Anonymous Sources are Degrading Journalism, and Government Accountability

It’s one of the sexiest things in journalism: The anonymous source. It conjures images of late-night meetings in parking garages, voice modulators and intrigue. The fact that someone feels the need to be protected makes their information feel more valuable. Continue reading “Anonymous Sources are Degrading Journalism, and Government Accountability”

Is ‘Serial’ Journalism?

In a word: Yes.

(Note: If you don’t know what Serial is – first of all welcome to the Internet – and come back in 10 hours when you’ve finished listening.)

I’m putting this here because I think Serial’s success has perked up a lot of journalists’ ears (especially if they are, like me, in radio) and made them think about what they can take from Serial and apply to their own work.

Media critic (and my former professor) Dan Kennedy posted a commentary on his blog by journalist Brian C. Jones that makes an interesting argument that Serial isn’t journalism because it launched before the journalist involved – This American Life’s Sarah Koenig – knew what the outcome would be.

My objection is that when the reporting phase is exhausted, it’s crucial to understand what kind of a story it is, and maybe whether it is a story at all. At the very least, the writer has to be honest with listeners as to the “why” of the story.

Jones’ problem, he writes, is that Koenig is one episode away from the conclusion of her look into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and it seems likely she won’t have a “He did it!” or “He’s innocent!” conclusion to cap it all off. Not doing so, he argues, just causes a lot of harm to everyone involved in the case and doesn’t really accomplish anything. Therefore, he says, it’s voyeurism and not journalism.

Last week Koenig read from a letter from the defendant saying that his psyche has been bruised by her persistent questioning of his character. I imagine some prosecutors, cops and others whose work has been scrutinized feel the same.

I disagree with the argument that this disqualifies Serial from being journalism.

While I have sympathy for the family of the victim and the defendant with respect to the pain of being in the spotlight, I think Jones’ criticism is off the mark. To condemn a journalist for scrutinizing the work of police and prosecutor, and for the discomfort that’s caused, is to condemn accountability journalism. Accountability journalism is never comfortable when done well, and it shouldn’t have to be. Public officials – both the law and society in general agree – are and should be subject to greater scrutiny.

As to the harm caused to Adnan by digging into this case – Jones is right, it must be difficult. But (guilty or not) he was convicted of killing a girl. Is that not more harmful to his reputation or emotional health than anything Koenig ever could do? Does the outcome of her reporting (or lack thereof) somehow retroactively change the calculus here?

Journalists spend every day asking difficult questions and making people uncomfortable. Much of the time, especially for investigative journalists, this never pans out. That’s okay. But is it suddenly not journalistic work if they then publish their findings, painstakingly taking the time to note all the things they’re not sure about.

The only real difference between investigative reporting and what Koenig has done here is that the things that don’t pan out generally don’t go public, because it would require far too much ink or air time or pixels to say “we checked this out and there are a bunch of caveats but we still have questions.” But this is a podcast dedicated to exactly that, and Koenig openly acknowledges the weaknesses in what she’s found as well as the emotional difficulty involved in this digging – the criticism mentions Koenig’s own disclosure as evidence against her.

To say it’s not journalism because there isn’t a clear “why” is overly simplistic. Journalism is about creating a more informed public and moving conversations forward, and Koenig has done that.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Jones.

New job: VPR Digital Reporter

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the news team at Vermont Public Radio as their digital reporter.

As news consumers move online for their content, many organizations, including VPR, have made a great effort to create robust and user-friendly web outlets. At VPR, they decided the next step was to hire a reporter to focus on digital-first news stories. That means the majority of my work will be published online, either in collaboration with VPR’s experienced  radio reporters or based on my own original reporting in the Chittenden County area.

I have long admired VPR’s dedication to excellence in journalism and commitment to the exciting developments in digital journalism, and I’m thrilled to be joining them in their efforts in early September.

Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

I wrote a piece for Media Nation, which is Northeastern Professor Dan Kennedy’s blog, about my experience covering the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt in Watertown later in the week. You can check that out above.

Media Nation

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

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Some hockey coverage

I got the privilege of covering some Northeastern women’s hockey games this past weekend when The Huntington News’ normal beat writer was unable to make a pair of games. It was a fun change of scenery.

The then-No. 7 Northeastern women’s hockey team left nothing up to chance this weekend as it blew by the University of New Hampshire Wildcats 8-0 Saturday and the University of Vermont Catamounts 5-1 Sunday.

The team’s first offensive line had an especially productive weekend, scoring nine of the 13 Huskies goals, including two hat tricks.

Junior forward Casey Pickett scored a hat trick on Saturday and freshman Kendall Coyne put together three of her own goals Sunday, the Huskies’ first two hat tricks of the season and the first of Coyne’s career.

The Saturday game was a historic one for both teams as it was covered live on ESPN 3, making it the first-ever women’s hockey game on an ESPN station. A record crowd of 1,227 attended.

Read the rest at HuntNewsNU.com.

In Haiti, a health care oasis

Image

I wrote for Haiti Rewired about a new hospital in Central Haiti, finishing construction this year.

MIREBALAIS, Haiti – Officials and builders from Haiti, The Dominican Republic, and the United States gathered here Tuesday to celebrate the completion of phase one of construction on the Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital. The 320-bed facility, located just outside downtown Mirebalais, is the result of a collaborative effort between the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) and Partners in Health, an American non-profit focused on international public health.

Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health, spoke at the event about his first time in Haiti as a young medical student in 1983.

“The first year, let me tell you, was a terrible experience medically,” he said. Farmer recalled the disappointment he felt when he visited a clinic he was involved with. “[It was terrible] to go into a clinic that you were actually involved in running, as I was, and supporting, as I did ardently, but see that the quality of care was so poor that it would be a better idea to shut the clinic down, which is what we did.”

Farmer said that first year inspired a dream, which is being realized by the new hospital in Mirebalais.

Read the full article on Haiti Rewired.

New England independent news

During the Spring 2011 semester, I wrote for the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s e-Bulletin about independent online news sites around New England.

Disclosure: After I submitted this story to the e-Bulletin, I secured an internship with Anne Galloway at VTDigger.org. No plans were in place for that internship prior to or during my reporting for this story.

The story: Continue reading “New England independent news”

VTDigger wrap up

The entrance to the VTDigger offices in Montpelier, Vt.

My first story for VTDigger.org ran on May 11, 2011. Twelve weeks, 37 bylines, and 25,000 words later, my internship is finished.

I’m not in journalism because I aspired as a young boy to spend my mornings in the Vermont State House covering three-hour policy meetings and listening as lawyers debated for over 30 minutes the meaning of a single phrase.

But walking the streets of Montpelier and the hallways of state office buildings or wherever our governor’s next press conference might be, I learned my state from a different angle. One hopes that politicians see issues from the same side of an issue as everyone else, but they don’t. Lawmakers and lawyers will fight over the meaning of one simple phrase for 30 minutes because while it’s only a phrase to me, it’s the quality of life of hundreds or thousands of people who look to them, the government, for an answer.

I learned to see the governor, one of only fifty in America (an obvious fact that still brings me pause every time I step into the room with him), is human. A man who can make mistakes, but more importantly, make decisions because he feels in his gut – without always looking at numbers or bulleted lists or commission reports – that people need this. I grew up 0.47 miles from the governor’s office, but it took me 21 years and the right internship to realize this.

If I had to guess how many times I heard my editor, Anne Galloway, say “If you only take away one thing from this summer…” it’s definitely be more than just the once. But if I only take one thing away from this summer, really, it’s that no matter how much research I do, how many interviews I conduct, or how many meetings I attend, I’ll never write the perfect story. Writing alongside my fellow intern Eli Sherman (literally – we shared a desk), Anne, and the other journalists covering Vermont policy and politics, I saw stories written three different ways about the same thing. And I saw stories about three different things all come from a single event. Sometimes I’d see a story about an event I’d passed up and realize it would have been the best story I wrote all summer. The good stories aren’t always where you expect them, and the good become the best sometimes by chance and sometimes because of that one extra phone call.

People on the outside of VTDigger know Anne by her byline, the back of her head in press conference footage on the local evening news, or her phone calls. The only way to truly know an editor, though, is by dragging your chair into their office, sitting over their shoulder, and watching them tear apart – with a precision that to the untrained eye looks remarkably similar to reckless abandon – your day’s work. It took me a good few weeks to write a lede (the first sentence of a story) that Anne didn’t promptly delete. It was painful to watch much of the time, but the education I got looking over Anne’s shoulder as she restructured and reworked my stories was the best journalistic education I’ve had so far. And I go to a journalism school for upwards of $40,000 a year. Anne has an uncanny precision and ability to articulate exactly what the story is without sounding too convoluted or worse: making an incorrect statement in an effort to be direct. I feel lucky to have written for her this summer.

I learned more about photojournalism than I thought there was to know in the arena of taking pictures of press conferences and political meetings from Josh Larkin, VTDigger’s head honcho of technology, design, and photo (and cool hats, but he doesn’t put that on the business cards).

The newsroom, despite being roughly the same size as some of the jail cells we saw on our prison tour of Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., was the best place I’ve ever worked. Walking in every morning, I was ready for something new and different. Almost every morning, I got it. From prison tours to digital nature walks to press conferences with the governor, every day was a new experience. If I began my summer with any doubt in my mind that I want to spend my life as a journalist, it has since disappeared.

Press Association Event Preview

From the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s online bulletin (second one down):

‘Copy editing basics for today’s (multiplatform) newspapers’

James Franklin began his career almost 40 years ago as a copy editor at The Boston Globe, in a much different news-media environment.

Now, as assistant night editor at the Globe, Franklin is responsible for supervising and training editors.

In a presentation scheduled for 3:45 to 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention, Franklin and a panel of Boston Globe colleagues will talk about methods for copy editing in today’s newsrooms.

“We’re going to be talking about catches, lack of information, and misinformation,” among other things, Franklin said. “They’re the fundamental work of copy editing.”

Using anecdotes from their experiences, the panelists will discuss what can go wrong in copy editing as well as ways to fix those shortcomings and prevent copy editors from harming a story, Franklin said.

Franklin himself will talk about last-minute corrections.

“You have very little latitude in order to make the fixes,” he said. “Sometimes copy editors make (a problem) worse in trying to fix something.”

Preventing errors while still fixing an initial problem is a fine line to walk, Franklin said. He said he hopes that the session will help copy editors understand potential problems and teach them how to avoid those problems while improving a story overall.

In a second session scheduled for 9 to 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, Franklin will lead a discussion on the training of copy editors. In today’s rapidly evolving media environment, it is important to teach an adaptable skill set, Franklin said.

One way to improve training is to have more resources available to New England copy editors, Franklin said. He noted that although the American Copy Editors Association is active in many regions of the country, it is relatively inactive in the Northeast. Franklin said he hopes to discuss how to bring more training resources to the region’s copy editors to help them work in today’s news environment.

“We have to keep the papers at the same level of quality while we focus and spend more time on the electronic products,” Franklin said.

WikiLeaks is Journalism

In the flurry of media coverage around WikiLeaks recently, the question of the organization’s status as a journalistic entity has risen. One needn’t look beyond “Fox News” to see the breadth of this country’s definition of news and journalism. If Fox News can be at all considered journalism, WikiLeaks is a shoe-in. Even if Fox News is left out of the picture, WikiLeaks is quite clearly a journalistic organization.

WikiLeaks’ role in the production of news is very different from that of a traditional news organization. As opposed to outlets like The New York Times or The Guardian, WikiLeaks isn’t concerned with breaking the most recent stories of general, but publishing in-depth original documents which journalists and the general public can analyze and draw conclusions about.

Continue reading “WikiLeaks is Journalism”