Wednesday, March 26, 2008

In soldiers' words

Yesterday's New York Times ran an interesting article based on excerpts from the blogs/letters of troops killed in Iraq. I enjoyed reading it but had one problem; in the writings of one of the men, certain words have been replaced with the word "expletive." I said this in my post about the FCC, but I am strongly opposed to this type of editing. If we are supposed to be reading something that will paint an accurate picture of what this young man was feeling when he was at war, we should read all of his words, just as they are. The words used (I can't quite tell what the offending word was, but I imagine it's probably "THE" word.) carry a specific emotional power and papers should be willing to run those words. People will argue that children might read the paper, but as I said in my previous post, children who are mature enough to want to read the New York Times are mature enough to read a few bad words without running out in the streets repeating them. The editors may say they don't want to offend other readers who choose not to use those words; others would argue that the war is offensive. People who read this article and would have been offended by the expletives should ask themselves what their real priorities are. Of course there's a point at which language crosses the line — I'm not arguing for graphic descriptions of sexual acts — but the two posts in question use a word for emphasis, that frankly, I think is important in the context (bold italics added by me to point out what I'm talking about):

Sgt. Ryan M. Wood, 22, a gifted artist, prolific writer and a sly romantic from Oklahoma, was also one of the bluntest soldiers inside Charlie Company.

"it is fighting extreme boredom with the lingering thought in the forefront of your mind that any minute on this patrol could be my last endeavour, only highlighted by times of such extreme terror and an adrenaline rush that no drug can touch. what [expletive] circumstances thinking “that should’ve been me” or “it could’ve been me”. wondering it that pile of trash will suddenly explode killing you or worse one of your beloved comrads..only backed by the past thoughts and experiences of really losing friends of yours and not feeling completely hopeless that it was all for nothing because all in all, you know the final outcome of this war. it is walking on that thin line between sanity and insanity. that feeling of total abandonment by a government and a country you used to love because politics are fighting this war......and its a losing battle....and we’re the ones ultimently paying the price."

A second excerpt, written by the same man, discusses America's obsession with celebrity life instead of issues such as the war in a post titled "What the Hell, America?":

“What the hell happened?” any intelligent American might ask themselves throughout their day. While the ignorant, dragging themselves to thier closed off cubicle, contemplate the simple things in life such as “fast food tonight?” or “I wonder what motivated Brittany Spears to shave her unsightly, mishaped domepiece?”

To the simpleton, this news might appear “devastating.” I assume not everyone thinks this way, but from my little corner of the earth, Iraq, a spot in the world a majority of Americans could’nt point out on the map, it certainly appears so. ... To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. ... This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

God forbid people should know that a young man living (and eventually dying) in a terrifying, stressful situation express his frustration with an "F-bomb" or two. These posts are honest depictions of the emotions this man was feeling at the time.

If the powers that be at the paper respect/mourn these soldiers enough to want to publish their words, the words should not be edited. I don't advocate random, gratuitous use of obscenities in print, but this is one case where they should have been allowed.

And here is the rest of it.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Creating fake news

My e-mail from the Romenesko column this morning had a link to a story on how the writers at The Onion come up with their stories. Interesting stuff.


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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Supreme Court to hear FCC case

A couple of days late on this one, but the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of FCC v. Fox Television Stations . In the suit, Fox is challenging the FCC policy that fines radio or television networks for even fleeting, accidental cases of obscene words being uttered on air during the day. The case stems from incidents in which Cher and Nicole Richie (I question the Post's description of Richie as "a celebrity," but that's another topic entirely) said what the Post article refers to as "variations of a vulgar four-letter word."

The case, which will be heard in the fall, will be the Court's first major ruling on broadcast indecency rules since the 1978 FCC v. Pacifica Foundation. That case punished a radio station for airing George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" monologue.

I'm very interested in this ruling. While I understand the need for basic broadcast rules and understand that airing shows with "vulgar" language at times when children could be watching isn't necessarily appropriate or necessary, I also believe that sometimes people say "bad" words when they are emotional and stations shouldn't face heavy fines for it. The cases mentioned in the article deal with celebrities saying one word in the context of winning an award. The word in question, referred to in "A Christmas Story" as "The F dash dash dash word," isn't meant to refer to a sexual act when used in that context. It's used for emphasis and sometimes, it just slips out. The question of whether stations should face enormous fines when someone slips up on an awards show or during a sporting event is an interesting one. ...

The Washington Post article I linked mentions an incident in 2004 in which television stations decided not to air "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day because of fears that the movie's language could lead to FCC fines. The FCC refused to say before hand whether the stations would be fined . In 2005, the FCC ruled that the movie was not indecent, a decision I absolutely agree with.

My argument at the time was (and still is) that stations should have been able to air the film without fear of retribution. The language is necessary in the historical context of the film, and editing out the "obscenities" would make it less realistic. A romantic comedy with edited language is still funny; a war film in which soldiers say "darn" or "freaking" does not paint an accurate picture of what would really happen in the war zone.

A few weeks ago, Jane Fonda had to apologize for using the word "cunt" during a live broadcast of "The Today Show." She used the word because it is the title of a piece she was performing in her role in "The Vagina Monologues." I'm using it because I think that banning words only gives them more power and refusing to print a word even in the context of a conversation about that word is illogical. Whenever someone slips a curse word on TV or a politician refers to another leader with less-than-polite language, media struggle to report the "story" without actually saying or printing the word in question. The question we should be asking, and what I think the Supreme Court will address, is whether or not words used accidentally or in the context of the title of the show the person is promoting should mean huge fines and hurried apologies.

While it is true that parents can't control what their children hear on live television, kids are just as likely to hear cuss words out and about in town as they are from a celebrity or politician who lets one slip on TV. Having an open an honest discussion with your child about which words are and are not appropriate to say in public (or in your home) seems a much better approach. The more shame and stigma placed on a behavior, the more interesting it seems to a kid.

Although the rules against airing certain words are meant to protect children, it is ludicrous to think that a child who is mature enough to watch "Saving Private Ryan" is not also mature enough to hear the language without suffering some type of irreparable damage. I've always argued that the same thing goes for the limited use of obscenities in newspapers — kids who are old enough to want to read the newspaper are old enough to know that you don't just run down the street screaming bad words at the top of your lungs.

Because it's funny, related to the last Supreme Court ruling on this issue, and because I believe in free speech, I present to you, George Carlin with a grammar nerd's version of "the seven dirty words you can't say on television." If you aren't familiar with this, you should be aware that it is potentially offensive and NOT SAFE FOR WORK.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Interesting story of the day #3

Time has an interesting story up about whether journalists should be open about their political party affiliations or even vote at all. The writer argues that although journalists generally hide their party affiliations or candidate preferences in the interest of remaining objective, transparency may be a better way to go. He argues that treating party affiliation as though it's something people should be ashamed of only makes people more suspicious of the so-called "liberal" media.

But more suspicious than they are already? The biggest reason to go open kimono is that the present system does what journalism should never do: it perpetuates a lie. Modern political journalism is based on the bogus concept of neutrality (that people can be steeped in campaigns yet not care who wins) and the legitimate ideal of fairness (that people can place intellectual integrity and rigor over their rooting interests). Voting and disclosing would expose the sham of neutrality—which few believe anyway—and compel opinion and news writers alike to prove, story by story, that fairness is possible anyway

I often say to friends, semi-seriously, that I picked a bad time to become an "objective" reporter. I've always been a person with strong political convictions, and up until I came back to school, I was extremely vocal about my beliefs. Entering the field in an election year, particularly one with so many interesting candidates and issues, makes it hard for me to keep my opinions to myself. I took most of the bumper stickers off my car, made my profiles on social networking sites private (and removed most answers to political questions), and stopped using my real name to comment on political Web sites. My political affiliation isn't exactly a secret. All of my friends know who I support and anyone who wanted to dig deep enough into a Google search of my name would find things from previous election years that would give it away. My party affiliation is clear on my voter registration card that anyone can view down at the county elections office. But in the interest of finding a job and gaining the trust of sources and readers, I want to be careful about what I disclose.

I am absolutely capable of writing honest, accurate stories on any topic or person. When I covered politics for the Emerald, people often told me my stories were fair and objective, but I certainly had opinions on those topics. I am careful to keep my opinion out of stories and I have no doubts that I can leave my beliefs at the home when I go to work. If asked what my affiliation is, I won't lie, but I don't need to wear it on my sleeve. I have given this issue extensive thought, though, and I am glad to read an article arguing some of the same feelings I have about politics and journalism ...

I've argued for years that the concept that journalists are 100 percent objective is ludicrous. Human beings, by their very nature, can not be truly objective. Journalists, especially those who cover beats, become so familiar with the topics they cover that it would be nearly impossible to avoid forming an opinion. Our goal is to pursue the truth, and the truth is not always objective.

While some journalists choose not to vote at all, I would argue that journalists, more than anyone else, have an obligation to vote. Even those of us who do not report on politics tend to follow the news more closely than the average citizen. If the goal of the media is to act as a fourth estate in order to make sure citizens can make informed decisions at the voting booth, then it only makes sense to argue that journalists, especially those of us who cover politics, are among the most informed voters out there. We know more about these issues (and we pay more attention to all sides of the issues) than almost anyone, and it seems unrealistic and naive for anyone to expect us to remain completely neutral after sorting through all that information. Should we be expected to give up our rights and responsibilities as citizens when we begin working as journalists?

As someone who lives in a democratic society, I consider voting to be a civic duty. As a journalist and person who follows the news very closely, I would consider myself to be an irresponsible citizen if I did not put my knowledge of politics to use when I vote.

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Interesting story of the day #2

Another column I found through a link in my morning e-mail from Poynter discusses what rules, if any, newspapers should have regarding online comments. In the guest column in the Miami Herald, Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, writes about the problems editors face with anonymous commenting. While most editors would never even consider running an anonymous letter to the editor, he writes, many also argue that restraining the speech of anonymous comments online would chase readers away. Wasserman argues that rules are needed, in part because the more aggressive, angry comments tend to drive away those who don't want to be attacked, actually harming the discussion.

In this case, the extreme license given individuals to vent, dissemble, excoriate and indulge their hates verbally, winds up destroying the expressive freedom that other people, less bold and less opinionated, need. Venturing an opinion, even a sound one, just isn't worth the risk. The overall result is a less expansive, less robust sphere of expression -- and sound, worthwhile thoughts aren't shared.

After working at a small college paper and reading the comments on most stories, I couldn't agree more that comments need some kind of regulation. At the Emerald, we used to approve every comment; now most are approved automatically. Most of the time, this isn't a problem. We have a few regulars who leave the same types of predictable comments on every story, and few of our articles lead to much discussion. Occasionally, however, one article will bring us more attention than we would ever have expected, and it leads me to question how much important discussion is actually encouraged by the story comments. ...

This year, a column on wrestling drew nearly 800 comments and drew more hits to our Web site than we've ever had, and more than 100 more were deleted because they were too offensive or vitriolic to run. It's interesting that of all the articles we've published that I think are the most important, the column in question garnered hundreds of comments, many of which were nothing more than insults directed at the writer. Earlier this year, a satirical column about Japanese anime got hundreds of comments, most of which were simply attempts to prove that certain story lines in the shows disproved the writer's point. A story about the dismissal of two popular administrators with no explanation, however, got just 46 comments. I rarely read the comment fields on other newspaper sites. I find that the stories I actually care about have very few comments. I also avoid them for some of the reasons Wasserman brings up — I find that argumentative, hateful posters make it impossible to have a real discussion.

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Interesting story of the day #1

In class Thursday, Rich Gordon spoke to us via teleconference about the exciting possibilities the Internet offers journalism. The entire point of the class has been to study how we can use computers and the Internet to enhance our reporting. In today's morning e-mail from Poynter, there was a link to a great investigative series from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that exemplifies how multimedia can enhance a story. The series looks at the number of fugitives nationwide who are free (and some of them still committing crimes) because states don't enter warrants into the FBI's fugitive database. The online version of the series is packaged together with breakouts of the data, a section on how the series was done, and videos and graphics. It also has an interesting feature that places pictures of some of the fugitives below a map of the U.S. that traces the path of each fugitive throughout the country. The content of the stories is fascinating (and scary), but the package is noteworthy because of how well it utilizes the types of tools newspapers are now embracing.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

The new era of journalism

In Thursday's class, we spoke with Rich Gordon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Gordon talked about the way technology is changing the newspaper industry. We had read an article Gordon wrote several years ago for Online Journalism Review in which he asserts that technological development makes it an exciting time to work in journalism. In his conference call with us, Gordon said that what matters right now is not whether the big corporations survive the changes in the industry, but whether journalists can continue to provide citizens with the information they need for a democratic society to function.

He pointed out that while sales and circulation of papers are down, the Internet is not to blame because circulation has been flat for decades. It is the business model of daily print papers that is deteriorating and in fact, more people are reading the news than ever before, he said. I hope this is true, but I am still going down kicking and screaming. I love what the Internet can do for journalism, and I love knowing that people around the world can read my work, but for me, nothing will replace the experience of spreading the real newspaper out in front of me and reading while drinking a cup of tea (usually having to stop every few minutes because the cat is lying on the paper).

As we did in last week's teleconference with Mark Briggs, we discussed the way our generation will be affected by these new technologies. Gordon said that it will be today's students (and graduates) who will develop new business models and new jobs within the industry. Like Briggs, Gordon said that the key for us is to have the skills for entry-level reporting and editing jobs but also be adaptable to learn the new tools of the industry. ...

Without even being asked, Gordon did acknowledge the one thing that makes me anxious when I hear people who are working in the industry (or who, like Gordon, are now teaching) talk about what is happening in the industry now. It's easy for those people who have jobs to say that this is an exciting time for journalists. I agree that there are exciting possibilities. It is not, however, an exciting time to be looking for newspaper jobs. I'm sure they're out there, and I am confident in my abilities; but it's scary to hear people talk about the decline of the industry. I remember being at my internship in Washington, D.C., and joking with my boss about how we'll all wind up working at a certain "big box" store when the industry crashes. My response was that if I can't be a journalist, I'll get a doctorate and become an English professor. All that being said, I'm encouraged to hear that not everyone thinks the future is so bleak. I hope Gordon is right in his assertion that keeping journalism alive is all a matter of developing new business models. I just hope the public is on board and continues to ask for (and respect) the type of journalism that I want to do.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

"Crowd Sourcing"

A second article we read in class this week, by Emily Yahr, discussed "crowd sourcing," the practice of asking readers/viewers to send in their own stories about what is happening. The author of the article linked above writes about the Des Moines Register's use of crowd sourcing to find out where people were when the Interstate 35 W bridge in Minnesota collapsed. On this blog, I've linked the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's interactive feature in which you can read the stories of the people in every car on the bridge that day. This information was gathered in part through the type of crowd sourcing discussed in Yahr's article. The main page contains a link asking visitors to the site to help the paper fill in the missing details. You can listen to the audio interviews with several of the survivors and read about the lives of the victims.

Even before I read Yahr's article, I thought of the Star-Tribune site. I think I've mentioned it before in reference to how technology can enhance reporting. Gathering information such as this while an event is happening can paint such a vivid picture afterward.

While I understand and share some of the concerns about people responding to inquiries not being honest about who they are, I think the Web and technologies such as cell phone videos can really enhance reporting and add real human elements to the story. Reporters often are present for the aftermath of a disaster, but being there right in the thick of things gives a much different picture of the story. Videos and posts sent right from the scene are so much more meaningful than interviews done after the fact, when the shock of things affects the memory of the subjects.

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It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood

As a college journalist, I’ve spent the past two years writing extremely “localized” stories. With the exception of some city, state and federal political coverage, everything we publish must be relevant to students. With 20,000 students on a 295-acre campus, the University is like its own very large neighborhood. While the sight of a fire engine racing up the main street near my house is only mildly interesting, the sight on campus makes me stop what I’m doing to follow the truck and see what is going on.

After spending so much time looking for such narrow angles on my stories, the idea of “hyperlocal” reporting is intriguing. In the first class I took as a graduate student, we were assigned specific neighborhoods to explore; many of my classmates came up with really interesting stories simply by walking around areas such as the Trainsong or Whitaker neighborhoods.

In the article linked above, Donna Shaw talks about what happens when larger paper take on this idea. She quotes a man, who is working to develop this type of site for the Washington Post. This fascinates me, and I think a place like D.C. is the perfect example of where this type of reporting can get really interesting. ...

One of the things I loved about Washington, D.C., was the diversity between neighborhoods and the characters you ran into. I would love to find individuals in the different neighborhoods and learn about them.

I lived on Capitol Hill, across the street from the building Samuel Alito lived in during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and just two blocks from the Capitol. I was told that Barack Obama and John Ashcroft also lived in my neighborhood. About five blocks north of my apartment, a man named Peter Bis lives on a corner between a gas station and Union Station. At night, he moves down the block and campus out in front of a bagel shop. Peter is very friendly. He never asked me for money, but wished me a “Happy Monday” (or Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, etc.) every morning when I passed him on my way to work. He gave me a business card with the URL for a blog where he posts conspiracy theories about the government (A former D.C. intern has a great blog post about Peter ).

I would absolutely love to return to D.C. and sit down for some interviews with Peter. He is probably well-known to many people in D.C., but that is a man is truly IN a neighborhood. He sees everyone who passes through from Capitol Hill. He’s out there every day, on the street. He’s quite a fascinating character, and I considered him to be one of my neighbors. The experience of that neighborhood wouldn’t have been as rich without seeing a person like him everyday. I really do regret that I didn’t take the time to really sit down and talk to him.
What does it say that so close to the Capitol, there are people living on the street? The building I lived in was intern housing, but if I had to live in the District again, I’d want to live in the same area. When your neighbors include U.S. Senators and the occasional Supreme Court Justice, how do you interact and build relationships? .

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Journalism 2.0"

On Thursday, Mark Briggs, the assistant managing editor for interactive news at the Tacoma News Tribune and the author of "Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive: A digital literacy guide for the information age," spoke to our class via teleconference.

Briggs took questions from the class and discussed the importance of new journalists understanding the technologies that newspapers are beginning to adopt. While this is something we have been told by our professors for years, hearing it from someone working in the field makes me feel that all of the computer courses I have taken were worth the time and money.

Listening to Briggs talk about the importance of Internet skills made me think about the work I have done in journalism. When I began working on my high school paper as a freshman, the Internet was still new and exciting. Only the kids with really cool/rich parents had the Internet at home, always on the super-fast 14K dial-up modems of the day. The school I went to was years away from even having computers that could handle the Internet, let alone providing the service to students. We still did our page layouts the old-fashioned way — by printing out the pages and pasting the individual page elements onto the page dummies (While other students preferred plain Elemer's glue, my favorite was the clear rubber cement with the brush applicator). I remember how excited we were when the publisher began accepting our page proofs on a disk and the days of dealing with real scissors and paste were over. It amazes me to see how far the process has come in just the nine years since I finished high school.

And here is the rest of it.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Media blackouts

Earlier this week, news broke that Prince Harry has been serving in Afghanistan with the British army and that the media knew about it but had agreed to withhold the story until after the deployment was over. He has since returned home from the mission because once the new broke, it was determined that it would not be safe for him to remain there. I'll admit that I saw the report about Harry on CNN while I was getting dressed Thursday morning and did not pay much attention. The news broke too late to make my paper edition of The New York Times, and frankly, I don't care much about the royal family, so I didn't read any of the stories online. Somehow, I missed the part of the CNN broadcast where they reported on the side of the story that should interest me as a journalist.

My classmate Kate posted about this on Thursday, which is what prompted me to go check the story out for myself (I haven't read the Drudge Report yet). I did head over to Poynter Online to see if the writers of "Everyday Ethics" had anything to say. I was happy to find that Bob Steele did write an article on the media's agreement with the miliatry . ...

brings up several things I did not know after reading about this only in passing. My biggest concern was whether the media should be revealing where Prince Harry was stationed, given the danger to his fellow soldiers (less of an issue now that he's returned home). Steele's focus is mainly on whether the media had justification for agreeing to withhold information for so long (four to six months).

Steele's main argument is something that I had missed. Apparently, the prince was deployed only AFTER the media agreed to keep it a secret, and the British military promised that the prince would be available for interviews that could be made public after his deployment:

My primary concern is with the news organizations that played along with this secret deal.

Especially when you add in a revealing quid pro quo piece of the puzzle, any arguments for ethical responsibility further erode. In exchange for the media's silence, the British military agreed to provide the news organizations with favored treatment

As Satchwell wrote in The Guardian, “In return there would be special access for the media to the prince before, during and after his deployment which could be reported when he returned home, without any interference by the Royal family or the military except for reasons of operational security.”

Trading secrecy for access. That stinks.

It gets worse. More from Satchwell: “It was an extraordinary and rare display of unity for national and regional newspaper and magazine editors and broadcasters not to report the story.”

Unity? Hardly. It sounds more like a conspiratorial cabal.

Hiding behind false logic, the news organizations involved in this deal failed their readers and viewers and delivered a serious hit to the principle of journalistic independence.

So. The question is, is there ever a time at which journalists should agree to withhold a story for such a long period of time? I definitely agree with Steele that journalists should never come to such an agreement with any source, but I still think it is important to ask whether the public's right to know that the Prince is in Afghanistan outweighs the security risk posed by revealing the information.

I agree that the media's motives in making a deal are highly suspect, but would this be worse if the media had said "We care about the safety of the soldiers and we will not accept bribes, but we will withhold the story?" Journalists are never supposed to accept any type of gifts or special treatment from sources, but I wonder which is worse: the potential harm to those deployed with Prince Harry or the harm to the profession from "trading secrecy for access."

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Getting the story

There's an interesting article on Vanity Fair's Web site about a reporter's quest to verify a claim that a man named Jack Worthington is John F. Kennedy's son . It's a fairly long story, most of which is devoted to explaining what the reporter went through trying to obtain information that would verify different aspects of the story, including whether or not Worthington's mother actually knew JFK. In this case, it didn't pan out because there was no way to obtain DNA samples from either JFK or the man who raised Jack Worthington — the reporter did obtain hair samples supposedly from JFK, but there was no way to prove that's what the were — but it's an interesting look at the process the writer went through chasing down the story.

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