Learning to also be human

If there’s one quote that sticks out to me in Samuel Freedman’s first chapter of Letters to a Young Journalist, it has to be the following: “If you can’t be a person, then you’ll ultimately be less of a journalist.”

Freedman brings up a good point here. As journalism students, we are always taught to be objective our fair in our reporting, that we need to maintain a wall between the subject and ourself. This is true to an extent. Maintaining that boundary with sources is part of being professional. But should it go as far as to remain emotionless when a source begins to cry?

Freedman addresses some of these questions in the  ”Temperament” chapter. I think Freedman’s example of the Times reporters who sometimes cried after covering families affected by 9/11 is a good example for when journalists can be more human than normal. It’s an unusual story that can make every person involved in the story emotional.

As journalists, we’re supposed to write engaging stories that are meant to humanize subjects. How are we expected to do this is we ourselves can’t act human also? A journalist can’t get to know a subject for a feature story if the journalist doesn’t connect with the subject at some human level.

It’s like the story about the 700-pound man and reporter Mike Sager. Sager may not have known as much detail as he did if he wasn’t the source’s friend at some level. I think if we expect to get to know intimate details about an individual’s life, we have to be able to act human as well.

This is something that can only come with experience. Yes, there are many times in journalism when it is necessary to be very professional. But there are almost just as many times where we need to lower some of that emotionless professionalism to connect with our sources. If done too much, our ethics can be compromised. You don’t want to become too attached to the source because that could effect the fairness or objectivity of the coverage. The key is to find a balance that will reveal enough about the source without compromising any objectiveness and cloud the journalist’s judgment.

Storytelling and reporting

From the Journalism and Democracy blog.

While reading the chapter about making the significant interesting and relevant, I couldn’t help but think about a lecture we had last semester in Advanced Reporting. This discussion focused on the difference between storytelling and reporting. In other words, the difference between reading a story and reading a report. The question was: Are the two different? Yes, at a fundamental level, there’s a difference between how you write a report about a shooting that occurred over the weekend. That strategy is different from how you may go about telling the story of a 12-year-old dying boy’s last four weeks, as is the example Kovach and Rosentiel give us.

Yet, the two are strangely similar. The chapter quotes Howard Rheingold as saying there’s one aspect that is most important; are taxes going up, is there going to be a war? “The other end of the spectrum is just what’s purely interesting … And most stories are something of a mix of the two,” Rheingold said. I think we have to try to remind ourselves of this when we’re covering what may seem to be a minor story. Many times it’s a reflection of something bigger, and it is a journalist’s job to bring that out. That’s where the rule of making the significant interesting and relevant comes into play.

Kovach and Rosentiel discuss the lack of time journalists have today as a factor to why this type of in depth journalism is harder to do today. Newsroom cutbacks have strained journalists all over. Many just don’t have the time to dedicate to a thorough, Pulitzer prize winning piece. When they do though, it doesn’t go unnoticed. There will always be a need or desire for these types of storytelling in journalism. Journalists just have to be careful moving forward and not forget how to tell intricate stories. Kovach and Rosentiel suggest to experiment with different storytelling techniques. It’s not just A to Z, but maybe it would be better to start with L, M, or P.

While a report on a fire or shooting may seem routine at first, there’s always a level of storytelling that can be done. The hard part is finding that story. You can start with the basics such as why the fire occurred or the amount of damage it caused. But there is also most likely a story that can be found. The key is to always keep an observant and open mind about your reporting to be an effective story teller.

Journalism and its public forum role

I wanted to spend some time on journalism job to serve as a public forum. It’s animportant aspect in the profession today because of the many ways to contribute or create a public forum. The Internet has opened up many doors for journalists to engage with their readers, or viceversa. However, there is a big problem with this ease of being able to communicate with the public. That problem is the tendency for journalists to not verify all of their information.

Kovach and Rosentiel mention in the chapter that especially with the rise of the live interview on television, there’s an increasing tendency to rely on the interviewee to have correct information. This takes weight of the vetting process off of the journalist. But this is exactly what journalism cannot afford to let happen.

“As this new and more robust public forum gains momentum, the strength of what is replaced — the professional effort of verification — diminishes,” write Kovach and Rosentiel.

If we don’t have journalists vetting the necessary information, it can become too easy to spread rumors, such as what happened with Chris Matthews and the Clinton scandal mentioned in the beginning of the chapter. This is where the debate of what truth is in journalism comes in. As was discussed in the truth chapter, truth in journalism is more of a practical truth. It’s hard to define exactly what truth is, but we know it is something that is more like an onion — layer by layer (story by story) the truth is revealed.

I think an expansive public forum, like what we have today with blogs and comments, can only help reveal truth in journalism. But journalists must remember some of the principles of basic reporting with this new public forum. They must remember to verify all the information. Just because a source tells you the information in a live interview doesn’t make what they say necessarily true.

While we saw what can happen with providing a public forum without at least some type of guidelines — we get an argument culture. One that paints a black and white picture and polarizes any type of discussion. It seems that culture has certainly diminished in recent years. Now, I think the public forum role has been put back in the journalist’s seat a bit. People want a professional product and one that they can rely on. This can only happen if we put these people (journalists) in that position of trust and authority.

A newspaper has to reflect the ideas of a community, but also has to challenge some of those views — that’s what verification is. As the president of the Tribune Publishing Company, Jack Fuller, said: “A newspaper that fails to reflect its community deeply will not succeed. But a newspaper that does not challenge its community’s values and preconceptions will lose respect for failing to provide the honesty and leadership that newspapers are expected to offer.”

Learning from mistakes

*From the Journalism and Democracy blog

Many of the topics covered in this week’s reading, a Federal Communications Commission report titled The Information Needs of Communities, have many similarities to subjects we’re covering in another class, Changing Media Business Models. I can’t help but think about what a good thing this is. We have learned so much about the reporting in the last four years, but not as much about the economics or business behind the news.

Learning how to write and report are valuable skills. Just as valuable though, are how to make a living off of those skills. Or think of it in this way — how to not make the mistakes print newspapers have made in the past.

Before I knew more as to why newspapers had been reluctant to jump on the Internet train in the beginning or why they didn’t charge for that content, I naïvely thought it was because members in the industry didn’t know any better. But that is far from it.  Look at the developments from a market standpoint. The newspaper industry is not the only industry to be effected by disruptive technology (i.e. the Internet). Disruptive technology happens all over the place. Just look at computers from the 80s to now. They’re significantly different and many businesses have entered and left the industry along they way because they couldn’t keep up with the technology developments.

This is what happened to newspapers. When the popularity of the Internet started growing, newspapers couldn’t immediately shift all their resources over to the web, they had to learn what the new resource meant for them and how to start using it. It’s hard to make business decisions with an unproven technology.

This manner of thinking has led me to look at the newspaper industry’s mistakes in the past decade in a completely different perspective. I sympathize, although not completely, with why the industry has faced profit difficulties in the last few years.

The reading explained how the rise of radio led newspapers to act hostile toward the new medium. The newspapers didn’t want the competition. This is eerily similar to what we saw with the Internet and the print medium. The print papers didn’t know how to react to the Internet at first and were somewhat skeptical to the new competitor in the market. However, now, we see newspapers learning how to utilize the Internet to the best of its ability.

The Internet has also created about as many negatives for the democratization of news as it has positives. Newspapers have had to cut down on their staff sizes due to decreasing revenue. After all, ad revenue dropped 48% from 2005 to 2010 according to the reading.

The decrease in staff size has led to less things being covered. Beats that used to have four of five reporters now only have one. That doesn’t sound good at all. One of the worst beats to get hit by this all is the investigative teams of newspapers. With less time for reporters to invest in stories, you can only imagine the amount of investigative stories that weren’t done as a result.

“An ill-informed public will benefit people who can push an agenda without accountability and public scrutiny,” Education Week publisher Virginia Edwards said.

I think that quote epitomizes what can happen if we have less reporters filling that watchdog role.

Now those are just a few of the negatives the Internet has created. It has also created many positives. The barrier for entry into the journalism world is essentially zero nowadays because of the ease of creating a blog. More voices in the public discourse is a good thing. If newspapers can figure out how to best tap this resource, they might figure out how to break even in the industry instead of continuing to lose money.

Capitol Hill Seattle is one of the bright spots in the rise of blogs. It is basically run by one man, Tom Fucoloro. But what is so intriguing about this website is the neighborhood’s investment in the site. It’s a blog that focuses on the news for one neighborhood in Seattle. The beauty of it is that just about anyone can post on the website. The “news” stories are distinguished from other types of posts, as Fucoloro explained to our media models class last week.

This type of website may not be able to survive in other cities not as big as Seattle. But what it does do is tap that interest all of us have in the happenings in our neighborhood. It allows for the community to have a stake in the website. Without them it wouldn’t be here today. It’s an example newspapers today can probably learn a lesson or two from.

Debunking truth

*A reposting of this week’s Journalism and Democracy post.

Last week we discussed quite a bit about the goal of truth, especially in regards to political coverage. I couldn’t help but think about how this was something I struggled with a bit last semester. I think I wrote a blog post about it too. I worked on the public life beat at the Missourian last semester and spent most of the semester covering the enhanced enterprise zone debate — a debate that had many “truths.”

I think this is a great example of how the truth is complex and more than a simple “Yes, it’s true,” or “No, it’s not true,” answer. As I covered this ongoing debate, I realized there was much more to it than simply regurgitating what each side would say at council meetings or planning meetings. Sure, I could easily write about what each side said at the latest meeting, but what purpose would that serve than to just record the day’s events. One side believed there were other ways to grow Columbia’s economy than offering tax incentives to businesses. The other side believed it was a tool to attract and keep businesses in Columbia. When each side would make their case, they believed what they were saying to be true, which made getting at the actual truth a challenge.

Kovach and Rosenthal talk about in chapter two of the Elements of Journalism how if journalists fall into a passive type of role, all they are doing is merely recording the world’s happenings. There’s more to the coverage than serving as a sounding board for political candidates and others in public office who use the media to also serve their interests.

“The search for truth becomes a conversation,” Kovach and Rosenthal write.

I wish I had known about this idea as I was covering Columbia’s EEZ debate. If I thought of it more like a process and conversation, I think it would only have strengthened our coverage. Our goal was to provide a human interest side to the debate. Show readers how implementing a zone would actually impact a community. There’s more to these types of government stories than what you report from meetings or documents and that’s what we wanted to achieve — a conversation that would shed light on the truth behind an EEZ’s impact on a city. (Although now the point is moot because Columbia has decided not to implement the zone)

A quote by Walter Lippmann speaks to this idea of injecting analysis into journalism to better reach the truth.

“News and truth are not the same thing…the function of news is to signalize an event,” Walter Lippmann wrote.

There is news and there is truth. Yes, there is value to “signalizing” an event, but there is more value to getting at the idea of “why” or the meaning behind the event.

Thought also needs to be put into the validity or truth of what the reporter is hearing. This is what Arthur Brisbane was trying to get at in his truth vigilante idea. If the media only is there to act as a stenographer, truth can become obsolete. Truth in journalism is hard to explain, but that’s just it — it’s what makes journalist’s still valuable. Truth in journalism is a rather complicated idea to put in pen, but when it’s done right, we all know.

New journalism, same purpose

*Note: Many of the posts filed under “Journalism and Democracy” are part of the capstone course. They will mostly cover many of the topics we discuss in class.

I couldn’t help but keep coming back to one of the ideas from Kovach and Rosenthal.

“Every generation creates its own journalism. But the purpose, we have found, is the same.”

I think we can clearly see this with developments in journalism over the past 5-10 years. While many of the ways people get their news and ways the news is reported have changed, the purpose, to some extent, has been the same. This is one of the hardest things for young journalists to remind themselves of — the idea that journalism’s techniques may change with new technology, but we need to continually remind ourselves what journalists are there for. Many of those reasons fall under the nine elements.

But what is interesting, is how some of the boundaries that guide journalism and the ethics that come along with it, are always pushed. With the rise of blogs and ready access to information, I think sometimes journalists forget the basics due to other interests. Those interests can be corporate/business related (As with NBC and ABC News); publicity related (Here is where conflicts with advertising revenue can come in to play); related to sensationalism (I’m thinking the Manti Te’o story here); or related to immediacy (i.e. the misreporting done in the Supreme Court healthcare ruling.)

In many of these cases, we can see where the ethics of journalism have been strained, or in the case of Manti Te’o, the fundamentals of journalism were not carried out to the best of their ability. What I liked most from Deadspin’s editor-in-chief was his comment in reaction to the Boston Globe calling the website an outlet not regarded for its journalistic standards. I don’t think Tommy Craggs could have had a better response:

“Whatever. Why should I care what a craven, slipshod outfit like the Boston Globe thinks of my ‘journalistic standards.’”

I have to concur with Craggs here. Deadspin broke the story all other news outlets should have. Those are news outlets that I’m sure believe hold themselves to ‘journalistic standards’. Yet here, they clearly dropped the ball. So why can’t Deadspin be regarded as a reputable journalistic institution? Is it because it has published material a newspaper may not have? (i.e. the Brett Favre and Jenn Sterger relationship.)

As a result, people were turning to Deadspin to read about Te’o and Favre. Not ESPN or the Boston Globe. So why, even after the Te’o story, may Deadspin be thrown to the wind again and disregarded in the journalism world? I don’t think it should. It’s another example of the rapidly changing journalism world we live in today. More non-traditional outlets will be disregarded at first, only until they break a story like Manti Te’o.