Category Archives: Articles

Study finds unusual coverage patterns found in Ferguson stories

The shooting death last year of Michael Brown and the subsequent events that followed his death in the Ferguson unrest – protests, vigils, riots, outrage – left the public shocked, longing for answers from both sides of the debate that ensued. Brown’s death sparked renewed national attention to police brutality and the relationship between law enforcement and minorities in the United States. Narratives such as “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “Black lives matter” became prominent in social media conversations, and led to continuous collective action online and offline. But the voices actually heard in the mainstream media coverage of subsequent events may surprise readers, as will their actual contributions to press content.

This study, part of the University of Texas at Austin’s program to engage undergraduates in research, analyzed sourcing and framing practices in the Ferguson coverage of local and national newspapers during the first cycle of protests (Aug. 8 through Sept. 8). The authors examined all articles from the the New York Times, USA TODAY, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, looking for sources as well as patterns of phrases and themes.

This study found journalists emphasized specific context-less episodes, treated social movements critically and used non-official sources who did not share the protestors’ agenda.

Serving as the researchers’ guide were previous studies on the “protest paradigm,” a set of coverage patterns in stories of unrest and crisis that routinely devalue and delegitimize social movements by drawing more attention to the negativity of rioting and confrontation, and giving less attention to the demands and grievances of protestors.  This model stems from standard journalist news values and routines, more specifically their reliance on official sources. Primarily using official sources helps journalists maintain the appearance of objectivity and reduce the need for added, more verified reporting. As a result, information crucial for evaluating a social problem, such as views from those actively advocating its solution, may go unreported. Additionally, a lack of discrepancy and debate about official reports and government information, particularly among official sources, makes the press less able to counter official views.

This study shows that the five newspapers allowed non-official sources – mostly non-elected individuals/spokespersons and local Ferguson residents – to be heard, although journalists often included official sources as well. Overall, sources neither challenged the protest model nor provided context to counter the episodic, or daily, nature of the coverage. In fact, non-official sources were more likely to contribute to or comment about singular events and happenings rather than contributing to thematic or issue-oriented articles that went deeper into the overall implications of Brown’s death and its relation to contributing factors, such as race, poverty or the history of police brutality.

More than one-third of the coverage emphasized rioting and unrest, while a similar proportion of articles emphasized police-protestor confrontation, police arrests and portrayed protestors as combatants. Eight percent of coverage specifically referenced, positively, grievances and demands of advocates from a non-official perspective. This limited presentation of advocates’ demands was accompanied consistently by additional mention of rioting or confrontation. For example, one article from the Washington Post described the double bind caused by police ticketing and poverty in the Ferguson community with a citizen’s first-hand account: “It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double. Get a couple of those and soon most people can’t afford their bills.” Unfortunately, this hidden thematic gem appeared in an article highlighting both the “rage” and unrest of protestors.

Themes emphasizing someone’s social deviance prevailed more in Post-Dispatch content than in national outlets. Many such instances likely can be explained by journalistic norms. Local journalists logically work with and are closer to local official sources on a daily basis. In this instance, truly critical coverage may have higher stakes socially and professionally. Local reporters make their living through these sources more so than do non-local writers.

While journalists may allow more non-official sources during event-driven news, questions remain about how journalists use these sources to criticize the official point of view. Findings of this study suggest that although journalists reach out to non-official sources to aid their reporting, journalists’ adherence to longstanding, officially sanctioned problematic models remains: Coverage continues to minimalize the positions of reformist groups and its case-by-case, singular presentation persists. This helps explain why the Department of Justice’s damning report of Ferguson police becomes news – even when, in fact, it’s the norm. Why and how did journalists fail to recognize the pattern of police misbehavior?

Such evidence raises more questions than answers: Could this situation arise because highly positioned, accessible official sources help direct and dictate what non-official sources reporters use? Do other journalistic practices create sourcing practices? Did coverage change after the Justice report, once official sources granted their seal of approval of the protestors’ grievances? More research clearly would be helpful. For St. Louis reporters, the important question may be: What can you do to be less of a slave to your rigid coverage routines? Or, even when giving voice to the voiceless, why does your content decidedly favor those in power? Is objectivity all it’s cracked up to be?

Authors’ note: Danielle Kilgo and Rachel Mourao are journalism doctoral students at the University of Texas-Austin, and Dr. George Sylvie is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The paper, “Michael Brown as a News Icon: Event-driven news and its impact on protest paradigm” was presented at the 2015 AEJMC conference in San Francisco.

When you’re no longer a ‘new’ editor, you milk it for all it’s worth

In May I celebrated the 14th anniversary of becoming the 15th publisher of the Waterville Times in upstate New York.

In some ways my past lives at daily newspapers register on the memory meter only now and then, perhaps when breaking news falls between our weekly print cycles or, when for the 30th time in a day, people ask me about a hot topic in our community.

I have learned to hold off my laugher when someone starts to tell me about something they heard, and then stop in mid-sentence to say, Oh, wait, I read it in the Times.

For at least the first five years of owning the Times, people always called me the new editor. I wondered just how long someone had to do this job to no longer be new.

Slowly I learned names and titles, names of children and grandchildren, began to unravel the tangled family connections that come in a community where many families have their surnames on local roads and streets.

My mental Rolodex gained speed as I moved beyond names to people’s history when I saw them. Works at the hardware store. Daughter on the basketball team. Wrote the letter to the editor. Son was in our Baby edition.

Still, I would occasionally hear myself introduced as being new. But about five years ago I did something I now trot out as having firmly established my Waterville cred.

Three days of steady spring rains caused creeks to overflow. A bad storm knocked down trees and fences. I knew from listening to my scanner that morning the local fire department was out pumping flooded cellars. I soon left the house to take photos of the damage.

Driving along our local highway just north of the village, I spotted a flash of color that jumped out in the rain and gloom. It was the orange and white of a Guernsey cow, huddled knee deep in a flooded ditch on the shoulder of the highway. I looked at the cow and the tumblers fell into place. Guernsey. Baldwin farm. Denny. Fire chief. Pumping cellars. I knew the cow that had escaped the field and crossed the highway to stand in the flooding ditch belonged to our local fire chief.

I pulled over and called Village Hall, asking the clerk to radio the fire chief to say one of his cows was standing on the side of Route 12. After snapping the cow’s photo, I drove off to take more photos.

Two days later a note came in the mail. ‘Thanks,’ it read. ‘She is one of our best milkers.’

The next time someone started to call me new, I stopped him. “No,’’ I said. “I don’t just know people or their kids or their grandkids or even their dogs. I know their cows.’’

In my rural farming community, there can be no better way to show you belong.

And the view from the editor’s catbird seat…

Hollywood — and perhaps journalists daydreaming about a better life — create an image of the community publisher that may be overly romanticized.

Cheryl Wormley, publisher and co-owner of the Woodstock Independent, used to grocery-shop at 6 a.m. “It was the only way I would get out of there in less than an hour,’’ she said, recalling shopping later in the morning when she’d be sure to run into any number of local residents eager to discuss items that had run – or “should” run – in “their” newspaper.

On Tuesday evenings Bill Miller Jr., general manager of the Washington Missourian, gives tours to Boy Scouts needing their Media badge. Tuesdays is when the press operates. “I take them on the pressroom floor so they can look through the windows and see the press running,’’ Miller said. “It’s still a thrill to see their eyes light up.’’

For Tim Lyke, publisher of the Ripon Commonwealth Press, it can be a struggle not to say anything sarcastic when some people come in and request their news be published. “They say ‘Will you put this in the paper,’’’ Lyke said. “Then ask, ‘What does day does it come out? I don’t read it.’”

“I look at them, because here they just came in to ask for a favor and admitted they don’t buy the paper. Sometimes they get embarrassed and say, I guess I should subscribe. What I want to say is how can you live in a community and not read the local paper? You are taking democracy for granted.’’

Mike Dalton wears the title of editor of the Cannon Falls Beacon, the paper his family has owned since 1880. The job description differs greatly from that of an editor at a larger paper.

“I take care of financials, business decisions, updating our webpage, writing general news stories, writing all of our sports stories and just really whatever needs to be done.’’

At the Eldon Advertiser, Publisher Trevor Vernon operates the press most weeks. “The amount of physical labor it takes to print and insert a newspaper normally surprises people.’’

During college Vernon worked part-time in the press room. His father told him if he was thinking of coming back to work in Eldon, he had to know how to run the press.

“My dad never knew how to run the press. He said when the pressmen would tell him that something wouldn’t work, he never knew if they were afraid to try it or it was something mechanical that really was not possible,’’ Vernon said.

Mary Ungs-Sogaard, publisher of the Cascade Pioneer and Dyersville Commercial in eastern Iowa, had a brief appearance in the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, filmed in Dyersville. “Third extra in the last shot,’’ she said.

The first thing and the last thing she does each day is check emails. “You are a publisher 24/7,’’ she said. “People don’t want to wait till I am at the office.’’

Once when her reporter was on vacation, Ungs-Sogaard took the call about a church on fire. She grabbed her camera and drove to the fire.

“I started shooting as I got to the church,’’ she said. “One of my pictures won a state award. I got a lot of mileage out of that with my staff, letting them know I still could get down in the trenches.’’

Perceived lack of credibility didn’t stop African-Americans from following Ferguson news

Newsrooms in this country have known for nearly half a century that coverage of African-American communities needs fixing. In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, argued that newsrooms should provide more inclusive reporting on racial issues in response to a summer of nationwide inner-city social disorder the summer before. Last year, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson provided ample opportunity to see whether the news media had improved its newsgathering sensitivity. According to many observers, it came up short.

In a dozen in-depth interviews I conducted for research at the University of Texas-Austin, African-American respondents said that Ferguson news coverage in the wake of the shooting once again did nothing to improve credibility or build better relationships with diverse communities.

“In society, trust is not given at the drop of a hat,” a 34-year-old a real estate developer in Chicago told the paper’s author. “So how could media assume a single media performance during a single news event is strong enough to significantly affect trust? The Michael Brown story didn’t affect the way I felt, feel, or will feel about the media.”

This response should serve as a crucial and, to be sure, urgent warning to journalists. Researchers have shown that trust in the media can lead to more time spent following the news. And the more someone follows the news, the more likely one will be engaged in the democratic process. So if African Americans don’t trust the news, they might be further disenfranchised from the democratic process, the consequences of which impact the health of a plural social experience.

During this research, respondents suggested ways for the news media to improve credibility.

1. Stick to the truth. Most interviewees suggested that the news media could build better trust by avoiding reports of unconfirmed rumors and innuendo.

2. Further diversify newsrooms. The news media should hire more African-American journalists, especially to cover predominantly African-American communities.

3. Offer diversity training. A 39-year-old Ferguson racial justice worker explained that covering different social groups is not intuitive. Reporters need to be educated on the nuances found in varying communities. This, she said, will teach reporters to “ask the questions in an empathetic and culturally sensitive way.”

4. Offer more positive stories. The news media too often reside in places of tragedy and disruption. Those stories must be covered to an extent, but room should be made for a richer tapestry of story themes. “The little moments, however sad, inspiring, basic, triumphant, regretful or nostalgic, hit home to humans,” a Chicago accountant said. “Of New York, and of the U.S., and of the world. It’s the basic thing that connects us all, and I think highlighting that could help bridge some gaps.”

5. Don’t obsess over race. One of the more unexpected responses from interviewees was the suggestion that race can also be a distraction to responsible news coverage. A St. Louis graduate student said the news media fumbled a bigger story in Ferguson, one of abusive and unreasonable force by police officers. “The major issue should have been that an officer gunned down an unarmed man in the streets. Race aside, this should be the larger issue. Was it just, and how can we prevent it from happening? Do we need to reevaluate our system of law enforcement?”

The study’s participants also gave suggestions on how the news media could improve relationships between press and community.

1. Focus on people—not stories. During major news events, reporters can tend to sacrifice basic moments of humanity in service to scoops. A Ferguson resident said, “Acknowledge and speak to the people in the community. In African-American communities, we say ‘hi’ to each other, we make eye contact and acknowledge one another. There were several times when I saw the media ignore and look away from the people looking at them. Sometimes they looked terrified and afraid.”

2. Advocate for communities. While many news observers have said that advocacy is not the typical role of mainstream news media outlets, some respondents said it should be. “You want to improve this broken relationship?” a Texas pharmacy representative asked. “Then defend more, exploit less. Allow people to see there is more to African-American life than [crime, drugs, and gangs]. Quit showing us in a negative light.”

3. Remember the Youth. The news media has a responsibility to explain how news events might affect the youth as well as adults. How, for instance, would the Ferguson story change classroom environments? How were young people responding to or participating in the social demonstrations?

4. It’s the Little Things. At least one respondent suggested that news reporters could participate in additional productive ways. “Bring water, or food, or something to show that you are part of the community and that you care,” one study participant said.

Respondents in this study said they wanted more out of the news. Of course, whether the news media take their advice remains to be seen. But even though the news media’s coverage didn’t help build credibility during the Michael Brown coverage, the good news is that African-American respondents still followed the news and will continue to do so going forward. They felt a sense of civic and social responsibility, they said. It stands to reason, then, that any efforts to improve media trust and build better relationships in their communities can—and must—go a long way in reporting people of color in more responsible and productive ways.

In fact, while interviewees said that the news media in Ferguson might not have always been outwardly empathetic to the African-American community’s plight, at least one Ferguson respondent was empathetic about the work those reporters were doing. “They’re kind of brave and courageous for being in some of these stories that they go in,” one interviewee said. “And me myself? I wouldn’t do it.”

Author’s note: Shane M. Graber, a doctoral student of journalism at the University of Texas-Austin, authored the research from which this article is taken. The paper, “Defend More, Exploit Less: African Americans on Media Trust and News Use After Ferguson,” was presented at the 2015 AEJMC conference in San Francisco.

 

Bill Miller Sr. has done it all – over and over again

In columns this year, Bill Miller Sr. has shared his thoughts with readers of the Washington Missourian on Winston Churchill, Brian Williams, pride in America, the family unit in shambles and a local road construction project.

Twice a week, Miller, 85, in his role as editor and publisher, writes most of the editorials that appear in the Missourian. Formally, Miller’s career spans 62 years, beginning when he was discharged from the Army after the Korean War in 1953. But well before that, he wrote sports while in high school and college for the paper his father, James Miller, purchased in 1937.

James Miller bought the Washington Missourian after reporting for newspapers in Kansas and then purchasing a weekly paper in Iowa. With the help of his four sons who worked with him, Miller turned the Missourian into an award-winning twice-weekly publication. In 1991 he joined Joseph Pulitzer and eight others as members of the inaugural class of the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame.

Bill Miller joined his father with that honor in 2003; James Miller’s son Tom was inducted in 2012. Today the Missourian is also the name of the family-owned papers in St. Clair and Union. The Missourian Publishing Co. also publishes a Warren County weekly, a senior citizens magazine and runs a commercial print business.

Publisher Miller works with his son, Bill Miller Jr., who is general manager, and two daughters who are editors.

Miller started out as the sports editor. “The community was growing in the mid-1950s. We bought out a competitor and went to twice a week.’’

His father’s formula was simple, Miller said. “He was a pioneer in Missouri when it came to carrying local photos. We still do that, running over 100 pictures a week in both publications.’’

The Missourian runs school honor rolls and lunch menus, all sorts of local sports, weddings, engagements, births and deaths. “It’s why we will survive,’’ Miller said. “We’ve not changed a whole lot in what has worked all these years.’’

The emphasis is on local news, with Associated Press stories included mainly for state news. The March 5 edition carried a front page story about a new fire truck, an inside story about a loan program that helped a woman become a first-time homeowner, four pages of local sports, a Milestones page and several photos of elementary students receiving recognitions.

Another constant through the almost 80 years of family ownership is striving to maintain credibility in the community. “We have worked hard to keep the respect and trust of our readers,’’ Miller said.

That is not to say the paper backs away from controversial issues. In the Wednesday publications – the paper also comes out on Saturdays – the Missourian carries three editorial pages. Along with Miller’s column and five or six syndicated columnists, the Missourian frequently includes a dozen or more letters to the editor.

“We’ve had some nasty fights with local government,’’ Miller said. “There was a mayor we fought with for years. He used a city-owned grader to build a horse riding ring on his farm for personal use.’’

The Missourian’s editorial pages have paved the way for changes in the community. “We pushed for a city administrator to be hired,’’ Miller said. “Now it’s a model for other cities in Missouri to follow.’’

The paper does selective political endorsements in some races, Miller said. The Missourian used to be Democratic – James Miller knew Harry Truman well – but now is independent.

“We promote the community and also criticize it,’’ Miller said. “We led a grassroots fund raiser for a statue of George Washington, who the town is named after. Also for a proper gravesite for a local Medal of Honor winner.’’

Miller has a long involvement in the Missouri Press Association and the National Newspaper Association. He also serves or has served on a number of community boards and organizations, including as chairman of the hospital board.

In that capacity, he opposed a move by doctors regarding ownership of the hospital. “It was bitter. The doctors fought like hell,’’ he said. “Eight or nine years later, the hospital bought them out. That fight was over, so you look for another one,’’ he laughed.

As long as conflicts are explained to readers, Miller said, community involvement benefits both the community and paper. “I believe in public service,’’ he said. “People want to know you care about things.’’

Through his career from sports editor to editor and publisher, Miller covered every beat at the paper. “Train derailments, crashes, tornadoes … One of the advantages of a small paper is you have a wide variety of news events you get to cover. A large daily gives a reporter just a narrow patch to learn.’’

Large daily newspapers, especially those owned by chains, have done more damage than anything else to journalism, Miller said. “Editors are in and out. Nobody puts down roots because they’re aiming for the next big jump.

“The bottom line is all they care about. Hell, if I was interested in the bottom line I’d be in another line of business.’’

 

 

 

 

 

Scandals will fade but lobbying still drives the Missouri legislature

A series of sex scandals that revealed tawdry affairs among top officials in Missouri’s state capital made for titillating reading this summer and stirred up a controversy about journalistic ethics.

Sex scandals in Jefferson City are nothing new, say veteran statehouse reporters. Bad behavior by lawmakers and lobbyists has plagued the legislature for a century.

What is new is the social media technology that ensnares straying legislators and the willingness of the press to name names. The decision by the Post-Dispatch’s veteran and highly regarded statehouse reporter, Virginia Young, to name a female former aide of the governor’s who was involved in a night of hard drinking, attracted national comment and criticism.

The business of lawmaking – and it often is controlled by business – has always involved politics and money – gifts by lobbyists, and campaign contributions. Many lawmakers, cajoled by the lobbyists into thinking they are hot stuff, take all the freebies they can – tickets to sporting and cultural events, free meals, liquor, travel, you name it. All they have to do is vote the way they’re told.

Add to that the sexual affairs some lawmakers think they are entitled to when they are away from home four days a week when the legislature is in session. They figure they’ll behave again when they return home.

Two legislators who resigned this summer were attracted to legislative interns – college girls — in their offices. Both were middle-aged and married family men.

The first, who resigned in July, was Speaker of the House John Diehl, a Republican from St. Louis County. An intern saved text messages from him and said he had propositioned her. The messages made for juicy reading in the Kansas City Star and then in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The next to resign, a few weeks later, was state Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat from Independence. An intern accused him of sexual harassment by propositioning her. Another intern made similar accusations during the time she worked in LeVota’s office five years earlier.

In between these scandals, the Post-Dispatch reported on a possible rape case in Jefferson City involving a former aide to Gov. Jay Nixon. She said she had an affair with Diehl, though it had ended. She is a 31-year-old lobbyist who contacted police after a night of drinking and partying. She said she had a blackout and thought she had been raped, but wasn’t sure. Neither were police, who interviewed a number of people, including Diehl. Police ended the investigation due to “lack of victim cooperation.” Her lawyer later said she did cooperate with police.

The Post-Dispatch story about the alleged rape named the woman, based on the police report. The paper was criticized for naming a possible rape victim.

The Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly in St. Louis said the Post was wrong and had “shamed” the woman. The Poynter Institute ran a story saying that naming the woman made it appear she was not raped. It added: “It’s not the job of the media to judge whether someone was or wasn’t sexually assaulted.” The Columbia Journalism Review said Young should have conducted an off-the-record interview with the woman, which Young had declined to do.

A Post political editor, Christopher Ave, defended the story saying it had “political significance.” He said the Post relied on the police report which showed “no evidence of a crime.”

Young had omitted parts of the police report unfavorable to the behavior of the woman. Young declined to comment on the story except to say she did not regret writing it. Young has been a top reporter at the Post-Dispatch for decades. She recently announced her retirement.

Regardless of who is right, Young’s reporting was notable for exposing shenanigans in the legislative culture, something the media has largely ignored over the years. Many veteran reporters can recall “sexcapades,” drunkenness and other misdeeds of legislators that never got reported. Fred Lindecke, a longtime legislative reporter for the Post, put it this way: “The code was that we didn’t use it” if it didn’t affect the person’s official duties.

***

The full article will be included in the forthcoming print issue of GJR.

Facebook v. Science

Social media have helped us cocoon ourselves into comfortable ignorance of “the other side” — so goes the prevailing notion of the last few years, since Facebook has been king.

A team of researchers at Facebook published an article Thursday that claimed to detail how much the site contributes to political echo chambers or filter-bubbles. Published in the journal Science, their report claimed Facebook’s blackbox newsfeed algorithm weeded out some disagreeable content from readers’ feeds, but not as much as did their personal behavior.

A flurry of criticism came from other social scientists, with one, University of Michigan’s Christian Sandvig, calling it Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Sample frame

Perhaps the most important limitation to the findings is the small, and unique, subset of users examined. Although the total number was huge (10 million), these were users who voluntarily label their political leanings on their profile, and also log on regularly — only about 4 percent of the total Facebook population, who differ from general users in obvious and subtle ways. Critics have pointed out this crucial detail is relegated to an appendix.

Despite the sample problem, the authors framed their findings by saying they “conclusively establish [them] on average in the context of Facebook […]” [emphasis added].

As University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci and University of Maryland’s Nathan Jurgenson pointed out, that’s simply inaccurate. The context the Facebook researchers examined was highly skewed, and cannot be generalized.

While the ideal random sample is not always available and convenient samples can tell us much about subpopulations of interest, the sampling selection here confounded the results. Those who are willing to include their political preferences in their Facebook bio are likely to deal with ideologically challenging information in fundamentally different ways than everyone else does.

In spite of this criticism, though, we now know more about that type of user than we did yesterday.

Algorithm vs. personal choice (what they really found, and didn’t)

Another troubling aspect of the study has to do with the way the main finding is presented. The authors write that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm reduces exposure to cross-cutting material by 8 percent (1 in 13 of such hard-news stories) for self-identified liberals and 5 percent (1 in 20) for conservatives. The researchers also report that these individuals themselves further reduce diverse content exposure by 6 percent among liberals and 17 percent among conservatives.

The comparison of these — algorithm and personal choice — is what caused Sandvig to call this Facebook’s “it’s not our fault” study.

Tufekci and Jurgenson say the authors failed to mention the two effects are additive and cumulative. That individuals make reading choices that contribute to their personal filter-bubble is pretty much unchallenged. Yesterday’s study confirmed that Facebook’s algorithm adds to that, above the psychological baseline. This was not the emphasis of the comparison they made, nor of many headlines covering the study.

For instance:

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 3.11.44 PM

Tufecki and Jurgenson also point out the authors apparently have botched the statement of this main finding by claiming “that on average in the context of Facebook individual choices more than algorithms limit exposure to attitude-challenging content.” The findings they report are actually mixed: Self-identified liberals’ exposure was more strongly suppressed by the algorithm than by personal choice (8 percent v. 6 percent), while for conservatives the reverse was true (5 percent v. 17 percent).

Science is iterative

Amid all the blowback in the academic world, especially over the inflated claims of the conclusion, some called for a more dispassionate appraisal. Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan, who regularly contributes to New York Times’ Upshot, asked for social scientists to “show we can hold two (somewhat) opposed ideas in our heads at the same on the [Facebook] study.” Translated, the study is important, if flawed.

“Science is iterative!” Nyhan tweeted. “Let’s encourage [Facebook] to help us learn more, not attack them every time they publish research. Risk is they just stop.”

But there are rejoinders to that call as well. As University of Maryland law professor James Grimmelmann pointed out, “‘Conclusively’ doesn’t leave a lot of room for iteration.”

Nyhan’s point, that Facebook could stop publishing its findings given enough criticism also highlights that the study, conducted with their proprietary data, is not replicable, a key ingredient in scientific research.

Journals and journalists

Given the overstated (or misstated) findings, many have called out Science, the journal that published the article. Not only is Science peer-reviewed, but along with Nature is one of the foremost academic journals in the world.

While many of yesterday’s news articles noted the controversy around the publication, others repeated the debated conclusion verbatim. Jurgenson had harsh words for the journal: “Reporters are simply repeating Facebook’s poor work because it was published in Science. [Th]e fault here centrally lies with Science, [which] has decided to trade its own credibility for attention. [K]inda undermines why they exist.”

In the Summer 2014 GJR article, “Should journalists take responsibility for reporting bad science?” I wrote about the responsible parties in such cases. Although social media habits are not as high-stakes as health and medicine, journals, public relations departments and scientists themselves must be more accountable for the information they pass on to journalists and ultimately readers.

Although “post-publication review” is here to stay, the initial gatekeepers should always be the first line of defense against bad science  — especially when the journal in question carries the mantle of the entire Scientific enterprise.

The Pulitzer for Breaking News Photos: Breakthrough for the Post?

There’s a line in the “first rough draft” of recent Post-Dispatch history — the paper’s own account of winning its first Pulitzer Prize in 26 years on Monday — that sounds a bittersweet note, at least to me.

“The mood in the newsroom became tense as [Pulitzer administrator Mike] Pride read through the awards for reporting,” writes Tim O’Neil. “When he started into the next-to-last category, breaking news photography, and uttered the words ‘…to the St. Louis…,’ the room erupted in joy.”

The sweet is obvious: “Photographers hugged each other to the cheers of their colleagues.” Echoes, to be sure, of 17 other newsroom celebrations held by Post-Dispatch staffers over nine decades, starting in the 1920s when the legendary Daniel R.  Fitzpatrick first won for cartooning; reporting by John T. Rogers got an Illinois federal judge impeached for wrongdoing; and Paul Y. Anderson helped bring the Teapot Dome scandal to light.

The bitter? That the remarkable, intensive news coverage by Post-Dispatch reporters and editors — of the same Ferguson nightmare of violence that led to the photography Pulitzer — received no mention, either as winner or finalist. (In one earlier contest, the Scripps Howard Awards, the P-D had been the breaking news winner, with its photojournalism a finalist.) The breaking news reporting Pulitzer Prize went to the Seattle Times, for what the Pulitzer citation called “its digital account of a landslide that killed 43 people and the impressive follow-up reporting that explored whether the calamity could have been avoided.”

Perhaps Monday’s joy in St. Louis did overwhelm everything else. “I have heard just one newsroom staffer say later that it was embarrassing not to be included among the Pulitzer finalists for breaking news reporting,” Michael Sorkin tells me. Adds the veteran P-D reporter, who in 1993 was a Pulitzer finalist for investigative reporting, as part of a team with Terry Ganey and Lou Rose: “Everyone else in the newsroom seems to be enjoying the win. That includes me — the photographers earned it, pure and simple.”

Like Sorkin, who wasn’t in the newsroom for that Pulitzer announcement, this Post-Dispatch fan shares the excitement. The Pulitzers are in my blood. Especially those 18 Pulitzers in P-D history.

In 2002 I delivered a talk to the Post-Dispatch staff about the 15 years, from 1937 to 1952, when the Post won an unprecedented five Pulitzer Prizes for Public Service—the gold medals that are America’s highest journalistic honor. (For that that talk, I researched all its Pulitzers, and finalists, too, from 1991, 1993, 2000 and 2002. There’ve been four more finalists since: one in 2009, two in 2010, and this year’s for Ferguson-related editorial writing by Tony Messenger and Kevin Horrigan.)

So I’m using this space to recap a bit, and put the latest prize in congratulatory perspective.

First some Pulitzer background: The prizes having been endowed through the 1911 will of newspaper pioneer Joseph Pulitzer—then the owner of the Post-Dispatch (and the now-defunct New York World)—that award-granting organization set strict rules to keep interested P-D parties out of award decisions involving their own papers. (The last related Pulitzer board member was Joseph Pulitzer III, who died in 1993.)

The run of five public service Pulitzers started in 1937 with honors for a remarkable expose of voter fraud in St. Louis, with managing editor O.K. Bovard sending out reporters—including Roy J. Harris, my late father, and his late colleague Selwyn Pepper—to check out abandoned apartment buildings, confirming that at least 40,000 names on the voter roles were phony. It was a reporting performance praised by then-P-D owner and editor Joseph Pulitzer II, who also chaired the Pulitzer Prize board.

Next (1941) came a remarkable campaign to clean up St. Louis’s air. That project started with the editor himself, who saw the filth whenever he returned home from his summer estate in pristine Bar Harbor, Maine. The third gold medal (1948) was for coverage of a Centralia, Ill., mine explosion fatal to 111 miners—a tragedy P-D reporters were able to trace to state mine inspectors who’d been paid off to let deadly conditions persist. And in 1950, public service gold medals went to the P-D and the Chicago Daily News, awarded for work by my dad, who teamed with Chicago reporter George Thiem in an unusual (for the time) collaboration exposing dozens of journalists on the state payroll.

The Post’s fifth public service Pulitzer, two years later, was largely for the work of investigative reporter Ted Link, with Selwyn Pepper on rewrite. Link disclosed widespread patronage-related corruption in what later became the Internal Revenue Service.

Outside Rogers’ and Anderson’s prizes and those five of the public service recipients, most other Post-Dispatch winners have been honored in non-reporting roles: Bill Mauldin for cartooning (1959); Robert Lasch for editorials (1966), Marquis Childs for commentary (1970) and Frank Peters for music criticism (1972.)

Then in 1989 came the Pulitzer for freelance photographer Ron Olshwanger—the last prize until this week: for his stunning picture in the P.D. of a firefighter trying to resuscitate a child pulled from a burning building.

Since then the Pulitzer competition had produced for the Post “only” finalists: celebrated work by Bill Woo in commentary (1991); Philip Kennicott, Bill Freivogel and John Carlton in editorial writing (2000, 2002 and 2010), and Robert Cohen’s feature photography (also 2010.) The sole reporting finalist was in 2009, to the P-D staff, for breaking news coverage of the city hall shooting in Kirkwood.

From my own perspective, I have followed the P-D closely at Pulitzer time ever since leaving the newsroom as a summer-replacement reporter in 1967, moving first to the Los Angeles Times and then to the Wall Street Journal. Over the years, this Post-Dispatch “brat” was cheered by its honored finalists—who illustrated that the paper was staying “in striking distance” — and then by that lone Pulitzer-winning photo. But I was saddened to see no more Post prizes.

So, was this year’s long-awaited Pulitzer for breaking news photography really a breakthrough for the Post-Dispatch?

From afar, I’m sure pulling for the paper, as are many other P-D fans. Like Kathy Best, a longtime Post staffer who left the paper as assistant managing editor/metro in 2005. (One of her memories of following Pulitzer announcements in St. Louis: Finding that the beloved Bill Woo hadn’t won for commentary in 1991. “The day he didn’t win was a really difficult one for everybody there,” she recalls.)

Best now is editor of the Seattle Times.

And watching the Pulitzer announcement from her own newsroom, “I had my fingers crossed for them to win something,” she says. “Selfishly, I didn’t want them to win at the expense of my newsroom. Still, I know what it’s like to have to keep a newsroom engaged and moving forward and enthused, day after day after day.” At the breaking news photography announcement, “I was thrilled for them. I’d been just blown away by the quality of their photography; they were putting themselves in harm’s way every day.” She was happy, too, “that such incredible work by the photo staff was honored, and, with editorial writing finalists being named, too, that the paper’s work on Ferguson was recognized in more than one way.”

In advance of Monday’s announcement, Best had prepared her own Times staff for any eventuality: “I told them the Pulitzers are a crap shoot, and win or lose we did great work.”

Here’s hoping the Post-Dispatch keeps on rolling the dice.

 

Harris, a veteran of the Wall Street Journal and the Economist’s CFO Magazine, is author of Pulitzer’s Gold, which tells stories behind the stories of public service prizes. Columbia University Press is publishing a new edition in time for next year’s centennial of the Pulitzer Prizes. He also follows the Pulitzers each year for Poynter Online, starting with a preview of the competition.

Freelance journalists cover global hot spots

The last time Achilleas Zavallis packed his camera gear for Syria, he changed his airline ticket twice within 48 hours because he couldn’t make up his mind whether he should go to a country considered the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. His stomach was tied “in a million knots,” he recalled, as it is every time he travels to a war zone.

A photographer based in Greece, Zavallis is a freelance journalist. When he goes into danger, it is nearly always “on spec,” freelance parlance for covering a story and then trying to find someone to publish his work.

But in November 2013, after changing his ticket and second-guessing his motives and re-assessing the risks, Zavallis went anyway, traveling to northern Syria to document the country’s Christian minority. He stayed for about two weeks. A photo essay from the trip was published three months later in the National, an English-language publication in Abu Dhabi.

“I believe that the story must be told,” Zavallis said, “so that no one can come after 100 years and say that in Syria nothing happened and that no one died.”

At least 72 journalists have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has ranked Syria the most dangerous country in the world to report. Nearly half of those killed were freelancers, journalists who were not working as staff members for any media organization at the time of their deaths. Two of the most recent (and highly publicized) deaths were those of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by the Islamic State. Videos of their murders were released on social media.

More than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria since 2011, and about 20 were still missing as of August 2014, according to New York-based CPJ. The majority are freelancers and are believed to be held by the Islamic State, a radical militant group that has seized large parts of Syria and Iraq, brutally targeting people based on ethnic and religious affiliation. The United States has launched air strikes on the group and is sending American soldiers back to Iraq to support Iraqi troops.

With dwindling budgets to cover foreign news and the high costs of sending reporters and photojournalists to war zones, news organizations are increasingly relying on freelancers to cover some of the most dangerous stories in the world. Freelance journalists pay for their own equipment (a good bullet-proof vest costs more than $500), their travel and lodging. They pay for fixers and drivers, and all of the costs associated with reporting the news. Some are lucky to get $200 for a story that takes days to report or document. When they get injured, they are responsible for their own medical care. Only the biggest news organizations provide medical insurance to freelancers on contract.

When Palestinian photojournalist Ahmed Deeb was hit in the back by a sniper bullet in Aleppo in 2012 while photographing clashes between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Regime Forces, he paid for his own treatment.

“When I went to Aleppo in first time on 2012, I did not have any assignment,” said. Deeb, who is based in Istanbul and has documented the conflicts in Gaza, Egypt and Syria. “I just was photographing and sending the photos to some wire agencies. Some times they buy my photos, and some times they don’t take any of my photos, which means that my work for that day went vain. That happened many times with me.”

In September, Agence France-Presse announced that it would no longer accept work from freelance journalists in Syria. In a blog post explaining AFP’s position, global news director Michèle Léridon wrote that the freelance journalists had paid too high a price already. “We will not encourage people to take that kind of risk,” she said. Foley, one of the American journalists who was beheaded, had been a contributor to AFP before his capture.

Some freelancers like American photojournalist Holly Pickett welcomed the decision.  “If AFP is not willing to share the responsibility and risk of the freelancer being there, then they shouldn’t take content from there,” said Picket, who recently paid her own travel to Afghanistan, then picked up work documenting stories at a war trauma hospital in Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province.

Others said the decision did nothing to help photographers in other conflict zones.

The vast majority of AFP photographers in the Middle East are freelancers earning very little money, with few rights, said Ayman Oghanna, a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.

“Restricting work is not the answer,” said Oghanna, whose work has appeared in various publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and Al Jazeera America. “Enabling professional freelancers to work with the resources and support what they need to work safely is. Freelancers need to know that the organizations they are reporting for have their backs.”

Oghanna is a founding member of the Frontline Freelance Registry, a grassroots group for freelancers that advocates on behalf of its members, on issues from pay to the need for medical insurance.

In a white paper published by London’s Frontline Club in conjunction with the launch of the Freelance Registry, Vaughan Smith, a long-time freelance journalist and founder of the club, wrote that it was time to correct the negative assumptions about freelance journalists.

“In truth their content is now indispensable,” he wrote in the introduction to the report, which called for more hostile environment training, contingency plans when things go wrong and advice on the best forms of security. “In fact, freelance operators have become, on the whole, more experienced in covering conflicts than their employed colleagues. As way of example, freelance content dominates international news coverage of Syria. Without freelancers, reports would be reliant on material from activists, fighters and other local observers.”

The registry, which was launched in June 2013, had 495 members at the beginning of November, according to one of its other founders, Balint Szlanko, who wrote an article about the Syrian Christians for Denmark’s VICE journalism Web site that was illustrated with photos from Zavallis.

“Unsurprisingly, for most of our members the most pressing issue is pay,” he said. “Not necessarily the amount that they are paid. This also includes things like prompt payment.”

Szlanko said decisions like AFP’s avoid addressing the real issue. “The problem here specifically is that many Western news-gatherers ill not currently work with freelancers if they feel that the story is too dangerous precisely because they don’t want to be held responsible – not necessarily legally but morally – if something goes wrong,” he said.

Zavallis was clear about this: He chooses to go. He assumes the risks. But it doesn’t mean he absolves the news organizations that barter for his work. He called it the “email marathon” that happens after a journalist gets back with photos or a story from a conflict zone. He often deals with inexperienced editors who have no idea of the costs or the risks he’s taken for the story. They offer him “ridiculously low pay,” he said.

“But you can’t say anything ‘cause the story is done,” he said. “You feel that it’s important to be out there for people to read and you need to make back some of the money you spent going in the first place. There are even editors and photo desks that will contact you asking for permission to run your work with out any pay, offering as an excuse that either the magazine, Web site, newspaper is small and can’t afford the cost or that the exposure you will get by their publication will help you get more offers down the road.”

 Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the most recent print edition of GJR. 

Michel Martin urges journalists to tell the uncomfortable truth

“Journalism matters because we have the responsibility to inform readers of the truth of their world, even when they don’t want us to.”

That was the message Michel Martin, host of NPR’s “Tell Me More,” and journalist of more than 25 years gave guests at Gateway Journalism Review’s First Amendment Celebration March 19.

Drawing journalists and friends of news from around the region, the event took place at the Edward Jones headquarters in Des Peres, Mo.

“We are following the story of ourselves as a nation,” Martin said of the media’s Ferguson coverage. Just as we as a people are imperfect, journalism should “hold a mirror to both flaws and beauty,” she said.

Martin said she didn’t want to give too many opinions on the shooting of Michael Brown, because she would be moderating a Ferguson community discussion again shortly and wanted to retain some neutrality.

She left the opinion to the follow-up panel. The panel consisted of Alvin A. Reid, a weekly panelist on KETC-PBS’s “Donnybrook,” and St. Louis Magazine contributor; Patrick Gauen, who has been the police and court editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2000, and a weekly columnist since 1989; Tim Eby, who has been in public radio for three decades and is general manager of St. Louis Public Radio; and Craig Cheatham who has worked in broadcast journalism for 30 years. Cheatam filed numerous in-depth reports on Ferguson and led KMOV’s analysis of the Grand Jury documents.

Sorting out facts

GJR’s publisher, William Freivogel, introduced the panel discussion by asking two questions:

“How did we allow this mantra to get started — ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ — when the Justice Department has refuted that it happened?” he asked.  And “how have we allowed pervasive racism to exist so long right under our noses?”

While Gauen said the facts of the case contradicted “the narrative,” he thought Brown has become symbolic for pervasive – and real – victimization around the country.

Reid wasn’t so sure the Justice Department report fully refuted the narrative. “I am convinced we still don’t know what happened on that street in Ferguson.”

Gauen said there was “an inability to tell a balanced story on all sides.” In contrast to 50 years ago, when there were no protester accounts, now there were few police viewpoints. The police had less control of the information surrounding this case than they typically do, he said. Social media contributed to them losing the shape of the narrative.

Touching on citizen journalists’ role in Ferguson, Reid said their involvement has been “problematic.” Their contributions were marred through their antagonism of the police, he said.

“I felt very early there was a false narrative going on,” said Cheatham. “There is a difference between peaceful and non-violent protest. I reported on how some of the police went down and were scared by those protests. I was tagged as a ‘pro-cop’ reporter, and in that environment, you don’t want to get tagged as pro-anything.”

He added that he thought the media did a poor job of covering the protesters’ side early on, when they were too busy instead staying on top of the story as it broke.

“People want their own facts,” Cheatam later said. Journalists shouldn’t feel pressure to cater to them.

Looking at the big picture, “the region has permanently changed,” according to Eby. “There are a lot of people who just want things to go back to the way they were before Aug. 9. I don’t think that’s possible,” he said. It is now journalists’ job to bring the conversation the case started to the forefront, he added.

‘Tell all stories’

Before moderating their panel, Martin talked about the Children’s Crusade, the 1963 civil rights demonstration by hundreds of Birmingham school students in Alabama. Local newspapers agreed not to put the confrontation on their front pages, even though the national papers did – it was “too explosive,” Martin said. There were also no quotes from the demonstrators.

The Birmingham papers said they didn’t know how to cover the story – and wouldn’t know who to call for quotes from the protestors’ side. “I’m very confident that we are doing better than that,” Martin said. “But are we doing the best we can do? How deep are our rolodexes?”

Martin used this question to pivot to underrepresented groups within journalism, pointing out large gender and race disparities in bylines nationwide. Even the New York Times, under then-editor Jill Abramson, had the fewest female bylines among the 10 biggest news outlets. On network television, most news shows’ guest analysts remain white males.

“Are women of color only capable of talking about what they are, not what they know?” Martin asked.

“We have to do our jobs,” she said – and do them better. Journalism should “tell all stories,” and depict “the world as it is, not as we want it to be. It is the media’s honor, its duty to learn this uncomfortable world as it is, not as it was.” This is important in world of polarized media where you can now “pick your own truth,” she said.

“It’s expensive education,” she concluded, quoting former GJR fundraiser speaker John Seigenthaler, for whom she had earlier asked a moment of silence. “But we’ve tried ignorance so many ways, and it doesn’t work.”