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Back to basics: Thoughts on the UVA/Rolling Stone scandal

It’s been a while. Apparently taking three classes, working as a senior reporter for the school paper, pursuing an entrepreneurial project, applying to jobs and still trying to enjoy my last semester of college is one way to neglect a blog.

I haven’t posted since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January but I’m back—with quite a lot to say.

An extremely cringeworthy journalism failure has just happened and I can’t help but wonder how one of the most notable culture and music publications will recover. If you’re a journalist, a writer, a college student, a sexual assault survivor, a professor, a college administrator, a politician—basically any participating member of society—you’ve probably heard about the epic misstep made by Rolling Stone’s editorial team in the reporting of a University of Virginia campus rape (the article has since been retracted).

“A Rape on Campus” was published in November 2014 and within weeks major news outlets like The Washington Post were heavily and publicly questioning the validity of Rolling Stone’s reporting. It was obvious not all characters in the story were equally represented. The presence of pseudonyms was concerning. And, to top it off, sources who were never reached for comment by the writer publicly disputed facts of the story. From there, what at publication time seemed to be a ground-breaking, critical story addressing campus rape culture, began to unravel. Here’s a detailed timeline of events.

The Consequences 

Shortly before Christmas 2014, Rolling Stone enlisted the help of The Columbia School of Journalism to investigate the facts of their story using the writer’s notes, call logs, emails and contacts. The magazine published Columbia’s lengthy report last week. The report concluded a number of oversights and failures at every level of the editorial team—writer, editors and fact-checkers. It also promptly stated Rolling Stone’s failure was avoidable.

A few groups will undeniably suffer setbacks from this scandal: survivors of rape and sexual assault and the journalists who report on these situations. And not only does it disgrace those groups, it jeopardizes the reputations of the university, the fraternity against which hasty and detailed allegations were made and a number of sources to which the subject of the story inaccurately attributed face-damaging comments. Now, because of the subject’s seemingly fabricated details, it’s possible rape and sexual assault survivors will be less likely to speak up for fear they won’t be trusted. This is a true atrocity—a giant leap backward after years of legislation and procedural changes have equipped colleges with the tools to work toward providing a supportive and healing community for survivors. 

“It would be unfortunate if Rolling Stone’s failure were to deter journalists from taking on high-risk investigations of rape in which powerful individuals or institutions may wish to avoid scrutiny but where the facts may be underdeveloped. There is clearly a need for a more considered understanding and debate among journalists and others about the best practices for reporting on rape survivors, as well as on sexual assault allegations that have not been adjudicated.” – From The Columbia School of Journalism’s report

The report makes clear a journalistic truism. It’s imperative to allow all parties a fair say in an effort to uncover the truth, not to protect a source so definitively as to avoid fact-checking critical elements of a story.

One of the few positives to come out of this scandal, however, is the swift watchdog action taken by The Washington Post and other news outlets. It should be 100 percent the intention of journalists to be truthful in their reporting but, like any other aspect of life, human error sometimes trumps those intentions and it’s up to others in the industry to blow the whistle.

At the end of the report, Columbia provided a list of areas that “should be the subject of continuing deliberation among journalists” when reporting on sexual assault and rape:

  • Balancing sensitivity to the victims and the demands of verification
  • Corroborating survivor accounts
  • Holding institutions to account

I’ll take this moment to represent the minority opinion and be thankful for the lesson learned—from both an audience’s and journalist’s perspective. Rape and sexual assault stories are no different from any other: Fact-checking and source contact is an absolute necessity. To sloppily contact sources for comment who play such an integral part in a story, and whose reputations are very much on the line, is unacceptable. If these decisions were made to protect the main source of the story from her alleged attacker (as Rolling Stone stated they were) then maybe it wasn’t the right story to tell.


The price of free expression

This week I made a short visit to San Francisco. I left full (thanks to all the oysters, bread bowls and Ghirardelli chocolates), tired and with a copy of the SF Chronicle in hand. On my plane ride back to Southern California, I read Thursday’s paper cover to cover. One of the opinion pieces addressing the Charlie Hebdo attacks that took place the day before drew me in.

The writer mentions that Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper, had been warned by the government prior to both the recent attack and another of similar caliber in 2011 that some of their content was grounds for widespread criticism. Still, the cartoonists and journalists kept on feverishly. Most of their satires were directed at the perils of Islam.

Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo website homepage (Jan. 10)

Screenshot of Charlie Hebdo website homepage (Jan. 10)

It’s no secret that Charlie Hebdo seriously antagonized the victims of their satire. In fact, “A recent cartoon depicted an extremist fighter bemoaning the ‘still no attacks in France’ and suggesting such a New Year’s resolution would be carried out by the end of January.” — published just days before the January 7 shooting that killed 12 and injured 11.

Considering all this, the point the SF Chronicle writer makes is that despite security detail and mass witnesses, the attacks could not be avoided.

“The assault on Charlie Hebdo, in broad daylight against journalists with police protection in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet, reminds us there is no refuge against the forces of repression through terror.”

And so I ask myself the question: At the cost of a dozen lives, Charlie Hebdo was able to publicly criticize Islam for years, demonstrating their own right to free expression and thought. Should the satirists at Charlie Hebdo have recognized a boundary in criticizing Islam simply to protect their own from backlash?

I’m beginning to think the practice of free expression around the world comes at a disgustingly — and increasingly — high price.

The best hyperlocal sites on the web

*This post is an assignment for my “Journalism in a free society” course. This week’s assignment calls for a compare and contrast of my choice of three news organization startups (I used this list from the Columbia Journalism Review to choose which three to analyze). My focus here is on hyperlocal sites as I continue industry research for my own entrepreneurial news startup.


This non-profit news organization caught my attention because of its remarkable roots. Founded by three soon-to-be college graduates in 2005, it was launched under the name The Common Language Project. The trio saw a need for a daily news website that provided an outlet for the high number of immigrants populating Seattle, Washington (about one-fourth of Seattleites are foreign born). A dynamic community of students, foodies, travelers, immigrants, healthcare workers and artists make up the voices behind this news startup. The Seattle Globalist has offices at the University of Washington where it employs a staff of nine writers and editors—most of whom are recipients of several prestigious journalism and media awards.

The content: In short, their coverage aims to connect Seattle’s diverse population to the rest of the world—“hyperglobal” reporting, as they call it. The Seattle Globalist publishes content in seven categories: Arts & Culture, Politics, Perspectives, Development, Food, Travel and Columns, as well as a calendar of community cultural events. Articles and columns are good because they’re written by Seattleites who have a unique and global perspective. No small-minded ideas here.

The standout quality: The Seattle Globalist offers an apprenticeship program for budding journalists from the ages of 17-20. Participants of the program receive training and guidance in writing, photography, video and design as well as bylines on The Seattle Globalist website.

berkeleyside-logoThis independent local news site in Berkeley, California is a fantastic example of a hyperlocal news organization—although it could take some pointers from The Seattle Globalist to bring a more global perspective to their reporting. Berkeleyside was founded in 2009 by a trio of veteran journalists and has been a pioneer of local online journalism ever since. The site won the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California ‘Excellence in Journalism Award for Community Journalism’ in 2013. 

The content: Most of the content on Berkeleyside is in the format of short news blurbs—it feels like the online version of a print newspaper. With a small staff of five reporters and editors, Berkeleyside publishes content on food, artists, politics, culture and local hard news. In addition to the permanent staff, the site employs a group of freelancers from the area. The staff has experimented with native advertising in the past to involve local merchants and, lately, sponsored events like last week’s ‘Idea Festival’ which brought together scores of prominent thinkers for an open exchange of ideas and perspectives.

The standout quality: Berkeleyside‘s greatest asset is perhaps its strategic partnerships with local news organizations KQED and The San Francisco Chronicle. They all work in conjunction to share content and resources, upping revenue and readership/page views for all parties involved—a great solution to the radical downsizing that’s taken place at traditional newspapers and radio stations in the area. Berkeleyside has truly figured out how to use their local resources to maximize audience reach and create a cooperative, non-competitive relationship that benefits the community and its news organizations.

Screen Shot 2014-11-11 at 7.54.02 PM

DNAinfo New York is the leading hyperlocal site of New York City (the news organization has a branch in Chicago as well). The site was founded in 2009 by Joe Ricketts, who also provides the organization’s funding. DNAinfo (DNA = Digital Network Associates) relies on its 40+ editorial team—as well as sales, creative and marketing and tech and design teams—to produce truthful, fun and useful content accessible across all digital platforms. The site also transparently states that it aims to make money in the process.

The content: Articles are in a traditional news writing style but tend to be shorter than a typical print article would be. Between original content and aggregation from local sources, DNAinfo seems to have writers and contributors in all corners of the city with incredible connections and audience reach. While the site lacks an extensive archive of investigative or in-depth reporting, it’s OK because that’s not their selling point: they’re focused on accurate, interesting and up-to-the-minute watchdog reporting.

The standout quality: DNAinfo is chockfull of content that fully encompasses the news spectrum: health & wellness, culture, shopping, politics, education, transportation, etc. The site also has five neighborhood categories within New York City, filing even more exclusive news and content.

On the legacy of Ben Bradlee

63696_cartoon_mainThe journalism world lost a revered editor last week. Ben Bradlee was executive editor of The Washington Post for 26 years. He oversaw the Pulitzer-prize winning Watergate coverage by Woodward and Bernstein. He led the controversial publishing of the Pentagon papers. He transformed a daily newspaper into one of the most vital tools of democracy in this country.

There’s nothing I can be more grateful for as an aspiring journalist than to have an idol like Bradlee. He established what it means to be a journalist: he sought the truth and was determined to report it.

Yesterday, my journalism class participated in a phone call with Jules Witcover, a famed ‘Boys on the Bus’ journalist who worked under Bradlee at the Post for about four years and called him a friend for many, many more. Witcover said Bradlee was “the greatest of all newspaper editors I’ve encountered in 65 years in the business.”

What others said…

Post columnist, Eugene Robinson: “He made you understand that journalism was not a career but a mission. He made you feel that how well you did your job was not just important to your own ambitions but had a real impact on society. He demanded more than you thought you could possibly deliver, and you moved heaven and earth not to disappoint him.”

President Obama: “For Benjamin Bradlee, journalism was more than a profession – it was a public good vital to our democracy. A true newspaperman, he transformed the Washington Post into one of the country’s finest newspapers, and with him at the helm, a growing army of reporters published the Pentagon Papers, exposed Watergate, and told stories that needed to be told – stories that helped us understand our world and one another a little bit better.”

“Nose down, ass up and moving steadily forward into the future.”

-Ben Bradlee

Exploring gender and the media: why we need equality

*This post is an assignment for my “Journalism in a free society” course to discuss gender and the media in 2014. Keep in mind this is a surface exploration of news media’s current practices regarding gender roles and representation in the media. There’s so much to analyze here, but I have time to address only a few topical issues…

Our class discussion of gender representation in the media and in newsrooms comes at a prime time. Women are fighting vigorously on behalf of women’s rights on social, economic and political fronts. And in some cases, media coverage is the only leverage they have.

The #HeForShe campaign, pioneered by Emma Watson, U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, is this month’s heartiest example of a push for gender equality. Watson’s speech, given earlier this week to a group of U.N. members, introduced the new campaign using a hashtag and urging supporters to take action online. The campaign, which asks males to commit to gender equality, was launched through viral media attention. The video of Watson’s speech has over 4.4 million views on YouTube. News media from The Washington Post to Politico covered the #HeForShe speech.

But, rather than reporting the facts of the campaign, its controversial nature prompted worldwide debate over Watson’s credibility as an advocate for gender equality. The speech was covered heavily in blog and editorial pieces—anything allowing outright opinion—often accusatorially labeling her as a feminist, which in 2014, carries an unjustly negative connotation for many. This situation shows precisely what little regard the news media has for females. 

It’s important to note, though, the most positive, advocative headlines, and accompanying articles, about her speech (i.e. ‘Watch Emma Watson Deliver Game-Changing Speech on Feminism for the U.S.’) were written by female writers and published by female interest publications. In this case, Vanity Fair. And yet, strangely, these publications are still largely male-run.

“All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men and women to do nothing.” -Edmund Burke (quoted by Emma Watson)

Contrary to the rapid evolvement of digital media over the last decade, the percentage of women journalists and women working in newsrooms has remained virtually unchanged in the last two decades. Not to mention they’re generally accepting lower pay than their male counterparts. It goes without saying that the #HeForShe campaign is working to change this (along with the treatment of women in the workplace, among other things). But sadly, Watson’s campaign, and ones like it, may never succeed in making a difference if they rely on media coverage—media coverage that just so happens to be male dominated (about 64 percent of newsrooms are male, according to Pew Research Center).

But where the professional news media’s coverage of women lacks in 2014, social media is there to pick it right back up. In the recent coverage of Ray Rice’s domestic violence controversy, his wife was criticized in the media for marrying Rice after the incident. But fear not, social media quickly tweeted to the rescue, creating the hashtag #WhyIStayed to defend Janay Rice’s decision.

This carries the issue to new heights, however. If social media (also known as the general public/anyone and everyone with access to the Internet) is the most honest and empowering voice available to the masses, what role does the professional news media play?

Since women’s suffrage was granted in 1920, we have been making strides toward equality—and we’ve reached a stalemate. Proud as we are that women have made it past a time when female reporters were forced to stand on the balcony of The National Press Club ballroom in the 1970s, separated from the male reporters, to cover speeches and events from afar, we’ve still not made it to where we want to be—and that’s a place of equality. I think that’s largely due to the media’s coverage of women.

News media is perpetuating a lasting divergence between men and women in the workplace, and as journalists, in particular. Journalism is the people’s institution. It’s meant to inform, educate and engage consumers. It’s meant to document the magnitude of the human experience. Historically, it’s been an advocate for justice. And when it comes to issues of basic human rights (like the universal equality of the sexes) journalists should be the greatest advocate for themselves.

A new era of new journalism

*This post is an assignment for my “Journalism in a free society” course to describe what my definition of journalism is today.

“This is the most exciting time ever to be a journalist — if you are not in search of the past.” –Hodding Carter III

As a fourth year journalism student, I’m fond of the phrase “going digital.” In the last 10 years, news companies and independent publications have made the great leap to online platforms, in some cases canceling out their print editions entirely (i.e. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer) to focus on a new frontier. A frontier that often favors short video clips, gasp-worthy headlines and loads—and loads—of quick, accessible content.

When the non-partisan American press was birthed at the turn of the 20th century, journalists fought for a voice that would educate and inform the public in an objective, timely and democratic manner. Each time society has unveiled a new news medium (the telegraph in the mid 1800s, radio in the 1920s, TV in the 1950s) it became a distraction, throwing consumers off course, challenging what they knew to be true of communication technology. And yet, with the millennial debut of mobile content, demand for news has never been higher. It’s hard to argue that Americans aren’t informed. And isn’t this the main goal of journalism, anyway—to inform the public? Digital journalism is only the latest leg of the news media monster.

Today, in 2014, journalism is forcefully evolving at a rate unparalleled in American history.

Traditionally, journalism referred to the news and information provided to the public through the objective lens of newspapers and television and radio broadcasters. Today’s journalism, in contrast, incorporates print, broadcast and digital platforms, marrying the three to give consumers all they need to know—and more. This unconventional union is something we’re calling a “media innovation community.”

No longer are the times when breaking of news relies on classically trained journalists and reporters. With universal access to the Internet, bloggers, writers, Tweeters, artists, businessmen, eyewitnesses and even your neighbor Jane Doe and her imaginative 12-year-old son all have the ability to publish information and “news” online, at any time.

Sure, it’s an unfortunate instance when journalists are pushed to prove their credibility and responsibility to the world. But, as journalists, it’s our duty to distinguish for consumers the difference between websites like Buzzfeed and FiveThirtyEight, Elite Daily and The Washington Post. While these sites all cater to on-the-move, digital readers, one publishes snack-able, non-essential news, and the other produces meaningful, newsworthy journalism.

Still, with today’s journalism, there seems to be a loss of news value. Elliot King, author of Key Readings in Journalism, said the established news media no longer holds the sole role of acting as gatekeepers for the news. Which, in turn, creates the massive, undefinably deep expanse of news and information that is the Internet. According to The Press, Thomas Paine once said that journalism helps us “‘see with other eyes, hear with other ears, and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used.'” If Paine’s definition of journalism is remembered, then traditional journalism will live on—whether in print or online.

So, what is journalism in 2014? It’s a mash-up of online, broadcast and print news and information that, just like yesterday’s journalism, aims to serve for the public good, but unlike yesterday’s journalism, blurs the line more than ever between the value of quality journalism and the instant gratification of mobile content. Journalism today is malleable. Journalists and consumers alike are perpetuating their very own definition of journalism for today and for the future.

This is why we fact check

“If your mother says she loves you…check it out.”

A cardinal rule in journalism. But, the importance of this rule is increasingly lost among local, national and even international media. In the last few years, newsrooms have lost funding and cut jobs–and fact checkers are typically the first to go.

If history is any indication, sustaining a reputable, ethically responsible publication requires fact checking at the most basic level. Famous incidents where fact checking was thrown by the wayside (i.e. Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke) have disrupted lives and disgusted readers.

I spent the majority of my summer working as a fact checker for Orange Coast Magazine. As I called and emailed sources, scoured the Internet and researched records to check everything from dates to names to the cross streets of a statue, I realized I was helping to maintain the journalistic integrity of Orange Coast Magazine. And that’s important.

The Society of Professional Journalists has made it clear that the duty of journalists is to provide information in “an accurate, comprehensive, timely, and understandable manner.” The group states one of its most fundamental ethical codes – “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.” So why is fact checking often regarded as negligent?

Fact checking books is often vetted as a different beast entirely. This Atlantic article discusses the major implications (and one former incident involving New York Times writer, Nicholas Kristof, heavily endorsing a memoir that was later deemed fiction) of publishing houses ignoring the process of fact checking and what that means for the rest of us.

Is native advertising responsible journalism?

Branded content. Native advertising. Call it what you will but no matter what you call it, big time news publications are giving it a go in the digital world, and they don’t seem to be stopping any time soon. I was asked to watch the comic clip below for my journalism class last week from ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ and was surprised even by my own reaction.

Two summers ago, I worked for a website design and marketing company that specialized in branded content and online marketing strategies. While at the company, I was generally in awe of the creative genius that they, and other advertising and marketing companies, had set forth creating branded content and marketing campaigns for clients. 

Now, as a journalism student who reads the news for homework, I’m increasingly skeptical of native advertising. As a student and consumer who’s after genuine, truthful journalism, native ads feel like trickery to me. I understand that advertisers are exercising their creative aptitude, but what good is it doing to impose on a company’s editorial content and journalistic integrity by slighting readers with uninvited advertising? 

With more and more backlash whipping at sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker for taking our digital attention span to something like 5 seconds, native ads are beginning to feel even more like a ploy to help these companies get ‘clicks’ and make money, eliminating any future hope for respectable journalism in a digital world. There should stand a boundary between editorial content and advertising content, and the current state of native ads is unjustly tempting it.


The ethics of tragedy: MH17 plane crash

Yet another catastrophic airplane crash has killed 298 Dutch, Malaysian, Indonesian, Australian, British, German, Belgian, Filipino, Canadian and New Zealand [kiwi] passengers onboard a Malaysia Airlines flight that came down Thursday morning on the border of Ukraine and Russia.

The crash site, a mere 36 hours after the incident, is already a familiar one as reporters and news crews use it as anchor images for their developing stories. One of these images, used by The New York Times shortly after the news broke, was of a young woman’s corpse at the crash site. It has since been removed.

Yesterday, The Atlantic promptly addressed the issue, stating: “…when it comes to ethics—when it comes to the question of what readers actually need to know and see about unfolding tragedies. The bomb, exploding? The corpse, mutilated? The people falling from the towers? There is a fine line, always, between journalism and sensationalism. And the higher the speed, in general, the higher the stakes.”

As journalists, we have a responsibility to report for the public good. Might we make it mandatory to consider—in crises like this, for the sake of the deceased and for the sake of their families—abstaining from immediate photo documentation of human suffering until further conclusions about the photo’s subjects can be made to evoke a greater truth for the public good.

The Atlantic’s Megan Garber sharply concludes: “News outlets, the good ones, spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to present information as it unfolds; part of their thinking should respect the fact that images, once revealed, cannot be unseen.”

Read about the impact the crash site had on photojournalist Jerome Sessini.

File through some of the world’s front pages from today on The Newseum website to check out how different states and countries covered the most recent Malaysian Airlines tragedy.


NY Times: In defense of reporting abroad

This video is a model of superb investigative journalism by Nicholas Kristof and his team. They’re reporting on the devastating reality of 21st-century Muslim concentration camps in Myanmar and this video compilation of what’s going on there both tugs at the heartstrings and fires up the mind.

Here is a column by Kristof explaining why he continually chooses to travel to and report in exotic, developing lands like Myanmar—and why he encourages American youth to do the same. His principal reasoning: “From afar, it’s often easier to see our own privilege — and responsibilities … it’s also shortsighted to insist that we solve all of our own problems before beginning to address those abroad.”