Print writing help for TV journalists

One of the criticisms leveled at TV news sites is the hit-or-miss quality of the writing.  Part of the problem, as many in the broadcast industry freely admit, is a discomfort with or lack of knowledge about writing in “print style.”

One tool that can help is a solid style guide, and now Reuters has posted its internal newsroom guide online, for free.  Look to the general style guide for help with punctuation, titles, capitalization rules, etc.  There’s even a section focused on sports, complete with advice for avoiding cliches (thank you Reuters).  Plus, the news organization publishes a section called, Standards and Values.

Why share this with the world?  Dean Wright, Global Editor for Ethics, Innovation and News Standards listed a number of reasons in a Reuters blog post.

  • Transparency: At a time when trust is an endangered commodity in the financial and media worlds, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.
  • Service: As we’ve seen over the past decade, the barriers to publishing have dropped so that anyone with an idea and a computer can be a publisher. But it’s also become clear that publishers have a varying standard of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a good place for budding journalists to begin.
  • Geography: Reuters serves a global audience and the handbook recognises the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United Kingdom or the United States, but for wherever English is used. 

Whether you’re a broadcaster trying to boost the quality of your online work or a student journalist perfecting a classroom project, this appears to be an excellent resource.

Notes from an ombudsman

NPR’s Alicia Shepard calls it “the loneliest job in the newsroom.” As NPR’s ombudsman, Shepard serves as a bridge between public radio listeners and staffers, explaining each side to the other. A large part of her job involves responding to complaints and challenging the newsroom to do better journalism.

Much of this is done publicly, via her online column. “It’s not enough to have internal standards,” Shepard says, “you also need transparency.” So when she discovered NPR had aired a story that might have been based on bogus information, she discussed it with everyone involved and also wrote about it.

Shepard gets more than 300 emails a week and dozens of listener phone calls. And what she hears most often is that NPR is biased, especially in its reporting on the Middle East. In response, NPR has stopped reporting live from the region and added a layer of fact-checking. The foreign editor must approve all Middle East stories in newscasts as well as correspondent reports. NPR also set up a special Web page where it posts all Middle East stories. “[NPR] want[s] people to judge [it] on the totality of the coverage,” Shepard says, “and [they] make it easy for you to evaluate it.”

In a recent blog entry, she tried to explain how NPR decides what language to use in stories about torture. Her column touched off a torrent of comments, many of them harshly critical. “Language is explosive,” Shepard says, and the use of some terms may suggest that a journalist is taking sides. Her basic advice to NPR journalists? “Be specific. Describe, don’t characterize.”

In general, Shepard favors what she calls “people first” language. For example, instead of referring to someone as an “abortion doctor,” she suggests a longer phrase: “a doctor who performs abortions.”

Shepard’s two-year, no-cut contract with NPR runs through October of this year. The duration is standard for ombudsmen, a few of whom have told me that the job is so taxing they couldn’t possibly do it longer. But Shepard thinks it’s too short, saying it took her six months just to learn how NPR works. “It’s like learning a beat,” she says. And, tough as it is, she’d like to stay on “because the job offers a chance to help keep journalism at a high level.”

Ombudsmen don’t have a long history in US newsrooms. The first one was appointed in 1967 to serve readers of two Louisville, Ky., newspapers. NPR says it was the first broadcast organization to name an ombudsman, in 2000. There have never been that many of them, but now their ranks are shrinking. In a recent column, The Washington Post’s Andy Alexander said at least 14 have lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008.

In the Internet age, anyone can fact-check a news report and shout to the world if errors go uncorrected. That would seem sufficient evidence that ombudsman duties have been usurped by an army of online “citizen editors.”

The blogosphere has provided valuable additional oversight that is holding traditional media more accountable. And it has spawned self-described “press critics,” many of whom delight in ridiculing mainstream media and attacking any ombudsman’s column that isn’t brutal enough to leave a blood stain.

But despite this expanded oversight, ombudsmen view themselves as more essential than ever. Many…reported being deluged with queries and complaints from increasing numbers of readers, viewers and listeners.

It’s no doubt hard to justify spending money on an ombudsman when the newsroom budget is being slashed.  And it’s easy to dismiss an ombudsman’s defense of his value as simply self-interest. But there’s a difference between having citizens point out errors and flaws, and having an independent observer inside a news organization with “a hall pass and a platform,” as New York Times executive editor Bill Keller describes an ombudsman.

Ombudsmen like Alexander and Shepard may never be beloved, but they do play an important role. Their presence is a clear signal that the news organization cares about the public’s concerns and will take steps to respond. And they can also serve as a deterrent. The knowledge that someone is watching, someone with the authority to draw public attention to errors and ethical missteps, may help keep them from happening in the first place.

Award-winning stories on diversity

In all the discussion of journalism’s economic troubles and the need to embrace technological change, it can be easy to forget some of the basic tenets of good journalism.  Reflecting the community in your coverage is still critical, and the 2009 National RTNDA/UNITY Awards honor a group of broadcasters who have done that extremely well.

wilson2MSNBC’s winning entry profiles a young man named David Wilson who traces his roots back to the days of slavery and then finds the descendants of the family who owned his family.  KMOV-TV in St. Louis committed to an ongoing exploration of race relations in that city and NPR explored the phenomenon of Native American boarding schools.  The local radio award winner was WERN-FM in Madison, Wisc., which delved into the area’s Hmong-American experience.

These entries make for compelling viewing and listening on one hand and may also act as a source of inspiration for other journalists looking to tell stories about the many different faces that make up America.

Pros and cons of sharing news video

It’s happening everywhere. Stations from Tampa to Los Angeles are forming local partnerships to share news video. The arrangements vary from market to market, but so far stations owned by Fox, Gannett, Scripps, Tribune and Meredith have jumped into the new pools.

The benefits for the stations are obvious. Sending one photographer to cover an event for several news organizations at once should save all of them money. The networks have been doing it in Washington, DC, for years. Among the other arguments in favor:

  • Video from pre-arranged events like news conferences all looks the same anyway, so there’s really no need to send more than one photographer.
  • Stations that participate in pools will have more photographers available to shoot enterprise stories that could make each station’s newscasts more distinctive.

Not everyone is buying it. Emily Barr, news director at WLS-TV in Chicago, is keeping her station out of the pool. She told the Chicago Sun-Times that sharing video could compromise her station’s independence and flexibility. It’s probably no coincidence that WLS is the top-rated station in Chicago. The number one station in Atlanta, WSB-TV, isn’t joining the pool arrangement there, either.

No market has been doing this long enough to measure the real impact on local TV news. But some concerns may be well founded:

  • Stations using pools could decide to cut their staff rather than redeploy them to cover other stories. That could make local newscasts even more alike than they are now.
  • Stations may decide not to send their own reporters to events that are pooled, so they won’t get any independent coverage.
  • Even if reporters are present, they may not be able to use a pool camera to shoot unilateral footage. That’s been a problem in DC for years. In my experience, it was almost impossible to get a second, independent camera sent to a pooled event.

My former colleage at Poynter, Jill Geisler, warns of other hazards, including the possibility that events designed to draw pool coverage will proliferate, as pols and PR types learn how to game the new system.

But video sharing appears to be on the verge of becoming the new normal. Should viewers worry that stations are saving money at the expense of quality ? Or will these collaborations actually improve local TV news?

Product placement in TV news

MSNBC’s sponsorship deal with Starbucks has raised new questions about the shifting line between news and sales. As you probably know, the cable network’s Morning Joe program is now branded with a Starbucks logo, and that’s not all. The show sold its name to the coffee company, so it’s now “Morning Joe Brewed by Starbucks.” The question is, what else has it sold?

Starbucks reportedly is paying MSNBC $10 million, pretty good money at a time when advertising dollars are tight.  MSNBC’s Phil Griffin defended the deal to the AP:

The world is just different…The rules of 10, 15, 20 years ago just don’t apply. You can’t live by them. You’ve got to be creative.

Griffin insists that Morning Joe won’t pull any punches when Starbucks is in the news, but viewers could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. The perception that MSNBC has given up its independence can only compromise its credibility.

Three years ago, when some local stations made similar deals, I wrote a column pointing out some of the pitfalls, but I didn’t expect a national network to follow suit. As far as I can recall, NBC hasn’t had a sponsorship deal quite like this since the old Camel News Caravan went off the air more than 50 years ago.

But the recession has hammered TV news budgets and, as RTNDA’s Ryan Murphy points out, it’s becoming easier to accept what might once have been anathema:

Say, for example, my former organization decided to sell an advertising skin that wrapped the homepage – something I would have been vehemently against – but the sponsorship money alone would have saved my job. Would I have been so against jeopardizing the product then?

About the only good thing you can say for the Starbucks-MSNBC deal is that it’s out in the open. At least viewers know the coffee company is paying for all that on-air promotion it’s getting and judge the content of the program accordingly.

Student journalism taken seriously

The fact that the Web gives almost anyone a publishing platform has created significant opportunity for student journalists.  Instead of producing class work for an audience of one – the instructor – students now have the opportunity to create their own Web sites and blogs or post to online video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo.

Just ask Tracy Kennedy.  The VCU freshman was covering the Virginia legislature for one of her classes when she noticed that many lawmakers appeared to be surfing the Web during a session.  She checked out one of the school’s cameras and shot a story, which she then posted on YouTube.

The story caught the attention of the Washington Posts’s Amy Gardner, and she posted a link to the video on her blog.   The post elicited comments from one of the legislators included in the piece, as well as a number of additional remarks from readers.  Later that day, the Virginia Politics blog expanded on the reaction from legislators who were critical of Kennedy’s reporting.  The local CBS affiliate in Richmond also produced a story about the impact of Kennedy’s work in which she told the station that she was “surprised” by all the attention.

In an email, Kennedy said she wishes some of the critics had read the text-based article she wrote to accompany the video, and said she’s proud of work.

I only wish that I had included a note at the end of the video clarifying some facts about my report, like that all but one of the delegates refused to comment on my story and that those pictures were taken on a break-less Ash Wednesday session, but otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing if I could.

Whatever you think of her story, Kennedy is getting a feel for the power of journalism that just couldn’t be replicated in the classroom alone.  

At first, I wasn’t sure whether or not I had the mettle to be a journalist and I had a paralyzing fear that I wouldn’t be able to get a job after graduation. Since the delegates report, I’ve become much more confident in my ability to withstand criticism, and I’ve even received several internship offers. I still have a lot to learn before I can become a better journalist, but I’m definitely up to the challenge.

Posting government data

We live in a time when the personal is no longer private, and that doesn’t just apply to Facebook and Twitter feeds. Government databases that journalists use in their stories include a ton of personal information, too. But just because you can get your hands on it doesn’t mean you should post it online, says David Cullier, chairman of SPJ’s national FOI committee.

Writing in the May issue of Quill, Cullier says most people consider their date of birth, home address and home phone number to be private information. No matter what the law says, publishing that information can be perceived as an invasion of privacy. So Cullier advises asking three key questions before deciding whether to post, publish or broadcast government data:

1. Is it personal? What information is included about individuals that might be considered personal?

2. Is it necessary? Does the information convey something essential or is it needed to avoid confusing two people with the same name?

3. Is it a public benefit? Is there a clear journalistic reason for using the information?

If there’s no good reason for including the information, Cullier suggests leaving it out. But why bother doing that if the information is already publicly available? Because, Cullier says, when journalists post what most people consider to be personal information it’s disseminated much more widely, and that can lead to a backlash.

He points to a case in 2005 when an Orlando TV station posted on its Web site the names of people holding concealed gun permits. It was public data then, but it’s not any more. Under pressure from the NRA, the Florida legislature closed the records in 2006.

“More than ever, we need to think carefully about what we post online, even when the information is legally public,” Cullier says. “The alternative is losing access altogether.”