Archive for August 2009

Breaking: Newspaper declares journalists unnecessary

August 28, 2009

So I was reading the newly-redesigned Corvallis Gazette-Times website earlier today (though I agree with the Eugene Weekly – the word “Corvallis” is conspicuously absent from the new header), when I saw a link to a “news story” about riparian zone recovery.

I put news in quotes because I noticed when I opened the story that it was bylined “OSU News and Communications,” which means it is a press release.  Presumably, since they didn’t both to retype it and/or add or subtract or give it a GT byline, it’s an unedited PR. My reaction was something like “well, that’s crap.  They should not be running unedited PRs,” and to an extent, I still think that’s true.  However, I also acknowledge the shrinking number of journalists and the pressure to produce that places on the remainder, especially at the G-T.  And besides, I’d rather know that it’s a PR than not.

And on top of that, there is a good argument to be made for running PRs, especially on the web, on the grounds that it increases access to information, which is the point of a newspaper, right?

So having thought it about it a bit, I put up a bit on Twitter expressing my surprise that the GT would label an unedited PR with an OSU News and Communications byline.  You can see that, and rest of the conversation, below.

who needs reporters

(click for larger, clearer version)

I mean, in some ways I agree (see my suggestion about a special website section – certainly I like the idea of a newspaper website hosting more information, not less), but I also think the page structure does not make that at all clear – the single byline that attributes to “OSU News and Communications” does not make it clear that it’s a PR, and it’s really small anyway.  Come on – many readers don’t know the difference between a column, op/ed, letter, and news story; you can’t tell me they are byline- and PR-savvy.  And I think folding the PRs in with the news stories, in the same format and in the same online sections, obscures the source.  AP stuff, for example, does not look the same or appear in the same section.

Also, if it’s not that important, then what’s the point of journalists?  Ostensibly, journalists serve a valuable function by ferreting out the news and adding multiple points of view and relevant context.  PRs are not designed with that in mind; they are single-sourced with a clear agenda, i.e. they are not good journalism.  As a reader, I want to trust that when I see Matt Neznanski’s or Bennett Hall’s or Nancy Raskauskas’ byline I know they’ve written a good story and aren’t shilling for the subject of the story. (Just to be clear, I think all three of the people I named are excellent reporters.  This is a structural problem, not an individual one.)

Given the financial and other constraints placed on journalism these days, and the terrible, terrible quality of journalism from most of the national media, don’t give me another reason to be skeptical of newspapers.  Make it clear that a PR is different than a story.

Also, on a local level, OSU is an 800-lb. gorilla (parallels to the DC establishment and national media relationship, perhaps?).  They generate a lot of the news that goes into the GT, and that means, despite the general goodness of the people involved (on both sides), the coverage of OSU in the GT is going to be, in the long run, favorable.  Throw in the fact that – again despite the people involved – OSU and the GT have very different institutional goals, and, well, I hope you can see why I think PRs need to be very clearly labeled as being PRs, both in general and when coming from OSU.  A PR and a news story written from the ground up by a trained journalist may look the same, but have different priorities and goals, and as such, readers should be able to tell them apart.

And the GT should not be so quick to dismiss this as not mattering.  I know I trust them a little less having received such a cavalier response.

*Yes, I realize the title of the post is a bit hyperbolic.  If you don’t know by now, I might be guilty of hyperbole on occasion.

Religion in schools: make it stop, please

August 22, 2009

From the DH today (anyone know why the LE didn’t run a  story on this?):

LEBANON — The Lebanon Ministerial Association is sponsoring a dedication service Tuesday to pray for the Lebanon Community School District and its leadership. The public is invited.

The service starts at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Lebanon High School. Prayers will be offered for the school board, administrators, teachers, parents, students and staff.

Ministers are inviting school district employees to dinner at the high school prior to the service.

Pastor Dan DeSaulnier of the Lebanon Evangelical Church said Kim Fandino, a Spanish teacher at the high school and president of the Lebanon Education Association, suggested the ceremony and will lead part of the worship.

Um, NO.  It’s fine for high school employees who share a religious tradition to get together and do their thing, but it should absolutely not be on school grounds, nor should it be publicized as if it was a school-sanctioned function.

“Public schools have to be a place where children of all faiths and children of no faiths need to feel welcomed and embraced,” Fidanque said. “Events like this draw lines and imply that families and students who attend this event will be part of the ‘in’ crowd and tend to ostracize people of other faiths and other religious beliefs.”

Doesn’t everyone realize this is the point of such an event?  The presence of Fandino alone should be a strong indicator of this – aside from Alexander, I can’t think of another person in the LCSD who has been as divisive over the last decade.  And to be fair to Alexander, I don’t think he always knew he was being so divisive.

But wait, you say.  What about this?

“It’s like baccalaureate for grownups,” she added. “We’re coming together, we’re praying for each other and we’re looking toward the future.”

First, BLECH.  The comment about it being ‘baccalaureate for grownups’ is painfully bad proselytizing, and an insider plug aimed at recruiting churchgoing students (I doubt many non-Christian students will be familiar with the bacc service she’s referring to).  Second, as the ACLU executive director pointed out, the “each other” only really holds true for the participants and those who identify with them.  Were I  a student or staff person at LHS, I would not feel like this event included me in any way. (Along those lines, when I was subbing, I saw Christian iconography or quotes in more than one classroom.  Not cool.)

Events like this pretend to build community but really build factions, since they are exclusive.  The ACLU ED is right – while it’s technically legal, the relevant question (as any clergy should know) is not can but should? And the answer is clearly no.


Immediate Update: It appears the LE did run a blurb on this.  However, they failed to mention what I would consider very, very relevant information, like the fact that LCSD employees will be leading part of the service.  On what possible grounds would the LE justify leaving that out?  That’s news.

I think the Express made a serious mistake

August 20, 2009

About two weeks ago, the Lebanon Express ran a story on a motorcycle crash outside Lebanon in which two people were killed. The story quoted a bystander describing some of the injuries sustained by one of the deceased in descriptive but not, in my opinion, overly graphic terms.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the story until I got a message on Facebook from a friend asking me if a relative of mine still worked at the paper.  This happens periodically, and when it does, alarm bells go off in my head, because it usually means they have a bone to pick with something that appeared in the paper; less often it just means they have a wedding announcement or something similar they are going to submit.  This case turned to be the former (and I should note that most of the time the proverbial bone to pick ends up being silly).  And, when I read the story, I agreed with the person who contacted me:  the inclusion in the story of the line describing the injury to the deceased was wrong.

I came to that conclusion based on something of a balancing test:  Whether the journalistic value of the contested information outweighed the potential harm done to the family that could (and, as it turns out, would) occur to the family from seeing that information in the newspaper.

First, the journalistic value in including the information:  I don’t really see much.  This could be argued, but I just fail to see how including information about the specifics of the injuries in the way adds any significant journalistic value to the story. It’s out of the norm; for most accidents, it seems like newspaper include a vague, general description of injuries, and that’s it, or even just a general description of the level of injury sustained (critical, life-threatening, non-life threatening, etc.).  And the argument that it’s a quote does not excerpt it from any norms about having journalistic value; those norms apply to quotes in all other cases, so this shouldn’t be any different.

Second, the harm done. If you check out the story, there is a comment from the wife of the deceased that makes it crystal clear that harm was done to the family by including the contested information.  That doesn’t seem very debatable.

Third, the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp) states, in part: “Journalists should… show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” Given the harm done to the family for the negligible value added (made even more clearly negligible because it was removed from the story), I think it’s no stretch at all to claim that the decision to print the quote violates the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

So as the result of said balancing test, I think the harm done through the inclusion of the description of the person’s injuries outweighs – significantly – any value in including the information, and thus the decision to include it becomes wrong.

The Express has, since the initial story went up, removed the language in question and left a note on the bottom of the story indicating they changed something in the story; however, they did not indicate what they changed or why.

Having established the harm done, and the SPJ violation, what do I think the Express should do now?

Apologize, of course.  And run it both on the web and in print.  They haven’t – and I doubt they will.

Why is an apology important? The obvious reason is that it is the right thing to do by the family of the deceased. However, I want to point out that there’s another reason: The Express’ self-interest.

By running the description, the Express clearly damaged its reputation among some members of the community. It’s a small paper, in a small market, in an era where newspapers are folding left and right. It can’t afford to alienate readers.  I know all the Lee papers in the valley are, at the least, seeing smaller-than-usual profit margins, even if they are still making money (and I would not be surprised to find out some of them are losing money).

Morever, an apology is a way to lift the curtain a bit and let people see that the newspaper is produced by human beings whose judgment isn’t perfect (and if that scares any newspaper staff, let me assure you the public already knows you’re not omniscient, so you can go ahead and drop the act). It’s also a chance to educate readers on the process of reporting and editing a newspaper. It lets readers identify with the newspaper, not against it. This is the emerging trend in journalism, for better or worse.

And again from the perspective of the LE, I fail to see where the harm is in apologizing – the damage has already been done; apologizing can be an effective way to defuse the anger.  Refusing to apologize – or more importantly, refusing to have a conversation with readers either defending the decision or explaining why it was made – means the anger at the newspaper is what people are left with.  I would think it would be obvious that this is a bad thing from the point of view of the newspaper, but apparently not.

As well, the web may not be where most people read the story, but it is where the comments were left, and it is the future of newspapers (possibly less so for small-town papers like the LE, but it is still a significant part of the future).  The web is also where the story was amended, since it can’t be amended in the print addition.  And finally, the web is where interaction between readers and newspaper staff occurs.  Yes, it can occur in person as well, but not the same degree, and not, in general, publicly – see my last point about letting readers have a glimpse behind the curtain & engaging them on the decision-making process.

At this point, you might be asking why I didn’t just contact the paper directly and ask for an apology.  I did, and was told in no uncertain terms that there was not going to be an apology.  I was not given a reason beyond the fact that Lee newspapers don’t really apologize for anything.  Hence this blog post.

Bottom Line:  The Express made an error when it included a quote in the story that had a graphic description of one of the deceased, but it made a mistake when it refused to apologize, run a correction, or even explain or defend its decision to the community.  Errors are correctable.  Mistakes are not.

August 20, 2009

These days, a lot of the posts that come through my RSS reader have to do with health insurance reform.  More specifically, the politics of health insurance reform, and how it’s really, really not working out.  And I can’t say I disagree.  In a way, assiduously reading a series of political blogs who follow the minutiae of the debate has given me what feels like a front-row seat to the unfolding debate/debacle.

So what is it I think I’m seeing?  Well, others have a variety of answers to that question, but I think I’m seeing something entirely predictable:  Corporate dominance of the domestic political system.

And by corporate dominance I mean not only has the insurance industry simply bought off a tremendous number of congresscritters, but has managed to convince those same congresscritters of some clearly insane things (death panels, anyone?).  And don’t get me started on the whole town halls thing – I am trying keep what little faith in other people I have alive.

But none of this is really surprising, I guess.  It’s how the system has been working for decades, as far as I can tell.  Certainly it’s been this way my entire adult life.  That doesn’t mean I’m totally immune to the level of tragedy that unfolds daily with regard to people’s health; I do have to step back from it, or it’s overwhelming.  But it does mean that I know it’s necessary not to look only at individual but structural, systemic causes.  And enough to know that this point, made by Digby, is just about enough to blow my mind:

Citigroup’s guarantees are among $23.7 trillion of total potential government support stemming from programs set up since 2007 to ease the financial crisis, according to a report last month by Barofsky’s office.

23.7 trillion? And we are having a full-on political meltdown over one trillion to cover all Americans with comprehensive health care? Really?

Yes., we are.  And I’ll leave it up to the reader to realize how monstrously immoral that is.