Author Archives: Pat Louise

National media overkill

In August, 2014, in the United States, three men who did not know each other became part of a common tragic statistic.

They were all black. They were all unarmed. They were each shot to death by a police officer.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio, and Ezell Ford of Los Angeles remain largely unknown outside of their respective communities. The death of Michael Brown, 18, from a suburb of St. Louis, touched off national media attention that made his name and circumstances known across the country.

In the time since Brown’s death Aug. 9, national media coverage has elevated the story to the status of a one-word description, akin to those celebrities who can forgo a last name. Columbine. Newtown. Katrina. Sept. 11. They need no other keywords on Google to bring up reams of stories.

Thanks to the maximum overload attention brought by the national press, a new name has joined the list. Ferguson.

Ferguson, like these other stories, now sparks debate and discussion around the country by people who had never heard of the community until the national media provided blanket round-the-clock coverage.

“Not only is daily journalism driven by what loosely can be termed bad news, events that are extraordinary and potentially harmful. There is a perverse appeal among journalists for exceptionally bad news, for the latest big scare story,’’ said W. Joseph Campbell, a professor in the School of Communication at American University, and the author of six books on the media. He also writes a blog, Media Myth Alert, which focuses on stories about and/or by the news media that prove to be exaggerated.

An examination of national media coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Columbine, Co., present a blueprint for what the local media and community in Ferguson can expect. When a local breaking news story attracts the interest of national media, the two engage in a tug-of-war with sources and angles to determine who owns the story.

Campbell said the presence of out-of-town media injects an interesting and probably under-studied dynamic into coverage of major, developing events. “Local media can be expected to have better local sources; national media can be expected to have better national (or non-local) sources. This dynamic can lead to a tension in the coverage and to conflicting emphases in news reports,’’ he said.

Campbell spent 20 years as a journalist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Hartford Currant and Associated Press. His 2010 book, Getting it Wrong, examined coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation that hit the Gulf of Mexico in 2005.

“The non-local Katrina coverage focused largely on New Orleans, where it was thought – wrongly – that in the hurricane’s aftermath, a major American city was in the grips of apocalyptic horror and unimaginable mayhem,’’ Campbell said. “As I discussed in Getting it Wrong, that apocalyptic reporting was highly inaccurate but effectively defamed New Orleans and its people.’’

J. Brian Houston, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Missouri and co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center, cites a research paper published in October in explaining why Ferguson became a media sensation.

Authors Amber E. Boydstun, assistant professor in political science, University of California, Davis; Anne Hardy, Ph.D. student in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, and Stefaan Walgrave, professor in political science, University of Antwerp, Belgium, titled their research “Two Faces of Media Attention: Media Storm versus Non-Storm Coverage.”

The authors define a media storm as “a sudden surge in news coverage of an item, producing high attention for a sustained period.”

Novelty, conflict, crisis and threat are all characteristics of an event that might drive media coverage, Houston said. “An African-American being killed by police in an American city {as with Ford, Garner and Crawford} will often not elicit a lot of media coverage,’’ Houston said.

But Ferguson elevated to the status of media storm when the national media’s spotlight both validated the story’s importance and influenced the events. “The protests and demonstrations that followed Michael Brown’s death were noteworthy and the police militarized response brought even more attention to these events,’’ Houston said.

“In some ways this is similar to the Civil Rights movement, in which nonviolent demonstrators elicited a violent police response, and this police response is what captured the media’s (and the nation’s) attention. In terms of school shootings, it is now the case that school shootings in which only a few students are killed or injured barely register on the national media’s radar. It is now only extremely devastating events like Newtown or the theater shooting in Aurora, Co. that results in a media storm,’’ Houston said.

The national media come to cover a local story. In turn, that begins a cycle where local residents respond to the attention of the national media, who then cover those events. “The Ferguson protestors are likely motivated by the national media attention in that media attention is necessary for any sociopolitical movement,’’ Houston said. “A movement must generate media interest, mobilize bystander publics and constrain the options of opponents to be successful, so media attention is the first cog in this process.’’

Like Campbell, Houston also says the national media can create a false impression of the community involved. St. Louis residents have expressed dismay at the national media coverage of their city, Houston said.

“And I have some sympathy for this. For example, Ferguson is a much nicer and more middle class town than what is shown in the picture that is drawn in the national media. Issues are often more complex than how they are described in the national media, and perhaps this simplification could have negative consequences for the local community,’’ he said.

Those negative consequences showed up in the hours and days after the Dec. 14, 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School were shot by a gunman who killed himself as police arrived to the scene.

Curtiss Clark, editor of the weekly community newspaper the Newtown Bee, has been at the paper for 40 years. His staff arrived first on the scene and provided first news of the tragedy.

Clark said he and his staff quickly realized two unexpected aspects of covering the story. One was that Bee staff members, as part of, rather than separate from, their community, were telling the stories of their friends and neighbors. The Bee joined other businesses in the community by putting a card in its window: ‘We Are Sandy Hook / We Choose Love,’ in green and white, the school’s colors.

Secondly, when overwhelmed by the media attention, community residents struggled to understand that not all media are created equal, nor is all coverage. “Sadly, there has also been persistent interest in the people of Newtown by conspiracy theorists (we call them Truthers), who assert in blogs and YouTube rants that the Sandy Hook massacre never took place, that it was a false flag operation by the government designed to foment opposition to the Second Amendment rights of gun owners,’’ Clark said.

Yet, even many of those 200 journalists who joined Clark and his eight editors and reporters in covering the story portrayed Newtown as something it was not. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams went to the Connecticut town and called it ‘the saddest place on earth,’ a description, Clark said, that failed to acknowledge how soon after the tragedy residents began organizing to offer each other support.

Three days after what locals call 12/14, the Bee published a special edition – the first since the paper’s founding in 1877 – entirely about the tragedy. Clark’s editorial in the edition, ‘Answering For Our Town,’ won the 2013 Allan B. Rogers Editorial Award, which recognizes the best editorial written on a local subject in New England.

Clark said the editorial tried to counter the portrait of the town created by the national media. {See sidebar.} “There is a perception locally that the fascination of outside media with the Newtown community and of certain individuals who live here is a kind of invasive species, not to be fed or encouraged,’’ Clark said.

“That, we know, is a sweeping generalization, and is unfair to the many sensitive and perceptive journalists who have worked the Newtown story since 2012. But it has grown out of experiences so many people in town have had with unfamiliar reporters casually crossing the frontiers of our emotional and physical privacy in a time of high emotion, when we hardly knew what to say to ourselves let alone to the great world on the other side of the klieg lights,’’ Clark said.

Campbell said that same type of anger and frustration of national media coverage is remembered almost 20 years later with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, which is the topic of his next book, ‘1995: The Year The Future Began’. “Local residents still remember when Connie Chung of CBS News asked whether the city’s fire department or emergency response teams were up to the challenge,’’ Campbell said.

In the case of Ferguson, attempts by the national media to cover the story in the weeks after the shooting and leading up to the grand jury report include:

*Stories that linked drunken college students in Keene, N.H., who smashed hundreds of pumpkins carved for the annual Pumpkin Fest to the protests in Ferguson over Brown’s death.

*A six-minute CNN interview aired Sept. 27 with NBA star Lebron James that uses the keywords Ferguson, domestic violence and the father he never knew to describe it. James is asked about Ferguson; in his short response he said he sometimes feels moved to speak out on events as he did with the Trayvon Martin case, but never utters a word about Ferguson.

*Stories in the two weeks after Brown’s death about how former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “remains silent” and “ignores questions” on the shooting. When she addressed the issue Aug. 28 – 19 days after the incident – CNN reported Clinton had finally commented afterweeks of silence.”

*Stories about the Georgia Democratic Party’s flyers urging African-Americans to vote Nov. 4 to prevent another Ferguson. The flyer showed two young black boys holding signs that read Don’t Shoot.

*Stories with Rev. Al Sharpton discussing “The Ferguson Effect” about holding police accountable by having citizens videotape police actions on cell phones.

*USA Today’s Page 1 story in late November about Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s preparations for the announcement by the grand jury.

Campbell called the bold headline “State of Emergency” borderline misleading. “Readers wouldn’t immediately know to what event the headline was referring,’’ he said.

Houston said the Pumpkin riot on its own did not rise to the level of a media storm. “But one of the interesting aspects of this event is the largely white Pumpkin rioters were written off as kids getting out of hand generally, where the Ferguson protestors are often framed as much more of a threat,’’ he said. “This may have something to with race, with the fact that Ferguson protestors have in mind social change while the Pumpkin rioters don’t, or with some combination thereof.’’

Houston’s University of Missouri colleague, Berkley Hudson, associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism, echoes the thought that race plays a part in why Ferguson has attracted so much outside attention. In a 2007 article in Journalism History Hudson examines the coverage in 1934 of a black farmer who called President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help.

Hudson wrote that ‘a key aspect’ of the research considers how the mainstream press, including the New York Times, treated Harris compared to African-American newspapers.  Hudson said the role of the mainstream white press versus the African-American press in coverage of racially tinged issues needs to be considered when examining stories such as Ferguson.

Such surface level and/or inaccurate coverage by the national media become known to local media and residents experiencing such a story only when it happens to them. Otherwise, exposure just to the national stories fails to give readers any context as to how the national coverage falls in line with local reporting.

“Local media can feel overwhelmed and a bit shocked by the sudden and intensive presence of out-of-town reporters and camera crews and producers,’’ Campbell said, “who sometimes run rather roughshod over local sensibilities.’’

A couple of days after the Newtown shooting, Clark and the Bee staff received a heads-up on what would happen along those lines. Caryn Boddie, who in April, 1999, was a reporter for the weekly Columbine Courier, contacted the Bee.

“I offered to help them,’’ said Boddie, who described her job as a part-time mom reporter for the Courier. “I knew what would be involved emotionally in covering such an event in their community. One of the students at Columbine, a boy who jumped out the window (to escape), went to Sunday School at my church. Objectivity would be hard. My heart went out to them (the Bee staff).’’

Boddie had been with the Courier for a month when her editor called her at home. He told her the police scanner reported a shooting at Columbine High School, which was five minutes from her house.

She was not just the first reporter there, but for quite a while the only journalist on the scene. “I got there before the police tape was put up,’’ she said. “I ran into the north parking lot. I saw a police officer and said I’m going to follow you.’’

She stayed at the school for days on end, she said, and spent days and days covering memorials and funerals of the 12 students and one teacher who were killed, as well as providing coverage of the 21 others shot, three injured trying to escape and the two student shooters, plus the community reaction. Boddie said what she experienced traumatized her, creating gaps in her memory of some of the events.

But Boddie said she remembers what she called the mushroom cloud of national media coverage that soon descended upon the area. “There were good ones,’’ she said, “who tried to do a good job. But many of them knew that this was the big one for their careers, the one that would get them noticed.’’

A public memorial in the park drew the upper echelon of media in 1999, including Barbara Walters. Walters won one of the big scoops, interviewing the family of a boy who lost half his face when shot.

What people in the community also remember is another media’s attempt at the story. “Someone called the boy’s uncle the night he was shot and offered $10,000 for a picture of his face,’’ Boddie said.

It took about nine months before the national media left the area and moved on to other stories. They returned for the one-year anniversary and five-year anniversary, but by the 10th Boddie said the national media’s attention span had run out.

Boddie at first tried to defend her profession. Then she tried to defend herself, telling people she was a local journalist and not like the national press. A year after the shooting, she left the paper to freelance and work in communication in the Littleton area, where she still lives.

Local media in towns with a national story soon learn that while the national press rolls on to the next story, their coverage will be never-ending. In the months since Brown was shot, the national media have blitzed through Ferguson stories, ISIS, Russia’s attempt to take over Ukraine, the new Apple phone, protests in Hong Kong and Ebola. Probably much to his relief, the media’s attention shifted to Ferguson and away from Donald Sterling as well as dropping any interest in the missing Malaysian airplane.

In late October the Newtown Bee had three stories that followed up in some way the aftermath of the shooting.  In comparison, only NBC and UPI provided national media coverage in September when a playground was dedicated to Dawn Lafferty, the principal killed in the shooting.

“The national media haven’t really moved on from the story, but they do seem to have moved on from Newtown,’’ Clark said. “We were told by the Columbine people that we could expect a drop-off in the intense interest in the community after the first anniversary of the shooting. And that’s pretty much what happened.’’

For the first anniversary in December, 2013, Clark said local leaders in town made a conscious decision to keep the commemorations low-key and private. “That denied the outside media a locus within the town for anniversary coverage and spared townspeople a repeat of the media circus that encamped in Newtown in the weeks after the 2012 shootings,’’ he said.

In a multi-story package Aug. 29 on the ninth anniversary of Katrina, which killed 1,833 people, the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote, “August 29, 2005. New Orleans will forever exist as two cities: The one that existed before that date, and the one after.”

With few exceptions, coverage of the ninth anniversary garnered notice only from local media along the Gulf. Limited national coverage included weather blogs and localized stories.

Next year, when Katrina hits its milestone 10th anniversary, coverage and rehashing of the 2005 storm should be greater. But maybe not much more, Houston said.

“The 10th anniversary will probably get more attention, but I don’t think it will rise to the level of a media storm,’’ he said. “Even the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks didn’t seem to get a huge amount of coverage. These events are no longer novel or threatening and so I think much of the media and public pay less attention to them. ‘’

Such inattention might also be good for the physical and mental well-being of readers. Two professors at the University of California, Irvine, researched the impact of watching at least six hours a day of media coverage of Sept. 11, 2001, and the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

E. Alison Holman, associate professor of nursing, and Roxane Cohen Silver, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, found that those who watched had more acute stress than those who were at the marathon. Acute stress symptoms increased with each additional hour spent on media coverage of the bombing.

Silver said there is also evidence that people who watch multiple media traumatic events build up ongoing health issues. Symptoms of acute stress include intrusive thoughts, feeling on edge, avoiding reminders of the event and feeling detached from it.

“Media outlets, policymakers, parents, psychologists and other health-care professionals must be sensitive to the potential negative consequences of a steady diet or sudden influx of this material,’’ the 2013 study concludes.

So is there any role for the national media in these types of stories? Can they have a positive influence?

Images & Voices of Hope, a nonprofit group that focuses on how the media can be a force for good, said stories of recovery and resilience can make a difference. IVOH calls these types of stories Restorative Narratives.

IVOH Director Mallory Jean Tenore said she is developing a Fellowship on Restorative Narratives set to launch after Dec. 1. It will examine the impact of such coverage.

“I think some people confuse Restorative Narratives with fluffy feature stories,” Tenore said.  “These narratives are deeper than that. They reveal hard truths but highlight themes of renewal, resilience and recovery, themes that are often overlooked in breaking news stories about crimes, tragedies, problems,’’ she said.

This coverage approach responds to what people want, Tenore said. “I think people have become much more open to the idea of media being a force for good,’’ she said. “I think they realize that you can be a good journalist who cares about the people and communities you cover without being a biased advocate.’’

Campbell said journalists should remember to demonstrate restraint and skepticism. “But I doubt that will necessarily happen in the coverage of major disasters,’’ he said. “Journalists covering disaster must often rely on public officials for critical details about casualties and relief efforts. But in doing so they are not expected to shed the skepticism they develop about the officials and personalities they cover. Journalism, after all, is not stenography.”

As the second anniversary of Newtown approaches, Clark sees the local coverage and national coverage taking different paths. “The Sandy Hook School massacre in Newtown has become a benchmark in the national debate over gun violence,’’ he said. “So many stories on the issue begin, ‘In the 20 months since Sandy Hook…’ What we have seen over the past year, however, is another iteration of media interest in the form of documentary producers and book authors exploring the impact of the tragedy on the community and presumably to make some sense of it or to draw some lessons from it.’’

The Bee will continue to report on the work of the dozens groups that sprung up to honor the 26 people killed that day. Events and news of these groups and the transition of the community course through Newtown day by week by month by year, he said.

“Things are happening, and keeping up with community happenings is what a local newspaper does,’’ Clark said. “So yes, in a sense, this is a story that we will always be covering. Grief, it turns out, is a most fertile medium for growth, and a growing town generates a lot of news.’’

Monumental muckups memorialized

When former New York Times Executive Editor Abraham “A.M.” Rosenthal died in May 2006, his obituary lauded his numerous accomplishments during his 56 years at the newspaper.

He had won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting and led the paper through coverage of the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers. He also was credited as initiating the now industry standard practice of running corrections in a fixed spot for readers to find. The New York Times chose Page 2 for its corrections, and many newspapers followed. He and the Times began the practice in 1972.

It is perhaps then both ironic and a tribute to Rosenthal’s insistence on accuracy that his own obituary needed a correction the next day in the paper’s main competitor. The Washington Post’s obituary remarked on Rosenthal’s rela­tionship with the late NYT publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Sulzberger, who died last year, was very much alive at the time of Rosenthal’s passing.

Other corrections have endured to become classics in newspaper lore and beyond:

• Once the New York Times jumped into the business of running correc­tions each day on Page 2, the “Corrections” column quickly became a must-read. No detail was too trivial to escape correcting in the name of accuracy. One of the more famous ones ran in April 1981: “An article about decorative cook­ing incorrectly described a presentation of Muscovy duck by Michael Fitoussi, a New York chef. In preparing it, Mr. Fitoussi uses a duck that has been killed.” The correction became the title of the book “Kill Duck Before Serving,” pub­lished in 2002. It is a collection of some of the more unusual corrections to run in the New York Times.

• In July 2004, the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader ran a Page 1 correction apologizing for failing to cover the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It led off a package of stories on the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

• In 1987, advice columnist Abigail Van Buren, a.k.a. “Dear Abby,” offered advice to an Iowa farmer who had been hiccupping nonstop for 65 years. She said the man found temporary relief through “carbon monoxide.” The next day she corrected that to “carbon dioxide.”

• In May 2008, the Washington Post misspelled the 1987 winning word – “serrefine” – in an article about that year’s National Spelling Bee.

• In a recent story, the San Diego (Calif.) Tribune, in a correction titled “Missing-dog story proved incorrect,” said that the paper “incorrectly reported that a guide dog owned by a blind 7-year-old boy was missing. The boy, Rob­ert Maurice, son of Lila Maurice of Ramona, is not blind, and the dog, which does not belong to the boy and is not a guide dog, has been found. The story was based on a police report and from information provided by a relative. The Tribune regrets the errors.”

Mistakes happen, but how do we tell the readers?

When the NFL opened its season in early Sep­tember, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning grabbed much of the attention when he guided his team to a win over Baltimore by throwing a record-tying seven touchdown passes.

The next day, though, it was the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch that captured headlines over its own headline about the game. In its early print editions, the Dis­patch’s page C3 headline said Elway – as in 53-year-old Hall of Fame, long-since retired, former Denver Bron­cos quarterback John Elway – had thrown those game-winning scores.

Media across the country jumped on the error, which the Dispatch also inserted into the wire services story that ran above the fold Sept. 6. A photo of the incorrect headline made its way onto other media web­sites and became part of lengthy discussions on sports talk shows across the country.

Dispatch assistant sports editor Brian Hofmann said on Twitter, “It’s a bad morning watching your paper’s mistake go viral.”

No doubt it was, just as that sinking feeling of, “Oh, no!” strikes in all newsrooms when a mistake works its way into publication. While the feeling might be common, how the Dispatch handled it diverges greatly compared to how many other newspapers treat errors.

Online that day and in the next day’s print edition, the Dispatch acknowledged and apologized for the error. Not that it had a choice, given the attention drawn to the mistake. For the Dispatch, though, the practice to openly deal with corrections stands up whether for a national-attention-drawing mistake or something as simple as the wrong date on an event.

Page 2 standard left behind

A survey of 80 newspapers in the 16-state Gateway Journalism Review coverage area found that corrections are difficult to find. A search of websites showed 32 of the newspapers had corrections in August; the other newspapers, if they run the corrections, make them nearly impossible to find. Only one newspaper includes corrections as a permanent topic header.

As newspapers evolve more toward online rather than print editions, the once-standard practice of Page 2 corrections has been left behind. No longer do readers have either a regular place to view corrections or a clear method on how to report an error. Only 12 of the 80 newspapers had a designated standards person or an online form for submitting corrections.

That newspapers will make mistakes is a given, although most newspa­pers surveyed have yet to run a single locally generated correction this year. As the late Washington Post political columnist David Broder said during his 1973 speech upon accepting the Pulitzer Prize, “I would like to see us say – over and over, until the point has been made – that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours. … But it’s the best we could do under the circumstanc­es, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected and updated version.”

That sentiment and promise showed up in the 1690 newspaper “Pub­lick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick” published by Benjamin Harris. In his one and only edition of the newspaper on Sept. 25 – making the first time a newspaper was printed in what would 100 years later be known as the United States – Harris wrote, “Nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected in the next.”

Over the next centuries, newspapers followed that rule with varying styles, sometimes following different formats in the same newspaper. Credit for setting a consistent method to handle corrections goes to former New York Times executive editor Abraham Rosenthal. In 1972 he standardized how corrections would be printed in each issue, designating Page 2 as where corrections would run.

Newspapers across the country picked up on this idea. Readers soon learned to go to Page 2 to see corrections and the newspaper’s policy, and to find contact information for submitting notice that an error had been made.

In recent years, as newspapers have trended toward more online pub­lishing, that Page 2 standard has lagged – if not been left behind completely. In the ongoing migration from print to online, corrections have failed to make the jump to most websites.

Just as in the pre-Rosenthal method days, the practice varies greatly – when it is followed at all. Some newspapers merely change the wrong informa­tion in an online story update without acknowledging there was an error.

Others put a note on the article explaining a previous error has been fixed. Some run corrections separately as part of their online news stream.

Building credibility

Since 2004, journalist Craig Silver­man has viewed thousands of corrections for his blog “Regret the Error” – which, in December 2011, became part of the Poynter Institute. He recently was the winner of a Mirror award given by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communica­tions for best commentary in media industry reporting.

Silverman points to the long tradi­tion of corrections starting with Harris and including Rosenthal’s contributions as ways newspapers have built credibility.

“A survey done in 1998 by the ASNE found that more than 60 percent of news­paper readers felt better about the quality of news coverage when they saw corrections,” Silverman said. “It also found that 78 percent of people who see corrections of errors they’ve noticed feel better about the newspaper.”

His media commentary over the past several years repeatedly has stated that the online versions of newspapers are losing cred­ibility as they ignore the need for a correc­tions format on their websites.

“Online is not the same kind of ordered universe that newspapers were in the 1970s,” Silverman said. “Standards and leaders are still emerging. Readers know that journal­ists make mistakes. As a result, the absence of corrections won’t fool anyone; rather, it’s more likely to make readers suspicious and less willing to trust a news outlet.”

Silverman and Scott Rosenberg of Medi­aBugs – an online site that helps readers get media errors corrected – founded the Report an Error Alliance. Its 130 members include the Missourian, the University of Missouri’s newspaper produced by its School of Journal­ism. Members who join endorse the idea of a “report an error” link on media websites.

Having a dedicated link tells readers ac­curacy is the priority.

“That page should be updated at least daily, if not as it happens,” Silverman said. “Corrections should also be placed on the offending content as well, to ensure future readers see the disclosure. Too many news organizations will simply scrub away an error by editing the story and not also place a cor­rection for the record.”

Consistency counts

Of the 80 newspaper sites viewed, just one – the Jamestown Sun in North Da­kota – keeps a consistent spot on its website for corrections. The Sun’s managing editor, Kathy Steiner, said the “Corrections” tab was created about five years ago and mirrors cor­rections that run in the daily newspaper.

“The corrections in the print edition run on Page A3, in the same specific place,” Stein­er said. “Errors are to be corrected if they occur, and promptly. That is what maintains credibility. By not correcting an error that comes to our attention, we lose credibility.”

Readers can go to the Sun’s website and view under the “Corrections” tab the 269 corrections dating back to Jan. 30, 2008. That feature, while it provides transparency and is what the Report the Error Alliance recommends, is being dropped. Steiner said that in the near future, when the website is updated, there no longer will be a specific subcategory for corrections.

The Chicago Tribune provides the easi­est method to submit corrections, and the easiest method for readers to find them. The website’s “Contact Us” information provides a specific link for reporting an error.

Clicking on that takes the reader to a detailed form to submit the information. It asks what type of error was made (whether in a story, graphic, caption or video) and asks for details, such as when it ran, under what headline and under what byline. It also includes a telephone number to call if that is a preferred contact method.

As well, when a reader clicks on the con­tact information, the 10 most recent correc­tions to have run appear. Later ones appear in the online archives.

Tribune standards editor Margaret Holt said this policy continues a wide-reaching accuracy program started in 1991, when the then-public editor’s office was established and the newsroom began a varied process of tracking and analyzing mistakes.

“We moved further in 1996, when we adopted an accuracy form in which we asked staffers to explain mistakes,’’ Holt said. “We made it part of the culture. For some years a newsroom goal was to improve the quality of work. That is very different from telling people we want to reduce the number of cor­rections. If you do that, people will just quit telling you about mistakes; the number of corrections will drop, to be sure, but it would be delusional to conclude that the quality of work has improved.”

When the newspaper moved to digital printing, Holt and Bill Adee, senior vice president for digital, worked to have the ac­curacy and ethics values follow.

“Bill and the other masthead editors view the Chicago Tribune as one newsroom; people are producing work for print and digital editions all the time,” Holt said. “We say in our ethics code that we expect the same high standards across all our publishing platforms.”

 

The online form feeds to the reader help desk, similar to how print readers follow directions for correc­tions through the Page 2 instructions. They all then find their way to Holt.

“I work directly with the reporters and editors to determine if there is an error,” she said. “Our bias is to fix mistakes, no matter how small, as quickly as possible.”

A commitment to honesty

Even with all that transparency, the Tribune took extra steps regarding a Page 1 story July 21 about a blind man and his guide dog. In the story, the man said he lost his sight while serving in the Gulf War. The story contained a five-paragraph description of the explosion he said resulted in his blindness.

A reader contacted the paper with concerns on the accuracy of the description of the explosion. The paper then checked Army records and questioned the man. He admitted he had not been blinded in an explosion, was not a veteran and had lost his sight because of diabetes.

The Tribune’s “Note to Readers” – labeled as such rather than as a correction – said the inaccurate informa­tion came from the man in the story. It stated the paper “failed to seek corroboration for his story.” The note details what the man said in follow-up interviews. It ended with the Tribune saying it is taking steps to correct lapses in cor­roborating facts in its reporting and apologized to readers.

Holt said it was clear the story called for a larger explanation.

“It merited further explanation, and we provided it,” she said. “As former Chicago Mayor (Richard) Daley was fond of saying, ‘Simple as that.’ ”

Silverman said running corrections, contrary to what newspapers fear, actually builds credibility with readers, according to the 1998 ASNE survey.

“It upholds our commitment to be honest and transparent about the mistakes we make,” he said. “Cor­rections are a good thing. Readers expect them. By not publishing and promoting corrections online, newspa­pers and other journalism organizations are not uphold­ing one of the basic responsibilities we have.”

For newspapers concerned about transparency regard­ing errors on their websites, four areas should be addressed:

• Designate a person to receive the information. Under the “Contact Us” information, provide a specific person for readers to contact for submission of errors. Without a specific person designated, readers (remember, they are likely already angry at the paper) might believe their request falls into the online equivalent of the “circular file.” The contact information should include an email and a telephone num­ber. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch provides contact informa­tion for correcting high school sports errors – a nice touch, as sports departments frequently have irate parents calling to correct statistics.

• Make it reader-friendly and easy to use. The Chicago Tribune provides one of the best forms for doing so. It begins with a blank space for the person to explain the error. It then asks if it was seen online or in print (a tweak of the software here would allow for someone to choose both) and, if seen online, asks the person to provide the link. The form asks on what date the error was seen, and if it was in a story, photo caption, video or graphic. It then asks for the headline and the byline that accompanied the mistake. The submit­ter’s name, email, city, state and telephone number are requested. To better verify the submitter’s information, an area could be added to ask the person how he or she is aware of the error (i.e., “Were you a source in the story?” or “How are you familiar with the content published?”).

• Set up a “Corrections” page on the website. This will allow a permanent place of record for readers to see new and archived corrections. Placing a correction as a separate item on the website’s “river flow” of stories, along with all other updates, allows the paper (or perhaps the person making the mistake) to make the flow move faster by updating a story several times. This bumps the correction far enough down­river to become lost to readers. Make all corrections, regard­less of when they ran, available for free. Run corrections both as separate items and tagged onto the original story.

• Include with all of this a clear policy explaining how the newspaper will handle submissions of error. Include details. Will all submissions warrant a response by the contact person, even if no error is found to correct? (They should.) Will corrections be printed only on errors of fact, or will clarifications also run? Will the policy include how the mistake was made, by whom, and how it came to the newspaper’s attention, such as from a reader?  To further promote transparency, the policy should outline the internal process followed, from the receipt of a submitted form to the printed correction.

Experts: Workplace violence catches media unaware

Jeffrey Johnson dressed in his one suit, left his apartment and waited outside his former workplace the morning of Aug. 23, 2012.

When Steven Ercolino approached with another Harzen Import employee, Johnson pulled out a gun and killed Ercolino. Johnson, 58, then was killed and nine bystanders wounded in the resulting police gunfire response. Ercolino and Johnson had worked together at Harzen. The former co-workers did not get along, according to police.

The story ran in media across the country and around the world, not so much for what it was – a fatal workplace violence incident – but because of where it was. The August fatalities took place in front of the Empire State Building.

That famous New York landmark warranted the media’s attention in a way other workplace fatalities in 2012 and previous years usually do not. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries shows that on average two people a day die from workplace violence incidents – or about 17 percent of all fatal injuries in the workplace – such deaths rarely are mentioned beyond local media.

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ESPN refusing to fix its Fine mess

Lord Alistair McAlpine endured eight days of being known throughout the United Kingdom as the man who sexually abused Steve Messham in North Wales several years ago.

The claim came the night of Nov. 2 on a report by the British Broadcasting Co

rp. investigative show “Newsnight,” which by its own admission in a Nov. 12 follow-up failed to contact McAlpine for comment or input on the original story. Although the Nov. 2 broadcast did not name him, social media speculated on the accuser’s identity. McAlpine issued a statement two days later saying he had never been to the children’s home in which the accuser had lived.

As is now known, “Newsnight” made a horrendous mistake in the Nov. 2 report. Messham said he was wrong when accusing McAlpine because of mistaken identity in a photo, according to a statement he read Nov. 9 on “Newsnight.” On that show, BBC presenter Eddie Mair opened with a 30-second segment that featured an apology to McAlpine from his accuser, and ended with this statement: “We also apologise unreservedly for having broadcast this report.”

McAlpine’s innocence has received as much (if not more) attention than did the accusations against him – in large part because of the repercussions of those involved in the inaccurate reporting. But in a similar incident, former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine’s own name-clearing one week ago came nowhere close to the attention given the accusations a year ago he sexually molested SU ball boys.

Fine, in fact, has yet to receive a public apology from any of his four accusers (two of whom admitted they made up the accusations), or from the university where he had worked for 35 years that fired him 10 days after the accusations were made. He also has not received an apology from any media source that accused him of wrongdoing, most notably ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” program and reporter Mark Schwarz.

It was a year ago this week that ESPN aired an “Outside the Lines” report by Schwarz[O3] that named two former SU ball boys, stepbrothers Bobby Davis and Mike Lang, who claimed Fine had sexually abused them. In that initial story, the program downplayed the fact that Davis had come to the sports network in 2003 with the same story, while Lang then had denied Fine abused him.

But a year ago, news coverage of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse of children while he was an assistant football coach at Penn State University created a much different environment for that sort of accusation. Over the next several weeks, Schwarz and ESPN “broke” several stories on the matter, including telephone conversations taped with Davis and Fine’s wife, Laurie; accuser Zach Tomaselli’s details of abuse; and the network’s own role in reporting the case. ESPN defended both its decision to not provide to police a tape of the conversation between Laurie Fine and Davis, as well as the fact that Schwarz introduced Davis and Tomaselli after Tomaselli came forward following the initial ESPN story.

(Excerpts of the conversation between Laurie Fine and Davis, which were made public, implied Laurie Fine knew of abuse going on by her husband and in her home.)

Earlier this year, Tomaselli – whose story of the accusations changed numerous times as facts challenged the truth of them – admitted he made up the accusations. He also said Davis coached him on what to say, according to an April story in the Syracuse Post-Standard.

“I’m ready to step forward and admit that I fabricated the Bernie Fine story,” Tomaselli said in the April 13 story.

Rather than offering any apology to Fine, Tomaselli said he enjoyed the national media spotlight the story created for him.

While many sports writers and columnists quickly linked Syracuse and Penn State as equal villains in child abuse scandals, in the past week only one news source appears to have said that was wrong. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote Oct. 19 – before the federal investigation against Fine was announced as over – that a year after he wrote, “The closer you look at Syracuse basketball, the more it does, in fact, resemble football at Penn State,” he had changed his mind.

“The refusal of The Post-Standard to publish an article about Davis’s allegations — charges it could never corroborate — now looks like responsible journalism rather than a dereliction of duty,” Nocera wrote last month. “The university hired the law firm of Paul Weiss to review its actions in 2005. The firm concluded that, while the university had made mistakes, it had investigated Davis’s allegations diligently and had come to the same conclusion as the newspaper: there was simply no proof.

“With the passage of time, ESPN is the one that appears to have acted irresponsibly — along with the rest of us who piled on. … What the Bernie Fine case really shows is not how far we’ve come, but how much further we have to go.”

When the Syracuse University men’s basketball season began last week, for the first time in 36 years Bernie Fine was not on the bench next to coach Jim Boeheim. Most of the follow-up stories this past week note that he is without a job, his Syracuse-area home is up for sale and his wife is suing ESPN for libel.

The BBC error also has resulted in people losing their jobs — only these were not the wrongly accused, but those who did the wrong accusing. The BBC has put two senior editors on leave, suspended all investigative activities by “Newsnight” and accepted the resignation of BBC head George Entwistle, who took over just two months ago. Complicating the decision by “Newsnight” to air the report that led to McAlpine was an apparent cover-up of one of the BBC’s longtime and best-known personalities, the late Jimmy Savile, who is thought to have molested up to 300 children.

The BBC also has stated this week that it expects more disciplinary action as both matters are further investigated. This statement came during a 15-minute story “Newsnight” did Nov. 12 about the BBC and whether it can restore its credibility with its audience.

In its report Nov. 9 of the decision by federal investigators to drop the investigation of Fine, ESPN highlights its own involvement with just one mention of airing the tape between Davis and Laurie Fine: “The same day, ESPN aired an audiotape in which Fine’s wife, Laurie Fine, apparently acknowledged to Davis she knew about the molestation he alleged.”

The only other portion of the story that elaborates on Fine’s innocence is one line: “From the start, there were doubts.”

That was as close as ESPN came to acknowledging Fine might not have been as guilty as charged by the network and Schwarz, who said last December he had no doubt of the stories told by the accusers. He has yet to make any comment on the investigation being dropped. He did not do ESPN’s story last week on the matter. ESPN, in fact, did not do the story at all, but used a report by the Associated Press.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC and “Newsnight” have taken swift steps to erase the doubts of its credibility with its viewers, who have expressed disappointment and outrage in comments online and in print.

ESPN, on the other hand, has so far ignored the thousands of comments on its website, and others, as well as social media that call for an apology and for Schwarz to be fired.

A year ago, ESPN and the rest of the U.S. media piggybacked the Fine story on the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. This time around there appears to be no such attempt to follow the lead of the BBC in its handling of a sexual abuse of children story.

Pat Louise is a 1984 (Newhouse) and 2001 (Whitman) graduate of Syracuse University. Her journalism career has included six years at the Syracuse Post-Standard, including three years as a sports editor heading up coverage of SU sports. She lives in upstate New York, where she is publisher of a community weekly newspaper and teaches journalism at Utica College.

And now for something completely different: Times-Picayune forges transition path

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In May the owners of the award-winning New Orleans Times-Picayune announced they were redefining the way newspapers transitioned into the next life. Rather than die a slow and (to the Newhouse family) costly death, the T-P — which actually still made money as a newspaper — would instead commit print suicide by putting a newspaper in subscribers’ mailboxes just three days a week.

The 200 job cuts in New Orleans — one-third of the staff, or half of the newsroom —combined with other Advance Company-owned newspapers in Alabama to put 600 newspaper employees out of work in October. Those not offered a severance package can stay, but they had better like whatever job they are given in the fall.

Like it? Frankly, they might well have a hard time understanding it. Because just as those who stay will no longer work for the Times-Picayune, but instead for the Nola Media Group, Advance Company has redefined just what it means to be a reporter.

For decades, we all went along with the accepted Webster’s definition of reporter. Mainly, one who reports. If we wanted to sprinkle in some details, we could add “for a newspaper or media outlet”. A news hunter and gatherer.

Such a simple and straightforward definition now appears to have gone the way of a seven-days-a-week print publication. The Nola Group advertised for reporters in June; the ad included a 15-point list of talents and characteristics that even Clark Kent would struggle to understand.

It begins: The Reporter (did the AP Stylebook approve this capitalization?) will report and produce news stories. Ok, so it’s more of a reporter-producer role. Much like a fire truck can be both a tanker and a pumper.

Ah, but the lead-in continues. ‘‘Report and produce for various platforms’’ – platforms, did this get mixed up with an ad for an architect? – and ‘‘act as a statewide expert and discussion leader on high-value topics, meeting audience demand for immediacy, depth and engagement.’’

Statewide expert? Discussion leader? Meeting audience demand? “Hi, I’m Oprah Winfrey and I’m here about the reporter ad.’’

Bullet point No. 1 asks that the reporter, excuse me, Reporter, “write journalistically sound news elements.” A reporter required to be a journalistically sound writer? Isn’t that redundantly obvious? And it goes on, stating “the information must be balanced and factual, timely and topical and well-sourced and contextually correct.’’

Oh, the Reporter is only required to be contextually correct, not factually accurate. If the mayor says that aliens took over the Superdome, no need to check that. Just be sure that you don’t say they are blue if he said they are purple.

Bullet point No. 2 says the Reporter “must learn and employ all techniques for effective digital beat blogging.’’ I’ll give it this: The ad puts “beat blogging” in quotes. And well it should be. But it would be more helpful to have been given hints about the parts of speech “beat” and “blogging” play in this ad. Is it beat blogging as in, “I’ll give you such a punch,” or Dick Clark giving it an 85 for a catchy melody?

And let’s be adult and honest here for a moment. When Reporter comes home and the significant other asks, “How was your day, dear?” will Reporter really answer thus: “Pretty good. I spent a lot of it at my desk ‘beat blogging.’”

While we might have a vague idea “beat blogging” is something we won’t tell Grandma, Bullet No. 4 leaves no clue as to the actual activity. “Engage in story aggregation and topical link posting.”

I had to look up aggregation. It didn’t help. A group, body or mass composed of many distinct parts or individuals. Isn’t that what Jeffrey Dahmer had in his refrigerator?

Bullet No. 7: “Interact on social media platforms (just how big is this platform?) with story shares, objective commentary, promoting your topic and news organization’s content initiatives.’’ Story shares? I’ll trade you one New Orleans Saints bounty hunter story for two BP oil spill updates and a look back at Hurricane Katrina.

And yet, the Reporter is required to be both objective and shamelessly self- and company-promoting. No, really, I’m not just saying this because I wrote it, but you should go to our Web page and share my story with all your friends on Facebook. It would make my boss happy.

I could go on, but will wrap up with this gem. Bullet point No. 9. “Maintain operational communication with editor.” Operational communication? Couldn’t we just … talk? And since when did reporters and editors engage in anything that resembled communication? That’s just not natural.

None of this is natural, actually. It certainly does not seem as if the Pulitzer Prize winning New Orleans Times-Picayune, now to be known as Nola Media Group, is taking steps forward in the name of journalism. Then again, maybe it is. One giant step into nothing, right off that platform.

When Pat Louise started her first job as a reporter for the Corning (NY) Leader many years ago, her boss handed her a map of Steuben County and said, Go find news. She is distraught to realize she is no longer qualified to be a Reporter, even though she spent six years working at a Newhouse-owned newspaper.

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