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Eric Nalder adviceIn last week’s post on interviewing reluctant sources, I cited Eric Nalder‘s advice on “ratcheting” to gradually get some or all of a source’s information on the record:

At the end of the interview, pick out a good quote in your notes that isn’t too damning and say: ‘Now what about this thing you said here? Why can’t you say that on the record?’ If they agree to put that comment on the record, go to another one in your notes and say: ‘Well, if you can say that on the record, why can’t you say this?’ And so on. I have gotten an entire notebook on the record this way. If they insist on anonymity, however, you must honor it.

Eric, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, responded on Facebook with more advice for dealing with reluctant sources (I added a link):

  1. If you already possess information the source would be curious about, use that to your advantage in approaching them. Former colleague Pete Carey approached a crucial source in New Orleans – post Katrina – and said, as the man was closing the door, “I didn’t come here to ask you questions, I just wanted to let you know what I know.” The door opened and the rest is history.
  2. Finish every initial encounter with the suggestion that the source will want to know – as time goes on – what you have discovered and what you plan to publish. Of course, you’ll need extensive personal information to re-contact them: cell phone number, home phone number, email address, home address, office address and, perhaps, some additional info (DOB, SSN) in case you lose track. I’ve gotten the whole nine yards that way. In one case, we were able to track a man’s criminal activity using what he gave me.
  3. Deeply background every source you approach, preferably ahead of time, and I mean scorched earth, without spooking the more sensitive ones.
  4. Sometimes my most aggressive backgrounding activities – including contacting neighbors, colleagues, etc. – have caused a reluctant source to contact me, instead of the other way around. People who contact you – rather than you contacting them – tend to be more supplicant, which can be an advantage to a reporter.
  5. Always ask sources for a list of their friends and enemies (sometimes this line of questioning requires subtlety). Then ask what each enemy would say about them.
  6. Never argue with a person about their reluctances. Simply interview those fears. You’ll be amazed at the results of that approach.
  7. In extreme cases – where sources must remain anonymous – get them to sign sworn affidavits. An added benefit — your readers will find these affiants more believe-able (see our Brock Adams investigation).
  8. Final point – the vast majority of sources should be on the record and all methods, including ratcheting, should be employed to assure that.

Thanks to Eric for adding this advice to what I offered in last week’s post. I also recommend reading his “Loosening Lips” handout, from the best workshop I ever attended on interviewing.

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Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be for survivors of sexual abuse by priests to watch “Spotlight.” It was plenty uncomfortable for me as a reporter who merely had the unpleasant job of interviewing survivors and telling their stories.

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and comment on the movie in a separate post. My point here will be to share lessons I learned in my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders both before and after the 2002 Boston Globe stories that inspired “Spotlight.”

I don’t mean by any of this to compare my work to the heroic work of the Globe’s Spotlight team. While I was writing about sexual abuse by an abusive priest, and an archdiocese moving a pedophile from church to church, more than three years before the Globe’s story, I didn’t nail the story of institutional cover-up that they did. Much of my later reporting was prompted by the national public response to the Globe’s reporting.

I hope that “Spotlight” doesn’t generate a similar outpouring of stories of abuse. I hope that they’ve all been told and that the Catholic church has rid itself of the sin and crime that it was hiding.

Lasting trauma inflicted by priestFirst an overview of my experience in covering religious sexual abuse: Starting in the 1990s, I investigated sexual abuse by at least nine Catholic priests that I can recall, plus at least one Protestant minister, a leader of a Christian cult and a group-home counselor at a Catholic youth services organization. In most cases, I interviewed multiple survivors of abuse by the powerful men I investigated. I’m sure I talked to at least 20 survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and the counselor, usually in person but a few times by phone. Other survivors that I learned about would not talk to me. I interviewed two accused molesters.

I almost certainly am forgetting other clergy that I investigated. The stories run together in my memory, and I don’t have time or interest to dig through my old stories to refresh and clarify some of the most disgusting memories of my career. Watching the movie and writing this blog post were disturbing enough.

I am not going to name priests, victims or specific organizations here. To do so would require research to update their status, and I don’t want to do that, both because of the time it would take and because all the stories are more than a decade old. I don’t want to track down and bother the courageous survivors who were my sources then. My interviews disturbed many of them at the time, and I have no interest in inflicting new pain by publishing their names again or updating their current situations.

This blog post is illustrated with headlines from the stories I wrote about these cases more than a decade ago. In a couple of instances, I have cut off the last word or two of a headline to leave out the priest’s name.

Here are my lessons about covering abuse by clergy and others with power over children and adolescents (shared in the hope this topic never again needs to be as big a story as it was back then):

Find other victims of the same predator

Priest Sexual abuse was reported years ago

A key to proving patterns of abuse is finding multiple victims of one abuser. A pedophile invariably has a pattern of abuse: techniques for “grooming” a potential victim before the abuse starts; introducing sex to the relationship by use of pornography or sex talk or nudity in a seemingly non-sexual way, such as showering on campouts or in locker rooms; similar ways of starting and accelerating the molestation; favorite sexual activities; silencing the victim with rewards, conspiratorial secrecy, shaming and/or intimidation. (more…)

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Scott Blanchard

Scott Blanchard

Thanks to Scott Blanchard, Sunday Editor at the York Daily Record and York Sunday News for this guest post. Scott is a former Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, whom I invited to respond to my post on advice for steeling yourself to ask tough questions. I added some links to his email response and edited lightly:

I totally co-sign your post and the tips in it. Here are a few things your post made me think of:

  • Listening means being present to the person you’re talking to. Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe, says that in every interview, there are two conversations: The one in the foreground that you’re having with the other person, and the one in the background that you’re having, in your head, with yourself. When the background conversation overcomes the foreground one, the interview derails. That background conversation needs some room, but don’t let it dominate or distract you from being present with your interview subject. (Gavin has a great chapter in a book on trauma journalism; it’s embedded here.)
  • In terms of accountability questions, I think journalists need to make sure they know what specific question they asked when the subject gave a particular answer. It might make a difference in whether/how you are able to publish/frame the response — especially if the answer includes a pronoun. E.g. if you come back with a quote from an official who said, “No, I didn’t know about that,” you have to be able to say that response was to this specific question, so you understand exactly what “that” refers to.
  • I think it’s a good idea to make best practices for trauma coverage be part of news orgs’ orientation for new staffers (there’s a bunch of great material in your post for such an effort); and it’s a good idea for news orgs to make a point of bringing staffers together to have peer-to-peer discussions about what worked, what didn’t and what can be learned from their work in both trauma journalism and accountability journalism. We’ve been doing both since beginning a relationship with the Dart Center, and we believe those efforts have been productive. More on those efforts here.

As far as the question in the hed of your blog post (how to “steel” yourself to ask tough questions): Because I’m an editor, most tough conversations come to me now — if someone who is upset with us calls — as opposed to me going out on a story. But whether I have to call someone to ask tough questions or just field questions after I pick up the line:

  • I think about a survivor who might want to tell his or her story (as you noted).
  • I draw strength from my colleagues — for example, reporters and photographers in our newsroom — who face these situations far more than I do.
  • I draw strength from my Ochberg Fellowship friends. I know what they’re out there doing. Their support makes a difference.
  • I draw on Dart Center knowledge and our newsroom’s commitment to ethical journalism and to treating people like human beings. I feel as confident as I can that, although someone might rebuke me or us for our coverage, we are acting from a solid foundation and making the most well-grounded decisions that we can.

I welcome other guest posts on this topic: What are tips from your experience asking tough questions?

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A reporter’s email asked for advice on “steeling oneself to ask the tough questions? I ask as someone who tends toward introversion when the going gets tougher.”

Effective tough questions (and good answers to them) result from a combination of:

  • Outlook.
  • Preparation.
  • Control.
  • Setting.
  • Recording and photography.
  • Setup.
  • Delivery.
  • Listening.
  • Follow-up.
  • Advance review.

That combination doesn’t necessarily make tough questions easy. They’re tough and introverts need to learn how to ask them if they want to succeed as reporters. But I’ll provide some tips in each area.

Another aspect of tough questions deals with confidentiality. I address that topic extensively in a separate post: Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous).

Tough questions seem to fall into two categories (unless I’m overlooking one):

  1. Accountability questions. These are the potentially confrontational or contentious questions about possible failure or wrongdoing by the person you’re interviewing, often a public official, but maybe a criminal suspect, business executive or other target of investigative journalism.
  2. Emotional questions. These are questions about emotional personal issues, where you fear that the person might break into tears when answering or become angry and refuse to answer. Often the interview subject here is not used to dealing with the media — perhaps a disaster, crime or accident victim (or a family member of the victim). Or you may be talking about an experience such as war or fleeing a dangerous situation.

For those emotional interviews, I recommend that you browse the resources of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and attend a Dart Center seminar (or invite them to train in your newsroom) if you can. My tips here will repeat some that I offered in connection with a Dart Center program that Digital First Media offered last year. (more…)

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I’m pleased that my recent posts about interviews have spurred some discussion.

This comment and the responses seemed worthy of another post:

Others weighed in:

Those are all good points, but I’ll conclude with some thoughts beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit:

  • Humility is always good in an interview. When you are interviewing experts, acknowledging that they know more than you and inviting them to educate you is usually effective.
  • Arrogance in an interview can be bad for many reasons, but arrogance combined with stupidity may be the worst interview combination possible.
  • I oversimplify in tweets, so I’m not faulting anyone’s use of the word “stupid” above, but I want to make clear: Stupidity is not the same as ignorance. If a source truly thinks you’re stupid, she might not have confidence that you’ll be able to understand and explain the complicated issues we sometimes cover. The ideal perception you want a source to have is that you’re smart enough to understand the issue, but you’re not an expert, so you’re going to need her help.
  • You need to learn, if you haven’t yet, when to show your knowledge and when to confess your ignorance. Sometimes a display of your knowledge will build confidence in a source. Other times, a confession of ignorance will prompt someone to try to school you on a topic. I covered agriculture back in the 1990s and sometimes got great interviews by asking a farmer or agriculture official to explain something to me like I was a 6-year-old (like Denzel Washington’s “Joe Miller” character in “Philadelphia“). Lots of farmers love to educate people about ag, and confessing my ignorance frequently helped. Other times, if I understood an issue, asking knowledgeable questions showed that I had done my homework and built confidence that people could trust me to understand and explain more complicated matters.
  • Fit your approach to your knowledge. Faking stupidity or ignorance is not a good approach, but faking knowledge is worse. The best approach is to do some research so you can ask smart questions. But sometimes you just don’t know, and this interview is part of how you learn so you can ask smart questions later. That’s the time to confess your ignorance and ask someone to educate you.
  • One of the tweets above repeats what many of our mothers and teachers told us about the only stupid question being the one you don’t ask. I do agree that it’s better to ask a stupid question than fail to get it answered. But I have annoyed sources with stupid questions, so I want to avoid oversimplifying here just because our moms gave us simple advice. If you know you’re asking a stupid question, keep it as direct as possible, with a confession, such as, “Here’s what I need help figuring out …” Sometimes the premise might be stupid, rather than the question itself, so keep your stupid question simple and direct, rather than loading it up with premises, explanations and conditions.

What are your tips and experiences on handling your stupidity (or ignorance) in interviews?

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Charlie Meyerson

Charlie Meyerson

One of my interviewing tips drew some criticism from veteran journalist and teacher Charlie Meyerson.

Charlie, news chief at Rivet News Radio, and I disagree a bit about whether using “uh-huh” in interviews is good or bad.

Here’s what I said in Thursday’s post, an updated version of an old handout for a workshop on interviewing:

Uh-huh. Move the interview along with responsive questions and statements that basically tell the character to keep talking: ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘Really?’ ‘What happened next?’ ‘How did you react?’

I think I was using “uh-huh” and other short verbal cues to keep talking back in the 1980s (or possibly 1970s), long before I first connected with Don Fry, one of the best writing coaches in journalism. But Don says, “The most powerful interview technique is nodding your head and saying, ‘Uh-huh.'” So, if I didn’t learn the technique from Don, he at least reinforced my belief that it’s an effective way to keep someone talking in an interview.

But Charlie has a lot more radio experience than Don or I have, and he sent me this note, disagreeing with my advice:

‘Uh-huh’ is a bad habit I’m still trying to kill among my students and staff. It ruins a lot of audio and video (makes excerpts unusable — a bad thing in this era when multimedia is an invaluable asset for digital journalism). It also makes the reporter seem sympathetic to an interviewee, compromising a sense of objectivity. My counsel: Ask good questions and get the hell out of the way, nodding (silently!) once in a while if needed to encourage someone to keep going.

Charlie sent along a link to his guide to interview techniques, which I heartily endorse. But I wasn’t going to give up right away on “uh-huh.” My response (Charlie got to the point more succinctly than I did): (more…)

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Today more than two dozen veteran journalists share a lot of advice on interviewing, especially about dealing with nerves.

It turns out the journalism student who started the conversation has a lot of company. Even veteran journalists get nervous when they interview, sometimes extremely so. But lots of us learn to overcome our nerves and invite people to tell their stories, and we’ve enjoyed careers even though the nerves never go completely away.

The conversation started this week in a private Facebook group, where a journalism professor sought aid from some former colleagues, asking for advice on helping a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”

Veteran journalists in the group offered great advice. I updated an old handout on interviewing and sought still more advice. Some of the advice overlaps, but I regard that as reinforcement, not repetition.

The responses here (lightly edited, often at the writers’ request) come from the original conversation on Facebook and comments on yesterday’s blog post from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and email (comments and photos used with permission):

Advice for the student

Yvonne Beasley

Yvonne Beasley

Yvonne Beasley

Yvonne, city life reporter and Reno Rebirth digital project manager at the Reno Gazette-Journal, gave this tip:

A wise, introverted photog once told me “you can put on another personality. You’re acting. Be a great actress.” Another thing is: That uncomfortable feeling goes away with age.

(more…)

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Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

Yes, I was nervous when I interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev.

In a Facebook group, a journalism professor this week asked a bunch of veteran journalists for help with a student who “is really struggling when he has to interview people in his intro to reporting class. He gets very nervous and just can’t do it.”

The resulting discussion thread was interesting and uplifting: lots of excellent journalists confessing to their own nerves and discussing how they gained the confidence (and the skill) to overcome the nerves and/or to interview effectively in spite of them. I’ve asked their permission to share some of their advice on my blog.

I posted that advice separately. I’d welcome your advice, too, either in a comment on this blog or by email (tell me what you’re doing now and please send a photo you have rights to): stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

Today’s installment will be my advice on interviewing (not just nerves, but techniques, too). Here I’m updating and reposting the handout from a workshop on interviews that I haven’t led in years. But it was a popular choice back in my writing-coach days. I posted it more than a decade ago on the No Train, No Gain website, but I’ve updated it a bit (the Word doc I had it on was dated 2003).

In my response to the discussion thread, I suggested that effective preparation would help the student struggling with nerves. (more…)

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Rolling StoneInvestigating an allegation of rape is one of the most difficult things for a reporter (or police detective or prosecutor) to do.

I’m not going to dwell here on the Rolling Stone reporting about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Lots of excellent journalists have commented on Rolling Stone’s faulty reporting and the related issues, and I’ll link to some of the pieces I have seen at the end of this piece.

I will say this about the Rolling Stone story: If men from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity didn’t rape “Jackie,” the Rolling Stone’s central source, the story irresponsibly smeared any innocent men in the fraternity. If “Jackie” was raped, the story irresponsibly gave millions of rape survivors one more reason not to tell their stories. Rape is the most underreported violent crime in our society and the greatest tragedy of this journalistic travesty is that the outcry over the Rolling Stone story will undoubtedly cause some rape survivors to keep the crimes against them secret, out of fear that they won’t be believed. When writing about rape, journalists have to get their facts right. Being wrong in either direction is grossly irresponsible.

My point here, though, is not to write one more commentary on the sins of the Rolling Stone. I am writing to provide advice for journalists writing about rape and other intimate and/or traumatic topics. (more…)

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Mikhail Gorbachev and Steve Buttry

I’ve used this photo for years in various places where professional photos of me would be appropriate. I’m the one with the notebook. Photo by Kent Sievers.

I’ve written dozens, if not hundreds, of better stories than the story about my 2002 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. But the photo that my Omaha World-Herald colleague Kent Sievers gave me after that interview has long been one of my favorite photos of me on the job.

As you can see above, Gorby and I both have very serious looks on our faces and I’m busily scribbling his words in a reporter’s notebook.

I use that shot as my cover photo on my journalist page and in the account of my journalism career on this blog.

I think I asked Kent at some point (no doubt before I had a scanner) for a digital copy of the photo. He couldn’t find it, so I got the photo scanned and posted it wherever I wanted online.

Well, Kent is archiving some of his old photos and found his shots of me with Gorby. I got an email this week with other photos from that day.

When Mimi saw the photo of us shaking hands, she said, “Look at all that hair! Look how thin you are! Look at the pens sticking out of your pocket.” Yeah, thanks, honey, I get it. That was a while ago.

Mikhail Gorbachev and I greet each other, March 14, 2002.

Mikhail Gorbachev and I greet each other, March 14, 2002. Photo by Kent Sievers.

I was interviewing Gorby at an Omaha hotel, before a speech there. I can’t remember whether it was a public speech that a colleague covered or a private gathering with no press access. I know he was in Nebraska for a speech at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to be covered by a colleague in the Lincoln bureau.

I had to show up a half hour or so before our appointed time at the hotel conference room where I would interview Gorbachev. I knew he would have an interpreter with him. The room had a couple of plush easy chairs  flanking a lamp on an end table. Several standard padded conference-room chairs were scattered around the room, too. I carefully arranged the two easy chairs cocked at a slight angle to each other, facing me in a standard chair.

After that handshake, I gestured for Gorby to sit in one of the plush chairs. Ignoring me, he grabbed my standard chair. The interpreter sat in one of the plush chairs. I pivoted my chair slightly but spent the whole interview sitting in an awkward position between the man I was interviewing and his interpreter.

Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev, March 14, 2002

I’m sitting in what should have been Gorbachev’s chair. At right is his interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko. Photo by Kent Sievers.

Gorbachev’s interpreter, Pavel Palazhchenko, translated his comments simultaneously. When one person is talking to you in your own language and one is speaking a language you don’t understand, the natural reaction is to look at the person you can understand. I did that for a question or two, but quickly realized I was having no eye contact and little engagement with the subject of my interview. When I turned to look at Gorbachev, while listening to Palazhchenko, the interview started going much better.

Generally when I blog here about old stories, I discuss how I’d do the story differently today, often explaining how I’d use video in the story. I’m sure Kent would have been able to do a good video of Gorby’s visit to Nebraska, but the interview, with simultaneous interpretation, would not have made good audio, because of the confusing audio of people speaking simultaneously. It might work with a lapel mic on Palazhchenko, so his words would be louder and clearer than Gorbachev’s.

Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev, March 14, 2002

Took me a question or two, but I figured out the eye-contact thing. Photo by Kent Sievers.

Hell, the interview went well enough that Gorby signaled a touchdown.

Steve Buttry interviews Mikhail Gorbachev, March 14, 2002

Gorbachev grew more animated as the interview went on and I connected well with him across the language barrier. Photo by Kent Sievers.

Thanks to Kent, one of the best photographers I’ve been privileged to work with, for sending along the photos. Kent’s also an accomplished writer, author of the novel Little Man.

What I remember most from what Gorbachev said in the interview was how moved he was by his visit to Ground Zero. Reading my stories 12 years later, I wish our nation’s leaders had heeded his advice in 2002.

Below is my first story, banged out quickly for the evening edition of the World-Herald on March 14, 2002 (as I discussed yesterday, reporters at evening newspapers get adept at turning a story around quickly for a late-morning deadline). Thanks to World-Herald librarian Jeanne Hauser for sending me these stories:

Ex – Soviet president visits Omaha

The United States must continue to work with other nations in the war on terrorism, rather than taking unilateral action, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said Wednesday.

In an interview before the first of two Nebraska speeches, Gorbachev criticized President Bush’s characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

“Barbecuing countries and lumping together countries that are so different is not proper policy,” Gorbachev said. “It is more like literary rhetoric.”

For instance, he noted that secular leaders in Iran are in a power struggle with the Muslim clerics who have ruled since the late 1970s. “When the Iranians hear that they are part of an ‘axis of evil’ this could unite them in the face of danger,” Gorbachev said.

Speaking through an interpreter at the Doubletree Hotel in Omaha, the former Soviet leader urged the United States to continue working through the United Nations to seek inspections to verify that Iraq is not producing weapons of mass destruction.

“Let us not start by bombing, by waging war, by doing battle,” Gorbachev said, gesturing for emphasis. “If we go recklessly into war, this could lead to a situation that could go out of control completely.”

Gorbachev, who twice visited the World Trade Center in New York, was deeply moved by his visit Monday to Ground Zero.

“It brought back very vividly what happened on Sept. 11,” he said. He watched on television in his Moscow office as the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. Gorbachev did not leave his office until 4 a.m., almost 10 hours after the attack.

“It was something incredible and unreal, like a Hollywood movie.”

He was especially moved in Monday’s visit by photographs of the victims and their families, especially those who left behind young children. “One could imagine the trauma that these people are living.”

The visit reinforced his support for military action against the al-Qaida terrorist network and for long – term action to fight poverty, which he said is the ultimate cause of terrorism.

He also noted the many nationalities of the people who died in the World Trade Center and stressed the importance of international action against the terrorists.

“It’s very important,” Gorbachev said, “to preserve the unity that emerged out of this.”

Omaha World-Herald story on Steve Buttry interview with Mikhail Gorbachev

Omaha World-Herald story on Steve Buttry interview with Mikhail GorbachevThis is my longer story for the final morning edition (pictured above):

Gorbachev to U.S.: Don’t be reckless

In an emotional visit to Ground Zero on Monday, Mikhail Gorbachev noted the many nationalities of the people who died at the World Trade Center.

“The workers there represented practically the entire world,” Gorbachev said Wednesday in an interview before the first of two Nebraska speeches.

Photographs of the victims of the Sept. 11 attack underscored his belief “that we needed to unite in the face of this kind of attack, this kind of merciless aggression by international terrorists.”

The last president of the Soviet Union discussed the war on terrorism and other world issues in a half-hour interview at the Doubletree Hotel in Omaha, with translation by his aide Pavel Palazhchenko.

Gesturing frequently for emphasis, Gorbachev praised the United States for developing international support for the war on terrorism and encouraged Americans to continue working with other nations as the fight proceeds.

“It’s important to preserve the unity that emerged out of this,” he said. “I think the solidarity helped the American people to go through this trial.”

Gorbachev twice visited the World Trade Center when it was a symbol not of tragedy but “of the achievements of America.”

Monday’s visit, on the six – month anniversary of the attack, “brought back very vividly what happened on Sept. 11,” he said.

He had watched on television in his office at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow as the plane hit the second tower of the World Trade Center. Gorbachev did not leave his office until 4 a.m., almost 10 hours after the attack. “It was something incredible and unreal, like a Hollywood movie, and it was a shock.”

He was especially moved in this week’s visit by seeing photographs of children whom the victims left behind. “One could imagine the trauma that these people are living.”

While Gorbachev supported the military response against terrorists, he cautioned against “what I call a victory complex, a superiority complex.”

In the apparent victory in Afghanistan over Taliban and al-Qaida forces, “The United States played a decisive role, but it was not alone,” Gorbachev said. “It would be better to be affected by a different complex, a partnership complex.”

He criticized President Bush’s characterization of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

“Barbecuing countries and lumping together countries that are so different is not proper policy. It is more like literary rhetoric,” Gorbachev said.

He noted that secular leaders in Iran are in a power struggle with the Muslim clerics who have ruled since the late 1970s. “When the Iranians hear that they are part of an ‘axis of evil,’ this could unite them all in the face of what they would feel is danger.”

Gorbachev said Bush’s statement might hurt efforts to unite North and South Korea.

Gorbachev urged the United States to continue working through the United Nations to seek inspections to verify that Iraq is not producing weapons of mass destruction.

“Let us not start by bombing, by waging war, by doing battle,” he said. “If we go recklessly into war, this could lead to a situation that would go out of control completely.”

The war on terrorism must go beyond military battles and attack the root cause, Gorbachev said.

“It is very important to put an end to the situation where half of the population of the world lives in dire poverty. If we think that we can fight poverty with the help of aircraft, tanks, missiles and artillery, that we can defeat terrorism just by waging war, that is wrong.”

With end of the arms race, he said, “we released resources that we hoped after the end of the Cold War would be used to fight poverty and backwardness.”

Instead, he said, a recent U.N. report showed that “the number of poor people has not diminished. It has actually increased, and the gap between the rich and poor countries has grown significantly.”

Gorbachev was disturbed by news reports last weekend that the Pentagon is developing plans for possible nuclear – war scenarios involving Russia and six other nations. He cautioned against reacting too strongly to leaks and partial information, and he said the disclosure could harm relations with other nations.

“On the one hand,” Gorbachev said, “the United States and Russia and other nuclear powers demand that other countries don’t develop nuclear weapons. The United States wants nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the United States in this way is brandishing nuclear weapons.

“It smacks of the Cold War again.”

And here’s one more story, the Sunday story I wrote in advance of his visit:

Gorbachev reviled, revered for role in Soviet Union’s fall

In the friendly heart of America, admirers snap up tickets to hear Mikhail Gorbachev as though he was a rock star, not the former leader of the “evil empire.”

In his chilly Russian homeland, though, Gorbachev won less than 1 percent of the vote when he ran for president in 1996.

The final leader of the Soviet Union, who will visit Nebraska this week for two speeches before packed houses in Omaha and Lincoln, is a paradox in his own time and in history.

“Most people in the United States view him as a hero,” said James McClelland, retired University of Nebraska – Lincoln history professor. “But most people in Russia view him as a failure.”

More than a decade after his fall, Gorbachev stands virtually alone in history: universally regarded as a giant of his age but one who presided over the collapse of a great power rather than its rise or dominance.

“He unleashed currents that he couldn’t control,” said Peter Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Many Russians still blame Gorbachev for their nation’s economic woes, but the Soviet economy was in disarray when he became general secretary of the Communist Party in 1985.

The two aged leaders who served short tenures after the 18-year reign of Leonid Brezhnev did nothing to improve the mighty empire’s many crises: factories that actually detracted from the value of raw materials, an agricultural system that could not feed the population, a protracted war in Afghanistan, a costly arms race.

Recognizing the need for change, but unable to imagine the transformation that lay ahead, the Communist Party leaders chose the 54-year-old Gorbachev as their next leader.

“The Politburo turned to the youngest member, and they got a joker who wasn’t going to play by the usual rules,” said Tomsen, a career diplomat who served in Moscow in the late 1970s. Tomsen was ambassador to the former Soviet republic of Armenia in the 1990s and was stationed in Beijing when Gorbachev visited in 1989, during the famed demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Charles Timberlake, Russian history professor at the University of Missouri, said if U.S. leaders had compiled their wildest-dreams wish list in 1985, they wouldn’t have included everything that would happen under the new Soviet leader: ending socialism, halting the arms race, withdrawing from Afghanistan, dropping support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, stopping censorship and breaking up the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. And, finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Nobody could even possibly have imagined a wilder scenario than that, even in the CIA,” said Timberlake, who lectured annually in Russia from 1992 to 2000.

Gorbachev’s early reign included the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that killed thousands and exposed millions to radiation. He later said the government was “short of information” about the disaster. Critics said he suppressed information.

“To those who were exposed to radiation, that remains a reason to hate him,” said Cathy Wanner, a Penn State history professor who was in the Soviet Union during perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).

To attract Western investment and divert resources from arms production, Gorbachev had to end the Cold War and the arms race with the United States. “He had to convince the West that he was a leader that could be trusted,” Timberlake said.

Gorbachev charmed President Reagan, who had condemned the Soviet Union under Brezhnev as an “evil empire.” Gorbachev and Reagan negotiated actual reductions in nuclear arsenals.

At home, Gorbachev sought to unleash the productivity and creativity of his nation’s oppressed people. Through perestroika and glasnost, he took initial steps toward allowing free enterprise and expression.

The Soviet reformer thought that he could loosen the reins of totalitarianism but still maintain a grip. “He wildly misjudged the extent to which you can have a little censorship,” Wanner said. “For those who were aching for reform, his reforms were seen as not going far enough.”

To communist hard-liners, the reforms were heresy. Much of the time, observers feared Gorbachev’s demise. He survived, McClelland said, by “playing the party apparatus like a violin.”

Citizens loved the taste of freedom and hungered for more.

McClelland recalls studying in Moscow under earlier regimes, when Russian friends feared visiting him or talking to him on the phone. “During glasnost, my friends visited me in my hotel room. We just talked about anything, not in whispers and not looking around.”

To his admirers, Gorbachev’s greatest achievement was his restraint as the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern European countries ousted communist leaders and Soviet republics pushed for independence. Past Soviet leaders used the Red Army to smash efforts to reform communism in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“Gorbachev could have brought out troops to try to keep the union together and he did not,” McClelland said. “That’s one of the miracles of his whole rule.”

Tomsen noted, “This is one of the few times in history, and certainly the most significant, when you had the collapse of one major power bloc without a major war.”

Hard-liners tried to regain power in an August 1991 coup while Gorbachev was at his vacation home. Russian President Boris Yeltsin thwarted the coup, but the demise of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s power was by then inevitable.

By the end of 1991, Tomsen said, “Gorbachev was without a government and without a country.”

I did a timeline sidebar for that story. Today, of course, we’d use a tool such as Timeline JS to put together an interactive timeline, incorporating photos and videos.

Man of history

1952: Mikhail Gorbachev joins Communist Party.

1978 – 1985: Serves as agriculture secretary of the party.

1985: Becomes general secretary of the Communist Party.

1986: Initiates a period of political openness (glasnost) and restructuring (perestroika).

1987: Signs arms limitation treaty with United States.

1989: Ends Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

1990: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

1990 – 91: Serves as president of the Soviet Union until its disintegration.

1992: Becomes president of the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (the Gorbachev Foundation).

1993: Founds nonprofit organization, Green Cross International

Sources: Green Cross International Web site: http://www.gci.ch and the Mikhail Gorbachev Web site: http://www.mikhailgorbachev.org.

 

 

 

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When traumatic stuff happens in a community, journalists are some of the first on the scene, along with the cops, fire fighters, paramedics and other emergency workers.

These tragic events that end and disrupt lives can propel a journalism career forward. The phrase “great story” invariably slips from some journalist’s lips (usually out of earshot of those for whom the trauma is evident). We often cover these stories, though, without a full understanding of what trauma is, how it works and its impact on those who experience trauma, including the journalists who cover it.

At a workshop for Digital First journalists this month in West Chester, Pa., Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, led an exploration of the uncomfortable issues of how we get great stories from tragic events and how we process the trauma that we experience.

Scott Blanchard and Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record journalists, organized the workshop and helped Shapiro lead it. They proposed this training to me after attending a Dart program as winners of honorable mention for a Dart Award for their coverage of the lasting impact of a violent, traumatic event. I supported their suggestion and Claire Gaval, Digital First Media’s Vice President of Learning and Organization Development, helped make it happen.

Scott blogged about the workshop yesterday. I was able to attend only the first of two days of training, and Bruce told participants the workshop would be off the record, to encourage people to talk freely. So I won’t blog much about the workshop itself (though I encourage others to consider holding similar workshops).

What I will do here is share some of my advice from years of reporting and editing on stories about disasters, murders, sexual and domestic abuse and other traumatic situations.

Some of these are tips or anecdotes I shared during the workshop. Others I thought of during the discussions but kept to myself because I thought it was more important for others to talk. I’m not on the front lines of our coverage of traumatic news, and the point of the workshop was to get those on the front lines talking, so they could learn from each other about covering these difficult events and about dealing with the personal impact of that coverage. (more…)

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Granting confidentiality to sources is one of the grayest areas of journalism ethics and one of the areas where we need extensive discussions of standards.

Nearly every journalist agrees that it’s better to name our sources than to withhold their identities. And nearly every journalist agrees that we sometimes have to agree not to name sources in order to tell some important stories. But we don’t all agree on when to grant confidentiality. And we’re not always consistent in deciding when to grant confidentiality and whether to publish information based on unnamed sources.

Since I blogged that we need more detailed advice on ethical issues, I’ve been planning to update the ethics handouts I developed for the two series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009, under a pair of grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I’ve gathered my detailed discussions of ethical issues into a category on the blog and will make them a series that will continue for a while.

I’m also posting my handout from those workshops on dealing with confidential sources, but here I’ll outline and discuss factors journalists should consider in whether to grant confidentiality to a source and whether to publish or broadcast stories based on confidential sources: (more…)

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