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Posts Tagged ‘Margaret Sullivan’

NYT sourcesThe New York Times finally has a new and (hopefully) improved process for handling stories using unnamed sources. The process is outlined in a memo from Executive Editor Dean Baquet, Deputy Executive Editor Matt Purdy and Standards Editor Phil Corbett, and was reported Tuesday by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

The memo outlines which editors need to sign off on different types of uses of unnamed sources. As a frequent critic of the Times’ overuse of unnamed sources, I applaud the effort to be more demanding of reporters seeking to use them. I agree with Sullivan’s assessment:

This is a sensible, moderate and necessary plan. The devil, of course, is in the enforcement. The Times often has not done an effective job of carrying out the policy it already has, one element of which states that anonymous sources may be used only as “a last resort.”

If the Times editors uphold high standards in approving use of unnamed sources, the new process will be a huge step forward, ending the frivolous and needless use of confidential sources while still leaving the Times positioned to deal with informed source who sometimes are the only way to tell important stories on such matters as national security and law enforcement. (more…)

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SullivanI’m disappointed that the New York Times screwed up again in its over-reliance on unnamed sources. But I’m pleased that this screwup finally appears to have prompted a Times examination of this biggest weakness in our nation’s most important news organization.

Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who has been a more persistent and effective critic than I of the Times’ promiscuity with unnamed sources, reported today that mistakes in the Times reporting on the visa screening of terror-attack suspect Tashfeen Malik finally drew a commitment to act:

I talked on Friday to the executive editor, Dean Baquet; to one of his chief deputies, Matt Purdy; and to the Washington editor, Bill Hamilton, who edited the article. All described what happened as deeply troubling. Mr. Baquet said that some new procedures need to be put in place, especially for dealing with anonymous sources, and he said he would begin working on that immediately.

“This was a really big mistake,” Mr. Baquet said, “and more than anything since I’ve become editor it does make me think we need to do something about how we handle anonymous sources.”

First I’ll note that Baquet visited LSU this month and addressed the use of unnamed sources in his Q&A with students and faculty after an address in the Holliday Forum.

Of course, that tweet oversimplifies what Baquet said in response to the question, but it was not a detailed response. He cited national security reporting as an area where using confidential sources is essential to the excellent reporting the Times has done through the years.

This was an important national security story, but those stories demand not only greater use of unnamed sources but greater insistence on documentation and verification from those sources and others.

I’m in the hospital and don’t have the strength to say much new about this. Sullivan covers it better than I would if I were at full speed. I’ll just quote Sullivan again (but you should read her full post), then link to previous posts about this persistent problem at the Times (followed by a late-Friday update and some Twitter response):

The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources. And it needs to slow down the reporting and editing process, especially in the fever-pitch atmosphere surrounding a major news event. Those are procedural changes, and they are needed. But most of all, and more fundamental, the paper needs to show far more skepticism – a kind of prosecutorial scrutiny — at every level of the process.

Two front-page, anonymously sourced stories in a few months have required editors’ notes that corrected key elements – elements that were integral enough to form the basis of the headlines in both cases. That’s not acceptable for Times readers or for the paper’s credibility, which is its most precious asset.

If this isn’t a red alert, I don’t know what will be.

Previous posts on NYT use of sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Applause to the New York Times for effective use of an on-the-record source

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Jonathan Landay elaborates on Judith Miller’s flawed Iraq reporting

Do I despair for the New York Times? No, but I’m often disappointed and pleased

Eric Nalder responds

About the same time that I was posting this, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder replied on Facebook to my post about Sullivan’s original post (I hadn’t yet shared this post there). His advice on vetting investigative stories is helpful and important as the Times reassesses its use of unnamed sources and its verification of what they tell you. With Eric’s permission, I am adding his comment to this post:

Nalder

Nalder absolutely nails the Times’ failure here. The reporters should have been demanding of the sources and the editors should have been demanding of the reporters: Show me a tweet. Show me a screen grab. If we’re reporting that our visa screening process missed her open embrace of jihad, we need to show that threat, even if it’s in a foreign language. We’re the New York Times, we can find translators.

Nalder, by the way, far surpasses my own journalistic credentials and those of the vast majority of New York Times reporters. He won Pulitzers for investigative reporting on the Exxon Valdez oil spill and on corruption in a federal housing program for Native Americans. He knows how to nail down facts on important stories.

I have cited Nalder before on his effective use of “ratcheting” to persuade reluctant sources to go on the record. It’s a technique that probably wouldn’t work on a national-security story like this, but it illustrates the sophistication of his experience and technique in this area.

If I were Dean Baquet, I might start addressing this topic by asking Nalder if he’s available to do an investigation of Times’ reporters dealings with unnamed sources and the vetting by Times reporters and editors of the information that sources provide.

Twitter responses

End notes

Margaret Sullivan: Sullivan also told Poynter today that she will complete her run as public editor when her second two-year contract expires this September. On this issue and more, she has been far and away the best public editor the Times has had (and the others were all good). We first met nearly 10 years ago when she was editor of the Buffalo News. I don’t know what her next step would be, but if I were hiring a newsroom leader, journalism dean (or endowed chair), media critic, columnist, media organization executive or almost any other journalism job, she’d be at the top of my list of people to talk to. I’ll be interested to see where she goes next and wish her well in whatever lies ahead.

My hospital stay. This is my first blog post here in 13 days. I’m not sure if that’s a record hiatus since I started this blog, but if not, I bet it’s close. My stem-cell transplant has been a rough experience, with more than a week where I could barely muster the energy for a few emails or social media posts a day, if that. But the cells are making new, healthy blood. I may be home next week, and I’ll definitely be blogging again before the end of the year.

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My Oculus Rift selfie

My Oculus Rift selfie

Virtual reality has long been one of those things on my someday list, a list that often gets more intention than attention. Unless I get a nudge. Like a request from the dean.

I sent Jerry Ceppos, dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, an email earlier this month, asking him to pass on to the faculty my willingness to guest-teach some classes this month. I was excused from teaching a regular course this semester because of my ever-changing plans for finishing my lymphoma treatment. But I enjoyed guest-teaching for a couple of colleagues early in November and had a fairly open calendar for the rest of the month (because I thought I might be in the hospital), so I offered to guest for some other faculty colleagues.

I turned down a colleague who asked about a topic on which I lacked expertise. I figure you should teach what you know. But somehow when the dean asked if I could teach something on my someday list, I decided someday was today (yesterday, actually).

So I taught a class on ethical issues in virtual reality journalism Tuesday, even though I have consumed little VR and produced none. Generally I prefer to teach matters on which I have some expertise, but I also like to continue expanding my expertise, so I agreed to lead a discussion of virtual reality issues in Jerry’s ethics class. I had about two days to learn enough about VR to teach it in a class.

Let’s back up a little: I wasn’t starting at zero here. I’ve heard speculation about VR being the future of news or entertainment or business for a decade or two, always curious. 360-degree visual technology certainly transformed video games from the flat original Super Mario Brothers games I used to play with my sons (though the boys have grown up and moved away, so I don’t play today’s 360 games). Even if video games are more virtual than reality, the concept is the same: Presenting an experience that feels real. Or “virtually” real, whatever that means.

I remember my fascination a decade ago when a real estate agent sent a photographer to the home we were planning to sell, and the photographer set a camera on a tripod, pivoting to shoot 12 (as I recall) photographs of each room of our home. Computer software would stitch the photos together into a “virtual tour” that the agent would post in a digital listing, inviting people to get a 360-degree look at each of our main rooms. I don’t know how much the virtual tour contributed, but the home sold for a good price.

I have a less detailed memory of a reporting project in the 1990s, early in the days of digital photography. I was reporting on the impact of government regulation, mandates and spending in a town, and a photojournalist shot pictures of all the businesses around the town square. A designer used some new software to stitch the pictures together into what appeared to be a panoramic photo of the town square for an informational graphic, in which I reviewed the governmental role in each of the businesses (I just looked unsuccessfully for a clip to share here, but I think my memory is accurate).

More recently, I encouraged (with mixed success) colleagues to try Gigapan panoramic photography, such as a Shanghai skyline photo stitching together 12,000 different photographs or the panoramic photograph of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Click on the photograph to zoom in and move your mouse to pan around and you can clearly see members of the Obama, Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Biden families there, as well as recognizable members of the Supreme Court and Senate.

Improving technology moved the 360-degree viewing experience into video: advances in production technology, including wearable GoPro video cameras; video production software that stitches together moving images; headsets for viewing VR.

In a visit to Syracuse University last year, I first put an Oculus Rift headset on, as Dan Pacheco showed me where he was experimenting with VR applications for journalism. With the headset on, it appeared I was at a flooding scene. As I looked to the left and right or spun all the way around, it felt as if I were right at the scene, with water and flood damage all around me. I felt kind of disoriented wearing the headset and feeling surrounded by the scene. Some people actually feel motion sickness using VR headsets.

That summer, Dan worked at Gannett headquarters in Washington, helping produce a VR project for the Des Moines Register called “Harvest of Change,” giving the wearer of a headset the experience of being on an Iowa farm. (Well, not the full experience: VR technology is effective at providing the sights and sounds of a scene, but I’ve been on some Iowa farms, and you need at least one other sense to get the full experience.)

“Harvest” was a star of last year’s Online News Association conference, but I didn’t actually put on the Oculus Rift and experience the farm. Every time I went by the booth where it was being presented, the crowd was big enough that I decided to come back later.

Two Manship colleagues, Lance Porter and Tad Odell have been learning about VR and we have two Oculus Rift headsets at the school. Lance and Tad guest-taught a class for my Interactive Storytelling Tools class last spring.

I’d noticed other VR developments, including another story featured at this year’s ONA conference and an StoryNext conference last month, neither of which I could attend. So it was like the dean was telling me it was finally time to really learn something about virtual reality.

Jerry was prompted by the New York Times’ release of its project “The Displaced,” and Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s column about reader reaction to VR, including some ethical issues raised by journalists.

Jerry loaned me the Google Cardboard viewer he received as a Times subscriber. I thought it would make a nice prop, contrasting with the Oculus Rift (shown in the selfie at the top of this post). Margaret noted the paradox of the Times’ invitation to readers to experience cutting-edge digital technology by unfolding and assembling a cardboard device:

The box itself (when assembled, it looked like a Fresh Direct container for three jumbo eggs) struck me as an almost instant anachronism: ready for its place on a historical timeline of the digital age’s evolution. This is what happened in 2015.

But the cardboard goggles generated some enthusiasm:

The structure of my class presentation was pretty easy to plan: I’d start with some discussion of the history and technology of VR, and its potential application in various communication fields represented in the class. Then we’d discuss some ethical issues.

I didn’t have time to produce a VR project, but I wasn’t asked to teach how to use VR, but to discuss ethics. While I already knew of some ethical issues, I knew it was a fairly simple reporting effort to increase my understanding of VR enough to lead the ethics discussion.

Margaret and Jerry (obviously trying to learn VR himself) provided some links that helped in my crash course:

A report from StoryNext, The State of Virtual Reality in Journalism, was perhaps most helpful, both filling in the recent development of VR as well as laying out some good ethical issues to discuss with the class. This is too new a field for me to present do’s and don’ts, but it’s unfolding quickly enough to raise some issues for the students to consider as they consume and potentially produce VR.

And I continued learning about VR after the class, as students told me of VR being used in athletic recruiting and in therapy for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Here are the slides I used for the class:

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Times Sullivan postThanks to New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan for providing the first acknowledgment by anyone at the Times of a fundamentally flawed story I have noted here before.

I won’t revisit the saga of a 2007 Times puff piece about matchmaker Pari Livermore here. Read the links below if you want the background. The story’s premise was flawed and it inaccurately referred to a “charity event,” when the primary beneficiary was not registered as a charity. I think the Times should have corrected the story, regardless of its age (Sullivan called for an follow-up, not a correction). While we disagree about the need for a correction, I applaud Sullivan’s acknowledgment that the Times should have followed up on it when it learned about its flawed premise.

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

On one point I will heartily agree with Sullivan. Nancy Levine contacted Sullivan and me after she almost made a donation to Livermore, after finding and reading the Times story. But Levine, an executive recruiter, did a little more checking and learned that Spotlight on Heroes, the organization Livermore told her to make the check out to, wasn’t actually registered as a charity.

Levine has sent dozens of emails to Sullivan, other Times editors, other media editors and directors, California legislators and regulators. Sullivan described Levine as “one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with.” That I can attest to. This, not so much:

I’ll note that Mr. Buttry is almost as dogged as Ms. Levine.

No, I’m not nearly as dogged as Nancy is. She is also one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with. The media need persistent, dogged people to hold us accountable. Thanks, Nancy!

Twitter reactions

Previous posts relating to the Times Livermore story

Is there a statute of limitations on correcting errors or updating flawed stories?

Why are journalists so reluctant to correct and re-examine challenged stories?

Deni Elliott: Journalists often fail to think beyond ‘Charity = GOOD’

Other journalists correct a story the New York Times stubbornly refuses to correct

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I am dismayed by the continuing refusal of respected media companies to re-examine and correct their reporting when confronted with documentation of their errors.

I blogged about this problem in August, calling attention to puff pieces in the New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, CBS, NBC and other media, depicting Pari Livermore as a matchmaker who paired widowed and divorced middle-aged people in return for donations to “charities.”

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

None of the media checked out Livermore’s charities thoroughly enough to learn that her favored charity, Spotlight on Heroes, wasn’t registered as a charity at all. The person who did the digging to learn that was Nancy Levine, a potential client. Levine reached out to me after being blown off by media organizations she approached, seeking a correction or update to their old puff pieces, which showed up in Internet searches, lending credibility to Livermore.

Before my August post, I emailed Livermore, inviting response, and I received no reply. I emailed again for this post and Livermore said she “did mess up the paperwork” for Spotlight on Heroes, sending something to the wrong address. She did not explain why the paperwork didn’t get straightened out and did not answer when I asked her repeatedly whether Spotlight was registered now as a charity. She claimed to have sent me an email (she didn’t say when), but a search of my inbox showed no messages from her. (She sent one Monday, listing work she says her matchmaking donations have supported.)

I can almost, sort of, kind of, nearly buy some media’s initial response to Levine. The stories were old and you could, in the quick read that many complaints receive from editors and news directors, conclude that the errors weren’t serious enough to demand a thorough review or a correction this long after the fact.

But I can’t get there. Levine is thorough and persistent (she would make a hell of an investigative reporter). She provided these news organizations (and me) with extensive documentation that Livermore’s charity, at the least, was not registered properly. If the lack of registration was an innocent mistake, the charitable donations that these puff pieces virtually encouraged were not tax-deductible, and that oversight certainly needed to be corrected. The story demands more investigation by any organization that published puff pieces. (more…)

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The New York Times often and flagrantly violates its own standards for attribution.

Executive Editor Dean Baquet ignored my call earlier this year for him to lose his famous temper about the Times’ casual and inexcusable promiscuity in the use of unnamed sources. I will try again (and invite him to respond), only this time I’ll include another issue of attribution: linking to digital sources.

First two disclaimers:

  1. I’ve written a lot about these two subjects before, both regarding journalism in general and regarding the Times. I apologize for any repetition. I will try to minimize and include links to previous posts at the end (and sprinkle them where relevant in this post).
  2. The Times is unquestionably, in my view, the most outstanding organization in journalism, with some of the highest standards in journalism. That’s what makes its daily disregard of its own standards in these two important areas so maddening.

I am writing about these attribution issues because they collided this week in two outstanding posts by others: (more…)

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