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Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, US, work on April 7, 2015 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.

Samples of my work are here, if you’re interested. I’m always looking for new clients!

The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.

While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.

This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.

The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.

Silence.

Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.

I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.

They had shut down.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.

The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.

Boom! That story?

Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.

I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.

But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?

Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.

I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.

People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.

Riiiiiiight…

20131111171501

I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.

The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.

So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.

The problem?

Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.

That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.

Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.

You have to laugh, really.

Then move on.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.

When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.

Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.

When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.

Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.

If you’ve been following the Rolling Stone debacle (?)…

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are

— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.

It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.

Here’s a recent popular post I wrote about this life.

Without trust, journalism simply doesn’t work

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, news, women on December 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Do you trust the media? Should you?

Some of you are journalists and some of you are studying it.

So maybe some of you have followed this disturbing story about a recent Rolling Stone piece about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia that, suddenly, seems to have gone very wrong.

From the Washington Post:

A University of Virginia student’s harrowing description of a gang rape at a fraternity, detailed in a recent Rolling Stone article, began to unravel Friday as interviews revealed doubts about significant elements of the account. The fraternity issued a statement rebutting the story, and Rolling Stone apologized for a lapse in judgment and backed away from its article on the case.

Jackie, a U-Va. junior, said she was ambushed and raped by seven men at the Phi Kappa Psi house during a date party in 2012, allegations that tore through the campus and pushed the elite public school into the center of a national discussion about how universities handle sex-assault claims. Shocking for its gruesome details, the account described Jackie enduring three hours of successive rapes, an ordeal that left her blood-spattered and emotionally devastated.

The U-Va. fraternity where the attack was alleged to have occurred has said it has been working with police and has concluded that the allegations are untrue. Among other things, the fraternity said there was no event at the house the night the attack was alleged to have happened.

This is the sort of story that — initially — won thousands of high-fives and re-tweets, from journalists applauding the brave, investigative, nationally-published work that so many of us aspire to.

Those fighting against rape and sexual violence were thrilled to see this issue was getting so much attention.

Then the dominos started tumbling…

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

Journalism is nothing more, at root, than a very long and sometimes fragile set of interlocking expressions of trust.

Whether the story is being published by a small-town weekly or broadcast by a multinational  conglomerate, this is typically how it works:

— A source decides to share their story

We think:

Are they lying? What’s in it for them? Why are they telling me? Why now? Is this an exclusive? Why? What conflicts of interest do they have? Do I really believe them? What doesn’t make sense here and who else can confirm or deny it?

— We decide the source is credible and pitch the idea to our editor, whether we’re freelance or staff, newbie or 30-year veteran, working for a website, newspaper, magazine or broadcast.

They think:

Is this reporter reliable? What’s their track record of errors or corrections? Do I like them? Do I trust them? How well-trained are they? Do I trust their news judgment? Is there a conflict of interest here between the source and reporter that would compromise our organization’s reputation for judgment? How about our credibility?

— They pitch it in a story meeting, typically attended by other editors competing hard for a limited space for telling stories and tight budgets for paying freelancers and acquiring illustration, (art, photos, graphics, maps) to accompany them. There may be significant travel and fixer or translator expenses to argue for and defend. They also have to persuade the most senior editors, their bosses, that the story (and the reporter and the reliability of the source), is unimpeachable. Their own reputations are on the line every time. And no one, ever, wants to look like a gullible or naive fool.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

They think: We’ve done that story a million times already. What’s new? What’s different? Why now? Can it wait? Who else knows about this story — and what are the odds they’ll beat us to it? Do we care?

— The story is assigned and the reporter (and photographer and/or videographer) go out to shoot it and report it. They invest time, energy, skill and limited resources in this decision, leaving other stories undone.

They think: I hope this one gets a lots of clicks. I hope this this one makes front page. I hope this one wins me a major award/promotion/fellowship/book contract. I sure hope this story is solid.

— The story is in and being edited by an array of editors, each of whom is expected to bring their savvy and insight to it, asking every possible question. It must hold up. It must make sense, not merely as an emotionally compelling story but based on a set of facts that are verifiably true.

They think: Does this narrative actually make sense? Has the reporter interviewed enough people? The right people? Who else do they need to talk to and how soon and in what detail? So, why does this piece feel…odd to me? Who should I talk to about my concerns? When and why and how soon? Should I get this piece reviewed by our company’s lawyers?

— The story, if run by a major magazine, may be fact-checked, with staff paid to call sources back and to confirm facts and check to see if quotes are accurate. Copy editors and proofreaders check spelling, grammar and style. The editor in chief and/or publisher (may) read it one more time and sign off on it, knowing their personal reputation — and that of their outlet and parent company — are on the line.

The piece appears.

Do you trust what you hear and read?

Should you?

 

Should the media transmit gory/grisly images? (None here!)

In art, behavior, blogging, business, Crime, culture, design, film, journalism, Media, news, photography, politics, television, war, work on August 4, 2014 at 12:48 am

By Caitlin Kelly

On Twitter, I found this powerful blog post, by an Australian blogger. She has a tough copyright demand, so you’ll have to visit her site.

Her argument? Seeing bloody and graphic images can be deeply upsetting to many viewers.

I agree.

Something soothing and lovely instead!

Something soothing and lovely instead!

But it’s a difficult balance for journalists and editors.

After Malaysia Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, I tweeted my outrage constantly — at major news outlets like Reuters and The Economist. I loathed the details and images they used that I found prurient and titillating.

I was shouting at the moon, as no one with authority would likely read them and certainly not re-think their editorial decisions.

As someone who has been working in the media for 30 years, I have a mixture of feelings about this.

On one hand, I think people need to understand what a crazy/violent world we live in and address that. If we censor the worst atrocities, how can we raise true awareness and spur action to resolve them?

On the other…many of these images are gratuitous, prurient and deeply disturbing.

I argued with some random woman on Twitter about the wisdom of showing pictures of luggage and toys that fell from the sky with MH 17.

They “humanize” the victims, she said.

Bullshit, I said. We know perfectly well they were human!

And yet…without truthful images of what war and famine and terrorism inflicts, do we know the full story?

I also fear, very seriously, for the journalists and editors, (my husband is a career New York Times photographer and photo editor and many of our friends work in the industry), who process these images.

Those who spend a lot of time in and around physical and emotional violence can end up with a very real form of PTSD called secondary trauma.

I suffered it, briefly, after writing my first book, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, which steeped me for two years in stories of death, injury, suicide, fear and violence by and against women. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens, some of whom described tremendous horror, one of whom sent me a photo of the man she had shot, lying in her front yard.

I had nightmares, and off-loaded some of that mental darkness onto two professionals.

Today — a full decade after its publication — I have a very limited appetite for images of death, horror or gore. I don’t watch vampire or zombie shows and there an entire genres of film and books and videos I just won’t face.

Reality was quite enough, thanks!

The week of MH 17, we attended a small dinner party, with seven career journalists at the table. We all had decades of experience, had worked globally, had few illusions left about our world. We talked about this and could not come to any agreement about how much is too much.

We also agreed that it has had an effect (how could it not?) on our own souls and psyches. Some people become callous. cold, bitter and cynical. Some lose all perspective because such violence is “normal.” Others (rarely), leave the business or leave that sort of work — as Kelly McEevers, NPR’s Mideast correspondent did — burned out from too much of it.

Her husband, writer Nathan Deuel, wrote a book about what it was like to watch her go off and report, leaving him and their infant daughter to do so.

She did an hour-long radio documentary about her decision to leave; it’s here:

I have a lot of friends in this field who can push back. I wish I were one of them. Rather than argue with Anna, I crumbled. At that point in 2012 I was sleeping just a few hours a night. I had unexplained migraines. I was a bear to live with. So instead of yelling at her, I just sat down on the sidewalk and cried.

By the time you see media images, you — civilians, non-media folk — are only seeing the least-offensive/frightening/disgusting of it most of the time, no matter how rough.

We’ve sifted out the worst.

We’ve seen and heard the stuff of indelible and unforgettable nightmares.

What images should we show you — the public — and which do we withhold?

When and why?

What do you think?

 

 

Ethics, schmethics! (But, seriously…)

In behavior, blogging, business, culture, journalism, Media, travel, work on June 27, 2014 at 12:46 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you trust what you read, hear or see in the mass media?

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

Even blogs?

A Gallup poll of 1,000 Americans a few months back says no:

Their findings: just 21 percent of the people surveyed ranked newspaper reporters with high or very high honesty and ethical standards. Next came lawyers, tying with 21 percent, followed by TV reporters at 20 percent, then advertisers at a miserable 14 percent.

Just so we’re clear, here. I work as a journalist and often write for The New York Times, which sends out a long and detailed ethics code it expects all freelance contributors to adhere to. Interestingly, though, every freelancer — whether an artist, writer or photographer — is completely vulnerable to the whims of their individual editor, some of whom have been abusive indeed: abruptly killing stories, (which cuts our fees dramatically), or sitting on unpaid invoices for months.

One of the paper’s more challenging demands, for example, is that no freelance writer can ever accept a paid trip to write a travel story, (even for another publication or outlet)  — which leaves its travel section open only to people with deep-enough pockets to jet off to exotic destinations and pay all their food and lodging as well.

One writer, Mike Albo, lost a nice weekly column in the Times after he took a paid trip to Jamaica; he turned it into a very funny, and very accurate one-man show, The Junket, which I saw and admired.

Welcome to the economic costs of ethics!

Another issue the Times is fussy about, and which seems fair to me, is not interviewing friends, relatives or groups in which you have a financial interest — i.e. your brother-in-law’s fab new company.

On this blog, I occasionally mention companies, products and experiences I’ve enjoyed — none of whom pay me to do so. If and when I’m able to get sponsored posts, I’ll be very clear who’s paying me to say what.

So when I read or listen to “news” of any sort, I expect to be told of any potential conflict of interest, even though that’s unlikely.

If someone takes a freebie, then raves about said item or experience, they need to come clean to their audience.

I once attended BlogHer, an annual conference that attracts 5,000 bloggers. I didn’t much care for it, although it’s obviously hugely popular.

The reason I would not go back was the exhibition hall, where women thronged the booths to collect as much free loot as they could carry. That’s not why I write or blog.

It’s also not what journalists do.

trust-torn

Have you followed the excruciating behavior — and criminal trial it led to —  by UK editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson?

Here’s Ken Auletta in The New Yorker:

A British jury has declared Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and executive at News Corp., not guilty of criminal charges. She had been charged with participating in the paper’s phone-hacking practices, for covering up evidence, and for involvement in payoffs to silence the police or solicit their help in fetching fresh news stories. At the same time, they found Andrew Coulson, Brooks’s successor—who went on to serve as communications director for the Prime Minister—guilty on charges of conspiracy to intercept phone messages. Stuart Kuttner, the paper’s former managing editor, was also found not guilty; charges against some of the editors’ other colleagues have yet to be resolved. But a criminal case is not the final word on whether either editor, or News Corp., nor much of the British tabloid press, has betrayed the principles of journalism.

Ethical failures may not merit a jail term; they do merit a spotlight. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Sir Brian Leveson, a prominent judge, to call witnesses to inquire into the culture and ethics of the British press. A year later, Leveson issued a report than ran more than two thousand pages.

Other recent ethics scandals have depressed and dismayed many, like the discovery that Cambodian human rights advocate Somaly Mam had been less than truthful.

From TheAtlantic.com:

Now Margaret Sullivan, the public editor of The New York Times, is calling on Kristof to “give readers a full explanation” of his reporting on Somaly Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist who, according to a recent Newsweek expose, fabricated parts of her story and those of some of the alleged victims she advocated for. The revelations have disillusioned many of Mam’s loyal supporters and left the press looking gullible. Just as importantly, they’ve highlighted the public’s seemingly insatiable desire for heroic narratives—and the willingness of many in the media to provide them.

Kristof was hardly alone in promoting Mam and her initiatives. Several respected outlets, including Newsweek, have played handmaiden to her celebrity. Consider just a partial list of media-bestowed accolades: Mam was named a CNN Hero and Glamour’s Woman of the Year. She was included in the Time 100, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women—the list goes on. When stories like hers crumble, however, few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.

And this, from Salon, about non-profits who are also not revealing their own ethical bonsai:

Partnerships between NGOs and big-brand companies are developing even faster than those with energy and pharmaceutical corporations. Environmentalists have led the way, collaborating with, and accepting money from, big-box retailers and brand manufacturers. The Environmental Defense Fund blazed a trail in 1990 by partnering with McDonald’s to phase out the restaurant chain’s Styrofoam packaging. Today such partnerships are ubiquitous. IKEA works with WWF as a “marketing partner,” providing funding through the Global Forest and Trade Network to “create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products.” Conservation International works with Starbucks on sourcing coffee beans and with Walmart on tracking the sources of the company’s jewelry products. Monsanto and The Walt Disney Company are two other “featured” corporate partners of Conservation International (as of June 2013).

Executives from these companies also sit on the boards of environmental NGOs. As of June 2013, the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s includes Robert J. Fisher, past Chairman of the Gap board of directors, and Alan F. Horn, current chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. Neville Isdell, former CEO of Coca-Cola, is chairman of the board of the U.S. branch of WWF (known in the U.S. as the World Wildlife Fund) (as of June 2013). Rob Walton, chair of Walmart, also chairs the executive committee of Conservation International’s board of directors, which, as of June 2013, includes Paul Polman of Unilever (current chief executive), Heidi Miller of JPMorgan Chase (retired former president), and Orin Smith of Starbucks (retired former CEO).

Social and human rights organizations have generally been less receptive to partnering with big-brand companies. But this is changing, too.

I tend to be a fairly trusting person — until I get burned — as I recently was by a fellow blogger who really should have known better than to try to screw me.

I’ve sent her several un-answered emails asking her to do the right thing.

Many of you already read her blog, filled with cute personal stories and a you-go-girl! flavor. She blogs about writing and how to become a better writer and is very popular; last time I looked, she had almost 30,000 followers.

I used to read her blog and enjoyed it.

Then she reached out to me, after months of my comments, and asked me to teach for one of her on-line conferences. I did, offering my time and talent to nine of her students — unpaid. In return, she said, I could  guest post and promote or link to my own classes.

I fulfilled my part of the deal.

She never did.

What ethical breaches have you recently faced?

Do you care if people behave ethically toward you or others?

 

 

He outed a source. She committed suicide. Then ESPN apologized

In behavior, blogging, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, women, work on January 22, 2014 at 5:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this?grantland.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterbox

A writer named Caleb Hannan profiled the inventor of a “magic putter” named Essay Anne Vanderbilt for an ESPN-owned website called Grantland.

Here is the story he wrote.

As he dug into the story over seven months, it became clear she was hiding something from him. He discovered that she was transgender, and outed her to one of her investors.

She committed suicide.

It has prompted a firestorm — among writers, editors, bloggers and armchair ethicists — over how this story was (mis)handled.

Here’s one analysis of the piece and its aftermath.

And another, from Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress:

one of the best reasons for large journalistic organizations to hire staff with a broad range of life experience and expertise, and to treat those perspectives as if they’re valuable and deserve deference, is so someone’s present to step in when a piece fails, to educate the writer in question, and to save subjects of pieces from journalistic malpractice, and publications from damaging themselves…

It’s hard to consider better evidence of the value of having staff with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives–and of the willingness to go outside your own staff when they reach the limits of their wisdom. Doing this takes humility, and it takes curiosity, an acknowledgement that your own knowledge is not the sum of the world, and a voracious hunger to understand more of it. These are the basic qualities of good journalism. It’s remarkable that so many news organizations fail to apply them to considering the mix of their own staff and contributors.

Here’s a smart post from a friend, colleague and another veteran sportswriter, Vivian Bernstein:

I was once assigned to write a feature story on a high profile, nationally known professional athlete who kept getting into trouble. What was wrong with this guy? I talked to former coaches and anyone in his hometown who knew him back when the athlete was in high school.

Through that reporting, I learned a shocking family secret.

The athlete’s mother had attempted suicide back around the time he was becoming a local star with a big future. Not only that, but it was the athlete who had actually found his mother following the attempt.

The information may have shed some light on why this athlete had been so troubled. It also turned what was going to be a good feature into a great story.

But before I published it I wanted to find out something about this woman who was not a public figure and was about to have her personal agony exposed. That was a problem because I was not able to interview her. The athlete was refusing all media requests at the time, too.

So I tracked down the brother of the athlete and I asked him the one question I needed an answer to before writing this story:

Would revealing his mother’s secret cause so much anguish that she might consider suicide again?

Maybe, he said. And he implored me not to write it.

I thought about what greater public good would come from revealing the truth. Would it help others? Would it prevent a crime? Would it save lives? Was there any redeeming Fourth Estate journalistic purpose at all? We’re not talking Pentagon Papers here.

No. It would only make me look good for scooping the competition and drawing readers. And it would have been a hell of an ego boost.

I never wrote it. I have kept that secret to this day.

Like Viv, I’ve had a long career in journalism. Like Viv, I’ve also heard a few shocking secrets, and had sources plead with me to keep them in the closet. I did. No question about it. I never discussed it with an editor or coworker or colleague or friend. I knew what to do (how would I feel if it were me?) and behaved accordingly.

There’s another element to this story that pissed me off, and, yes, because it’s people like me and Viv — veterans of decades of smart, thoughtful, accurate journalism — have been shoved for good out of beloved newsroom jobs. We’re considered old and expensive; 24,000 journalists were fired in 2008 alone.

Here’s Bill Simmons, the editor of the Hannan story and part of his apology:

Another reason we created Grantland: to find young writers we liked, bring them into the fold, make them better, maybe even see if we could become the place they remembered someday when someone asked them, “So what was your big break?” That matters to us. Just about every writer we have is under 40 years old. Many of them are under 30. I am our third-oldest writer, as crazy as that sounds. For us, 31-year-old Caleb Hannan had (and has) a chance to be one of those writers. That’s why it hurts so much that we failed him.

There’s a really smart reason that some journalism organizations still keep and value those with decades in the trenches — who have made mistakes, learned from them and now teach others not to do the same damn thing.

It’s called institutional knowledge.

No matter how whip-smart or ambitious a 31-year-old might be, or a brilliant 23-year-old, they haven’t been around the block a few times. They’ve barely found the block — the place every ambitious writer reaches — where difficult, challenging, complicated stories demand a lot of smart, tough thinking from people who already done a lot of that.

Without smart, tough, wise editors — willing to think broadly, deeply, inclusively and incisively — we’re all screwed.

What do we owe to those for whom we labor?

In behavior, business, design, journalism, Medicine, science, Technology, work on May 29, 2013 at 5:35 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, a profile of a Canadian engineer, (now there’s a doubly invisible category!) who designs bridges:

If his work didn’t keep him up so late, he would probably wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. He points out that the catastrophic 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis—which he wasn’t involved in—happened during construction work.

Mr. Johnson shows off a gray ring on his right pinkie: “It’s called the iron ring,” he says. In Canada, civil engineers wear the iron ring on their drawing hand as a symbol of their oath to protect life and limb. “We have to make sure everything we do is infallible,” he says.

I love the physical reminder, worn every day after graduation, that a civil engineer has chosen to create things that millions of us rely on every day to be functional and safe.

English: A Canadian Engineer's Iron Ring, Stai...

English: A Canadian Engineer’s Iron Ring, Stainless Steel Version. This is a picture of the author’s personal iron ring, received at the University of Waterloo, Camp 15, on February 17, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really like this tradition of making a public (and/or) physical vow of responsibility.

My first husband was a physician. I attended his graduation from McGill medical school and watched his class, aloud, recite together the Hippocratic Oath, which begins with “First, do no harm.” It was powerful, moving and unforgettable. Every graduating physician says these words.

Even if they do do harm, and it happens to many of them in the course of a career, they all know they made a vow now to.

We seem to live now in an era of the deke, the dodge, the “I have no knowledge”, the denial, the shrug. We’re left to watch, in New York, the miserable, unending parade of elected officials being charged with fraud, theft, deception, bribery and corruption.

Wall Street? Don’t get me started.

I wish — how I wish! — there were similar public, shared, hallowed rituals for every profession and field of endeavor. Especially finance, politics and journalism, three fields whose decisions can profoundly alter the lives and fortunes of millions of others, people who depend on them for wisdom, good faith and honesty.

Here’s blogger/author Seth Godin on the need for great public design.

What do you think of this tradition?

If you ever speak to a reporter…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, television, work on February 14, 2013 at 12:24 am
The Interview

The Interview (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those who have never spoken to a reporter, or been media-trained, here are a few basic ground rules that might be helpful.

This first one is a new and — to a veteran like me — really egregious problem:

Pre-publication, social media are off limits! Do NOT tweet or Facebook giving any hint of who is coming to interview you, what about or for which media outlet.

I’ve been working in journalism since 1978 and younger public relations people, as well as journalists and photographers, have done this to me and to Jose, my husband who assigns photographers for The New York Times, causing us personal and professional embarrassment or worse. They seem to have no understanding that journalism — more than ever! — is a highly competitive industry. The second you tip my hand to any of my competitors, I’ve lost the whole point of my story, which is to beat them, possibly handily, to a great piece they have yet to notice or work on themselves.

If a reporter wants to interview you, ask them a few questions before you agree, or begin speaking:

How long is the piece? What section is it running in, or, if a magazine, which issue? What’s your deadline? What’s your angle? Who else are you speaking to? (They may not tell you.) It’s helpful to understand how your comments or views fit into the larger picture.

Don’t insist on reviewing your quotes before publication.

This is taboo for almost all reporters. It wastes their time, it slows down production and — most importantly — it shows ignorance of journalism norms. Many magazines still employ fact-checkers, people who will call you up later to ensure that what is said by or about you is factually accurate. Freelancers tightly budget their reporting time and may be speaking to a dozen sources or more, not just you. We don’t have time!

You can speak on background, off the record, not for attribution or on the record. Make sure you are clear before the interview begins and that both you and the reporter have agreed.

On background means they will never name or identify you in any way. You’re helping them better understand a complex issue and possibly pointing them to other sources, but you won’t be named as the referral source. NFA means I can broadly identify you: “A highly-placed White House source” or “A 20-year employee”, i.e. your name and title are not used, but your credibility or authority is established. If you speak on the record, every word you say can be used and attributed to you by name.

English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 --...

English: Ft. Pierce, FL, September 16, 2008 — FEMA Public Information Officer(PIO) Renee Bafalis and Community Relations(CR) Specialist Rene Haldimann speak on camera with WPTV-TV (5) reporter Bryan Garner at a manufactured home park which was affected by Tropical Storm Fay. George Armstrong/FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can ask for questions in advance — but it’s annoying.

Yes, you want to prepare. But we expect you to know your stuff well enough to anticipate most questions.

Every good interview will also go off on a few tangents. We don’t want to — and won’t — stick to a pre-determined list.

Don’t put us on a choke chain.

It’s annoying, but common, to have a press officer in the room or on the phone with us during an interview, but if you don’t give us enough time, or interrupt us, we’ll just pester you and your staff later.

Don’t haggle or harangue about attribution after you’ve spoken.

Once an interview has begun, unless you say “This is off the record” before you say it, it’s on, and usable. Same with phone interviews. If doing it by email, mark these comments off clearly.

During a phone interview, ask if the reporter is taping or taking notes.

They’re likely doing both. A note-taker (like me) may need additional time to catch up.

Ask how much time they need, and make sure you have no interruptions.

Some may only need five or ten minutes, others an hour or more. I’m suspicious of any reporter who wants only a very brief interview as most issues are too complex for a sound bite. Television and radio interviews demand precise, quick answers — but print interviewers may want a lot more detail, and time.

Research the reporter beforehand.

Everyone is findable now: Google and LinkedIn being the two quickest and easiest ways to get a sense of who you’ll be speaking with. Are they fair-minded? Experienced? Well-regarded in the industry? If you can spare the time to read a few things they’ve written — and can genuinely compliment them on one — why not? It shows us a little respect as well.

What have I left out?

Related articles

Interviewing “virgins” — how to do it right

In behavior, blogging, books, business, film, History, journalism, Media, work on September 4, 2012 at 10:58 pm
New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York T...

New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not the kind you think!

For those who haven’t yet read my Welcome or About pages, I’m Caitlin Kelly, a journalist since my sophomore year of college, more than 30 years. Like every journalist, it’s my ongoing challenge  to make total strangers feel comfortable talking to me within minutes.

The journalist’s job, contrary to popular current belief, is not to yammer on breathlessly about celebrities and their pets/kids/shopping  — like a walking press release — but to get out into the world and find people with compelling stories to share.

And many of the best stories haven’t been told before, at least not to a stranger wielding a notebook, camera or tape recorder. Unlike public figures, like politicians or celebrities, trained and skilled at media manipulation, these people don’t even know the rules.

I’ve recently been writing features for The New York Times business section, like this one about Google. Many of the people I’m interviewing for these have never spoken to a reporter before. They’re “virgins.”

Several admitted to me beforehand how nervous they were at speaking “on the record” , knowing their words might end up in The New York Times; for those of you living outside the U.S., it’s hard to to overstate its power and prestige. I’ve been writing freelance for the Times since 1990.

There’s such an imbalance between how I feel walking into those rooms — excited, curious — and how they feel — often wary, anxious, unsure, wondering what will happen next.

It boils down to trust. How much can they trust me to get it right? To tease out what they might not be able to fully articulate? Will they, as they fear, end up sounding stupid?

These “virgins” sometimes forget, or don’t know, that my every word is read and re-read by several editors who can question or challenge what I’ve written.

During my visit to Google, which lasted two days, two public relations reps tapped away madly on their computers and Blackberries, noisily noting everything I asked and what their staff said. Typically, only very senior executives and officials receive this much protectiveness.

It might have reassured the people I spoke to. But once you’re “on the record” that’s it. Two people — days after the interviews were finished — emailed to tell me “You can’t use that” about a few comments. Technically, I can. (But I didn’t, a judgment call on my part.)

I’ve been interviewed a lot, for both of my books, and it is stressful!

I’ve felt that visceral oh shit moment when you create an official and frighteningly permanent representation of how (at that moment, perhaps) you think.

And none of us really knows what will happen to your story after you’ve shared it. The reporter might be stupid, lazy, disorganized, deceptive — or get it absolutely right.

It’s rare to hear a journalist admit how they feel when dealing with civilians….Here’s a blog interview with New York Times freelancer Devan Sipher:

The brides and grooms I talk to confide in me, and I take extraordinary time and effort to make sure what what goes in my articles doesn’t violate that trust.  It’s not always easy, because the best quotes are often things they would regret having said if they saw them in print.  One could argue that if they said it, I can use it. But the people I’m writing about aren’t running for public office (usually) and they didn’t steal anyone’s retirement funds.  They don’t deserve to be embarrassed by an article celebrating their marriage.  I feel I have a responsibility to protect them in addition to my responsibility as a journalist to write the best and most accurate story for my editor and readers. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

Here are a few tips, if you’re facing a first-time media interview:

— Find out the reporter’s name and media outlet as far in advance as possible. Google them and carefully read check their LinkedIn page for any mutual connections, like the same hometown, college or people in common. Find out as much about them, and how they write, as you can.

— Read a few of their stories and tell them you did. It’s both a compliment and a warning.

— Ideally, find out: which section of the paper or magazine it’s for, what the angle is and who else they’re speaking to. Some reporters are fine with this, others not. The more you know what they need from you, the better it’s likely to go.

— Try for more time, rather than less; i.e. 20-30 minutes instead of five or ten. Very few people with no media training are great at offering quick, pithy sound bites. But be ready to answer succinctly.

— Make notes of your three most essential talking points before the interview. Keep them in front of you, with all relevant facts and figures as necessary.

— If you’re not 100 percent sure of the accuracy of your answer, say so! Offer to get right back to them, (within minutes if possible), with the correct data, and a checkable source for them (like a report, study, poll or government statistic.) Never guess. Never lie!

— Get the interviewer’s name, phone numbers and email address so you can  follow up or add something later. Be sure they get yours as well.

— Be very clear, before you say a word, if you want the interview attributed to you by name, on background or off the record. Be sure you and the interviewer have both agreed, and that you both agree on what these terms mean.

— Do not monologue! Take a breath, for heaven’s sake. Let the reporter ask their questions as well. Some people do this out of nervousness, but it’s also (perceived as) a way to control the interaction, and therefore annoying.

— Give the interview your full and undivided attention. That means carving out some time to do it and placing yourself in a quiet, private room with no background noises (dogs, kids) or interruptions (cellphones, assistants, etc.) We can work around these, but unless it’s an emergency situation, why make things harder on both of us?

— You can ask to see their story before it appears, but most won’t do it. Magazines usually use fact-checkers, who will contact you before the story appears to make sure the basic facts are accurate.

Have you even been interviewed by a journalist?

How did it feel at the time?

How did it turn out?

That's Why They Call It Conde Nasty — New Hotline Helps Colleagues Drop A Dime On Each Other

In business, Media on February 3, 2010 at 9:04 am
US Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour (2ndL) a...

Vogue editor Anna Wintour, in green.Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

That’s my kind of corporation! Rat out your colleagues, courtesy of an in-house hotline. Reports the New York Post:

Insiders got a memo yesterday from Chief Financial Officer John Bellando, revealing that the company set up the hotline to stop the “release of proprietary information, accounting/audit irregularities, falsification of company records, theft of goods/services/cash,” and even “unauthorized discounts/payoffs.”

This could put a damper on some of the perks inside S.I. Newhouse Jr.‘s empire.

Last fall a hacker broke into Condé’s system and stole early copies of GQ, Vogue and other magazines, which were posted online.

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Yesterday’s move seemed to put the brakes on CEO Charles Townsend‘s happiness campaign. Trying to boost morale after 2009’s turmoil and layoffs, he recently did a coast-to-coast tour to give a corporate pep talk and encourage staffers to “get their mojo back.”

Conde Nast, named for the man who founded the publishing empire in 1909 by acquiring Vogue, is legendary in Manhattan publishing circles for its elite worldview. The 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada”, starring Meryl Streep, is said to be based on Anna Wintour, long-time Vogue editor.

I interviewed at Conde Nast a few times, but never got hired there. It’s a great place to have on your resume, but maybe — now — not such a cosy place to crank out copy.

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?

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