Looking for some good journalism?

Here’s a shout out to the Los Angeles Times for the series it ran last week called Framed.

I’m often on the fence about narrative journalism, telling the news like a story. Sometimes it works wonderfully. Sometimes not so much. This is an example of it working really well.

I had not heard this story initially when the facts were being reported so I couldn’t wait to read the next chapter each day to see what happened. This is reporting that goes beyond the bait-click mentality; instead it tells the story in segments to add more depth rather than string readers along. I’d love to see newspapers do this more often.

So if you’re a fan of true crime and a really bizarre tale, check it out!

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And if you are a fan of newspapers and the future of journalism, check out this video on YouTube from comedian John Oliver. Be forewarned, the language is a bit colorful, but his message is spot on.

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Nothing But The Truth

Only a small portion of the blame belongs to Jackie. I’m not sure what her story is — confused young woman, courageous rape survivor, pathological liar, mentally ill? It doesn’t matter. She apparently has her own life to sort out, and while she has to face consequences for her actions — and she should — she was not the one making the commitment with the reader to tell the truth. She was not the person responsible for giving the story a green light. Rolling Stone is the one who dropped the ball, eventually having to retract its story about a violent gang rape on a college campus. And it’s a shame because the topic is one that needs to be spotlighted.

Instead, the story brings up discussions of shoddy journalism and whether Rolling Stone had an obligation to investigate all sides of the story. Now the naysayers, those who don’t believe rape is a problem in this country, are nodding their heads and saying, “See, told you so. Women lie about rape all the time.”

I don’t believe that for a minute, but Rolling Stone’s decision to use Jackie’s account without fact checking and talking to the accused makes it harder than ever for women to tell their stories. You can’t tell me that during the course of researching this story, the reporter couldn’t find a story about a rape on a college campus that could actually be verified. At least then, we could focus on the issue rather than the holes in the story. Maybe the story wouldn’t have been as sensational, but it would have been the truth.

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Here’s the thing. I know how hard it is to get the other side of the story. It is no fun to make that call to the accused and give that person, usually a very angry person, an opportunity to talk. I had to call the home of a teacher accused of inappropriate contact with two students and his MOTHER answered the phone. I thought for sure I was toast; my heart was pounding a hundred miles an hour, waiting for her to let me have it. But she had enough class to say “no comment” and hang up. So I get it, it’s scary. And it’s easy to tell yourself that the accused won’t talk anyway, but that’s not always true. We can’t start with that supposition.

I’ve had people walk into the newsroom with a compelling tale. Journalists are crusaders. We want to right wrongs. So it’s easy to take that story and run with it. But each time we hear these stories, we have to question whether or not they are true. Why? Because our readers will. People lie for all kinds of reasons, and we owe it to our readers to make sure we are sharing the truth. We don’t want egg on our faces when the story ends up being fabricated.

Several years ago, a woman come into the newsroom to talk to me about her son being bullied at school. She seemed credible, and my heart went out to her and her child. I decided to do a story on bullying. I was on very good terms with the principal at that school so when I called about the story, she asked me to come to her office for an off-the record conversation. She laid out some information that she could not share publicly. The mom was in the midst of a custody battle with the boy’s father. She had a history of being bullied herself, based on information she shared when a counselor spoke to her and her son. The principal gave me details about the incident that the mom hadn’t shared, things that made me reconsider the woman’s account. Not that she was lying, but that maybe the stress of her situation was distorting the truth. And the more I listened to the principal’s side, some things the mom had first said to me — things I had initially dismissed — suddenly took on a new focus.

I’m not sure what happened to her son, if anything. But when I left the office that day, I knew this wasn’t a good story to pursue if I wanted to write about bullying in schools. There were questions I couldn’t answer and ultimately it would put her son in a bad spot if his mom’s story wasn’t accurate. All it would take was a few people who worked at the school to poke holes in the story, and it would be a mess. But the only way I would have known was by talking to the other side. After the Rolling Stone story fell apart, the reporter mentioned inconsistencies in the story that she dismissed as not important. Had she spoken to the accused, she may have had second thoughts about the story.

Our credibility is all we have, and we owe it to readers to go into a story prepared to share all sides to the best of our ability, not take the easy route or the option that best fits with the story we want to tell. We have an obligation to thoroughly vet our motivations and our sources before putting a story in print.

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It’s frustrating that so much of journalism today is about pushing agendas, finding the most sensational story, and forgoing the presentation of a balanced account in order to be the first with the news. It’s not up to the reporter to tell the reader what to think. The reporter should present the facts — all sides — and let the reader make up his or her own mind. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the promise we make when we put a story into print or on the air.

Can Brian Williams salvage his career?

In a word … no.

At least not as the face of NBC News.

Brian Williams got caught fabricating his field coverage of the war in Iraq, which then called into question his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He danced around his fibs by calling them memory lapses.

Ummm…yeah.

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So he’s now on unpaid leave and I’m sure the network bigwigs are wringing their hands trying to figure out what to do. Before his gaffe, Williams was pretty popular with those who still tune in to the nightly news. But now? Now, I think he has to step away from his seat at the evening news desk because he broke public trust and without trust a journalist has got nothing.

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Journalism isn’t really about writing. Sure, it helps if you have a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary. But really good journalists aren’t just folks who know how to turn a phrase. They love the truth. They love it so much that they are willing to wade through the muck of politics, brave wars and natural disasters, and sit through hours of courtroom testimony to tell the public what is happening — in most cases for not much money and crappy hours. If the public thinks a journalist is full of it, well, then that reporter better just hang up his or her hat. It’s over.

Trust is a tenuous thing and it’s not easy to get it back. When I started the education beat, the paper I worked for hired a “consultant” to improve our readership score. His big idea was we shouldn’t go to local government meetings. We should follow-up the next day with the people who ran these meetings and find in-depth stories to pursue.

This is one of those things that sounds good in theory but pretty much sucks in real life. As part of this master plan, I was told to deliberately skip out on a school board meeting even though that board was in the midst of upheaval. I called the superintendent the next day and she ran down what happened at the meeting. It was all pretty generic and she didn’t offer much to pursue later. Hmmm….

My very lame followup story ran that afternoon. I was embarrassed when a reader called to chew me out because I had failed to mention the big blow up between board members over an issue that the superintendent had conveniently left out of our conversation. The reader was convinced I was in cahoots with the superintendent and that I’d lied by omission.

Ouch.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. You can bet your backside I was at the next school board meeting to see for myself what was happening. I wasn’t really mad at the superintendent. I mean, would you tell a reporter that your board was in revolt if you didn’t have to? I was mad at myself. I couldn’t really put my name on these stories if all I was going to do was be a mouthpiece for my contacts.  I needed to know the truth.

Truth matters. Whether it’s what you say or what you don’t say. You owe it to your readers to tell the truth of what happened. Not what you would have liked to have happened. Not what sounds sexy or what sells. Just the truth.

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The sad thing is that so many journalists today no longer see truth as the duty they carry. From Rolling Stones’ questionable story about a campus rape to reporters using the news for their personal agendas, truth often is no longer the goal. No wonder journalists have found themselves below bankers when it comes to public perception of honesty.

And that’s unfortunate for the future of the Fourth Estate, an industry still in a tailspin in this Internet age. Truth is the commodity that journalists sell; we can’t let a few bad apples spoil it for the rest.

 

 

 

5 Things I Learned As A Reporter

Trust me, you don’t become a reporter for the pay or the hours. Both pretty much suck. But it’s a job that has its unique set of rewards. Here are five things I learned during my time as a reporter. I could probably think of more, but this is a good start:

1. Why You Should Be A Concerned Citizen. Seriously, it really is sad how few people know what is going on in their local government. It was not unusual for me to be the only person at these public meetings. It’s hard to believe people can name the finalists on “American Idol” or know all the key players for March Madness but can’t name the elected officials on their school boards and municipal governing bodies. These people are making the decisions that will impact your future for better or for worse. Doesn’t it make sense to find out what they are doing?

2. How To Read A Property Tax Bill. This might sound stupid, but it’s amazing how many people have no idea what their tax bill means, what caused their bill to go up or down, what the assessor said their house is worth, things like that. Don’t you want to know what you are paying for?

3. Dealing With Criticism. Having a thick skin is absolutely imperative for any reporter because you will be constantly criticized for how you do your job. The trick is to learning when someone is making a good point and when that person is being a tool. Either way, you have to learn to let it go. You are going to make mistakes. Own up to them, correct what you can, then move on. But you are also going to be dealing with jerks. You have to ignore them and just do your job.

4. Be Curious. One of the best things about being a reporter is that you can ask all the questions you want without people thinking you’re a nosy twit. The best reporters are people who are lifelong learners, people who are always curious about how things work and why people do what they do. After awhile, you learn that everyone has a story or hobby or something that makes them interesting. You just have to find it.

5. How To Save. And I’m not talking about money. When you are writing your story, distracted by the witty words you are using to describe new legislation or a blowup at a city council meeting, remember to hit the darn save button frequently. Most reporters can share at least one instance when their computer locked up and they lost their entire story. The story is never as good the second time around, crafted this time by desperation as the clock is ticking away toward your deadline. Plus you’re royally ticked off that you are having to do the story again. The lesson is never trust your computer to auto save anything. Always hit the save button.

Bonus: On a related note, never trust your computer’s spell check to save you from embarrassing gaffes. You have to proofread. Otherwise, your report may say a car drove into the bitch rather than the ditch. (Yes, this really happened!) Not cool.

It’s Not Personal — Part I

I’m in my last week of working at the newspaper where I’ve been employed for more than a decade (both full and part time). Today I had two encounters with the public that reminded me of a truth many outside the newspaper business don’t understand: it’s not personal.

Though there are exceptions, reporters in small local markets rarely take aim at an individual, either to promote him or her or disgrace that person. We just do our jobs, reporting the facts, uncovering the background, sharing information so the public can understand.

And we try to do that consistently. The Associated Press publishes a style guide that most newspapers use as a starting point to establishing their own styles and policies. Of course, individual papers can follow or ignore AP recommendations on everything from how to write an address to military titles to whether to capitalize academic degrees. The book reads like a dictionary but it is something we refer to often, like when you need to know whether or not to abbreviate a reference to the state of Texas.

As the education reporter, I process a lot of briefs about students and adults in schools, from preschool to graduate school. These items are submitted by the public and I will hammer out these briefs to align with our newspaper’s style.

Today, a man came to see me who was upset that I removed the title “Dr.” before his name in the brief he submitted. AP Style recommends using Dr. only before someone with a medical degree; we have chosen to follow that recommendation. He felt  I personally was disregarding the many years he’d taken to earn that doctorate when I removed the title. I tried to explain it was our style. But for him, it was personal and he was angry.

I tried not to smile. I have written thousands of articles that have mentioned people with a doctorate and not once used the title in order to remain consistent with our style. It certainly wasn’t personal. He plans to come back and talk to my boss next week when he returns from vacation but I doubt he’ll win that battle. And in that case, again, it won’t be personal.

When I got back to my desk, I had an email from a woman who works at one of our school districts. She needed help getting her anniversary notice in the paper and I had simply forwarded it to the right person. I did almost nothing for her and it’s something I would do for anyone, even a stranger.

But she took the time to send me a very nice note, thanking me for my help. She felt like I’d given her special treatment, but really it wasn’t personal. It was just my job. I’m glad her anniversary notice ran, these kinds of item are the bread and butter of a small-town paper. But I treated her the same as anyone else.

It struck me as strange that within a period of 10 minutes, I had two readers assume I had made an issue personal, when in fact I hadn’t. Of course, I won’t lie, I enjoyed the latter experience much more than the former.