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Posts Tagged ‘journalism ethics’

Should Reporters Burn Bridges (Hastings And McChrystal) Or Stay Mum To Retain Access?

In Media, the military on June 28, 2010 at 8:15 am
Jamie McIntyre

Jamie McIntyre.Image via Wikipedia

This was the question debated yesterday on “On The Media”, a weekly show on NPR — should Michael Hastings (a True/Slant writer) have told McChrystal’s story in all its gory, insubordinate detail?

The show interviewed Jamie McIntyre, a former Pentagon correspondent, who lauded Hastings for his work, but raised the larger question every reporter knows — trading off not reporting everything you see and hear (racist or stupid or off-color or sexist remarks) while covering a beat (a specialty area) in order for your sources to remain comfortable with you and confident you won’t make them look bad publicly. Then, the deal goes, they will tell you important things, maybe first, maybe even exclusively.

McIntyre called it, which it is, reporters’ “dirty little secret.”

The trade-off is short-term pain (keeping your mouth shut) for long-term gain (scoops.)

Is this a good idea? Bad idea?

For any reporter who needs access to sources, as any beat reporter does, it’s like asking if they should take notes or return calls. You can’t torch every bridge the minute you’ve crossed it. Not only will you never be able to access that source again, but you’ve scared off all your others: if s/he did it to them, why wouldn’t they do it to me as well?

Part of the drama, for journalists, is feeling annoyed that Hastings broke the rules…David Brooks slapped his wrist in The New York Times for participating in a “culture of exposure.” (So much better than the how they play inside the Beltway?):

During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

Brooks candidly admits he couldn’t do his job without keeping mum. Most writers with any serious access know these unwritten, unspoken rules. They play by them.

Perhaps most importantly, they savage those too stupid, bold or naive to break them.

Pack journalism, which denotes the safety of traveling in numbers, also reflects another reality: like a posse of wolves, they can, and will, turn on the maverick among them and tear them to shreds for their temerity for breaking from the pack and its group behaviors.

(I lived through this, at Michael’s age, when I wrote two front-page stories about Queen Elizabeth, who I had followed on tour for two weeks, for The Globe and Mail. An enormous international press pack had followed her, as I had. But in both of these stories, I said and reported things that breached standard protocol — and was pilloried for it. I knew some of my competitors were getting their butts kicked hard for not reporting as I had, so it was an easy out to accuse me of lying and making some of it up. I have never felt so much professional stress, then or since.)

Here’s another take on it:

But in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander over intemperate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Pentagon officials are concerned the military may recoil in fear and anger from the press.

The chill couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the Pentagon’s leadership, with skepticism about the war’s progress growing among U.S. politicians and officials in Afghanistan ahead of what is likely to be the war’s most important operation, the imminent move by thousands of U.S. forces into Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.

“If we recoil, if we go underground, if we get defensive, it’s self-defeating,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We need to remain as engaged as ever, if not more so because we are at a crucial point in this war.”

Freelancers, who often jump from story to story, subject to subject, freelance to job back to freelance to fellowship to book, owe allegiance only to their conscience, bank balance and career ambitions. Untethered to a beat, a set of specific editors and a publication or broadcast outlet who also wants to consistently, accurately beat the competition, freelancers are — free — to behave as they, and their editors, see fit.

Stop Lying About Your Journalism 'Credentials'!

In Media on January 3, 2010 at 11:42 am
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...

Ride that pony, kids...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Today’s New York Times carries the weekly column on ethics and standards by the paper’s columnist, Clark Hoyt.

Last week, The Times parted company with Joshua Robinson, a prolific young freelancer who represented himself as a Times reporter while asking airline magazines for free tickets to cities around the world for an independent project he was proposing with a photographer…

Robinson, two years out of college and highly regarded by Times editors for whom he has freelanced, said that he never connected his Times work with the approach he made to airline magazines seeking free international travel in exchange for articles and photos. He said he called himself “a reporter for The New York Times” — which he is not — only to establish his “street cred” with those he was soliciting, and not to imply he was on the newspaper staff.

“It was an honest mistake,” he told me. “To me, this was so far removed from anything I do for The Times, it didn’t seem applicable.”

Get a grip, kid. Really. There are dozens, likely hundreds of freelance writers who produce copy for the Times who refrain from using the paper as an artificial crutch. Yes, it’s a nice clip and gives us street cred. But not because we lie about our relationship to the paper; we’re a “freelancer for the Times” or “a regular contributor”.

Using the word “reporter”, as anyone knows, implies something else, better and more prestigious. Very few journalists will ever get an interview at the Times, let alone a job offer. Those who do get hired — contrary to many fantasies — tend to keep their noses very, very clean. They like their job, the salary, the prestige and access it affords, their colleagues. Some are also still protective of the larger organization, loyal to larger notions of what a newspaper still is or should be or can be. Or just to the Times itself.

I’ve twice in 20 years made errors that had an editor there call me, demanding an answer and a correction — now. I know the pressures that editors are under and how incredibly difficult it  can be to gain and keep their trust. I’d already written many, many pieces for the paper when I approached a new-to-me editor a few years ago who said, “Well, it’s a bit of a risk.” I’ve gone on to write a lot for this person and we’ve enjoyed a collegial relationship. I didn’t like the apprehensiveness about my skills, but I understood it.

That’s how they think. That’s how a freelancer needs to think about working freelance with anyone there, as a writer, illustrator, photographer. It’s not all about you.

This crap gives freelancers a bad name, one we already have with many people who just assume “You’re too lousy to get a real job.”

We all know that Times‘ clips can open some terrific new doors, inside and outside of the paper; I got yet another email yesterday from a younger writer desperate to write for them and eager for my contacts there. I’m proud of my work for the paper — and stupid and unethical behavior, by any writer, makes me nuts.

It will also make my life with them a lot more annoying as every editor will now feel compelled to climb up my rear with a flashlight to make sure I’m not being deceptive with them and my sources.

When outright lying about your affiliations — which you know full well adds deceptive value to your brand — doesn’t “seem applicable”, it’s time to think about what “applicable” means.

Everyone but you?

Will The New York Times Wrist-Slap Another Freelancer, A Harvard Professor?

In Media on December 28, 2009 at 8:39 am
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 14:  The New York Times he...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Here’s the latest New York Times freelancer who might get sent to the woodshed for ethical lapses — Mary Tripsas, a Harvard professor — reports Gawker.

In today’s column, Tripsas waxes ecstatic about about the 3M Company’s “innovation center,” which helps their customers provide input in the design process. Cool! Except NYTPicker has learned that Tripsas and other “innovation researchers” were flown to the center last month—airfare and accommodations gratis. Imagine the infamous Thrillist junket with less booze and more whiteboards.

This is not kosher with Times freelancer rules, which state:

In connection with their work for us, freelancers will not accept free transportation, free lodging, gifts, junkets, commissions or assignments from current or potential news sources.

Clearly, 3M was a “potential news source” at the time they flew Tripsas out to their Innovation Chocolate Factory, since they became a current news source in today’s column. But Tripsas, who is a professor at the Harvard Business School, is trying to work the “In connection with their work for us” clause into a loophole, according to NYTPicker:

“I am a professor who does research on innovation and, in fact 3M was not aware of my recent NYT affiliation when they invited me,” Prof. Tripsas told The NYTPicker via email. “As a professor, I am sometimes invited to speak to companies about innovation, and it is not unusual for the company to reimburse travel expenses, so 3M did pay for my hotel and airfare. I did not inform the New York Times of that since I viewed the visit as a speaking engagement that was part of my broader academic research.”

As schadenfreudian New York City writers all know, freelance Mike Albo, who wrote a long-running twice-monthly shopping column in the Styles section, lost his gig after accepting a free trip to Jamaica on assignment for someone else.

It’s an interesting game the Times plays, this ethical squeeze play with the talented freelancers whose copy fills almost every single section — national and metro generally excepted. I agree entirely with the spirit of it, and as a Times freelancer, have abided by it for years. But the definition of “freelance” usually means “I sell my skills to the highest bidder”, not “You own me and get to dictate my behavior.”

The very spirit of this code violates the way freelancers run their businesses, using their own standards and definitions of what is fair and ethical, the trade-off we make for the financial insecurity of a life free of corporate shackles, and rules. But we’ve all known or heard of writers who stuff anything they can get into their suitcase or handbag or apartment, which makes the rest of us who don’t do so, whether Times’-constrained or not — look stupid — and, depending on your ethics, these people brain-dead, greedy and up for grabs.

Does it matter to you, dear readers, if a freelancer has their airfare or meals or lodging paid for (as is completely standard in most travel writing) by a source? What do you think of the Times‘ ethics code?

Boyzone's Stephen Gately Slagged By Daily Mail — Outrage Downs Their Website

In Media, men on October 20, 2009 at 9:10 am
Boyzone

Image by MangakaMaiden Photography via Flickr

A column slagging Boyzone’s Stephen Gately, a gay man, after his recent and untimely death in a Spanish hotel room has prompted the most complaints ever — 22,000 — to Britain’s Press Complaints Commission. Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir decided to use Gately as a poster boy for the wages of homosexual sin, these days a tired little trope for many, but clearly not for all.

Gately, 33, died in Mallorca, a Balearic island that, for some, remains another symbol of hedonistic decadence — while an autopsy found he’d died of pulmonary edema.

The PCC’s code contains 16 categories of offenses, from giving gory details of a suicide to sneaking into a hospital, unidentified, as a reporter, a trick one Daily News colleague of mine used successfully. While the Council has no punitive or regulatory power, it at least explicitly names and codifies some of the abuses — the ones that drive highly-profitable editorial decisions made in every newsroom every day. In the endless race for eyeballs and dollars, ethics, apparently, be damned.

Newspaper Misstates Charges Against Teacher — Who Commits Suicide

In Media on October 5, 2009 at 2:48 pm
One Yonge Street - Current newspaper offices

Image via Wikipedia

It is every writer and editor’s worst nightmare to make an error, but one that may have pushed the person named in the story to suicide?

Today the Toronto Star is dealing with having gotten it wrong and what role, if any, their story played in this tragedy. After his photo and name were published, David Dewees, 32, lay down on the subway tracks Saturday and waited for the train that killed him.

(The Washington Post wrote last week about the trauma this creates for train drivers.)

The editor of the Toronto Star, which mistakenly printed the news last week that this Toronto high school teacher had been charged with assaulting 13-year-olds, Michael Cooke, is a man I’ve worked with twice in my career, at the Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News. He arrived to run the Star last year after being the top editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. (disclosure: I freelance occasionally for the Star.) Whatever happened in the newsroom, I know Cooke as a decent man and I am horrified on many fronts by this.

A good friend of mine teaches at the high school where Dewees worked. In too many ways, this is a story that hits home.

And, in the sort of irony any thinking editor equally dreads, here’s the Star’s first award to top teachers, a new feature they recently began.

Ilegitimate Sources — The New York Times Wrist-Slaps A Reporter

In Media on August 17, 2009 at 8:23 am
Newspapers

Image by laffy4k via Flickr

I enjoy watching The New York Times doing its little mea culpa dance as choreographed each week by its public editor Clark Hoyt.

This week, it’s a reporter who received some wrist-slapping on this issue. This is a staffer who answers to an editor who expects productivity — i.e. published stories. But he also expects high standards and this reporter is on salary. He’ll get paid no matter how long it takes to find sources, or if they back out or if he can’t even find any.

The problem was this reporter’s unwillingness to find people to interview that he did not know personally beforehand, and this small group included three other sources, according to Hoyt, who have already been quoted many times in the paper. One of them is even a fellow freelancer for the paper, and how this got into the final version of his story in the paper is beyond me.

It may surprise some of you to know — or not — that every single freelance writer who writes for the paper is required to read, agree to and sign an ethics code. It’s quite clear to us freelancers, some of whom have filled the Times pages for years for pennies on the dollar versus what staffers warn for filling those same pages to the same standards, that screwing up on this front is simply not an option. We know there are people who would kill their grannies to achieve even one Times byline and quickly replace us. So, if for no other reason, most of us  tend to keep our noses very clean. Which is why watching a staffer play by different rules is really annoying.

He was caught thanks to nytpick.com, which bird-dogs the paper.

One of this ethics code’s many demands is that you do not interview people with whom you have a personal relationship, whether your brother-in-law who’s a perfect example of a laid-off banker or your last babysitter who, because you already know how witty she is, would easily give you some great quote about teens and social media. Tough. They’re all supposed to remain off-limits. It’s a real pain because every freelancer must ruthlessly divide up their time not only on one project but between multiple projects. Digging up smart, thoughtful, insightful, available sources is not that easy and can, therefore, eat up a lot of the time you’ve allotted to a piece — time you also need for reporting, interviewing, writing, editing and revisions. (Yes, we sometimes use HARO, but it has its limitations.) The Times, like almost every publication, negotiates a flat fee with its freelance writers, whether $400 or $4,000, and it’s up to the writer to budget his or her time efficiently, from initial calls and emails to finding and triaging your sources to the many editors’ final questions and revisions, which, at the Times, (I’ve written almost 100 stories for them) can be multiple.

i.e. Being lazy make you the most money.

Why does this matter?

It matters a lot. If, as some of us still persist in believing, newspapers and what they offer us is even semi-impartial — and this was a wildly popular front-page story quoting this staff reporter’s pals — it matters a great deal that a reporter reach beyond his or her own social and professional circle.

Let’s not mince words. How many Times staffers have so wide a network that it includes articulate people of different races, ages and socioeconomic groups able to take a call and willing to chat on the record? A reporter’s job, I think, is not the easiest or quickest or cheapest solution to the challenge of sourcing a story, but taking the extra time and trouble to seek out people who do not look, sound, act or think much as you do — which is what typically happens if you only talk to your friends and close associates. That’s why they’re close.

Diversity in sourcing matters as much as in hiring. Newspapers have a much broader duty to their readers than just repeating what 10 people think. (I’m not saying they’re great at this, but they need to try.)

The hardest, slowest (and therefore costliest in terms of time) part of writing some good stories is finding the sources who can best tell it. Not just the ones we know.

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