and that the on-screen reporters may not be talking about at the moment.
- When used responsibly, the chyrons can be used as a form of real-time fact-checking when a political candidate is speaking or during a debate.
- Ratings. The chyrons keep viewers interested and tuned-in. They also grab the attention of viewers who are channel surfing.
- The chyrons are a distraction and add to the clutter and confusion of cable news broadcasts. These broadcasts often include panels of experts and pundits arguing. This coupled with the constantly rotating graphics causes just enough chaos to turn away viewers.
- Chyrons provide another opportunity for mistakes. By associating hastily written headlines and subheads with each story, the chances for mistakes and missteps increases. Print media editors agonize over headlines because of the difficulty in summarizing complex stories in three to six words. In broadcast journalism where the chyrons are produced instantly, this can and has lead to embarrassing mistakes.
- Readers aren’t fooled. CNN in particular has a bad habit of using “Breaking News” in front of its chyrons, even to the point where events that the press was invited to are labeled “breaking news.” This adds to the reputation the media have for being sensationalist.
- While chyrons could be used to fact-check political candidates, in the 2016 election they were used heavily to fact-check Donald Trump, but this use was not extended to Hillary Clinton. This opened the media up for further accusations of bias and had a negative impact on credibility.
With regards to news chyrons, the negatives far outweigh the positives. The bottom line is, the chyrons aren’t being used responsibly. Everything is termed breaking news, including one instance where a network proclaimed it breaking news that the Titanic sunk 100 years ago.
If the chyrons showed up only to identify sources or when there was actually a significant news event, that would be more appropriate and responsible. However, the chyrons are on the screen 24/7, which places immense pressure on the production staff to come up with fresh wording and gives ample opportunity for embarrassing mistakes.
Most importantly, is the overall impact on the media as a whole. When CNN, Fox and MSNBC use chyrons irresponsibly, it harms the reputation of all news organizations. The cable news giants are the go-to sources for news. They are what the average American thinks of when they think of “the news” or “the media.” The risk to the reputation of hard working reporters isn’t worth the momentary ratings benefits of keeping chyrons around.
Black Friday shooting makes case for local journalism
November 26, 2016
Tragedies often bring out the big difference in the depth of coverage provided by local and national news sources.
In the early hours of Friday morning, Demond Cottman was shot and killed in a Black Friday-related shooting in the parking lot of Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing New Jersey.
A Google search for the shooting immediately pulled up stories from the big national outlets like CNN, Fox and The New York Daily News. Their coverage was not bad by any means, but it lumped the story in with two other Black Friday shootings and gave scant details on the victim.
A local newspaper called The Press of Atlantic City covered the local angle and provided more detail. Their coverage not only gave detailed information about the victim — that he was a new father and was a football standout in high school — but it also gave a glimpse into how the community was reacting to the shooting. They talked to Cottman’s family, people who knew him and other shoppers at the mall.
The national coverage painted Demond Cottman as just another Black Friday shooting victim in a long string of Black Friday violence that we read about every year. The local coverage showed us the person. It gave us details — both good and bad — about a human being who’s life was taken in a senseless crime.
This is why we need local news. There are certain details that only local news organizations can provide because they have relationships with people and sources in their communities. Large national news outlets are great at summarizing the information, but to be truly informed, take a look at the journalism being done on the local level.
“Daily News Papers” by faungg’s photos is licensed under CC BY-ND
Why do reporters ask such obvious questions?
November 25, 2016
Journalists are frequently accused of asking obvious questions of their sources. While it isn’t possible to speak for or defend some legitimately questionable questions, there are several reasons a journalist may intentionally ask what appears at first glance to be a “stupid” question.
JOURNALISTS CAN’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS: Journalists try not to make assumptions. The wrong assumption can harm the journalist or news organization’s integrity and can lead to accusations of libel. Yes, journalists are capable of connecting the dots, but it is better for sources to make those connections. Sometimes, a journalist may ask what seems like a basic question to confirm what he or she has already pieced together.
ACCURACY IS EVERYTHING: Journalists strive to report the facts accurately. The reporter may have asked a question that the source just answered, but he may be trying to get clarification on a certain detail. Sometimes re-phrasing the question leads to an answer that fills in the gaps in the background information. Sometimes, the answer to a reporter’s question may seem obvious, but attention to fine details is the basis of an accurate news report.
UNDERSTANDING IS KEY: A journalist can’t report news in a way readers or viewers will understand unless he understands the story or topic himself. Sometimes these “dumb” questions help a reporter gain the understanding necessary to inform readers.
THE AUDIENCE REQUIRES IT: Last but not least, journalists strive to inform the uninformed. To more informed news consumers the questions reporters ask may seem stupid, however, not everyone in the audience is as informed. The sad truth is, sometimes the questions have to be watered down because the average American isn’t informed.
“interview” by woodleywonderworks is licensed under CC BY
Why the digital world still needs print
November 24, 2016
“Print is dead. I get all my news online now anyway.”
I hear this refrain all the time, or some other variation of it— and not just from the younger generation. It is a line used by longtime print subscribers when explaining why they don’t need their local newspaper anymore, as well as by hipsters who use the Wi-Fi at the local Starbucks as their gateway to all the world’s information.
In the information age, it seems everyone is either expecting— or even rooting for—the demise of the print edition.
But print isn’t dead yet, and while you may get all your news online, chances are you’re still relying on print sources and print journalists without even realizing it.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today and the LA Times, get thousands of re-tweets on Twitter per day and about as many shares and likes on their articles on Facebook. News aggregators like Google News, Flipboard and Apple News rely heavily on newspapers. Your favorite bloggers also use these same print sources to gather information.
Yes, the articles they serve are free and from the online version of their products, but it is generated largely by journalists who report for a print product.
When you start prematurely dancing on the grave of print journalism, you are forgetting that if the ink dried up tomorrow and the presses across the country suddenly were to stop, those print journalists would be unemployed and they would not be producing news.
When the presses stop, your favorite news app or aggregator will consist of a few sources, but it won’t be nearly as robust. If the print editions die, so will the majority of the online editions. Your favorite bloggers will suddenly have far fewer sources to draw from and will struggle to find topics to blog about. HuffPo will not be appealing, as there will be fewer journalists providing articles for them to copy and paste, and you will have an incredibly difficult time finding any local news whatsoever. You’ll have to start attending county commission meetings and city council meetings because no one will be there to report on important local issues.
You are able to say “I get all my news online” because print exists and print journalists produce articles that are posted online. Without the print edition, you would have very few publications that would be able to survive online only. So perhaps a better phrasing is, “I can get all my news online because print is alive.”
Chances are you don’t really want a world where print is dead. If print dies, so does your ability to be as informed by as many sources as you are now.
“Yesterdays news” by (Mick Baker)rooster is licensed under CC BY-ND
Is Breaking News breaking the news?
November 24, 2016
Breaking News: Local news stations, 24-hour news networks and news organizations on Twitter over-use the phrase “breaking news” to grab attention and increase ratings.
If your local broadcast news station somehow manages to have one “breaking” story at some point during the newscast every night, chances are the news they are reporting isn’t actually important to your life. More than likely, it is a fire, flashing blue lights at the scene of a crime, or celebrity news — all of which make good video.
Traditionally, news was called breaking if a.) regular programming, or the newscast itself was interrupted due to an important news event or b.) the news organization reporting the story was the first to report it.
Nowadays, breaking news basically means, “news that wasn’t scheduled and that we weren’t intending to cover today.” Most journalists would just call that “news.”
News stations don’t often break into programming for these stories, but they will claim to have breaking news in their promo pieces encouraging you to tune in at 5 to see this earth-shattering story that every other station in town is also covering and calling “breaking.”
The truth is, modern “breaking” news — with its irrelevance and flashy graphics– may actually be breaking the news. The media in this case have become the boy who cried wolf. If “breaking news” means strong storms with high winds and lightning are coming nine times during the year, how will viewers take you seriously the 10th time when it is an actual tornado? If “breaking news” is a celebrity getting into a fist fight, it cheapens and mutes important issues of public safety and health like a disease outbreak or a dangerous criminal who is on the loose.
As journalists, we are doing the public a great disservice when Justin Bieber’s latest legal troubles are labeled breaking news and appear at the top of the newscast, but issues impacting public health, safety, or education are relegated to short segments in the B-block. If this trend continues, the public confuse non-news items and celebrity drivel to be real news. Perhaps they already do.
“Breaking News!” by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com is licensed under CC BY