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Donald Trump’s revocation of credentials for the Washington Post and other critical media is reprehensible and cowardly. And it’s really stupid.

The appearance is that Trump is bullying the media, and that certainly is Trump’s intent. But access to candidate events is a punishment, not a privilege.

The best watchdog journalism doesn’t happen in the pack following candidates and reporting every ridiculous and racist statement Trump makes. Besides, Trump is as likely to make news in his tweets (which are available to anyone) as he is when he speaks (and it’s not tough to find out what he’s said; lot’s of media cover that).

In fact the Post story that set Trump off didn’t result from access to a candidate event. It came from watching an interview on TV and accurately reporting the candidate’s obvious implication (he hates that).

Watchdog journalism doesn’t require access. That’s for mouthpiece journalism. The least significant part of the New York Times story about Trump’s plundering and blundering in Atlantic City was the interviews with Trump. The candidate’s refusal to do an interview had no impact on the Post’s story on Trump collecting huge bonuses as his company’s stock tanked.

You know which Washington Post reporters didn’t have or need access to the actual president? Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Also recommended:

Donald Trump Picked the Wrong News Editor to F*ck With

 

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Thanks to all who joined today’s Online Media Campus webinar, Interactive Storytelling Tools.

The tools I demonstrated during the webinar were Storify, Google Maps and Infogr.am. The tool Elaine Clisham mentioned in her tweets (below) was Tableau. Elaine (a friend from our days at the American Press Institute together) made some of the same points I did, about how easily and quickly you can learn to use a new tool.

Examples I used during the webinar:

Holiday lights map

Fireworks map

Carrie Jewell Dugo Atavist story

Chasing the Beast

Here’s the link from my 2015 Interactive Storytelling Tools class, with my students’ tutorials on various tools and examples of how they used them.

Here is an earlier post with more examples of interactive stories:

Examples of stories using interactive tools

Here are my slides from the webinar:

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Einstein

One of journalism’s oldest clichés is that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

I had the desired initial reaction to the letter above, rejecting Albert Einstein for an associate professor position: I thought how cool it was that some pompous science professor with a Ph.D. after his name had been so condescendingly dismissive of the greatest modern scientific thinker.

And it was about when I was reading the last line, about Einstein’s thinking being artistic, rather than really about physics, that I wondered whether a Swiss professor would really be writing a German colleague in English. Snopes quickly provided the answer: No.

I’m not going to bother to embarrass the colleague who posted this on social media by naming him. He clearly has enough company that Snopes felt the need to check out the letter’s authenticity.

I recommend reading the debunking by Dan Evon. It’s a nice illustration of the various paths to verification you can use in any story. He found that the hoax was based on an actual fact: The University of Bern did reject Einstein’s initial application for a doctorate in 1907. But everything else was phony: the professor’s name and title, the letterhead, the language, even the image of a modern Einstein stamp.

You can repost interesting stuff like this on social media without checking if you want. And I’m not going to claim that I thoroughly vet every fun thing I’ve posted on social media. But social media, even personal accounts, are also good places for journalists to practice the skepticism that is the core of good journalism.

Especially if something seems too good to be true.

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Finding local stories in national and international news isn’t always easy. But many big stories have local angles, and the news organizations that make the effort can tell important local stories that the community will be talking about.

The local people with personal ties to these stories don’t appear in the places you routinely find news: You won’t hear these stories on the scanner or see them on agendas or police blotters. But they are the biggest news of the day, sometimes the biggest of the year, in small circles of your community. And you often can learn of the stories with a few calls or social media inquiries. And the stories are worth the effort.

This post was prompted by Howard Owens. In an argument on Twitter yesterday that was mostly about other matters, Howard made this statement:

I knew that Howard’s statement was bullshit because for five years, a major part of my job was localizing national stories, and it was important work in other jobs as well. Localizing big stories produced lots of good stories for my newspapers, with lots of real local angles. But good localizing isn’t always easy, and some journalists or news organizations move on too quickly, missing good stories. (more…)

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If you were a journalist and you stayed up to the end of the Oscars ceremony, you had to feel uplifted by the Best-Picture Oscar for “Spotlight.” After seeing the film in November, I wrote two posts on the movie about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting on sexual abuse by priests. Those links are at the end of this post, but first a few fresh thoughts on the “Spotlight” win:

    • As I noted on Twitter after the win, many East Coast newspapers (and probably even some in Central Time) have deadlines too early to get the newspaper movie’s win into their morning editions today. (The Advocate, our local paper here, did get the Best-Picture results in a story on Page 5A and a page-one reefer.) I sure hope the Globe was able to hold its print edition long enough to trumpet the news to its print readers.advocate spotlight
    • While the much-deserved praise for the Globe’s journalism is welcome balm to a weary profession and industry, equally big news for the Globe the past few months has been its difficulty delivering the print edition to subscribers. Cost-cutting at many newspaper companies has prompted outsourcing of functions such as delivery and customer service. And often that goes badly. The Globe’s delivery issues have drawn the most attention, but I know dozens of newspapers that have dealt with similar problems, alienating loyal print readers while still struggling to make money with weak digital products.
    • However much disruption the media business endures, we need to maintain our commitment to investigative journalism. Like the Globe, news organizations need to tell untold stories and hold the powerful accountable.
    • Sunday night was a great night of recognition for sexual abuse survivors, who usually struggle privately and silently. Joe Biden’s introduction and Lady Gaga’s stirring rendition of “Til It Happens to You” were probably the highlight of the show, even though the song didn’t win an Oscar.

Here are my two posts from last year after I watched “Spotlight”:

‘Spotlight’: a generation-later echo of ‘All the President’s Men’

Responding to ‘Spotlight’: Advice for investigating sexual abuse by clergy

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This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication. Many of the tips here came from my World-Herald colleagues, Paul Goodsell, Joe Kolman, Nichole Aksamit and Cindy Gonzalez, with whom I collaborated on the original workshop. Other colleagues, perhaps most notably former Digital First Media colleagues Tom Meagher and MaryJo Webster (who will address my class remotely Thursday), taught me things I used in updating that old handout to use now.

No competent reporter would consider doing the job without knowing how to interview or take notes or to dig for records. In 21st-Century journalism, using data is not a specialized skill. It’s an essential skill.

Even if you haven’t mastered high-level analysis and visualization skills (just as some reporters are better than others at interviewing or working sources), every reporter needs to use data at least at a basic level to find answers and tell stories. Whatever your level of ability, you should seek to learn more about the data sources on your beat and how to access and use them.

Ask for electronic records. When an agency you cover releases a report or some annual statistics, ask for the report in a digital format. We can incur significant expenses when we ask public agencies to sort data for us (though often much less than they might tell you initially). But every report already exists in an electronic file that should be easy and cheap to obtain. Whether you use the data immediately or not, you should have it on hand electronically.

Pursue the data. Ask for data as aggressively as you insist on access to any other public record. You must not be intimidated when it comes to asking for electronic information. When someone cites facts in an interview, you already are used to asking, “How do you know that?” and asking for copies of any reports the source is citing. Ask for an electronic copy as well. Often the source would rather e-mail you the report rather than find an envelope anyway. Don’t ask just for the report itself, but for the raw data on which it was based.

Consider different uses. As you learn about data sources, consider what stories you might pursue based primarily on this data. Consider how you might use this data for information to support other stories you might do. Consider how you might use the data routinely. Consider how the data might be useful to colleagues on other beats.

Use the Internet. Visit the Web sites of public agencies and private organizations on your beat and learn what data sources are available readily online. Learn what reports and statistics are posted online. Learn whether the agencies post searchable databases online or pdf files that are more cumbersome to use online. (Various tools can help you extract data from pdfs, and a pdf can also identify electronic records you could obtain to sort and search yourself). Browse the databases to learn what information they offer and consider how that information might be useful in stories.

Get budgets. Obtain the budgets and spending records of public agencies in electronic form so you can use a spreadsheet to look for trends, changes, irregularities.

Get directories. Learn what sort of basic information the agencies on your beat might have in electronic form: personnel rosters, payroll records, government board rosters.

Get an updated version of the payroll records periodically — say quarterly — and you’ll have a good way of tracking government raises. It’s searchable and, thus, a nice way to double-check a name spelling and job title and salary, a good way to know who’s been with the city the longest and who’s a newbie, an easy way to access a list of the city’s highest and lowest-paid employees. It’s particularly useful when a public employee makes other news — gets arrested or fired or wins an award — or when you are just searching for an employee who might have been around during a particular time period or has experience in a given area.

Listen for data behind statistics. When sources tell you they are tracking or studying something — a certain kind of complaint, the condition of city roads, housing code violations, etc. — chances are they are working from a database or a spreadsheet. Ask “How do you know that noise complaints have risen or that 65 percent of the streets are in good condition?” and then ask to see their work, which may prompt other stories. In most jurisdictions, the data should be public record, and you should ask for it.

Interview the data. Think of data as another source that you interview. Do you want to know how many single mothers of a particular race or age group live in a particular community? You could probably call a number of people and get some vague answers and some anecdotal sense of whether the number is growing or declining, but why not ask the Census Bureau? Think of questions you could ask the data on your beat: What bar has the most liquor-law violations? What school has the best (or worst) test scores? What intersection has the most accidents?

Study the data first. Reporters are at a great advantage when they go into an interview knowing at least something, and sometimes a lot, about the information the source deals with. If you can find some data online or in a database you already have acquired, check that before you interview a source. It helps you ask better questions and helps you catch the source in mistakes or lies.

Organize with spreadsheets. A spreadsheet helps you understand information. You spot relationships, trends, reversals, gaps. You can use a spreadsheet for something as simple as a source list or chronology, or to analyze thousands of pieces of data.

Enter data yourself. Sure, it’s nice to get data e-mailed to you, but don’t forget that you can enter data yourself. Often an afternoon at a courthouse or government office searching through paper records yields a notebook full of information you can analyze and understand better if you take a few hours to enter it in a spreadsheet.

Use Census data. Census data are not just the basis for Census stories, but provide helpful information about families, housing, economics and communities for a wide range of stories. The Quick Facts section of the site provides data about any state, city, parish, county, town or zip code in the country. For instance, you can quickly learn demographic, business, housing, income (and much more) for the city of Baton Rouge.

Census download shot

A download button at the top right of Census search results lets you download the data in various forms for analysis or display.

BLSSeek federal data. If any federal agency has jurisdiction on your beat, it probably has some data available. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a “data tools” tab that opens a number of opportunities for information on employment, productivity and other economic topics. The Bureau of Justice Statistics offers similar data sets on crime, courts and prisons. Data.gov gives a guide to federal data on a wide range of topics.Datagov

Seek state and local data. Access to data and quality of data that you can access online or through public records requests varies by state and local jurisdiction, as laws and compliance with laws varies. Sometimes you have to search for data by agency. Other times a government jurisdiction, such as the City of Baton Rouge, will provide a portal to data from all agencies. Sometimes media organizations and public interest groups have already acquired data sets and made them easily accessible online. Louisiana Sunshine, a project of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, makes many state data sets easy to access.  

Think critically about data. Former World-Herald reporter Joe Kolman had this quote from Dick O’Reilly of the LA Times taped to his desk: “The most important lessons in CAR are not which keys to push on the keyboard, but how to think critically about data. People who learn to think that way will learn which keys to push because doing so becomes fundamental to their quests. People who only learn what keys to push really haven’t learned anything.”

Other resources

National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting (lots of databases and how-to instructions for members of Investigative Reporters and Editors).

 

 

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This is an updated version of a handout for a reporting workshop I used to present more than a decade ago. I have updated it for my Advanced News Gathering class this semester at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

Finding sources


Find new “suspects.” Seek out sources beyond the “usual suspects” on your beat. If you always find yourself talking to white men, find some women and minorities who might bring a different perspective to your stories and steer you toward different ideas. If you find yourself always talking to the professionals and bosses, spend some time talking to the folks in the trenches. If you spend most of your time talking to liberals, seek out some conservatives. If you spend most of your time talking to people your age, seek out some younger or older sources. These people with different perspectives will point you to different stories. Look around the agency you cover for the people or offices that attract the least attention. Spend some time there to see if you’ll hear some different tips. Ask yourself each week whether you made meaningful contact with a new source. If you didn’t, could you have?

Talk to consumers. If you are assigned to a government or commercial entity, make sure that your circle of sources is wider than the officials of that organization. Talk to citizens who deal with that agency or business and use its services or products. If some of these consumers or citizens are organized, you should deal regularly with leaders of those organizations. You also may need to deal with some self-appointed crusaders and gadflies. Make a point of dealing with some average, unaffiliated consumers.

Identify “gatekeepers.” Develop rapport with assistants and other “gatekeepers” who control access to important sources. These people can be important sources themselves. At the least, good relations with them are essential at times to contacting the sources.

Go prospecting. Take time to go “prospecting” for sources and stories. Take a trip or set up an interview with no particular story in mind. Visit a source you haven’t seen for a while or a community or agency you haven’t covered for a while. Go just to familiarize yourself, to take someone to lunch or chat in the office or home a while. Maybe you’ll come back with a terrific story you never would have known enough to pursue. Maybe you’ll come back without a particular story, but with some tips to pursue. Maybe you’ll just come back with a valuable source to contact in future stories. At the least, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your community and your beat. Prospecting almost always yields stories and is always time well spent. You just can’t tell the editor or news director in advance what it’s going to produce.

Learn where records are. Familiarize yourself with the paper and electronic record-keeping practices of the offices you cover. Learn which records are clearly public, which are legally confidential and which might present access disagreements. Learn which records and databases you can access online without asking for them. For records kept by someone at the agency, ask to see them frequently, whether you are using them or not. This lets sources know of your interests. Seeking records in routine stories establishes precedents when you are seeking similar records in sensitive stories. Ask for records in electronic format whenever possible. Learn who has access to the confidential records (not just in the office, but clients or members of the public who might have them).

Find experts. Learn what academic institutions, think tanks or non-profit groups might study or monitor activities in your beat. Develop them as sources, so they will notify you of reports or rumors and they will know who you are when you call for their analysis of issues and events. Learn what attachments, if any, your experts have. Biases don’t render an expert’s research useless, but you must know them and note them.

Develop national sources. Contact national associations, academic experts and government agencies to develop sources with expertise in the subject you cover. They may provide valuable perspective for a local story. Or they may know something happening locally. They may alert you to a national trend. You can search for experts by topic at Profnet and Help a Reporter Out.

Relations with sources

Be available. Let people on your beat know you’re interested in hearing tips, suggestions, complaints, whatever. Make sure they have your cellphone number and e-mail. Make rounds frequently in person and by telephone.

Be honest. Never mislead a source. Be honest about the direction a story is taking. If it’s going to be a “negative” story, don’t bill it as something else. If you’re not going to write a story about a tip, don’t indicate that you will. This doesn’t mean you have to offend or worry sources needlessly. If a source is worried about a negative story, assure him you intend to make the story fair and accurate and that you want to hear his side.

Be annoyingly insistent on accuracy. If someone gives you figures off the top of her head, ask where she got those figures, then check the original source. Call back sources to confirm spellings, figures, chronologies, etc. Ask for reports, documents, business cards, personnel directories, calendars, databases and spreadsheets that can confirm spellings, numbers and other facts. This not only ensures the accuracy of your stories, it wins respect with sources (and good will that you’ll need if an error does slip through). It puts sources on notice that they can’t slip bogus figures past you. And the materials you gather for one story often will be helpful in other stories.

Become an expert. The more you learn about the complicated issues, technology and economics of your beat, the more your sources will respect you, the harder it will be for them to BS you, and the easier it will be for you to spot good stories. Read books, articles, reports. Research online. Ask lots of questions.

Admit you’re not an expert. If you don’t know or understand something, ask. Sources will respect your honesty, and you will learn. Also, if you fake understanding, they will catch on quickly and you will lose credibility. Repeat your understanding back to the source for confirmation.

Show interest. Sources may want to bend your ear about a matter other than what you want to talk about. Listen. You may get a good news tip. Even if the source thinks it’s a story and you don’t, show interest. However boring or annoying a source may be, however uninteresting you find this alleged tip, you don’t know when a little bit of knowledge might be helpful. Even if the information is completely useless, the source will appreciate your interest and may someday tell you something that is important or interesting.

Tell sources of your interests. Tell good sources about stories you’re working on, even the ones that may not involve them directly. You may know that a source isn’t directly involved with an issue, but if you tell him about the stories you’re working on, he may steer you toward other sources who might be helpful, or he may tell you something helpful that he’s heard around the office.

Regard your sources as characters. You’re not going to profile everyone on your beat. But you might profile anyone on your beat someday. So regard them all as characters you must develop fully. Learn about their families, hobbies, backgrounds, favorite sports teams, watering holes. Note their mannerisms. Follow them on social media if they use it (and if they don’t, ask why). Even if you never write that profile, learning these things will bring some tips your way, as the character will tell you about something she heard from her husband or an interesting thing happening in a social group to which she belongs.

Establish a connection. Don’t be afraid to show your human side. If you have children the same age as the source, commiserate about car seats or car pools or car insurance, whatever stage the children are. If he hates your favorite sports team, engage in some good-natured trash talk. If she has an illness in the family, show genuine compassion. Don’t fake a connection or stretch for one, but be alert for genuine ways to make a connection. If you have little in common with the person, connect by showing genuine interest in the character beyond the narrow focus of today’s story.

Share control. Even if a source spends a lot of time with reporters, he probably doesn’t feel completely comfortable facing you and your notebook. Occasionally in an interview, give him some control. Sure, you’re asking the questions, but answer his questions if he asks any. Listen politely as he wanders off the subject occasionally. The source will feel more comfortable answering your questions if the relationship doesn’t feel one-sided.

Take control. Ask your questions directly. If the source ducks a question, ask again. Whatever niceties you engage in to establish rapport, the source should understand that your interest in the relationship is receiving information and understanding.

Track your sources. Use a spreadsheet or program such as Google Contacts or Outlook to keep track of information about your sources. Get their office phone, direct office phone, cellphone, home phone, vacation home phone. Get their e-mail addresses. Record names of secretaries, spouses, children, hometowns, former jobs, alma maters, anything you learn that might later be handy to know.

Ask for documentation. Always ask for documentation of what your sources tell you. You don’t have to do this in a challenging way (unless you’re challenging). Present it as part of your quest for accuracy. Or if the source was uneasy about discussing something for the record, say you can attribute something to a document rather than to him. Documents provide verification. They may provide details that your source can’t recall or did not know. They may lead you to other sources. In addition, they provide precedent. If a source gives you a document when it’s in her interest, it may be difficult for her to claim later that the same sort of document is not a public record.

Know public-records laws. Sources won’t always give you what you want willingly. You should know what records are public and know both the Federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state public-records laws. But use FOIA requests as a last resort. Ask sources to give you records that should be public (or some that shouldn’t). Sometimes a direct request gets you information quickly that can take months if you file an FOIA request. You might be asked to file a request for their records, but get the records quickly in a matter of minutes, hours or days, depending on your request. Always ask informally first, especially if you have good relations with the source. Formal public-records demands are an important reporting tool, but they can be slow.

Addressing and avoiding trouble

Stay on the record. As much as possible, keep your interactions on the record, especially when you’re talking about information your sources know first-hand. Your sources should always understand that this is a business relationship and your business is gathering and reporting information. When you have to go off the record, make sure it is for a good reason. For instance, if a source is telling you something he doesn’t know first-hand, you wouldn’t quote him about that anyway, but the tip may lead you to first-hand sources. If you go off the record, make sure both of you understand the terms: Is the information for publication but not for attribution? If so, try to get agreement on a description of the source that’s as precise as possible. Is the discussion not for publication (if so, make sure the source knows you will try to publish it using other sources)? Before you go off the record in any fashion, tell the source you might try to get her on the record later if she says anything you want to use. And if she does, go back later with just the information or quotes you want to use, and try to get her on the record. I discussed confidential sources more extensively in a 2013 post, and will focus on the topic in a separate class.

Face the music. When you write a story that might make someone angry, show up at her office after the story runs, or call, either to ask directly about the story, to follow up or on some other pretense. Give the person a chance to sound off. If you made mistakes, admit them. If you didn’t, hold your ground but listen respectfully. Many sources (politicians, lawyers, coaches, athletes) are used to respectful adversary relationships and they will respect you and keep working well with you if you show the respect and courage to face the music when you’ve nailed them. This also is a good time for getting news tips. If someone is upset about a negative story, ask about more positive news happening in his territory. If he says the situation in his office isn’t nearly as bad as in another office, ask for details about the other office.

Admit your mistakes. If you make an error (or if your organization makes an error on your turf), admit the mistake, correct it and apologize personally to those affected. People understand that mistakes happen and they respect people who take responsibility. If you weren’t mistaken or if it’s not clear whether you’re mistaken (such as a disagreement over emphasis, rather than a factual error), listen sincerely to the complaint. Even if you disagree, give the source her say and discuss why you told the story the way you did. Consider whether a follow-up story is warranted. If not, suggest a letter to the editor, a comment on the online story or a response in social media. Brief your editor or news director on the disagreement and how you handled it. If the source complains to the editor, you’ll be glad it wasn’t a surprise.

Beware of getting too close. If your relationship with a source moves beyond friendly to friendship, you may need to adjust the relationship. You might need to ask some tough questions that remind him of the nature of your job. You can’t and shouldn’t withdraw from community life. But if you encounter sources at church and in children’s sports and the like, you may need to establish some boundaries. If you’re unsure whether a relationship is getting too cozy, discuss it with an editor. Maybe you should discuss it with the source. The source might feel a little uncomfortable, too, and might appreciate hearing that you can cheer together at your kids’ basketball game Tuesday and still argue Wednesday over news coverage or access to records.

Social media relationships. You should seek appropriate social-media relationships with sources. Follow them on Twitter if they use either personal or agency accounts professionally. Facebook is a little trickier because of language such as “like” and “friend.” If you use your personal Facebook account professionally and your source does, too, it should not be a problem to be “friends,” especially if you are friends with people on different sides of an issue, or different political parties or sports teams. If they have a Facebook page that you have to “like,” you can do that and note in an update on your page that you have done so not because of any particular fondness, but for the professional interest of following news from the page. Of course, if a person’s individual page is public, or usually public, you can just check in occasionally, as you can do with a page if you’d prefer not to “like” it (Facebook will tell some of your friends that you “like” the page, and you might prefer not to do that). It’s always a good idea to discuss your social media relationships with sources with an editor or news director, so you are on the same page.

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