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Monthly Archives: April 2013

When tragedy strikes, I turn to the news. I find a TV and I’m glued, flipping between channels until I feel like I’m up-to-date. After a peer said she heard about an explosion at the Boston marathon, I did just that.

But what I found confused, frustrated and disappointed me. Instead of getting information, I got conjecture. Instead of hearing what reporters actually knew, I heard what reporters and pundits suspected and guessed. If journalists did claim something as fact, it turned out to be untrue

I recognize the challenges of filling air time during a 24-hour news cycle. I appreciate the chaos and confusion that comes with covering breaking news. Journalists want to get the word out there as quickly as possible so that the public knows what’s going on as soon as possible.

But being first and acting fast means nothing if your information is inaccurate. Without credibility, journalists have nothing. Nobody will trust your storytelling if you get it wrong. Frankly, as a news consumer, I personally don’t care who gets it first – I care who gets it right.

 

 

Employees of The Poynter Institute have and are writing articles examining how the explosion is and was being covered, and how to do better. This is an opportunity to review how we cover breaking news, and how to actually serve the public best in the future. I recommend all journalists take the time to reflect and to read up – I know I am.

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MU’s LGBTQ Center hosted a discussion on bisexuality today as part of Pride Month.

Three dozen students attended the “B Heard” talk and discussed bisexual stereotypes, issues within and outside the LGBTQ community, and how to understand people’s identities.

Struby Struble, the LGBTQ Center coordinator, presented a powerpoint to give some background on the subject and initiate conversation. “There is a range of sexuality,” Struble said. “Regardless of where someone falls in that range, all people deserve common respect of who we are and how we live our lives.” 

Suzy Day, an MU Women’s Center employee, said she hopes events like the “B Heard” discussion break down barriers and stereotypes. “Having open dialogue is the best way for students to learn about themselves and their peers, and the best way to promote tolerance and acceptance.”ImageImage

Last Monday and Tuesday, Mizzou Students for Life reserved Lowry Mall to display The Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), a graphic photo exhibit aimed at discouraging abortions. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) sponsors the demonstration, which places posters of aborted fetuses beside posters of genocides, lynchings and animal and child abuse. According to the CBR’s website, the exhibit “compares the contemporary genocide of abortion to historically recognized forms of genocide. It visits university campuses around the country to show as many students as possible what abortion actually does to unborn children and get them to think about abortion in a broader historical context.”

I saw the display Monday, found the images disturbing, and chose to reroute my walk to class. As I walked away from Lowry Mall, I noticed students with reporting pads and cameras taking notes and photographs of the display, its volunteers and counter-protesters. I suspected those students were Maneater employees, and confirmed that suspicion Tuesday when I saw student-run newspaper’s front-page article and photos.

The GAP demonstration caused a stir on campus. The Maneater recognized the relevance of the event to its readers with an article and an editorial. In my opinion, these takes on the display and its impact captured the spirit of the event and the majority campus reaction. Below is my review of each story, and why I think they work:

1) The article. I believe that Cassa Niedringhaus‘s article presented a controversial situation within its context without sensationalizing it. She didn’t just share all sides; the people she quoted and the number of perspectives she included accurately represented the perspectives at play. Niedringhaus answered the who, what, where, when, why and how, and she did so without revealing her personal opinion on the subject. Her comprehensive article provided enough information for readers to understand what took place and decide for themselves what they think about the event.

2) The editorial. Sometimes I cringe at the thought of student editorials and columns. I have found that many teenagers and young adults are stilling refining their skills of producing intelligent, quality arguments (I am one such young adult). But in my view, The Maneater’s editorial on the anti-abortion display is well-thought-out and well-written. The Maneater editorial board explains their majority stance, and outlines why they view things the way they do. The opinion is well-presented, well-supported, addressing all the issues at hand. 

Controversial issues like abortion can be tricky for professionals to tackle, much less student journalists. I believe The Maneater provided accurate, effective, thorough coverage on this story. It gives me hope that student media outlets can help develop critical thinking skills and thoughtfulness  in their employees/volunteers, our future journalists.

The Associated Press announced Tuesday it has changed its stylebook entry on the term “illegal immigrant”. The new entry reads as follows:

illegal immigration Entering or residing in a country in violation of civil or criminal law. Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant. Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission.

Except in direct quotations, do not use the terms illegal alienan illegalillegals or undocumented.

Do not describe people as violating immigration laws without attribution.

Specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?

People who were brought into the country as children should not be described as having immigrated illegally. For people granted a temporary right to remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, use temporary resident status, with details on the program lower in the story.

The AP’s revision is timely, with Senators finishing a bi-partisan plan for immigration reform as we speak. Journalists will be challenged to use new language when writing about the issue, and that change in language will set the tone for the conversation. 

Tom Warhover, the executive editor of the Missourian, points out that “every word choice is a reflection of the values of the writer or organization.” In my view, the AP cannot deny the political implications this change holds. The new phrasing aligns with immigration reform advocates’ language. Such advocates often say, “No human being is illegal.” The Associated Press now agrees.

On the other hand, the AP is a wire service. Its job is to produce clear, accurate, plain-facts journalism. Warhover says he agrees with “the aspiration to avoid simple labels that contribute to stereotypes and the intent to make such descriptions attributable.” If the AP can discourage over-simplification and promote precision, then the change meets the goals of the Associated Press.

I believe that is the goal of this change, in fact, to rid journalistic vocabulary of laziness. In an age of 24/7 demand, it’s easy for journalists to use easy, catch-all language that’s efficient and recognizable. But the media’s influence on the public cannot be ignored, and with power comes responsibility. If a journalist’s job is to educate the public so that they can make well-informed decisions, then using accurate, appropriate language is key.

As the Senate gets closer to completing a plan for immigration reform, journalists will need to think about the words they choose. I challenge all those writing about this issue to consider why the change was made and to review whether or not they’re producing comprehensive, factual journalism. Turns out, there’s a lot in a name: remember that.

The following is one of many lessons the Missouri School of Journalism drills into its students heads: DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. But what exactly falls under that umbrella?

Roy Peter Clark, an employee at the Poynter Institute, published an essay recently addressing this topic. He believes that “(i)t is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.” He borrows from four books to create a list of ten actions that do not qualify as plagiarism. Below is his list, quoted exactly as he writes it in the essay (notice my clear and direct citation?):

  1. The so-called act of “self-plagiarism” is not plagiarism.
  2. So called “patch writing” – as long as it credit sources – is not plagiarism.
  3. Inadequate paraphrasing of a credited source is not plagiarism.
  4. Use of a clever or apt phrase – up to the level of the sentence – is not plagiarism as long as you thought of it independently, even if you find that others have used it before.
  5. Literary allusions – even a mosaic of esoteric ones – are NOT plagiarism.
  6. Boilerplate descriptions of news, history, or background are not plagiarism
  7. Ghost writing is not plagiarism.
  8. Writing for genres – such as the legal brief or the sermon – in which there is a long traditional of borrowing without attribution is not plagiarism.
  9. Copying from other writers in what are considered collaborative ventures – newsrooms, wire services, press releases, textbook authorship – is not plagiarism.
  10. Copying from or borrowing the general ideas and issues that are emerging as part of the zeitgeist is not plagiarism.

I tend to agree with these “ten commandments” – except for #9.

Clark explains it as such: “You are writing about drought conditions in Florida. You consult what we used to call the clips. You find that a colleague, Joe Blow, reported on the issue five years ago. A paragraph in that story describes the situation back then perfectly. With approval of your editor, you drop that graph into your story as background No problem.”

When I put myself in Joe Blow’s shoes, I would want credit for that work if it’s being taken verbatim and dropped into someone else’s story as though it is their own original content. I don’t think citing background information is superfluous if the writer of the new piece is using something someone else wrote word-for-word, without any changes.

Overall, I agree with Clark’s sentiment that distinctions must be made between “serious acts of literary theft…and trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.” We can police plagiarism with random, routine filtering through plagiarism and detection software. Requiring writers to be able to provide editors with contact information for sources at any time, so that editors might verify information for themselves, also discourages plagiarism.

Without clear-cut guidelines, journalism students may unknowingly mis-step into career-ending theft.  I challenge J-School professors at Mizzou to specify and clarify what qualifies as plagiarism. If they outline exactly what is and isn’t stealing, students will learn how to work with integrity. That strong knowledge of journalistic principles will equip us to enter the workforce and make ethical decisions in our everyday practice of journalism.

The Missouri School of Journalism teaches its students to enter a situation with open eyes, ears and mind. We are taught that quality journalism results from reporters taking the time to speak to multiple stakeholders with multiple perspectives. We are taught to give voices to the voiceless, to arrive early, stay late and check our facts before publication to make sure we get the full story. If we miss anything, we correct it as quickly as possible. Accuracy and all-encompassing clarity are words we need ascribed to our work to remain credible and reliable.

Last Tuesday, I witnessed journalists practicing everything but the description above.

I was in Chicago on an alternative spring break trip, serving the Pilsen neighborhood on the Southwest Side. Many of the people I served were walking in a rally for comprehensive immigration reform, so I decided to bring my camera and check it out for myself. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights organized the 1,000-person march demanding comprehensive immigration reform. The majority of marchers were children who are U.S. citizens, whose parents are undocumented residents. The crowd walked from Millenium Park to Federal Plaza, where 10 children with undocumented parents spoke about their fears of family separation. They pleaded to Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk to create legislation that would protect parents of citizens from deportation and provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents.

The information I just provided you was available to anybody who got to the rally early and stayed to hear the 10 children speak. But most media outlets took video and interviews pre-rally, which is why they got their numbers wrong and didn’t include video of the actual rally when people spoke. It was disappointing watching TV reporters report live from where the rally WAS, instead of reporting on the ACTUAL rally, AS it was happening.

I understand that there is a time crunch, and deadlines to meet. But that’s no excuse to not do your job. In my opinion, giving an incorrect head count or choosing interviewees based on cuteness diminished the significance of the march. Why should the general public care about an issue that seems to impact a small proportion of the population? And if the general public doesn’t care, what would inspire politicians to create legislation?

The link I provided with more information on the march was written by Darryl Holliday for DNAinfo.com/Chicago, a neighborhood news website that provided the most accurate, comprehensive web story I could find. Holliday quoted multiple speakers and explained why these  Mexican-American children were speaking. He also explained that 500,000 Latino children turn 18 each year, which makes up 10% of the electorate, and these kids will all vote for their parents. By giving a voice to the voiceless, providing context to the situation, and sticking around to gain all accurate, relevant information, Holliday told the entire story.

Brian Cassella of The Chicago Tribune also covered this story well. This print and digital news outlet used video to tell this story, filming every speaker and keeping himself out of it. By allowing people to speak for themselves, Cassella cuts off any chance for misinterpretation. You hear the message straight from the horse’s mouth, and you get a view of the march in its entirety.

Brian Cassella and Darryl Holliday entered this situation with open eyes, ears and minds. They took the time to get multiple perspectives from multiple stakeholders. They clearly checked their facts, as all their information was accurate, and they clearly got their early and stayed late to gain the information they provided. Telling the story of immigrant children and showing how many people care about this issue could get politicians’ attention, which could lead to legislation.

Quality journalism can initiate a conversation. Conversations can lead to actions. Actions can impact our world. Reporters everywhere, I urge you: DON’T GET LAZY. Do your job, and do it well. Then maybe, people will start trusting journalists again.