Do More With Less, Or The Strange Arrogance of Covering The Pulitzers

Or: Of the Big-Name Papers, Only The New York Times Knows How to Write a Lede

It’s a mark of how far I’ve strayed from my first (professional) love, that I didn’t know the Pulitzers were being announced today until the New York Times breaking news notification came across my phone. A few years ago, sitting in a newsroom, my colleagues and I were making (mostly correct) predictions about who would win what.*

It’s a mark of how my love for  journalism–and for people I did it with–has shaped me, that I got up almost immediately to call another journalist friend to discuss. She too no longer works in journalism.

But even more notable as a sign of the changes that have come were the prizes themselves, and the message the New York Times lede appropriately conveyed:

The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., with a staff of about 80 and a daily circulation of 85,000, won the most prestigious of the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism awarded on Monday, for a series on the high number of deaths resulting from domestic abuse in the state.

Pulitzer coverage is a funny thing: Would these prizes be news worthy of breaking news alerts,  prime web-page real estate, and multiple articles if they weren’t news stories about the newspapers? Do the papers even find the right stories within the prize announcements?

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal's coverage of the Pulitzers

Screenshot from the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the Pulitzers

The Wall Street Journal‘s home page headline is “Wall Street Journal Wins Investigative Pulitzer Prize” and doesn’t mention the Post and Courier in the subhead or the first two grafs.  Reuters–which does not have its own prize to highlight--led with the New York Timeswin, even though the Public Service award is the most prestigious.

I can almost forgive all this eye-roll-inducing self-congratulation because the print news industry has so little to celebrate these days.

But there IS news in this year’s awards:  that a newspaper so tiny could win an award so big ( a paper that size has not won in five years, and the Post-Courrier has not won since 1925); that public service was defined as reporting on  domestic violence, a topic notoriously under-discussed;  that  a newspaper did  work which was data driven and focused on taking previous years’ reporting to the next level despite a staff of 80.

http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20150420/PC1002/150429905/1506/a-pulitzer-honor-x2014-and-a-continuing-challenge

By the time I got to the Post Courier page, the only coverage on the home page was an editorial urging legislative action for restrictions on gun ownership by domestic abusers.

That Times’ lede is a lede written by a journalist for journalists. For people who can read that sentence and understand all  the implied history of heartbreaking layoffs and fear about the Buzzfeed-ification of journalism. For people who know what it’s like to pray that data analysis will be the panacea of journalism as a whole while also hoping that crunching the numbers will lead to a compelling story about the humans journalists truly want to serve.

This year’s prizes offer a second, related story about the state of journalism today. The Daily Breeze won the prize for local reporting  “for their inquiry into widespread corruption in a small, cash-strapped school district, including impressive use of the paper’s website.” The paper has seven local reporters.* One of the journalists who won the prize has already left to become a publicist “for economic reasons.” The reality of the business, especially for local journalists, is so brutal that even a shiny prize can’t hide it.

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze's website

Screenshot from The Daily Breeze’s website

But  to the small papers everywhere–including the college papers such as my very own–that a small, over-worked staff can still produce great journalism, and perhaps has an obligation to do so (my heart broke a little when I noticed that on a non-print day Spec had fewer news articles than we did on the days we were most ashamed of the product we put out. I get it, but it’s sad).

The message “do more with less” is cynical and short-cited when it comes from the business side, but it sounds more like a defense of the value of what journalists do when it comes from the Pulitzer committee  and is highlighted by THE newspaper of record and its peers. The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and company should have had the heart to recognize that the Pulitzer Prizes are about more than the big names. They are about the potential journalism still holds, staff and circulation numbers be damned.

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Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

This is 2014. Photo: Associated Press

On the one hand, this should be the shortest post ever: “Because I am human and American,  I care about human rights, our constitution, racism, and poverty.” Done. Hit publish and walk away.

On the other hand, a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backgrounds to me, don’t see it that way.

The last time I found myself completely unable to stop reading a news story, was when it felt really really personal. When I finally gave myself a news break, I felt relief and calm. This time, I turned off my computer on Friday evening and didn’t turn it back on until Sunday night. When I did, I felt guilty, because Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown, it’s not just about protesters or journalists who are being stopped from doing their job. It’s not just about Ferguson. It’s about the black kid who gets pulled over by the cops ten times a month. It’s about schools with just over 50 percent graduation rates. It’s about segregation in the year 2014. It’s about the criminal justice system in this country. It’s about black boys who are taught to never call the cops. It’s about systemic racism. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Read this. And this. And this.  And this).

And, because I’m white, I can turn off the news and I have the option to tune all of that out. I don’t live with that systemic racism, so when I turn off the news, I have the privilege of tuning it out. My friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, are not so lucky.

When I think about why this is the news story that I can’t stop reading about, I think about the West Wing‘s Toby Ziegler reaction to the shooting in Rosslyn:

Toby: Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen shootings before.

President Bartlet: It wasn’t a shooting, Toby, it was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes.

To head it off at the pass: yes. I know that the West Wing is not real. I know that in that fictional world, Charlie was shot at by white supremacists and that in the real world, it’s likely that Darren Wilson’s motives were not overtly racist.

Wilson may have shot in fear, but that fear probably has roots in the way our society portrays black men: as dangerous and disposable. Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but it drove to the surface a lot of anger about a lot of racial injustices. It exposes my country’s darker side, the demons that we have not conquered, the demons we haven’t even really tried to fight because it’s more comfortable to ignore them. 

Yes: “We.” This should be a problem for everyone.

Last week, a commenter on Jezebel said  something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t make this about race, so that everyone could be outraged.” But, you don’t have to be the victim to be outraged. Exercise empathy muscles. Be outraged because it’s unacceptable not because it could happen to you. Educate yourself. Learn that most protesters are not looters. Check your language. Are you making gross generalizations? Are you saying, “not to be racist” or “no offense, but…”? Ask yourself, how can I change myself and how can I change the system, no matter how small an impact. (Does anyone have an answer to the latter question? Let me know!)

In response to a piece from The Forward   “Why Jews Should Care About Ferguson”, someone on Facebook wrote.

“Would you be scared to open your shop there past 9pm? Now? Exactly, so cut it. You have no stake in the game. But those with shops over there do. So how can you belittle their concern for safety?”

Nobody in the thread or in the article had justified the looting. The idea that we somehow shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about the broad underlying injustice because we don’t know what it’s like to be store owners in Ferguson is even more mind-boggling than the idea that you should only be outraged if you are black. I have a stake in this game. We all should. 

I am outraged because as a Jew I believe that I cannot ignore the oppression of others just because things have gotten easier for my people and my family over the decades. We are asked to always remember that we were once slaves and to treat others accordingly.

I am outraged because I remember how uncomfortable it was to be told before a school field trip that any misbehavior in the museum would reflect badly on all Jews everywhere, and the way that information about Michael Brown has been handled by the police, by some parts of the media, and by the Internet reminds me that black boys and men carry a burden that is similar but many times heavier. (I don’t want to link to it, but google Michael Brown Marijuana and then think back to high school).

I am outraged because as a (former) journalist, I believe that the rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and redress of grievances should not be corralled and must be protected even, and especially, when protecting them calls into question structures of power, and the status quo. Even when its scary or difficult. I agree with the police who believe it is part of their job to protect these rights not with the police who believe it is their job  defend against them. I am outraged because I love this country and part of that love comes from being able to criticize its failings

I am outraged  because I agree with  former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper, who wrote, “In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.”

I am outraged because as a white person, I automatically benefit from systems, perceptions, and stereotypes that hurt others and I’m not OK with that.

I am outraged because as an American I want to live in a country that lives up to the values enshrined in the constitution.

I am outraged because I believe that everyone’s life is enriched when everyone has opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. I believe that the American Dream should not be reserved for those who do not have to overcome poverty, sub-par public services, or bigotry.

I am outraged because as a human I believe that skin color should not serve as a barrier for entry, that the poor should not be treated as less-than, that failing students should not be dismissed as net-losses.

I am outraged because as a human I understand that teenage deaths are tragedies, whatever the cause.

I am outraged because as a person, I believe that we could be doing better, and not trying makes me furious.

I am outraged because racism even in its most subtle forms should be considered outrageous. Full stop.

Arthur Sulzberger Is a Newspaperman. He Should Have Known Better.

My own short journalism career was largely unimpeded by my gender (the one big gender fight in my college newsroom ended in conversations and e-mails that  could have been a PBS special on forgiveness and understanding), but I still saw it and heard it. The fellow journalism interns who thought nothing about talking about visiting strip clubs while I was standing right next to them, the female reporter who struggled to get cops to take her seriously when she covered a crime scene, the staff photographer at my school paper who was asked not to take the photos on a story I was writing because the editor didn’t think two women should go to a low-security prison, the writer (me!) who didn’t object to that reasoning despite no indication from our sources that the precaution was necessary.

There were messages I was young enough to ignore that said that to rise to the top was to choose journalism over family. There were congressmen who didn’t take me seriously. There was a Senate press corps that was still predominately male to say nothing of the gender imbalance  in financial-related press conferences.

I knew that I was already benefiting from fights of The Girls in the Balcony  by virtue of entering journalism when I did, and, with her appointment as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson (who also benefitted from those fights) seemed to bust open the glass ceiling long before I was close to hitting it. It seemed that the industry I loved would be a little more likely to love me back. (It turned out, it didn’t, or I didn’t love it as much as I thought I did, but that was not related to my gender).

Abramson, during the announcement of her appointment to executive editor.

The night Jill Abramson was announced as the next executive editor of The New York Times  I couldn’t sleep. Three years later, she was fired. We don’t know the whole story as to why she was fired, but there is reason to be skeptical of claims that is was simply management style, mainly that the Times has had lots and lots of bad managers at the helm. From The New Yorker: 

Another, a prominent reporter, proposed a multiple-choice question: “Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. “Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Even if it turns out that Abramson’s lower salary was totally justified, even if it turns out she was a terrible manager, the conversations around her tenure and her management style have been gendered from the start. There was no way they weren’t going to be. And, the conversation around her firing has been gendered. While Sulzberger said that he spoke to female “rising stars” at the Times who didn’t want “special treatment” and didn’t see the firing of Abramson as anything but a decision about an individual, David Carr “heard from several talented young women who are a big part of The New York Times’s future. “’ I really don’t see a path for me here,’  said one. ‘Are we O.K.?’

“Well, that depends on how the next few weeks go and whether The Times can convince female employees that it is a fair place to work, with ample opportunity to advance,” Carr wrote.

Carr concluded that Sulzberger’s assessment of Abramson’s management failings was correct, but the fact is that the way that the firing was handled at the Times scared some of the women who worked there, made them doubt that there were cracks in the glass ceiling. The coverage of the firing, both the carefully reported and the sensational, didn’t help. I read that coverage and couldn’t remember any of that thrill I had three years ago.

Sulzberger owns a newspaper–THE newspaper. He and his staff should understand messaging and the ways that messages can be unintentionally transmitted or mistranslated. Regardless of what really happened in the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, it’s inexcusable that Sulzberger  didn’t understand that female journalists everywhere were going to see Abramson’s sudden and unceremonious dismissal as a message about the metaphorical glass ceilings in the Times’ window-filled building and therefore in the industry as a whole. Sulzberger–perhaps inadvertantly–sent a message about the way a female reporter and editor is expected to conduct herself and the dangers she’ll face is she dares to be, like many of her predecessors,  pushy and forceful.  And it doesn’t look like progress.

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Newspapers

This is an old post that I never hit “publish” on, about the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos. In the name of actually starting to write things on this blog again, I am not going to update it to reflect Bezos’ visit to the newsroom or the Post’s coverage of today’s shooting at Navy Yard and the decision to drop the paywall for the coverage. For those people who are not journalism geeks, I apologize in advance for the references that will be confusing.

In college we talked about minutia and dreams. About em dashes and Oxford commas and deadlines. About race and gender and labor unions. About the mission of a Journalist to give the world part of what it wants to hear and part of what it ought to. About saving the industry, about rejection letters, about getting picked up in the college section of the New York Times. About newspaper politics and newspaper sex. About Woodward and Bernstein and Pulitzers and student-reporter-sized exposes.

In college, we were sentimental about newspapers without even realizing it. We were madly in love and mad.

And slowly we grew up.

Slowly. We went to work at newspapers. We stood in newsrooms as they celebrated Pulitzers, but more likely stood in newsrooms as the paper got bought and sold, as reporters got laid off. We joined unions. We read with awe about Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and wrote inscriptions to each other about whether we’d give a ball to edit the Washington Post. We hatched plans to save Newsweek, and then stopped reading it altogether, and then it stopped publishing. We went to grad school and foreign countries. We moved across the country and got laid off. We got health insurance and new contracts. We gaped open mouthed at the super stars who considered leaving journalism and then we started doing it ourselves, separating ourselves into the people who really loved the job and the people who loved the idea of the job. We went to law school, to jobs in social media, to jobs in government telling ourselves that the industry changed and these things weren’t so unforgivable anymore, not like they were when we graduated, when so many of us were actually going into journalism. Not like they were when everyone knew that path to the Chicago Tribune was from the Peoria Journal Star to the Chicago Sun Times to the Chicago Tribune. And then, if you moved to Washington with the Tribune (were you lucky enough to follow Obama), you could go from the Chicago Tribune to the Washington Post, and then you’d have Made It. No one can tell you how to Make It anymore but sometimes they tell us to write for free.

“Two more years of this and I am going to do something that really makes a difference, ” one of my college coeditors tells me. Five years ago that would have been blasphemy. Now, I am also leaving. Or at least taking a break.

This is what newspapers talk about when they talk about newspapers, or specifically when they talk about the Washington Post:

They talk “politics, powersuits, and Woodward and Bernstein”. They talk about the “ossified world of newspaper publishing” and about the nostalgia of working for the Grahams. They talk about a “landmark in journalism,” about a microphone in Washington. They talk about Watergate.

They don’t really talk about the people, about the city that isn’t the beltway, about the metro newspaper, about theories of change or disruption. About Chandra Levy, or even “Top Secret Nation.” They don’t talk about questions of identity: a national newspaper versus a local newspaper. About whether all politics are really local, and whether it matters. They don’t talk about covering race or not covering it.

When newspapers talk about the newspaper industry, most of the stories are left untold.

Our Children

A memorial to a student killed in Chicago. Image from This American Life from their radio show on gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago.

“I’d rather have ten kids be killed in Chicago than have my house broken into…. Do you know how scary it is to have your house broken into when you are in it?”

I think my jaw literally dropped when a Harvard graduate student (at a non-HKS school) said that to me this weekend. He might have been saying that to get a reaction from me (it worked) but he said it, which was unfathomable to me whatever  his reason was.

The underlying argument doesn’t work from either side. It’s not clear that stricter gun laws alone will save Chicago’s kids, since most of the shooters don’t have legal guns anyway. The correlation between gun laws and number of guns also isn’t entirely clear; it (unsurprisingly) depends on the substance of the gun laws.The solution needs to be more comprehensive, for sure. And, it’s also not clear to me that guns prevent home invasions. I’ve had a really hard time finding data that showed that gun ownership leads to fewer gun invasions.

But the inflammatory statement isn’t really about gun control. It’s about empathy. It’s about the speaker not knowing anyone who was killed with a gun, but he does know someone whose home was broken into. That’s not surprising since the burglary rate is far higher than murder rate, but he also probably doesn’t know any public school teenagers living in Chicago, let alone living in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

I was privileged to be able to take a class with Robert Putnam last semester. He spoke throughout the semester about the loss of a sense of “our children,” the sense that we are all responsible for each other, outside of our own families. It’s tricky to build the bridging social capital needed to make sure that people with immense privilege debating laws in Cambridge Massachusetts (who, regardless of background have immense privilege by virtue of being Harvard students, and who, obviously, includes me as well) know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence that they walk straight down the middle of the street so that they have a few more seconds to run if shooting starts. 

My friend, Tanveer Ali, just wrote an excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings.  There are arguments to be made for not covering every murder in the newspaper. The arguments are sad, and generally stem from the idea that the murders are   common (506 in Chicago in 2012) but also have a more positive angle, that writing about every murder in the newspaper makes the city seem like one defined by murder.

But Tanveer’s argument is compelling: “by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.”

I think the empathy argument, the one I’ve been mulling over all weekend, is a trickier one to pin down: I’d like the media to tell stories that make people inside the beltways and the ivory tower to feel a little bit more that all victims  of violence are valuable and more similar to us than dissimilar.  I don’t know how to get the people who are most likely to talk about only the statistics that support their point of view and only about their own experiences to read things that challenge them, to listen to radio that tells stories about lives completely unlike their own.  But that doesn’t mean that media outlets should stop trying. This American Life did an incredible job going deep into the effects of gun violence on the families, staff, and students of Harper High School in Chicago. At the very end of the two-part radio show, Ira Glass went back to the statistics, to make sure that listeners knew that the problems and struggles and tragedies of Harper High were not unique to Harper High or to Chicago. But it was the stories of the individuals that made the radio show.

How we in the news media expand empathy is something that has no easy answer, and I am sure there are a lot of people who say it’s not our job. But a lot of journalists are working on it. We’re a minuscule part of the solution (and I haven’t even broached the topic of race). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest to expand the definition of “our children.”

P.S. On the issue of the gun control debate there is surely a problem of neither side knowing the other, a problem that The New  Republic appears to have tried to tackle recently by running an essay about a gun owner, but the question of empathy for the victims of violence (which can be expanded to non-gun violence as well) seems to me to be a bigger one, because people can stand up and demand action out of a sense that something must be done, even if they disagree on how it should be done.

Strong, Proud, Barnard Women (Updated)

Three of my friends and Barnard classmates show off our Barnard College pride before the Columbia University-wide commencement. (Yes, Barnard students wear the same robes as all other undergrad graduates at Columbia University)

I started writing a post about Barnard-Columbia relations in the wake of the announcement that President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker at Barnard College, but I decided it was too specific for a broad audience. But then, The New York Times decided it was a story worthy of a national newspaper.  And Jezebel followed up with a blog post. This letter is to Anna Bahr, the sophomore at Barnard who sent in the information about the comments on the campus blog, Bwog, to Jezebel.

If you don’t want to click on the links, here’s the one paragraph version of the back story (up to date through March 7): President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia College,  told Barnard that he would speak at Barnard’s commencement (likely a reflection of the central role women’s issues have taken in the current election); Barnard said “yes, please,” and the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who was scheduled to speak said “I’ll come another time.” Students got annoyed that Barnard was getting Obama instead of Columbia, and wrote nasty comments on the campus blog, Bwog. The New York Times picked up the story and quoted the President of Barnard as dismissing the comments (their verb, not mine) as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Students got annoyed and angry and asked for a better response, and the presidents of Barnard and of Columbia University issued another statement.

Here’s my response to one annoyed student who wrote into the feminist blog Jezebel, which is published by Gawker media.

Dear Anna,

As an alumna of Barnard I’ve been following this story with interest. I first heard that Obama was coming from a text from a fellow Barnard alumna. (You should know that the word “Barnard” will make you instant friends with not only other Barnard alumnae but also other Seven Sisters alumnae. It’s pretty great). I called her and we got really excited for Barnard and then, because we are now public policy students, we talked about the politics of it.

I’ve also been following it with rolled eyes. I suspect that this kind of conversation about the Barnard-Columbia relationship has been around since 1982, when Columbia became co-ed. The Internet just brought the insecurities to the surface and allowed people to express them with the kind of disgustingness that is only possible with anonymity.

Bwog is its own special (and often terrible) ecosystem. It was launched when I was in college, and I can tell you that it used to be much worse. People used to post terrible terrible things about individuals, naming them by name, and Bwog, then an infant publication, didn’t have a policy to deal with those kind of comments. I think that they do now, and I think that that level of vitriol has improved a bit.

This is all to say that everything and everyone grows up. Bwog has grown up, and the people posting on Bwog will grow up. I think that Barnard President Deborah Spar,  wasn’t simply dismissive, it was a description of reality.

You know as well as anyone that Barnard isn’t easier than Columbia. There is nothing intrinsic in Barnard’s distribution requirements that make them easier than Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, just wildly different. And a required thesis and a required major–which Barnard has and Columbia does not– certainly do not make completing a Barnard education easier than a Columbia education.

In a lot of ways, the schools are so totally different. There are different cultures; there are different attitudes from the administrators about what students should get from college experiences (See: Barnard offering Greek Games, a functional advising systems, student leadership awards, and the I ❤ BC Day for examples). There are different opportunities. And, of course, there are a lot of similarities. They share sports teams, clubs, and a school newspaper. And, Columbia University has a hand in conferring degrees to the students of both Columbia College and Barnard College (not to mention they also confer or have a hand in conferring degrees to the students of SEAS, the school of General Studies, Teachers College and a lot of other schools). I say “hand in conferring” because the degree is issued by both Barnard and Columbia, not just by Columbia.

But the main difference that people on those boards seem to be griping about when you cut through the crap? Admissions rate. Barnard has a higher admissions rate than Columbia College.

Long story short, I think that this is the reason that President Spar told the New York Times the nastiness in the comments  “probably is 19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” It’s not just dismissive. It’s reality. By the time junior year rolls around, SAT scores and admissions letters should feel distant. What seemed like the cornerstone of self worth as a senior in high school (how prestigious, according to admissions rates the college you chose is) should fade into new measures (how happy am I? Is this school a good fit? Am I getting an education I enjoy, and am challenged by?).

So, when people write that Barnard getting diplomas that are similar to Columbia College degrees somehow diminishes the value of a Columbia College degree, they are still stuck in the high school mentality. I wish there was a way to see who is commenting on Bwog, but I’d be really surprised if the people harping on admissions rate were seniors. Admissions rates should fade from view as other things become more important and better arbiters of your employability or all-around awesomeness.

Don’t take President Spar’s statement as simply dismissive (I mean, of course you can take it that way, but know that it might not be the only way to take it). It can also be seen as a statement of hope: that people grow up, and where you went to college matters less and less.

XKCD: "Duty Calls", http://xkcd.com/386/

Are the terrible comments terrible? Yes. But the first rule of surviving the Internet should be “don’t feed the trolls.”

The graduation requirements only matter in so far as how much you can apply the knowledge you have learned, along with your experiences outside of the classroom, to your life post-college.

The admissions statistics don’t matter at all.

The comments on Bwog don’t matter at all, either.

Love,
Leora

P.S. Do you know who the second person to text me about Obama’s speech was? A friend who is a Columbia College alumna. She also thought the news was cool.

UPDATES: President Deborah Spar and President Lee C. Bollinger have issued an updated statement that says, in part, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community”. 

On March 4, a day after the post about Obama speaking at Barnard went up on the site, Bwog put up a call to “help us rewrite our comment policy.” I  just noticed it while updating the links  for this post.

And, a current Barnard student makes a case for why the comments matter more than I think they do.

The Journalist and The Activist

I’m stil trying to figure out what this blog will look like if I am still not going to express political opinions but also don’t have the veil of class assignments to hide behind.

But, I like blogging. So, I’m going to try this.

This semester, I am taking “Solving Problems with Digital Technology.” We are working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative  to come up with innovative uses of technology in the Dudley Street neighborhood.

The other day, a woman came to speak to us about going into communities that are not our own and trying to help. We spent a good portion of the time talking about how to interview community members so that we actually are hearing what they want, what their concerns are, and what they think will be helpful, rather than pushing our own agendas on them.

I sat in class nodding and getting excited. “Hey,” I thought, “this is someplace where I can put my journalism skills to work.” A lot of what I heard were things I learned at Spectatordress appropriately for the story you are reporting  and the community you are going into (i.e. going to Manhatanville? Best not wear your Columbia sweatshirt and hat). Take notes without being obtrusive. Ask open ended questions.

So, there I am nodding  along, when the speaker starts talking about telling the person in advance  exactly what you are going to ask him, and about possibly (albeit rarely) compensating community members for their time. The journalists in the room stopped writing. And then, the speaker mentions cameras, asking permission to take photos (which is usually nice manners in journalism too, and necessary if you’re not on public property), and then–this was the kicker–she talked about handing over the camera to the person you photographed, showing him how to use the camera, and then letting him delete all the photos or recordings he doesn’t like.

That’s when it struck me. Journalism is kind of about the “gotcha” questions. It’s not that we are out to get the people we are interviewing; it’s just that we understand that news comes in the candid comments and images. Too much preparation and  too much ceding control of the interview and the material from the interview to the interviewee doesn’t produce the candid news we might need.

I do think that the complaints about the big bag media trying to trip up presidential candidates is ridiculous and petty; the political journalists are just trying to get information out of people whose job it is to be evasive. And, I know that activism shouldn’t be intertwined with journalism. There is value in telling an unadulterated story, even if it’s about someone a lot less powerful than a politician. Letting the person you are interviewing edit out what they don’t want from a story makes boring news, and it also makes less effective news. Readers don’t read or respond to boring, cleaned up stories. So, I understand the role that journalism ethics play in good reporting.

But, sometimes, it’s good to be reminded that the ethics of journalism are not the norm for other interactions. And that what works with a press pass isn’t always the smartest way to effect change.

I am working this semester as a research assistant for a long-time journalist, David Greenway. As I was walking out of his office after the interview, he asked me, “what do you want to do after graduation?”

“I’m trying different things,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I am going to love more than journalism.”

“I like that we speak the same language,” he said. “Journalists understand each other.”

There’s that. He knew exactly what I meant. So, while I see the ways that other people might argue that journalism ethics aren’t ethical, I also see the value in them and in journalism and believe deeply in all that.

It’s something I’ll keep thinking about in the next year and a half (and hopefully after graduation too).