Journalism’s biggest threat and what we can do to stop it

Journalists have been getting a lot of heat recently under the new administration, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that some of that criticism is well-deserved. It seems to me, that the biggest threat to journalism currently, is journalism itself, or at least a lack of decent journalism.

We’ve spent a great portion of this past semester talking about all the ways in which a journalist should act while reporting a story, but a lot of the time, these values aren’t present in the media. Journalists often omit important information, burn bridges with sources by getting things completely wrong or act entirely unethically just to get the biggest scoop. It’s no wonder that there’s a general distrust of reporters!

But while taking shortcuts and cutting corners in reporting might help you break a story first or allow you at the juiciest details, it doesn’t make for good, respectable journalism. Journalism has a backbone in democracy and has been around for as long as anyone can remember. Let’s not ruin it by doing our jobs incorrectly.

One of the easiest fixes for inaccurate and unethical journalism is to make the process in which we report more transparent. By showing how we go about producing a story and why we’re working on it in the first place, sources will not only be more comfortable with us in general, but will most likely open up more. That way, we can still get those wanted details without being inappropriate in the ways in which we get them.

Along with transparency, it’s also important to accuracy check. God knows why this wasn’t a policy in place for my high school newspaper (It really should have been. We would have avoided so many issues!), but I’m so grateful that both The Maneater and the Columbia Missourian enforced the use of accuracy and quote checks. This policy has honestly saved me on so many occasions this semester alone. Whether it be from just mishearing what a source said or accidentally taking it out of context, everyone makes mistakes from time to time, but doing a proper accuracy check can prevent those mistakes from ever reaching the public eye. They make it so your sources don’t hate you, but they also make your work all the more credible.

Another big idea, that kind of goes along with the two points above, is to just listen. Listen to both your editor and your sources. A majority of our inaccuracies as reporters come from not listening. And with not listening, comes not understanding. We often find ourselves distracted while doing interviews, or come into a story thinking we know exactly what we want to report on. But that, just like not being transparent and not accuracy checking, can put you in a bad place as a journalist. Part of what people today complain about when it comes to journalists is that they’re not truly being heard. People will say one thing and journalists write something entirely different. From a source’s perspective, I completely understand why they might be hesitant to talk to a reporter after going through an experience such as that. Again, this is easily avoidable.

In general, the best way to avoid making journalism its own worst enemy is to just be an all-around good human being. If something seems unethical or inaccurate, it probably is. Use your common sense while out reporting. Take people’s feeling into account. We don’t always need to be the bad guys who get everyone in trouble (I know, not a very investigative journalist-y thing to say).

But just look at the United Airlines story that has recently blown up out of proportion. While sometimes in a situation such as this, it’s difficult to figure out the right thing to do, the reporters at the Courier-Journal in Louisville did not go about it in the right way. They found a juicy bit of information about the passenger’s past, and while it might have been important information to include in their story, considering their past reporting on David Dao, they surely didn’t need to shine a spotlight on it. This resulted in what seemed like victim-blaming, which only gave the Courier-Journal a bad name.

Being a decent journalist shouldn’t be as difficult as people make it out to be. Following the simple steps above works a majority of the time. How do I know? Because I’ve experienced it in my own reporting.

Advertisements

Another exciting week at the Missourian

This past week has been an exciting one, that’s for sure. This always seems to happen, but one week I’ll have zero stories published, and then the next I’ll publish a whole bunch. This week I published four stories, with three written and just needing edits.

The first story was event coverage of the the yearly Goldberg Lecture that is hosted by both the journalism school and medical school here. I found out about it from MU Info, an email that is sent out to all registered students at the university. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one that ever reads that thing! But anyway, it sounded really interesting, so I pitched it to our assistant city editor, Shane. The topic was really interesting and I really enjoyed covering it. Dr. Danielle Ofri, who also does a lot of work for the New York Times, spoke about how improved communication between patients and doctors can lead to improved health. The discussion it led to was fascinating!

The next two stories were from my GA shift. They were both based on press releases sent out by the police department and attorney general, but they were both still fun to write. The first was about a $231,600 embezzlement from an employer and the second was about a bank robbery.

My final story for the week was published this morning. I had been working with a story about non-opioid alternatives for pain management, and one of the sources I was talking to told me about how flushing medications or throwing them in the trash can not only negatively impact the environment, but also pose a potential risk for misuse and abuse of the drug. This led me to do a story about National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which is taking place this weekend. We’ve covered this a lot in the past, but we’ve never talked about why it’s important.So that’s what I did, and I’m very pleased with the results. I’m also incredibly pleased with the photos that went along with the story. When I pitched the idea for the photos, I had no idea that they would turn out so great!

 

 

“Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press”

We spent the first half of yesterday’s class talking about the film we were invited to see at the Missouri Theatre last Thursday, Nobody Speak: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press.”

I unfortunately was unable to see the movie because I had to work, but it sounded really fascinating! From my understanding, the movie detailed the lawsuit that resulted when Gawker media refused to take down the sex tape of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and his friend’s wife. It was a messy lawsuit that ended with $115 million awarded to Hogan for damages.

A majority of our time in class was dedicated to talking about the case and the movie in particular. A majority of us were in agreement that it would have been a lot better if Gawker Media had just taken the video down when they, along with many other media groups were asked by Hogan’s lawyer to remove it.

They insisted that the video was newsworthy. I’m not sure how much I agree with that…

Instead, they persisted, only taking the video down when a court order required it. This ultimately resulted in Gawker shutting down for good late last year. This could have easily been avoided.

The second part of class was spent talking about solutions journalism. We discussed examples my classmates had come up with for our homework assignment from last Tuesday, which was to find a news piece that had all of the qualities of solution journalism. Turns out, this was a lot harder to do than we all thought.

GA on the weekend

Today I worked my first and only weekend general assignment shift. I was the only reporter on-call today in the newsroom, which was both exciting and terrifying. I spent the first hour of my shift looking for something to do. Nothing seemed to be happening on such a beautiful Saturday morning, but I was determined to get something published.

The assistant city editor for the day decided to send me out to get pictures and quotes from people who were taking place in the Clean-up Columbia that morning. We had covered it earlier this week, but decided it was worth a follow-up story. So, I drove around for about an hour, looking for someone willing to speak to me. But I guess we were too late, because every location listed on the website was completely empty! The only sign that anyone had been there to clean up was the pile of trash bags waiting to be picked up later that day. There wasn’t a single volunteer in sight though.

I returned to the newsroom in defeat. I wasn’t going to publish a story that day.

But just as I was walking up to the newsroom, I was told to turn back around. There was a garage sale going on for Habitat for Humanity at a local church. I was told to not cover the garage sale that was happening, but to find a story within the garage sale. I drove there not knowing what to expect.

Arriving at the church, I walked around for about 15 minutes, gaging how the event was going and talking to some customers who were browsing the items for sale. I came across a janitor for the church and his wife, who had a Habitat house from many years ago. He actually ended up with his job at the church because of Habitat for Humanity. And now he and his wife give back to the community by taking part in the garage sale that helped to fund their own home. It was an incredible story to hear and exactly what I was looking for!

I hurried back to the newsroom and wrote it up. Check out the final product here!

Anyone can do investigative journalism

I think I say this about nearly every 4450 lecture, but I really enjoyed the latest one! On Thursday, we met in a different location in the journalism school (which even though it was brought to my attention several times, I still went to the wrong building and had to run in order to not be late to lecture) because we were joined by a group of international students who were a part of a journalism exchange program. They were coming to the University of Missouri from all over the world to learn about how we teach journalism here. How cool is that?!

The topic of conversation was one that I’m very excited to continue learning about in my interest area: investigative journalism. We took a look at some of the best investigative pieces out there, including “Seafood from Slaves,” a series of articles that ultimately set free thousands of slaves from an island in Eastern Indonesia. The work of AP journalists over a period of 18 months exposed the modern slave industry to the public, which put an end to the trade. I can only dream about uncovering a story this incredible!

We were told that investigative stories can be found anywhere, and honestly any story could use investigative skills, no matter its topic. Much of what makes up investigative journalism stems from someone seeing something wrong in the world and making an effort to do something to change it. Mark Horvit, who teaches investigative journalism at Mizzou told us, “Don’t just bitch about it. Write about it.”

He also told us of several internships, which I will definitely be looking into in the future!

After the lecture, I spoke to Horvit about the dangers of doing investigative reporting abroad, seeing as our guests came from all over the world and each had different experiences with how journalism is handled in their home countries. He said that as an American journalist, I would have both advantages and disadvantages in my reporting abroad. I guess I’ll just have to see!

I’ll have my first experience reporting abroad this summer, through my internship in Barcelona, Spain! And believe me, I’ll be blogging all about it.

The importance of computer-assisted reporting

Today we heard from David Herzog, who teaches the computer-assisted reporting classes at Mizzou. The basic computer-assisted reporting class is something that I need to take in order to graduate with an emphasis in investigative journalism, but until this lecture, I wasn’t really sure what it was.

Sure, one might be able to guess that it has something to do with using computers to do reporting. Duh. But it’s so much more than that! Herzog talked about how computer-assisted reporting is the backbone of many famous investigative pieces, and how it really should be used everywhere in the newsroom.

Computer-assisted reporting deals with anything from spreadsheets and databases to calendars and documents. It truly is the base of everything we do in journalism today. And being able to understand these data sources is crucial! Without having a full understanding of the data that we use in journalism, so much would slip by us. Computer-assisted reporting makes journalism possible.

So, after hearing that there were a couple spots still open for the basic computer-assisted reporting course for the fall semester, I very quickly claimed a seat. I’m excited to learn more from Herzog and hopefully obtain a greater understanding of the data world and its effect on journalism.

More on conceal and carry in the Columbia Public Library

Last night I took over my fellow beat writer’s work on the Columbia Public Library’s firearm policy – this has been a heated issue for the past month.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the situation, it all started in mid-February when Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch brought a gun into the library. According to our previous reporting, she felt threatened by a meeting that was taking place there and went back to her car to retrieve her gun, which she slipped into her purse. Someone saw her do this, thus beginning the debate over whether or not guns should be allowed in the library.

A little bit more background on the issue: At the beginning of this year, Missouri passed a new law saying that people could conceal and carry a firearm without a permit. Libraries were not listed as a public building in which guns were not allowed. However, the library had a sign out front which prohibited firearms in the building. Toalson Reisch then threatened to sue the library if they didn’t change their gun policy, saying it wasn’t in line with the current law. The library promptly changed the sign to say, “No person shall possess, on the library premises, a weapon of any kind, unless authorized by law.”

Despite changing the sign, the issue was still up for debate among the library’s Board of Trustees, who had a meeting about the issue yesterday. This is where I come in. My fellow beat reporter has been covering this issue since it began about a month ago, but was unable to continue in his reporting. So, I took over and attended the library’s meeting, which was open to the public.

Keep in mind, I haven’t covered a board meeting in quite some time, especially one as heated as this was. When I got there, I wasn’t certain what to expect.

We were herded into a small room, set with a circle of tables for the board and rows of chairs off to the side for the general public. I was one of the first ones there, so I figured maybe it wouldn’t be too busy. But oh boy was I wrong. Shortly before the meeting began, community members began flooding in, and it was so packed that people had to stand in the back because there weren’t enough chairs set up in the meeting room. The meeting began and was immediately opened up to the public for comment. Pretty much everyone in the room spoke, each person talking about how the policy impacted them and their families. Not a single person was in support of allowing guns in the library.

After hearing from the public, the board closed the meeting and sent us all into the hallway for over an hour as they discussed how they would proceed. This was confusing at first, but gave me the time to gather my thoughts and put my notes together, as well as converse with the people who had spoken in the meeting.

Eventually, the board opened the meeting again and we all flooded back into the small room. This is where they told us their decision; that the library was keeping with their new policy of allowing firearms, but because of the school across the street, they would be enforcing concealed carry only with a permit.

This was met by much disappointment among the community members who had attended the meeting. They were confused and agitated that the library was not changing its policies to match the general public consensus. The library board was in agreement with the public; they weren’t happy with the decision either, but said it had to be done.

Overall, this was one of my favorite articles that I’ve worked on this semester. Being able to cover something that has such a large impact in the community was incredible. It was also great to hear from several people who enjoyed reading the final product on the Missourian’s website.

 

Are you listening?

The subject of today’s lecture was something that all reporters struggle with, and something truly essential to the work that we do as journalists – listening.

Now you might say, “Well isn’t listening supposed to be something you’re good at, seeing as you’re a journalist and all?” And while this is correct, and a lot of what we do as journalists revolves around listening, it’s a skill that often requires a lot of attention. If you fail to listen properly, or get distracted by something while interviewing someone, you risk missing out on important details that might be vital to your reporting.

But as simple as listening might seem, it’s a lot harder than it looks! Imagine sitting in an interview where the person is talking in great detail about a certain legislative matter or an event that just took place. While listening to what they’re saying, you might catch yourself thinking about how you’re going to piece your story together, or how you should ask the next question. But in doing so, you just missed a whole lot of information that might be important for your story. And then you have to make the situation uncomfortable and awkward by asking the source to repeat what they said. This done too often sets you in an unprofessional light.

Another difficult thing about interviewing is that in the process of taking notes, you might miss out on other important details. This happens far too often in reporting.

However, one of the biggest mistakes that I often find myself making in regard to listening is limiting my attention to only what I came to the interview for. I’ll often go into an interview knowing exactly what answers I want to leave there with, and because I go into the meeting with that mentality, I often miss information that could be beneficial. This happened to me recently with my Affordable Care Act story (which also finally got published yesterday! Check it out here.). I was interviewing a source who, because of the work he does with the Missouri Foundation for Health, was well-informed about how the repeal of the act would impact young adults in Missouri. I had my questions, and went into the interview looking for specific answers. I got these answers and put them into my story, but in doing so, I ignored the opportunity to ask him follow up questions that would have further benefited the readers. So a couple weeks later, I found myself having to reach out to him again so that he could once again explain the reasoning behind insurance prices increasing with the elimination of the Affordable Care Act. This was totally embarrassing on my part, but I’m forever thankful that he was understanding and didn’t mind providing the details again.

Something I didn’t know before this lecture was that listening is impacted by the positions in which you pay attention to something, and the way that you listen often determines what you get out of an interaction or an interview. This is best explained by Julian Treasure’s TED talk, which is incredible and definitely worth the listen!

Freelancing, podcasts and pie charts, oh my!

Yesterday in class, we got a personal visit from the legendary Ann Friedman! She was coming to Mizzou to speak to the Online News Association on campus (which I also attended later that day) and Katherine managed to get her to stop by during lecture to talk about her life and journalism experience in the real world.

Before ONA advertised Friedman’s visit, I hadn’t heard much about her – just her name in passing. But her story sounded incredible!

Friedman is a graduate from the Missouri School of Journalism, and after leaving Missouri and spending a couple years gaining experience, she landed an editor position at GOOD magazine. According to Friedman, this was a pretty decent gig… until the owner of the magazine decided to shut it all down, and Friedman and all of her coworkers were fired.

This is the point where Friedman began to develop into the incredible freelance writer, podcaster and pie-chart artist that she is today. In an attempt to find more writing jobs, she started a newsletter (which now has over 25,000 subscribers) and created a weekly podcast called “Call Your Girlfriend” with her long-distance best friend.

Below are two examples of the hilarious pie charts that she sends out to her newsletter subscribers each week:

In talking about her experience, Friedman encouraged us, as aspiring young journalists, to not worry to much about our futures. The reality is, things are going to happen. We’re going to get fired from a job, or two. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to feel completely lost at times. But, it’s all going to be okay!

Hearing this from someone with so much experience and so much raw talent made me a lot more confident in my abilities as a journalist. I know that my time here at the journalism school will help me immensely when I move on into the real world, and that even when it feels like I’ve hit rock bottom, things are always going to get better!

I hope to someday be able to be as successful as Friedman and to truly enjoy what I do as much as she does. I think it helps that she has a sense of humor with just about everything in life. Friedman truly is inspirational and it was an honor to be able to hear and learn from her.

Oh, and if you’re interested in learning more about Ann Friedman or looking at all of her publications, podcasts, etc., check out her website here.

 

 

Covering tragedy and trauma

Today’s lecture focused on a topic that’s very important to me, particularly in the field of journalism that I’d like to pursue. For a majority of the period, we talked about covering tragedy and trauma as a journalist.

Although many people have faced some sort of trauma in their lives, you can never truly say you understand exactly what someone’s going through. This is one of the points that my professor, Katherine Reed, mentioned. Katherine also teaches a “reporting on trauma” class here at Mizzou, which I’m looking forward to taking (hopefully next semester)!

As a journalist, no matter what your beat, you’re most likely going to encounter some type of trauma in your reporting, whether it be a car accident, the loss of a family member or a court case. It’s important to know how to handle it when this situation does make an appearance.

Katherine gave several tips for how to report on traumatic events, including warming up to the difficult questions (and asking them in an appropriate manner), explaining your intentions for reporting the scenario, letting the survivor decide when and where he or she will talk and to use emphatic interviewing strategies to avoid mistakes and to allow the interviewee to better remember the event.

We also talked a great deal about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it impacts journalists and the work they do in the field.

This topic is something that I’m extremely passionate about, and the emphasis for my psychology minor. I would eventually like to use my journalism degree and psychology minor to be a war correspondent. So, knowing how to report on traumatic events and having a deeper understanding of psychological disorders such as PTSD is tremendous help!

This has definitely been my favorite lecture thus far in my Missourian class. I’m looking forward to putting these tips to the test as I continue on my journalistic path.