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Archive for January, 2013

Alan Mutter makes a point that I’ve been hearing editors make most of my career: Most newspaper stories are too long.

I’m sure he’s right. But some newspaper stories are too short. And story length is way down the list of problems facing the newspaper business.

I remember when I was at the Des Moines Register, Jim Gannon, who I believe was executive editor at the time, decreed that no story could be longer than he was tall. He was 5’10”, as I recall, so a story couldn’t be longer than 70 inches. 70 inches! Register reporters were writing so long that Gannon’s idea of introducing some discipline was to limit stories to 70 inches (and newspaper columns were wider then than they are today). (more…)

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I was annoyed the first time I met Tom Harkin. We were supposed to meet outside the Fremont County Courthouse in Sidney, Iowa, and he was late. I don’t remember how late, but late enough that I was annoyed.

He was a freshman congressman, a Democrat swept into a Republican district in the 1974 throw-the-bums-out vote after Richard Nixon’s resignation. I was a summer intern for the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa. Harkin was traveling around the district, as he usually did on congressional breaks, and would be stopping in Sidney, so I was supposed to interview him for a story.

He showed up eventually, apologizing for the delay, and we sat down to talk at a picnic table outside the courthouse, which had already closed. It was a warm summer day when it would have been more comfortable to talk indoors or to give me a quick interview and hop into his air-conditioned car to head for wherever his evening stop was. But we talked until I ran out of questions, easily a half hour, maybe closer to an hour. If he had a next stop on his schedule, I am sure he was even later for that. But I had waited from him, and he was generous with his time.

I don’t remember the issues we discussed. What I remember is his passion and sincerity. He really cared about people and this was a classic liberal who wanted to use the power of government to make people’s lives better. I remember being impressed and wondering whether he would get his ass kicked in the next election in a district that historically belonged to the Republicans.

But I also wondered if he had staying power. He had the right mix of charm and fight, I thought, to have a successful career in politics. And already I could see that he had mastered the art of constituent service. An aide drove around the district holding “office hours” in small towns, listening to complaints and helping people work out their problems with the Agriculture Department, Social Security Administration or whatever corner of the federal government was troubling them. (Harkin’s staff helped my father-in-law get a passport when the State Department balked because of his lack of a birth certificate, a problem that hadn’t kept him from going overseas in the Navy during World War II.)

Well, Harkin did have staying power. He carried that Republican district four more times and then in 1984, he ran for Senate in a state that had two conservative Republican incumbents. He beat one of those Republicans, Roger Jepsen, in 1984 and won four more Senate terms. Harkin announced today that five terms is enough. He’ll retire rather than seeking re-election in 2014 (he’d have won easily again). (more…)

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Journalists should treat information we gather on social media the same way we treat information gathered any other way, or an assurance from Mom that she loves you: Check it out.

My #twutorial series hasn’t been updated since late October, but I always planned to do a post on verifying information gathered in social media. Given the errors some journalists made in reporting on the Sandy Hook massacre and in the original reporting on Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend, this feels like a good time to stress accuracy and verification.

The most simple and important advice I can give is that Twitter is like any other information source — documents, anonymous tips, news releases, press conferences, interviews, databases — it can provide valuable information or deliberate lies or innocent errors. Your job is to verify the information that looks useful. As with all the other information you gather, you can verify lots of different ways, and no single technique works for everything.

Some of the tips I provide here will be specific to Twitter or to social media generally. Some will be general verification tips applied to Twitter. And I’m sure I won’t cover all the ways you could verify information from tweets. As with all reporting, resourcefulness is essential. Develop some verification techniques of your own (and please remember to share them in the comments here). (more…)

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Narrative journalism will survive the Manti Te’o hoax. In fact, the sports stories that spouted and perpetuated the lies of the hoax were not narrative journalism. They were shallow journalism.

Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden imagines that the backlash against sportswriters who failed to check out things they were told about Te’o’s fake girlfriend may “lead to fewer narrative stories, period, and that would not be such a great thing.”

The notion that coverage of the fake girlfriend’s death was narrative journalism is as bogus as her car crash, her leukemia, her Stanford enrollment or her death.

Here are a couple of key passages from Layden’s lament (Layden responded to my post on Twitter; I have embedded our Twitter exchange later in this post): (more…)

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For a reporter seeking information about someone who died, the lack of an obituary, or even a death notice, should be a red flag.

But sometimes (clearly a small percentage of deaths) the red flag doesn’t mean the person wasn’t real; it’s an indication of how the newspaper business has changed.

This blog post isn’t much at all about Manti Te’o, though it grew from the post I wrote yesterday about linking and its role in the journalists’ falling for the dead-girlfriend hoax. I said that journalists should provide relevant links in their stories, and the lack of an obituary to link to should have alerted reporters parroting the story of Lennay Kekua’s death that more research was needed.

“Who dies without an obituary?” I asked. (more…)

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This is a guest post by Jeff Edelstein, columnist at the Trentonian (who’s appeared in this blog before), prompted by these tweets and an email exchange following my blog post about linking and the Manti Te-0 story:

I asked him if he’d like to write a guest post about his fact-checking experience. Here it is (links added by me):

Jeff Edelstein

Jeff Edelstein

It was my first job in journalism. Fact checker for New Jersey Monthly Magazine. I was 19. (Yes, yes, this is about Manti Te’o. Bear with me.)

So yeah. A fact checker. The job was exactly what it sounded like. I checked facts. An article would be assigned, the writer would write, it would go through at least two edits, and then it would land in my hands. Sometimes the author was kind enough to provide phone numbers and relevant materials, other times I had to call the author and beg them for phone numbers and relevant materials.

Fact checkers are not universally loved. (more…)

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In the discussion of journalists’ failures in the Manti Te’o girlfriend hoax, I have suggested that journalists should have looked for an obituary of the purported girlfriend. And that has raised some questions about how obituaries and death notices are handled by newspapers today.

A comment by Rob Pegoraro on my post earlier today and tweets by Maureen Boyle have raised questions about whether everyone has an obituary (responding to Rob, I acknowledge that it probably happens, but say that at least a death notice usually gets published).

(The link above is to a piece by the late Jim Naughton, A Death Notice for Obituaries, written in 2010, which prompted a response from me.) (more…)

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