Tag Archives: Case Study

‘Jimmy’s World’ only worse today

Unchallenged information is the enemy of journalism.

Usually it’s manifested from sources who wish to deceive agents of the media, like politicians. Occasionally, though, journalists are the perpetrator.

This is an even more egregious act than simply passing along unchallenged information from outside sources. People trust the media to protect them from spin and half-truths, not inundate them with lies.

Today, the copy editor is all but gone from the newsroom. This may lead to more journalistic deceit of the public because nobody questions the validity of the story as was once done when newspaper budgets permitted copy editors.

Although, fabrication of stories isn’t a new phenomenon – or one that can be stopped by simply having a copy editor.

Look at Janet Cooke’s “Jimmy’s World” that ran in The Washington Post in 1980. It was a fabrication. In this case, even editors questioned it’s validity, but their calls went unheeded by superior editors who should’ve known better, like Bob Woodward.

We now know that the story was based on information relayed to Cooke by social workers and other bureaucrats. Had Cooke written the story as a trend story or labeled her narrative as based on a composite, the controversy might have been avoided.

But, her story might not have pleased the editors in trend-story format and may have been quashed from publication all together.

Still, Cooke was looking to make a name for herself and though she accomplished this, she also ended her career.

The problem, however, isn’t always a low-level reporter looking to make a name for himself or herself. Sometimes, journalists wish so badly for a certain story to be true, they don’t go through the proper measures of authentication.

And this isn’t only a newspaper problem. Look at the scandal in the television medium that brought down Dan Rather, one of the most respected journalists of his era.

But focusing on newspapers, as the copy editor and various other fact-checking jobs within the newsroom get the ax due to budget cuts, there may be an increase in non-news news slipping into the paper like bogus trend stories and there may, unfortunately, be more fake stories penned by copycats of Jayson Blair.

Wordled Speeches

Wordle is a form of text analysis that represents the comparative frequency of words in a text by the size they appear in the Wordle.

The bigger the word, the more times it’s used, and vice versa.

For example, here is what a Wordle based on the RSS feed for this blog looks like.

This can be quite useful to journalists in two categories of ways.

First, it can be a great way to visually illustrate the theme of a speech or other important document to the readers. So, in this respect, it is a tool journalists can use to help them make sense of something for their readers – always a good thing.

And as journalism increasingly goes digital, so too does visualization aids importance increase.

But that’s not the only way it can help journalists. It can also do so by helping journalists make sense of text themselves; for you must understand something before you can try to make sense of it to another.

Using Wordle to compare, say, campaign platforms between candidates or speeches given by one president in relation to the previous one, can quickly give a journalist the gist of what is important or present them with several angles to explore in their story.

Sometimes the graphic analysis of text makes concepts or ideas that may be hidden in poor writing stand out when they might otherwise not have.

So, the implications of Wordle for journalists are many, but they all fall within the help category under either “helping the reader” or “helping the writer so that he or she can help the reader.” Either way, it’s a useful tool.

Just remember: The enemy is unchallenged information. So, don’t rely solely on Wordle to do the work of devising angles in stories for you.

Case Study: Vanity Fair’s editing of Palin speech

First off, Vanity Fair has clearly aligned itself with a political ideology by engaging in bashing Sarah Palin.

But then those hacks never did practice under the guise of objectivity anyway.

While the editors responsible for the markups to Palin’s speech certainly have grammar and usage mastered, they failed to recognize three things.

First, that the version of the speech they wielded the multicolored pens at was a transcript provided by a news service.

Like taking pictures at a sports game, capturing the action is the key.

It’s a problem inherent with reporting speeches. There’s no going back to record what was said, but revisions on place spellings (like Point Thompson being Point Thomson) can be done later. So capture the action and revise and edit later.

When the editors “counted off” for errors, they were kind of missing the point.

Second, based on the Youtube footage of this speech, there wasn’t a teleprompter. Record almost anybody, suave politician and President Barack Obama included, away from this machine, and he or she will stumble at some point.

So, if Palin included a few conversational redundancies like “we all,” I forgive her. Too bad the editors didn’t.

While we’re on the subject, I wonder where Vanity Fair’s “edited version” of the State of the Union Address is? Oh wait…

Third, to a mainstream media insider, these grammatical irregularities included in Palin’s speech provide evidence of incompetence.

But, since Palin ran her campaign on being a different kind of politician and not doing business as usual, sounding less scripted and more on-the-spot conversational in a speech to her core constituency probably boosted her popularity.

Normal people can connect and relate to the type of rhetoric used in her speech, which is probably good since she alienated a group of people who would’ve otherwise voted for her in future elections, like for president in 2012, by resigning midway through her term.

However, all of this seemed lost on the editors who were a part of this exercise.

They didn’t make the speech better, they just changed it. But, this does underscore the importance of copy editors. Reporters are likely to return to the newsroom with notes from an event like this and write a similarly flawed story.

It’s editors job to catch and fix these errors. So, I think it is irresponsible to say editors aren’t useful.

Case Study: Trend Stories

Is there a trend in trend stories?

Yes. They’re usually bogus.

Not every trend story illustrates a fictitious trend, but many do.

Usually, journalists go awry in one of three ways when writing about trends.

First, the numbers could be inaccurate – meaning that even if the journalist’s calculations are correct, the data is not and the results yield an incorrect assertion. For example, the FBI’s rule of 50,000. If your story is based on the assumption that 50,000 of X are involved when really there’s only 300, it would be easy to see how a false trend might be perceived.

Second, journalists do the math incorrectly. Everybody knows journalists were business students who couldn’t do math (I joke). But seriously, incorrectly calculating percentages or averages can skew results. If you’re not sure how to correctly calculate something, consult with someone or something to make sure you do it correctly. This also means fairly compare the numbers to those from other time periods before proclaiming something as a “new trend.”

Third, journalists confuse correlation with causation. This can be easy to do. However, just because the numbers correlate to a streak, doesn’t mean they’re the cause of a trend.

For example, a baseball player with a batting average of .250 has eight hits in his last 10 at-bats. This would equate to a batting average of .800 not withstanding other factors. While the player could have improved that much, it is more likely that it’s just a streak, not a trend. Streaks are natural. It’s unlikely that the player with a .250 batting average would hit the ball on the first at-bat, strike out the next three, and return to get a hit on the fifth as his average would suggest. Rather, he goes eight for 10, then slumps on the next 20 at-bats and his average is still around .250.

Yet, there will be plenty of sports writers attempting to explain this “trend” after the first 10 at-bats.

So focus when analyzing potential trends. Professors often say, “Always do the math.” But, I’d say, “Always do the math correctly.”

Bud Light has drinkability; Google has searchability

Journalists are in the business of knowing things.

And, luckily for them, so is Google.

Google’s latest feature, Alerts, e-mails links to stories relating to preselected key words. The results returned can be from news sites only, blogs only, or comprehensive including those two and more.

It’s like a highly efficient informant and could mean getting a beat on a story. Especially if you’ve selected comprehensive results.

Gary Fineout sure did when he received a tip about a petition to Gov. Charlie Christ for the pardon of Jim Morrison of The Doors.

As a journalist, use this feature to your advantage, because you never know what you might discover – without actively searching for it.

I have a feeling we’re not in Alaska anymore

As illustrated in The Far Side cartoon with two newspaper boxes, one full of papers reading, “The news,” and one empty reading, “Stuff we just made up,” a good story, regardless of the facts, sells papers.

If not, tabloids would go out of business.

To run, or not to run often becomes the question and the answer depends on the audience.

Certainly, The New York Times won’t run a story reported by a gas station attendant about an eagle snatching a chihuahua without more substantiation of the facts like: Could an eagle actually do this? Who were the victims? Who else saw it?

The New York Post, on the other hand, might.

In the case of the Alaskan snatching, I guarantee more than a handful of readers after perusing the story remarked, “Well it finally happened.”

Could there have been more substantiation? Certainly.

But for non-hard-hitting news, some unsubstantiated facts in the name of humor is probably okay. Especially at smaller, local papers.

The only thing to consider is that as journalism becomes more global, local papers have more reach. In 1993, the wire services picked up the Alaskan story and recirculated it. In 2010, people would tweet and e-mail the story in addition to the wires recirculating it and it’d spread even quicker.

So the moral is: when questioning whether to run a piece like the eagle story, think about your audience not always in terms of the local few reading your paper, but the global audience with access to material you run.

And barf goes the Cheerios: analysis on how graphic we should be

The Cheerios Test has long been the standard for deciding which images to publish.

It posits that if an image would likely cause a reader to barf-up his or her breakfast, then the image fails the test and probably ought not be published.

As journalists, we see lots of things – not all of which are fit for publication.

It’s our job to inform, but sometimes this is curbed by issues of taste and sensibility. Publishing extremely graphic photos, like the ones shown here, could sway public opinion; although, not necessarily in the way we expect. Opinion could sway against the publication rather than the situation.

That’s why images with dead bodies – like these on the left – shouldn’t be published.

The argument for the publication of graphic photos is that the public needs to see the unabashed brutality of the situation.

However, using an alternative image – like the ones on the right – or employing descriptive writing to detail the situation for readers is a better choice to convey the news because the audience is still informed, but not incited with the same repugnant indignation at being intruded upon with graphic vulgarity.

Audience backlash is an undesired consequence. By running certain images, the risk of negative feedback increases greatly. Just ask the Associated Press after the dying Marine photo.

In communications’ jurisprudence, the Supreme Court often cites the “intrusiveness of the medium” in allowing restrictions on the free speech rights of broadcasters – claiming children could be easily inundated by inappropriate material.

While I’m not intending to go into a lecture on the various nuances of First Amendment protection between different media, I do propose this: Publishing a graphic picture is far more intrusive to readers than describing events though good writing.

As Fox News‘ slogan goes, “We inform, you decide.”

Let’s try to ensure that we are informing readers to help them decide, not ensuring readers will choose to forgo informing themselves with our information because of our choices of what to publish.