Should journalists be armed?

The question, posted on the international journalists’ network IJNet, drew me up short. Wouldn’t carrying a weapon jeopardize a journalist’s neutral status? Couldn’t it put them more at risk, especially in a war zone where a gun could make them appear to be combatants? So why even ask the question?  Here’s why:

Following the recent fatal shooting of Russian reporter Anastasia Baburova, who worked for Russia’s liberal opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the paper’s management announced last week it had appealed to Russian authorities to allow its journalists to carry weapons.

News organizations in Mexico and Iraq have made similar requests recently, but it’s not a new issue. This AJR report a few years ago looked at threats against journalists in the Philippines.

So should some journalists, in some situations, be armed?  No, says Ron Steinman, former NBC bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Wearing a gun, he says, does not protect you from harm, it causes harm.

When reporters carry a weapon, forget the argument of how the subject of your story looks at you when they see you armed. It changes how you cover news. Reporters never want to be part of the story. When you carry you have become a different person.

Sounds about right to me. What about you?

Training the new journalist

Hundreds of new journalism graduates are either out looking for jobs right now or soon will be following December graduation ceremonies.  At least as many experienced journalists are also out pounding the pavement for work in the wake of layoffs across the country.

NPR’s Alex Cohen sat down to talk with with Dean of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, Neil Henry, about what the future may hold for the journalism profession and journalism education.

How can journalism survive?

The most controversial element of the interview involves Henry’s assertion that more journalists will need to be entrepreneurs.  He suggests they won’t work for traditional media companies, rather they will be in business for themselves.  Unfortunately, when Cohen tried to press him on whether this would result in “journalism for hire,”  Henry really avoided answering the question.  However, he did say UC Berkeley’s j-school is working with the business school to develop courses that might help journalists make money outside the corporate journalism structure.

Still, it’s worth thinking about.  Obviously, there are some journalists who have gone out on their own to produce news content and profit from it, while seeming to uphold journalistic standards, but there aren’t many.  And several who have done it eventually seem to operate on much the same old economic model as journalism always has (i.e. Huffington Post with its Blackberry ads and outside investors).

So, how feasible is Henry’s idea?  Can journalism survive and thrive without the infrastructure created by big media companies?  Or will it have to?

Rating news by credibility

The latest entry in the online news aggregator market offers a new twist on story rankings. Unlike other social media sites, NewsCred doesn’t rank stories by popularity.  Instead, it asks users to judge whether stories, authors and publications are credible, and sorts them accordingly.

Anyone can customize a news feed by selecting sources to monitor. The available news sources range from Al Jazeera to the Washington Times, and the site also monitors popular blogs like Daily Kos and O’Reilly.  But if you want to weigh in on their credibility, you have to register.

The rankings don’t seem very useful at this point, since almost every source is getting top marks.  The average credibility score for all sources, including blogs, stands at 99.6% today.  But it’s a neat concept and worth keeping an eye on.

Multimedia ethics: E-mail interviews

In our text, Advancing the Story, we talk about some of the ethical issues raised in the digital age of newsgathering.  One newsgathering technique that’s becoming increasingly popular is the use of email to conduct interviews.  So, what is your responsibility for telling the audience about the way in which you gathered the information?  Here’s a good example of why it may matter from Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits contributor Peter Zollman.

Yesterday I was reading a MidwestBusiness.com article about Legacy.com , the obituary site that’s part-owned by the Tribune Co. Legacy.com faces a potential threat from Tributes.com — a new obituary site being spun off from Eons.com by one-time Monster.com head Jeff Taylor .

The article referred to “Legacy.com CEO Hayes Ferguson ” and later says, “He added in an interview… [etc].” Well, Hayes is a woman. (If you Google for her image, you may even spot one reference to “a very pregnant Hayes Ferguson” — an old image.) Also, she’s COO , not CEO.

This made me question whether the “interview” was actually an e-mail exchange or a more traditional interview — which in my opinion implies face-to-face. Way back when, when I was a reporter, it was drilled into me that the context of the information delivered is important — a telephone interview, an in-person interview, a newspaper or broadcast quote, or an e-mail exchange. (Oh, wait: We didn’t have e-mail back then…)

I shot the writer an e-mail (two, actually) pointing out the errors. Within an hour, they were fixed. Well done with the fast correction.

Zollman was actually using the piece to comment on how quickly the information was corrected online, but you do have to wonder if an e-mail interview contributed to the error.

Journalism and consulting don’t mix

The Fox station in Detroit officially parted ways with a highly-paid morning anchor this week.  Fanchon Stinger was suspended last month after reports connected her to a controversial city contract that’s now under federal investigation.  According to the Detroit News, Stinger’s “media consulting and public speaking company” was hired last fall to place ads for Synagro, the firm that eventually won the contract. In a written statement, Stinger denounced what she called the “malicious dismantling” of her reputation and career:”

At the conclusion of the federal investigation it will be apparent that the scandalous allegations pertaining to my personal involvement with Synagro are misleading and without factual basis. At that time I will also be free to correct the blatant misrepresentations and tawdry allegations that have been attached to me.

Stinger co-anchored the morning newscast at WJBK-TV and was paid over $300,000 a year, according to the News.  Synagro won’t say how much it paid her company for the ad contract.  But money isn’t really the issue here.  Even if the work was pro-bono, the conflict of interest would be patently obvious to anyone–except Stinger herself, perhaps.

Independence is one of the most basic ethical principles any journalist should live by.  The Radio-Television News Directors Association’s ethics code couldn’t be more clear:

Professional electronic journalists should understand that any commitment other than service to the public undermines trust and credibility.

The lesson here is simple: If you want to do media consulting, get out of the news business.

Visual ethics – Part 2

It’s not only still photos falling under suspicion this week, but video as well.  An Associated Press story outlines concerns about tornado footage that may have been altered.  At issue is video sold to the AP by a freelancer who says it depicts a recent tornado in Nebraska.  However, another news photographer contacted the AP to suggest it was actually video taken during a storm in Kansas four years ago.

The AP had sent [the] video Sunday to nearly 2,000 Web sites that subscribe to the company’s Online Video Network, and more than 60 large digital customers that buy AP’s online content individually. Upon seeing the evidence, the AP eliminated the video from OVN and contacted its other customers to urge them not to use it, said Kevin Roach, the AP’s acting head of domestic broadcast news operations.

“We never want to mislead people,” Roach said. “Based on evidence provided to us, we believe that the video was not authentic.”

Roach said the AP looked at the two video streams side-by-side, and examined individual frames of the footage in making its determination. He also asked for opinions from a photo editor and third storm chaser, Roach said.

“It was rather definitive for us,” he said.

Visual ethics – Part 1

Newspapers and Web sites around the country recently made a serious mistake.  They ran an altered photograph of an Iranian missile launch.  According to the Photo District News Web site:

“The problematic image was distributed by Agence France Presse, which said it obtained the photo from Sepah News, the house organ of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Video footage shot from the same angle and a second photo that is nearly identical show just three missiles, not four. AFP issued a correction Thursday saying, “The 2nd Right missile has apparently been added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may have failed during the test.”

News organizations forced to make corrections include the Los Angeles Times, Boston Gobe and the Chicago Tribune.

It was the blog Little Green Footballs that’s getting the credit for cacthing the deception.  Many photo editors intervied for the article feel they should have caught the manipulation before publication.  Others believe they should have done a better job of sourcing the photos since some did not indicate that the picture came directly from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Best practices for online video

The explosion of online video has raised lots of questions about copyright and fair use. When is it legal to post a chunk of someone else’s video for free? What about the entire work? Can you mashup, remix or alter someone else’s video without penalty? Today, the Center for Social Media at American University is offering some suggested answers in a new code of best practices. AU professor Pat Aufderheide tells Broadcasting & Cable:

We think it will help creators in this exciting new realm to get and stay legal, and will also help copyright-holders understand when it’s actually fair to use their material without paying for it.

The code takes a broadly permissive view of what can be done with online video. Among the highlights:

  • Video makers have the right to use as much of the original work as they need to in order to put it under some kind of scrutiny or start a discussion about it.
  • Video makers may quote copyrighted material (for instance, music, video, photographs, animation, text) because it aptly illustrates an argument or a point.
  • Video makers may recombine elements of copyrighted works if they create new meaning by juxtaposition.
  • Video makers may use copyrighted sounds and images when they are recorded in everyday settings.
  • One important principle that underlies all of these exceptions is good faith. And one way to prove it, the code’s authors say, is to provide credit or attribution.

    The ethics of music

    Back in the old days when I worked at CBS News, the standards manual clearly prohibited the use of music in news stories unless it was captured at the scene. If we did use music, we had to show the source–video of the band playing, the car radio, whatever. These days, there’s music all over TV news stories, added from CDs and audio samplers stations buy the rights to use. Is that ethical?

    News Videographer’s Angela Grant (bless her) says no. In her view (and mine), adding music puts an editorial spin on stories:

    I really believe that the music is adding feelings and emotions that weren’t present in the actual story. The music is telling the viewer how to feel about the story. Since [the videographer] is the one who chose the music — He’s telling the viewer how they’re supposed to feel about the story. This is inappropriate for an objective journalist.

    I’ve been fighting this battle for years to little avail. Many video editors see music as a legitimate way of adding “texture” or “pacing” to stories. They either haven’t really thought about the effect music has on the audience or they have thought about it and use music deliberately for an emotional effect. Either way, it strikes me as a violation of this clause in the NPPA Ethics Code:

    Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

    Music manipulates viewers’ emotions–that’s why movies have soundtracks. TV news and online news video shouldn’t emulate the movies. Adding music in post-production is a Hollywood gimmick that doesn’t belong in daily news.

    Diversity lacking in sports journalism

    It’s the second year for bad news when it comes to the diversity of newspaper sports departments.  According to Editor & Publisher, a survey from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) has found an overwhelming majority of white males behind this country’s sports pages.

    “This report shows that in 2008, 94% of the sports editors; 89% of the assistant sports editors; 88% of our columnists; 87% of our reporters; and 89% of our copy editors/designers are white, and those same positions are 94%, 90%, 94%, 91%, and 84% male,” wrote Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES, which is housed at the University of Central Florida.

    This is the second year for the study which noted one bright spot – an increase in African-American sports columnists who now make up 10.7% of the field (up from 7.4%).

    According to the article, some sports editors blame newspaper downsizing for the problem saying the dot-coms are hiring away women and minorities and then the newspapers are not allowed to fill those open positions. 

    If that were the case, wouldn’t it stand to reason that sports departments would have been just filled with women and people of color 10-15 years ago, when sports Web sites were far from a major player and the economics of newspapers were much brighter?

    I think there may be quite another reason why sports departments are a nearly all white male club and that probably won’t change as long as the old excuses are allowed to go unchallenged.