Archive | January, 2012

Case Study 2: Jimmy’s World

31 Jan

To this day, it baffles journalists and readers alike how a story like Jimmy’s World could have made it to the front page of The Washington Post without an inkling of its falsity. Were the Post’s editors simply dazzled by a wonderful tale, and does this prove an inherent flaw in the editing system? Even the best journalists are just people, but what was it about this story that blinded seasoned, pragmatic professionals?

First, it’s important to note some flaws in the story itself —

  • If Jimmy only sometimes attended school, why didn’t his teachers contact home about his absences? Public schools have limits about how much school a child can miss and have strict truancy guidelines.
  • Both Jimmy and his family’s speech patterns were inconsistent with urban language and usual English.
  • Why did the social worker Cooke spoke with not do anything to help Jimmy?
  • Heroin is expensive, so why would Ron, an experienced drug deal, regularly waste lucrative drugs on an 8 year old?
  • His mother’s attitude changed from the beginning of the story as hesitant to watch Jimmy shoot up to not “giving a f—” about him as a baby. When did her attitude toward him change so dramatically?

Given these inconsistencies, I would have been eager to call both Jimmy’s school and the Southeast Neighborhood House to verify their quotes and contributions had I been the story’s copy editor. In addition, I would have asked to see Cooke’s notes and study them intensely to note the blatant attitude change when speaking with the mother. According to a report from a workshop given by William G. Connolly (a retired New York Times editor), the sources’ identities were to be kept confidential. However, it would  be the responsibility of the reporter to at least try to talk to the family to have the story verified through an editor, especially since they appeared so willing to divulge their secrets. In addition, to assume Cooke’s solid record before would not yield questionable material is editorially irresponsible.

A Time article that was published 30 years after Cooke’s hoax mentions the “anti-skeptic” effect that stories about drugs and addiction can have on both readers and editors. Because the general audience and the filter the stories go through usually have no first-hand experience in the world of addiction and drug dealing, inconsistencies can get buried beneath vividly painted images and deep-rooted stereotypes.

Other supposed drug epidemics have been making waves in the media without much truthfulness to their prevalence. For example, the urban myth of “pharming parties” being all the rage among high school students has almost no basis aside from parents being fearful of the next dangerous youth trend. An article from Slate brings to light how even the most respectable media giants and local papers have been falling victim to this absurd but tempting trend story since 2006 and before. Quotes from experts with no supporting evidence (and no further research on the part of the reporter) have zero value and can heavily alter reality for parents who depend on a credible website, newspaper or broadcaster for information.

In the end, the onus falls on the editor to verify a story’s validity. Despite dazzling details, copy editors have a responsibility to their writers, readers and companies to be skeptical and alert.

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Blogging as journalism, other social media ethics concerns

25 Jan

The validity of blogging as a way to learn about the world around us has been legitimized more and more as people have come to realize not only the power of influence, but its strength in numbers. I had last mentioned aggregation blogs like The Huffington Post that have become staples in day-to-day news gathering for many, and blogs about topics ranging from gardening to public policy are shaping the way we view our interests and each other.

Because blogs and social media platforms have permeated into the journalistic sphere, there has been a call for guidelines to avoid the perpetuation of false or misleading information based on tweets or Facebook updates from “eye-witnesses” and news outlets looking to break a story before their competitors. The Radio Television Digital News Association compiled a set of standards for news outlets to abide by, especially noting the need for accuracy and fairness.

“Twitter’s character limits and immediacy are not excuses for inaccuracy and unfairness,” the RTDNA article said.

Many have argued that blogs need not be held to the same strict ethical standard as traditional journalism, but at what point does a blog cease to be a publicly accessible diary and begin to play an influential role in the mainstream media?

A recent Technorati article called into question what a blog exactly was, drawing from the textbook definition, blogging apparatuses’ definitions, and from ProBlogger Darren Rowse. All seemed to agree on one common thread — blogs are for anything. The advent of tagging — which neatly groups posts based on subject — has made it easier for readers to filter what they read in order to maximize their blogging experience. Armchair Theorist, a blog run by a Microsoft Regional Product Manager for Internet Explorer, explores the 10 best tagging practices. The New York Times and ESPN also recently launched user-friendly “second screens” for readers to follow along with while watching television. Methods like these developed to maximize social media’s audience have increased the need to acknowledge blogs, Twitter and the like as a viable means of journalism.

A Media Bistro article detailing the way the news cycle has adapted to new media shows how these new techniques have influenced and complicated the way news is distributed. It makes an excellent point that a blog that serves solely as a solitary medium (it’s not attached to a bigger overall news brand) uses its online platform as its sole distributor of information, and a larger news outlet that is desperate to break a story will be quick to post it online faster than it would on its primary medium, such as print or television broadcast.

News outlets such as NPR have been embracing this new media revolution and experimenting with regional beat blogs on various topics ranging from education to immigration. In addition to The Argo Project pushing the envelope on fostering blogging among an audience, it also taught reporters about the nuances of blogging who previously had limited experience with social media and web content. Although The Argo Project’s NPR funding ends at the conclusion of the project, the 12 participating stations are trying to keep the blogs going on an open-source system due to their overwhelming popularity. The ever-changing online atmosphere has sparked the need to analyze how the project would have evolved had it begun in 2012 instead of 2010, which goes to show just how dynamic a medium the Internet and blogging is overall. For instance, the newest revelations in web savvy have been to embrace a group dynamic and team playing, as well as incorporating proficient editing skills and meshing articles and topic stories. Nevertheless, the popularity of this project shows just how much influence a blog can have over an audience.

In the end, new media ethics is a frontier that is not fully understood. However, the same journalistic standards can definitely be said to apply to any medium that reaches a large audience. If you have an audience, you have an obligation to said audience to give them accurate, reliable information.

Case Study 1: Eagle Scoops Dog

24 Jan

The story of a bald eagle snatching up an unsuspecting small dog outside of a gas station to the helpless horror of its owners is nothing short of a juicy story. However, the lack of evidence supporting the sparse details of the story itself lends itself to suspicion. According to Snopes.com, a website dedicated to debunking common myths and urban legends, the story of a dog being scooped up by a rogue bald eagle has been circulating for years with no evidence supporting the plausibility of the tale. My lab discussed the story and what questions we would have for the reporter and editor had the story crossed our desks to run in the paper.

The lack of tangible details about the story raised a number of questions —

  • What breed of dog was it? What was it’s name?
  • What were the names of the couple who owned the dog? How long did they own the dog?
  • How many witnesses saw this incident?
  • Are there any testimonials from the victims?
  • Is it physically possible for an eagle to lift a small dog and fly away with it?
The fact that these questions went unanswered left many holes open and pressing these inconsistencies as issues could have prevented a newspaper publishing a fabricated story.

 

There are many experts who could answer the biological and habitual questions regarding bald eagles, such as a local Wildlife Conservation Society chapter. When I was an intern with NBC Miami this past summer, I had access to an entire contact list of experts in a wide variety of disciplines, which came in handy when writing stories about topics that are unfamiliar. For instance, I researched a story about a large python that had been found in someone’s farm, and I called a local wildlife information source to verify the details of the story and of the snake’s rescue.

 

Even if a database that extensive is not easily accessible, there are many websites dedicated to sorting fact from fiction that can be a great basis for finding the right questions to ask. This article on the blog Vikitech lists six helpful websites such as PolitiFact and TruthOrFiction to help journalists make sense of inconsistencies and questionable facts. The website Quora would also be useful for researching questionable situations like this. For instance, a journalist could pose a question to find a wide array of sources, such as experts, or if anyone had heard of a similar story and if that story had more substantial support. Joy Mayer, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, posed a question on Quora as to how journalists could use the social media tool, and most of the answers were focused on using it to locate sources and experts that could lead to a follow-up and more in-depth investigating. On my own Quora account, I asked how student journalists could get the most out of the website. While Quora would not be the end-all-be-all of reporting, it’s certainly a useful tool for finding sources  and leads.

 

In the end, a lack of information about this particular incident, even if scientific evidence supporting its plausibility was available, is still suspicious enough to warrant holding off on this wild tale until more facts could be verified. Moral of the story: Don’t fall prey to a juicy scoop without a solid waffle cone to support it. I’ll work on the metaphors, I promise.

Aggregation: The new blogging frontier or editing aggravation?

17 Jan

The debate rages on as to whether news aggregation websites such as The Huffington Post and the like are a revolutionary medium for the new media information age or yet another way that the YouTube Generation is becoming lazier and lazier with each passing tweet.

Reports that the new HuffPost Miami is guilty of perjury and improper attribution on its website have certainly fanned the fire against the practice for traditional news sites, such as The Miami Herald. An article from Wired from December 2008 goes on to illustrate gripes from the alternative weekly Chicago Reader, using wholesale samples from its concert reviews.

However, many are arguing that these mainstream sources are missing the whole point of the idea behind news aggregation and are focusing instead on the few instances of poor professional practice. The Miami New Times Blog pointed out that newspapers — the Miami Herald in particular — do not generally link to the extraneous information they gather for articles, whereas direct attribution is the standard for news aggregation websites. In addition, it goes on to directly refute reporters’ arguments about traffic diversion  by pointing out how the links provided within the aggregated articles direct large amounts of traffic to the original news source.

The onus falls on the writer of the article to fairly serve both its audience and sources, and I believe this Poynter article does an excellent job addressing this issue after the controversial departure of its leading columnist and voice. Jim Romenesko. Josh Voorhees, editor of The Slatest, pointed out the difference between the scoop driving the story and the story driving the scoop. This distinction is important to note what has become more important to the target audience — where or how the story broke or the core information of the story itself.

At its core, the idea of aggregation has good intentions to encourage the spread of news. An enforced set of journalistic standards would solve many — although not all — of the problems associated with questionable attribution practices and could solidify aggregation as a legitimate, ethical news practice.