Tag Archives: ethics

Using Facebook for journalism

4 Apr

Facebook has one of the greatest appeals of all social media platforms by offering opportunities to connect with both personal friends and “fans” as two separate entities. For prominent figures or news organizations, interacting with an audience as an organization is just as simple as an individual reporter conducting research and talking with sources on a more personal level. The news feed serves as a mini bulletin board for updates and developments on all sorts of subjects. Mine alone as a news-savvy college student is peppered with posts from Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Gawker daily, as well as important breaking news on a national and international scale. You remember the flood of updates about Osama Bin Laden’s death and “RIP JoePa” statuses. Facebook has also played just as much of a role as Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn toward building a reporter’s or news outlet’s brand through pages. Even more ways to curate news, such as allowing a separate section of a user’s profile to be dedicated to posting articles (as opposed to grouping all links together as a kind of post), would be greatly beneficial to journalist’s searching for news and leads.

Of course, with a more personal connection comes deeper ethical hot water for journalists. My ethics class has wrestled with the idea of what is considered appropriate in terms of reporters “friending” sources as business associates like a city mayor or police public information officer to avoid blurring the line between a social and professional connection. The term “friend” on Facebook has come to mean so much more than a buddy you get coffee with, but rather has come to signify any kind of connection. However, the less opportunity to give the impression of bias, the better. This decision in the end, though, is the prerogative of the journalist.

Here are some links for how journalists can use Facebook:

So far, I have only reached out to certain friends on Facebook about my topic blog because blogging about improv has become such a sensitive topic recently in the comedy scene (some have published controversial posts that have ticked off a number of fellow improvisers). However, reception to the blog has been great, so I’ll likely expand my promotion of it to posting links to individual articles both on my own profile and in comedy groups I’m a member of.

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Case Study 3: Protocols

8 Feb

The onus of making judgment calls imperative to the integrity of a news story most often falls on the shoulders of the copy editor. Although this is stressful for those behind the copy desk, a publication’s protocol can help guide them through the murky river of uncertainty. These can also be especially useful for reporter-editors who do not spend the majority of their daily jobs making editing decisions.

The Charlotte, N.C., Observer and The Oklahoman have very specific guidelines for its editors to follow, such as outlining the specific role of a copy editor (and drawing a firm line in the sand between editor and proofreader), when to consult reporters and how to handle feedback. Although editing for grammar, spelling and other basics doesn’t usually require consulting with the writer, heavy edits like moving paragraphs and attributions around and trimming sentences could severely change the reporter’s original intent. A student from Ohio University compiled other protocols as well to add to a well-rounded idea of what newspapers generally look for in terms of editing guidelines.

Copy editing protocols are implemented to streamline the copy-editing process and make life easier for editors on copy and assigning desks alike.  – John Russial, associate professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, according to “Copy editing protocols” by Nick Juliano

Even some of the most seemingly innocuous changes could result in an unwanted fact error that was actually added in the editing process. For example, the common he/she gender typo can often lead to unwitting mistakes. For reference to the linked example, the error is small but monumentally changed the identity of the reporter’s first source — the reporter turned in the story with Leslie attributed as a woman and the edited version portrayed Leslie as a man. Did the reporter mistype “he” for “she,” or was Leslie actually a woman who happened to have a girlfriend? Making the assumption that Leslie Manning was a man without consulting the reporter led to a completely avoidable mistake that was likely offensive to the source.

The McCormick Foundation Civics Program released the Protocol for Free & Responsible Student News Media to guide students through difficult editing decisions. The best way to polish editing skills before getting acclimated to a particular publication’s protocol is to use this tool and your own best judgment to hone your skills. While protocol guidelines are imperative to being a reliable editor for your publication, it is just as important to have solid, responsible judgment on your own. Especially in the case of freelance writers, being able to make educated editorial decisions based on a standard can help in a sticky situation.

Because the role of a copy editor extends well beyond being finicky about grammar, protocols are imperative to ensuring a standard for good practice and open communication between editors and reporters.

Skepticism: A copy editor’s best tool

1 Feb

The job of a copy editor extends way beyond grammar and spelling errors. Not to trivialize these important aspects of making a great article, an editor needs to be alert and ready to challenge both questionable story points and other information. Situations like what happened with Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke have proven that the shortcomings of editors have resulted in the deceit of audiences and a serious blow to the credibility of their respective publications. But what about the mistakes and oversights that occur on a daily basis?

According to a piece by the former managing editor of the Hartford Courant, it sometimes takes large-scale upsets to remind us of the importance of going over stories with a fine-toothed comb. Training editors not only in technical skills, but to practice using their own good judgement to question information and be able to point out a story’s flaws and weak spots.

Our biggest weakness is not the occasional dishonest reporter. Our biggest weakness is unchallenged information.

Fact checking is not merely something to do in the wake of a serious PR nightmare; it’s a practice that needs to be refined and put to use with every story that reaches the copy desk or before a reporter clicks “submit.” While depending on fact checking as a basis for news stories is a debatable issue, fact checking should be a major part of the writing process for every single article.

The Portland Oregonian uses a method with its editors and reporters that involves going line by line through the story to ensure that every bit of information has been covered by the reporter and can be backed up with legitimate data, logic and evidence. Although tedious, this kind of dedication to preventing the presentation of unconscious bias or misleading facts should be considered a  model for all publications and online media. This list on ACES outlines 10 tips for copy editors looking to be more wary when reading stories, including paying particular attention to dates, consulting maps for directions, and checking recent stories about similar issues. Having some hard-and-fast rules when editing stories can help prevent common mistakes that can often be the most lethal to story credibility. These questions to keep in mind also remind editors to polish ledes and headlines, as well as keep both big-picture ideas and details of a story in check with the overarching circumstances. In addition, one of the more elusive aspects of a story are statistics. Numbers are generally unfamiliar to journalists and writers, and without concrete proof, they’re incredibly difficult to verify and, therefore, deserve special attention.

Whether or not an editor uses a system or relies on their own best case-by-case judgment, it is his or her responsibility to their readership and credibility to be curious to the best of their abilities.

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.

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.