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On Objective Journalism

Like most nonfiction writers, I think a lot about objectivity in journalism. I’ve had magazine editors tell me that they would never hire me because of the work I do for corporate publications, and I think, well, yeah, but major enterprise software companies know that their customers are too smart to read ads, so they demand good stories. Meanwhile, many magazines consider it gutsy to write stories critical of cigarette smoking, because after all, they rely on cigarette ads for revenue.
And how often have we been subjected to the false-objective story, in which some crackpot gets to spout for half of a story in the name of balance? You know, the “Dr. Suzy Psycho, research fellow with the American Federation of Tar and Nicotine Producers, noted that there is significant controversy in the scientific community about whether or not cigarette smoking leads to a hacking cough. ‘Our studies show that breathing clean air causes more respiratory distress than breathing the air in a studio apartment shared with a two-pack-a-day smoker,’ she said.”
I made that up, but you know what I mean.
Anyway, given the reflexive charges of bias that pervade the biased American media, I thought this article in Duke’s alumni magazine about the lacrosse team incident was interesting. It doesn’t go into the case itself so much as the effects of the controversy on the campus. I thought it was pretty balanced, given how close we are in time to the event and how close the magazine is to the story. It’s a good example of how an article can be critical yet balanced, fair yet still deeply reported.
And no, I didn’t go to Duke. I don’t have feelings for Duke one way or another. I came across this article while looking up information about Duke for a story I’m working on now, and I thought that you might find it interesting, too.

Writing about Philanthropy

warren.jpgThe non-profit world started the day with a bang, as Warren Buffett announced that he was giving $30 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Naturally, the man who owns both Dairy Queen and See’s Candies has a heart of gold.
Anyway, if this news inspires you to write about the non-profit world, here are a few places to go to for research. Guidestar and CharityWatch both have great information on how effectively a not-for-profit uses the money raised. If you are covering churches, you might want to check out the Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability, which offers background on that large class of non-profits.
If you are writing about volunteer issues, check out the site for the United Nations International Year of the Volunteer. Management issues are tracked by The Alliance for Nonprofit Management.

Progamming Journalism

adrianholovaty.jpgVia Poynter’s The Mechanic and the Muse:

Online Journalism Review features a provocative interview with Adrian Holovaty, editor for editorial innovations at, perhaps best known for his ground-breaking one-man site, “a freely browsable database of crimes in Chicago.” (Typically, we have Jim Romenesko to thank for the link.)
OJR editor Robert Niles opens the interview by asking Holovaty, “how does one “do journalism” through computer programming?”

Read on here.

Chasing Barry

barry_bonds_media.jpgAgainst a backdrop of steroids and scandal, Barry Bonds’ chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record produced a firestorm of coverage, but few members of the sports media came to his defense, writes Steve Bloom:

Like Bonds’ assault on Mark McGwire’s short-lived home run record — which he shattered in 2001 — Bonds’ chase of Ruth’s 714 home run mark (the second-highest all-time behind Hank Aaron’s 755) prompted a firestorm of media coverage. Except this time around, the media has largely been unforgiving. ESPN, which has taken to pre-empting its regular programming to broadcast Bonds’ nightly at-bats, has been criticized for relinquishing some degree of editorial control of its Bonds On Bonds reality show to the embattled slugger. [UPDATE: Bloom reports today that the show may go on hiatus.]
Leading the steady anti-Bonds chorus of opinions, columns and general sniping in the nation’s sports pages has been New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica. The day after Bonds tied Ruth on May 20, Lupica wrote: “It should have been a fine baseball day yesterday, even if Bonds only went into second place on the all-time list. It was not. Because it was him … It was history, just the wrong kind, from the wrong guy.”

More here.

The Skinny About Media Lingo

SkinnyMediaLingoCover1.jpgBroadcasters, editors, publishers and other media people use journalism terms and other jargon. mediabistro readers are “media-savvy” but may not always know what it means when a magazine editor asks that you go long with a warm-and-wonder or violin piece.
These terms, and about 2000 others, are defined in my new book, The Language of the Media: The Skinny About Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads and Other Media Lingo.) A long title, I know, but a low price ($14.95). Here are some more terms used by magazine editors and others in the media industry:
To go long is write an article that is longer than average, such as a 20,000-word article in The Atlantic. Warm-and-wonder is a heartwarming upbeat article. A violin piece is a lead story (first major article) that sets the tone for the magazine, particularly if it’s a theme issue (devoted to a single subject).
Are you a freelancer? In the Middle Ages (from about the 6th to the 16th centuries), a “free lance” was a mercenary or independent solider, with a lance or spear, who sold his services. Carrying out this tradition, freelancers (men and women) now sometimes combat with editors.
Are you a stringer? A stringer is a correspondent, generally part-time, for a newspaper or other publication, who is not on staff. The origin is from “on the string,” being paid a variable amount depending on the quantity of writing accepted by the editor. In the 19th and early 20th century, some editors paid a part-time reporter by keeping the reporter’s clippings tied together on a string and literally paid by the number of clippings or the number of column inches published, also perhaps measured with a string. Another possible origin comes from the era of hot metal, when type was assembled in a galley tray. Each writer’s lines of type were tied together with a string.
Read on here.

Your Friends and Sources

youknowfriends.jpg“What’s so wrong with asking your pal for a quote?” Greg Lindsay asks.

Using one’s friends as sources – not to fabricate scenes or prop up dubious suppositions, but just as your proverbial man or woman-on-the-street, a non-expert – occupies an ethical gray area. While The New York Times takes a dim view on the practice and addresses the issue in its ethics handbook, Hearst Magazines, for example, has no clear-cut policy and is perfectly willing to entertain the idea on a case-by-case basis. Mediabistro’s own Claire Zulkey led a debate on this subject last summer on this site’s message boards, leading readers to chime in with long lists of conditional statement about when it is and is not appropriate to quote your friends. But the whole topic is sufficiently radioactive that when I sought the counsel of my own friends, they were unanimous in their desire to speak off the record.

More here.

Excerpt: Through Their Eyes

througheyes.jpgStephen Hess has written a book about foreign correspondents in the United States called Through Their Eyes, and mb has posted an excerpt:

Bakova: Generally in the morning, like 9 o’clock in the morning, which is 3:00 p.m. over there, [my editors] call me and ask me what is going on. And I wake up [before that], I go through my newspapers, usually Washington Post, Washington Times, New York Times, sometimes Internet. And my apartment and my office is the same, so it’s very easy. I try to go to the AP and all kinds of websites, other agencies, of course TV. And I tell [my editors] that this and this and this happened. And I have to ask them what do they want. What’s going on [here] doesn’t mean it is interesting in Europe. There are some cases, like the little girl from Utah [Elizabeth Smart] nobody cares about it in Slovakia. I don’t want to feed them with it.

Bulletin Board Topic Wrapup: But I’m Just One (Wo)Man…

takeastand.jpgEarlier this month I posted a question on the mb bulletin boards: journalism is in need of a “backbone transplant,” according to Dan Rather. However, all journalists don’t have access to the President, or even our Senators, with a large audience the way Tim Russert or the White House correspondent at the Times might. So is this challenge really only meant for journalists with a certain amount of access? How can the ‘little guy’ work harder in “questioning powerful leaders, more facts (and less speculation), more money and time from publishers, and more international coverage.”?
Readers had some interesting thoughts:
Some folks argued that journalists can’t be afraid to instill that backbone, no matter at what level they’re reporting.
“There are a lot of pressures on the newspaper industry that are making Fourth Estate, real investigative reporting difficult today…. Media consolidation of the industry, for starters. I think independent journalists doing work online (often for free) are carrying this torch,” said a poster. “The prestigious weeklies and monthlies seem to afford their reporters time and resources to tackle investigative work.”
“Anyone, no matter what their stature or experience, can ”make a difference” but not accepting pat answers, by doing the legwork, and by asking the follow-up questions.,” wrote another poster. “Covering the local school board meeting should demand the same skills as covering the Joint Chiefs.”
“A reporter at the Springfield, Mo. daily isn’t going to bring down the White House, but it is possible for reporters to check and balance local governments, informing citizens of what’s going on in their constituency,” added another. Not everyone is Judith Miller, with access to the powerful folks in Washington. Keeping tabs on what the village mayor does is something in itself. No government official has the privilege to abuse his or her powers, be it in the Capitol or Small Town, USA. Reporters all over have the ability to monitor this.”
Another mentioned the possibility of blogging as a way ‘little guy’ writers can play a role in the checks and balances. “I think the role of the local reporter/media is integral to community change on all levels. It’s really exciting to work on some small court story that blows up a little town, I think. The best scandals probably happen there! Capote, the movie about the writing of a book in Kansas, is a great example. But it’s very self-limiting in the end, and limited timewise, because eventually all the sources are people you know and they start wanting favors. Two things I think play into this discussion, one, the increasing difficulty of getting information – Plame case. And the impact of blogs, who effectively are filling the gap where say the low level reporter (and I don’t consider them as such, at all) or community level or suburban etc. can’t access the stories or the people. Blogs are the knee jerk response to being shut out of the discourse. Or whatever you want to call it. Newspapers’ revenues are being cut into by blogs. Blogs have damaged journalism and blogs also function to keep journalism in check. By exposing shit that reporters miss. Pardon my language.”

Read more

I Made a Mistake. And It Got into Print.

If you make a mistake in a print article but nobody knows it, did it actually happen? I think you know the answer to that but if you want to check your gut, see Chip Scanlan’s thoughts on accuracy at The Mechanic and the Muse.

The Better Business Reporting Bureau


In retrospect, my whole life led me towards journalism. I started reading The New York Times on Sundays in elementary school. I obsessively read news magazines, science magazines, and the daily paper. As it became for many of you, The New Yorker assumed a most-favored-publication status in my bathroom and prolonged bed-time far too often. In my early 30s, after a decade of freelancing, I landed a staff job at a national business publication. Then I left. Leaving journalism was one of the hardest things I ever did. There were many reasons – salary pressures, changes in management, disenchantment with the profession. None of these are unusual or strange. But like most journalists, I simply could not imagine a life doing anything else. It was impossible.
How ironic that leaving journalism and spending a single year in my next career path taught me more about journalism than I had learned in 15 years as a full-time journalist. First, full disclosure is in order. I left to go into the world of finance. I became a researcher working for the massive hedge funds and mutual funds that I used to write about. It’s a new and emerging field that is probably more similar than dissimilar to journalism. There are also parallels to professions some call “competitive intelligence” or even “corporate espionage.” Whatever. My job, in a nutshell, is to find people that have useful information, extract that information, judge its value, and either connect those people with my clients or summarize the information. In other words, it’s like journalism without the writing part.

Read more of Anonymous’ thoughts here.