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Archive for the 'Question' Category

Public officials blogging, do you quote?

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

The ethics of quoting blogs has been discussed (probably to death) before.

I understand that very fine line and have even danced dangerously close to it. On MySpace or Facebook or LiveJournal, or whatever your chosen platform, many people often have the (mis) perception of privacy. I get that you wouldn’t (or probably shouldn’t) just take it and run with information they posted in perceived confidentiality. This is for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the same as when you deal with inexperienced sources who aren’t as press-savvy: they shouldn’t be harmed because they’re naive. Or something more eloquently put than that. But you know what I’m talking about.

Now, tell me what you think about a scenario like this: An elected official in your community has a blog. The blog identifies him/her as that elected official and discusses issues related to that office as a means of reaching out to constituents. You have confirmed it is that person writing the blog.

Would you consider that blog fair game?

What if the first post in that blog instructs readers to “think of this as a press release”?

This conversation came up today and we didn’t all agree. So I was curious what other journalists think about it. I’m open to being wrong, but I’d like some help thinking through some of those issues that maybe just don’t appear to me because I am so open to transparency and new technology.

My stance is that blog post is more than fair game. My only concern is to confirm the material was posted by the individual and isn’t some type of hoax. Once you have that, why wouldn’t you use it — if only for a jumping off point for further reporting on issues raised. Heck, they want us (well their constituents) to consider it a press release. Even if they didn’t say that, I think if you’re going to stamp your name on a blog, tout you are a public official and use that as the topic of your blog than you have no reason to not expect people to hold you accountable for what you say the same as if you’d mailed out a flier with that message or said it during an open meeting.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. However, I’d be interested to hear what you guys have to say.

I’d also be interested to see what types of blogging your local officials do. Are there any university presidents, mayors, city council members, school board trustees, county commissioners, prosecutors, sheriffs, etc. keeping blogs in your community? Are they mostly PR/buzz? Or are they good sources for tips? How do you handle them? I know the city manager in Kent (where I went to college) keeps a blog about the city. But I can’t think of any other examples off the top of my head.

(BTW this was not a public official on my beat and there isn’t any controversy. It was just an interesting discussion in the newsroom.)

Starting a “personal” Web site: Just do it

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

I posted a discussion at the Get wired, get hired group at Wired Journalists in reference to today’s Ask the Recruiter question.

Basically, a 20-something reporter is building his new media arsenal and wants to create a “personal” professional Web site. He’s worried, however, about how this would be received by his bosses.

Joe Grimm’s advice in nutshell? Sometimes, it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission. But tread lightly.

I started Meranda Writes at the perfect time, I suppose. I was the editor of the student newspaper. There weren’t really any “bosses” to fret about. (Though I did get a lecture from the adviser about being careful not to talk about my sources. Duh.) But the truth is, I wanted my potential bosses to see the site to get a feel for who I was and what I was capable of doing. When I sent out resumes, under my contact information was the URL. When I e-mailed cover letters, I pointed editors to the site for more clips.

When I came to my current job, nobody told me of any policies regarding personal Web sites or blogs. I read the employee handbook and didn’t see anything even remotely pertinent. I spent the first week or so wondering how to bring it up to ease my conscience, even though I was 99 percent sure they had — at least someone? — come across it before hiring me. We soon had a newsroom ethics training session, but blogs didn’t come up. So I talked to the executive editor about it and discussed what’s cool and not cool to post. I don’t think she cared nearly as much as I did, but it was important to me that I have at least some quasi-go-ahead to continue. (In truth, I think my site was a part of the package deal they got when they hired me.)

I don’t know what would have happened if they’d stumbled on the site without warning. Nothing, I suppose. I would have been hiding in plain sight, a Google search away from “discovery.” Though I sometimes reference projects we’ve completed or stories I’m particularly proud of, it’s not like I blog about the latest office or town gossip. I don’t vent about my co-workers, bosses or beat. I like my job so I don’t really have much reason to do so.

I don’t know for certain, but from my site stats, I don’t believe my bosses or co-workers are active readers. They hear enough of me buzzing about Twitter and Facebook in real life they probably don’t want to read about it, too. My blog is actually the punchline to an on-going local staff joke. The imagined blog is much funnier than the one I actually keep. Either way, this site is not a secret. I have always been conscious of the fact that what I write is archived by Google and as available to my co-workers and sources as to anyone else.

I’ve actually fielded this question — “What was the boss’s reaction to your site?” — from at least a half-dozen other reporters who e-mailed me after stumbling on Meranda Writes. They all wanted to start their own sites but fear of reprisal held them back. Some of them did go on to create sites. Some never may.

My advice is the same as what Joe Grimm is handing out: proceed with caution, tell your bosses about it later. Personally? I wouldn’t want to work for an organization that didn’t see the value in having “wired” employees interested in extending their new media skills. Fortunately, I don’t.

QOTD: A single question can be more influential than a thousand statements

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

“A single question can be more influential than a thousand statements.”
— Bo Bennett

Not just “another weather story”

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Raise your hand if you hate writing weather stories.

I don’t know what it’s like in other regions, but in the Midwest, at least the parts I’ve lived in, it’s hot in the summer, which is about July-September, and it’s cold, well, the rest of the year. I hate the cold as much as the next guy. (I do like wearing sweaters though.) I also hate the summer heat. (Dude, I live on the second floor of an old house lacking a/c.) Sometimes I think, can’t we have a mix of overcast and sunny, high near 72 all year, kthnx.

But, then, I do like variety, which we definitely get. We get spring showers (and floods) and winter blizzards (and freezing rain) and summer days topping 100 degrees on occasion. Because I was raised in this climate, however, it’s normal for me to wake up freezing and go to bed burning up or vice versa. I don’t find it that weird to see snow and t-shirts in the same week. It hasn’t even gotten cold enough for me yet to pull out my wool winter coat.

That makes writing about the weather seem all the worse. It’s like writing about traffic lights changing colors. Everyone knows it’s going to happen, and they can kind of figure out for themselves what comes next.

But it seems like every time you’re set to expect anything more than a dusting or a drizzle, it’s time for a weather story. And when a snow storm hits or the heat bests the average, it’s time to dust off those coping tips and talk to someone about snow shoveling pitfalls or hit up the local pool. Or the photogs favorite: Weather photo galleries and feature art.

Just today, when talking over my assignments for Sunday morning, the frigid weather was mentioned as something to watch. Cue an internal eye roll.

So here’s my next question, this one’s for the readers. How many of you hate reading weather stories?

I don’t think there’s a solution. I mean, weather is the old standby universal experience. When there’s nothing in common to discuss, you can always talk about the weather.

That said, I’ve decided I’m going to temper my eye roll over this necessary evil and instead resolve to take a cue from today’s IndyStar, where I just stumbled upon this entertaining topper to an otherwise routine weather story:

Call the Indiana battle between seasonably cool and downright cold the meteorological version of a legendary George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight.

The cool air is like Foreman, slugging away until exhausted. The cold air is like Ali, playing the rope-a-dope until it’s time to score the knockout.

This weekend should give the decisive weather boxing victory to the cold. The National Weather Service predicts Saturday night’s lows around 3 degrees below zero, the coldest in Indianapolis since minus-6 on Feb. 16, 2007.

There will be purists who will say it’s showing off and doesn’t help tell the story better or get to the point until the third graph. Yeah I noticed that, too.

Yet, I applaud the writer for taking the time not to roll his eyes and then write “another weather story.”

But I’m still not writing anything more than a “what to expect today” web update about the weekend weather unless it causes some type of havoc. I have some pride.

What do you say about suspected plagiarism?

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

As we continue to follow the recent floods up here in northwest Indiana, I’ve been called on to pick up random stories here and there. (Not so much random, but between beats kind of things.) Today it was the arrival of FEMA to assess the damage. Yesterday, it was about the American Red Cross naming the region a national level disaster.

A version of the charticle that ran in today’s paper was originally posted yesterday (Tuesday night) as a breaking news item. A version of my story was out on the state wire around 1 p.m. today (Wednesday).

Now, today, I was charged with kind of picking up all the pieces for a comprehensive “This is where we stand” update for Thursday’s paper. My editor handed me a story printed off the site of the paper in one of the small cities to our north, which was one of the worst affected spots. It included comments about the Red Cross efforts in that area, which he wanted me to check into.

I set it aside as I made some other calls and tried to rein in other sources and wrap up another story. About half an hour later, I picked the print out up and noticed something that piqued my interest. It sounded familiar. Really, really familiar.

At first I thought, well how many ways are there to write that an area’s been named a disaster site? Coincidence perhaps. But then, when I re-read it, I noticed something that made my heart race. Between the lead in my online update yesterday and the lead in the story that ran today I made a change to clarify something I realized after I’d already posted the update. My original lead was:

The American Red Cross has named Northwest Indiana a national level disaster because of the recent floods, which destroyed hundreds of homes and left thousands displaced.

As a result, more than 50 volunteers from across the country have already been mobilized to aid in the recovery effort in the 17-county region, with headquarters in Lafayette.

When I wasn’t just trying to get the story up, and I was smoothing it out for print, I realized I needed to specify it “left thousands of residents displaced.” Otherwise it sounds like it displaced homes. I also fixed the incorrect capitalization on northwest Indiana. Small technicalities.

But seeing the same technical mistakes in the other story made me suspicious. So I brought up my online update and compared the familiar-sounding lead.

My version, with a 6:55 p.m. time stamp:
My original update

Their version:
Plagiarized story

I don’t know if I can sum up in words how utterly shocked I was to discover the first two paragraphs of that story were identical to the first two graphs of my update. I mean, word for word they must have been copy and pasted. Go back and look again. I had to.

At first, my instinct was, maybe the wires picked it up and they just took that to top their story. But then I checked, and as I said before, it wasn’t on the wire until 1:12 p.m. I had the print out before then. Plus, the wire story further cleans up my lead. I also noticed the story doesn’t attribute anything to the Associated Press or even “Wire reports,” and it certainly doesn’t mention the J&C.

I mean, wow. I was pretty much speechless. This stuff doesn’t happen. Does it? Nobody’s that dumb. Are they?

This is plagiarism, right? I’m not confusing my journalism terms or just annoyed that guy took credit for my haphazard sentences and reporting. I mean, this is not OK. Right?

On one hand I have the inclination that I’m sure we caught them off guard because we got the news late in the day and posted it after the Red Cross had closed. Therefore, they likely couldn’t independently confirm what they read on our site. But they didn’t even attempt to rewrite around it. There was so much other, (presumably) original reporting in that story. Why would you top it off with someone else’s lead, especially if that someone else covers your region and will likely stumble across your story? I don’t get it. I mean. Who does that?!

The next question, I guess, once I reconcile my feelings is… What do you do with something like this? I pointed it out to my editor when I realized. I don’t know what he will do or has done. I asked him, jokingly, what he’d do if we just took two paragraphs from another paper, and his comment was simply, “I can’t fire a (the other paper) reporter.” I’d expect to be and hope I would be fired for doing that.

So I guess my question is, what would you do?

One of the other reporters suggested I e-mail the reporter directly to ask about it. But I don’t know. It’s probably one of those things best left to the editors.

Does this make me a horrible journalist?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

Quick, can you identify all of the people Mindy McAdams names in her post, Do you know who this is?

  • Vannevar Bush
  • Ted Nelson
  • Alan Kay
  • Vint Cerf
  • Bob Metcalfe
  • Tim Berners-Lee
  • Ivan Sutherland

I can’t.

I’m going to take one for the team here — the young’uns that is — and admit I didn’t know most of those names even in passing.

And please don’t shoot me, but Mike Royko was only vaguely familiar. (That’s the subject of the original post over at Newsosaur, re: a journalism student who didn’t know Royko’s name.)

Does that make me a horrible journalist? Should I hand over my reporters notebook and pen now?!

I’m 22. I didn’t take a “journalism history” course in college. Those lessons were interspersed among my Intro to Mass Comm, Law, Ethics, Magazine Publishing, Beat Reporting, etc. courses. And the famous journalists I did and do know are probably more happenstance than concentrated effort.

So someone give me a list of the top 10-15 greatest journalists of all time, and I promise I’ll memorize those I don’t know at the risk of looking dumb and being chastised down the line by some high-brow editor. No, seriously.

But therein also lies the problem. I’ll memorize it. Like it’s for a test, which I guess it could be. But who knows if the names I’m given would be the right ones. It’s kind of subjective.

I understand the usefulness of having historical context to understand where you have been and how it leads to where you are and will figure into where you go from here.

But am I a worse journalist for not knowing those names? Well, am I?

Does it make your 30-year veteran a worse journalist that he’d look at me like I was from Mars if I asked him about Rob Curley or Adrian Holovaty? They’re paving the future as much as any journalists have paved the past. Is it better to look forward or behind?

Or is it more important that my classes in j-school taught me and emphasized tangible things. I remember and use every day the practical skills that allow me to do this job competently not necessarily the names of those journalists before me. I can understand knowing important rulings like Times v. Sullivan. I can understand needing to know when newspapers started to mass publish and the impact cable had on broadcast TV. I can even understand and appreciate reading great journalists of the past to make my own work stronger.

But in the end, if I had to choose, I choose real-world application over historical context. That’s just me.

What does an education reporter do over winter break?

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

I’m about to head into the hardest part of my job as an education reporter so far: winter break.

Now, at first, I thought summer break would be horrid. I was sure I’d never find stories, and I’d be constantly at a loss for things to cover when the schools were out. But it turns out, schools around here are hardly out, and some of the most important work of the year actually occurs over the summer. I did more enterprise over the summer than I could have hoped. It kind of rocked.

Somehow, I don’t think the two weeks stretch of winter break I’m heading into is going to have the same effect.

Today, we got e-mails from our local editor and the projects editor asking for some enterprise ideas. My ed is looking for ideas to see us through the end of the year, including that two week stretch. (We have a daily A1 enterprise list, so that every day at least one more in-depth local story is reported and planned to run out front.) The projects editor wanted ideas for long-term Sunday packages next year. I have a few ideas for projects. For my editor though? I have several ideas, but all of them sort of require people to be around to accomplish. :/ So I can see him through the next two weeks. After that, until at least New Years, I’m really thinking, well, I’m pretty well screwed.

The other reporters also were saying they have nothing coming up for their enterprise list, that “so and so is on vacation,” or “I have no meetings” (which sounds like heaven to me, but I digress). But really, nobody else’s beat entirely shuts down for two weeks.

I asked for some pointers on where I should be looking for these ideas/what I should aim for. One thing to look into is maintenance, what are they doing over break? I know at my school, we always came back to a brightly polished gym floor. I’m also going to talk to some of the technology people, because I remember over spring break they discarded/replaced a ton of “obsolete” computers.

Other than that, I remember graduation rates came out the week I was hired but before I started here. I believe it was either the very end of December or very beginning of January. So that’s a given, and I’m trying to pre-report as much of that as I can swing. And ISTEP results (our standardized tests) are due out in the coming weeks, so possibly something there. But both of those still require people who are hard enough to track down when they aren’t gallivanting (and rightfully so) around on vacation. So there’s that.

I do have a few other non-education stories I’ve been saving. Normally, I’d just forward them on to the features reporter or my editor to assign out. But I figure since I don’t have a ton of education stuff to keep me busy, I can maybe do a few things off my beat for fun.

I also need to check and make sure I don’t have a schools page those weeks. Somehow, I don’t think they’ve thought that through. But I did. And it’ll never happen.

But really, what does an education reporter do over winter break?! Any tips or suggestions?