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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Features

In opinionated times, what is the future of opinion journalism?

Copy of the “Madison Resolution” drafted by former members of the Association of Opinion Journalists in 2019.

In the spring of 2019, former members of the Association of Opinion Journalists reunited in Madison, Wisconsin. The group, which merged in 2016 with the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association), was once 600 members strong. 

Before its membership dwindled to fewer than 200 members and it could no longer sustain itself as a separate non-profit organization, AOJ was the only professional organization dedicated to editorial advocacy and holding the highest professional standards of fairness, accuracy, intellectual integrity and service to the public interest.

This reunion of members produced the Madison Resolution, a promise to continue to promote editorial writing and ensure editorial and opinion writing continues to play a “vital role in journalism, in civic life and in our democracy.”

Indeed, opinion journalism fulfills many functions in American journalism and democracy. Though research on opinion journalism is limited, scholars have suggested that opinion journalists help to evaluate, contextualize and explain the news in ways traditional news reporters may not have the capacity to do. Without opinion journalism, people lose a resource that helps them make sense of what is happening in the world, their country and their community.

In local news, the opinion section of a newspaper was once a vibrant crossroads of debate, discussion, and community engagement. It was a place where opinion journalists could explore important topics and readers could engage with opinion journalists and each other. Now, as newspapers decrease their editorial staff and output, their capacity to provide such dialogue is limited. 

In its stead comes less localized content — letters by public officials and advocacy groups or syndicated opinions on national politics, for example. Local communities lose a mediated forum to debate, discuss and understand the civic issues that matter to them most. Some turn to the cacophony of social media to try to understand the news of the day. 

With our media environment in flux, what will it take to make good on the Madison Resolution?  

The death of the Association of Opinion Journalists is emblematic of a greater trend in journalism. According to Pew Research Center, newsroom employment at U.S. newspapers decreased by about 50 percent since 2008 and the trend continues as the news industry grapples with economic strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As newsroom staffs shrink, opinion journalists are often quick to go, leaving a significant gap in the pages — in print and online — of local newspapers. This change comes at a time of increasing mistrust and hostility toward news media and, “a cacophony of opinion, bias and vitriol, and corrosive partisanship,” as outlined in the Madison Resolution

David Haynes, former opinion writer and current Ideas Lab editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, attributes some of this change to media fragmentation and social media. 

“Social media and media fragmentation have changed the game for all journalists, whether they write opinions or not,” Haynes says. “Fragmentation means legacy media like newspapers have somewhat less influence than in the past — there are simply a lot of places you can go for information.”

And yet, it may not feel like there is a shortage of opinion in America’s current media landscape, according to Sewell Chan, the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times.

“In our hyperpolarized time, it seems sometimes as though there are too many opinions. But in fact, there is not enough thoughtful opinion writing …”

Sewell Chan, Los Angeles Times

“In our hyperpolarized time, it seems sometimes as though there are too many opinions,” Chan says. “But in fact, there is not enough thoughtful opinion writing — opinion writing that takes into account the complexity and ambiguity of all human affairs; that is empathetic toward people who disagree, and that truly adds insight and perspective. We need [this] high-quality opinion journalism more than ever.”

The high-quality opinion journalism Chan describes can advocate and eventually lead to tangible change in the communities for which it is written. 

Fred Fiske, past president of the Association of Opinion Journalists and the former editorial page editor of the Post-Standard in Syracuse, New York, said their opinion journalism on the rights of people with disabilities helped lead to mainstreaming special education students in Syracuse schools. 

“It’s not like we reformed the government or anything,” Fiske says. “But I like to think we made a difference.”

Fiske says that when a newspaper has an active editorial section, it leads to vibrant civic life within a community. These observations are supported by empirical evidence showing that when local newspapers decline, people consume more nationalized journalism, are less informed about their local government and become more polarized. 

Declining trust in journalism means that clearly labeling opinion content has also become more important. Research by the Duke Reporters’ Lab found readers are often confused about what content is hard news versus what content is opinion. Though opinion journalists often use conventional reporting techniques in their work, they are paid to opine — knowing the distinction between the two could increase trust in newspapers and help with the survival of local opinion journalism. 

Colleen Nelson, the national opinion editor for McClatchy and editorial page editor for the Kansas City Star, also emphasizes the importance of speed and relevance. Though her content separates news from opinion she challenges her opinion writers to mimic conventions of hard reporting. She wants her opinion journalists to be faster and keep up with the speed of the news cycle to give their readers the content they want when they want it. 

“We’ve asked folks to move more quickly … it’s okay to break news in an editorial or a column.”

Colleen Nelson, National Opinion Editor for McClatchy

“The old-fashioned way of doing opinion journalism was that something happened, the newsrooms reports on it, the opinion journalists sit around and think deep thoughts for a couple of days, and eventually come out with their opinion,” Nelson says. “That doesn’t work in the current news cycle. We’ve asked folks to move more quickly … it’s okay to break news in an editorial or a column.”

Jessie Opoien, the opinion editor of The Capital Times, also noted the importance of moving quickly — of staying ahead of the game and being proactive and thoughtful about what readers are looking for. 

To break news using opinion journalism, and to create good opinion journalism more generally, original reporting is essential. Though Nelson’s opinion writers do often rely on reporting from the newsroom, it is not enough to repeat the news that has already been reported and tack an opinion on to the end. Nelson wants her writers to have a strong opinion, but also to tell readers something that they don’t already know.

Opoien echoes this sentiment. 

“It’s a valuable service to not lose sight of the things that made you a solid journalist when you were reporting,” she says.

Another valuable method of revitalizing opinion journalism is localizing a newspaper’s opinion content. At McClatchy papers, Nelson’s opinion teams have focused on endorsing candidates for local office. They conduct interviews with the candidates, do original reporting on them and additional research. She’s found readers specifically subscribe so they can read those endorsements because they contain information readers cannot find anywhere else. 

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel localizes their content as well but goes a step further by blending their opinion content with solutions journalism in their Ideas Lab. Originally, the goal with the Ideas Lab was to publish solutions journalism, as solutions-oriented stories see more engagement.

Haynes says news organizations must publish content that serves their various communities or they will not survive. In an election year in the middle of a pandemic, people have a lot to say, so the Ideas Lab continues to be a hybrid section of solutions and opinion journalism, with the opinion clearly labeled. 

“Our goal with the opinion section was always to provide a place where people could convene and consider the issues of the day.”

David Haynes, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Our goal with the opinion section was always to provide a place where people could convene and consider the issues of the day,” Haynes says. “We still do that now with this hybrid approach.” 

Fiske says he would focus on novel funding mechanisms in order to ensure the future of opinion journalism. He proposes setting up foundations whose proceeds would hire editorial writers and set them up to work in local communities. 

“Once again [communities] can have a narrative of advocacy about daily life in their city,” Fiske said. “Get them an endowed editorial chair at each newspaper — that’s my idea, but no one’s jumped on it.”

Though the approach of the McClatchy papers, The Cap Times, and other newspapers across the country differ, the goal of opinion journalists stays the same, Opoien says. 

“There’s a responsibility to serve the community or at least offer a space where those community conversations can happen, and in a way that is more structured and civil.”

Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times

“There’s a responsibility to serve the community or at least offer a space where those community conversations can happen, and in a way that is more structured and civil,” she says. 

This type of opinion journalism — journalism that serves the community, shows empathy for the readers and respect for those who may disagree — is invaluable for readers in a democratic society. 

Funding, resources and the effects of social media and media fragmentation persist and are likely to continue to change the media landscape, including the roles and responsibilities of opinion journalists. Still, through innovation and localization, many are optimistic about what’s to come.

“Opinion journalism can have a positive future if we make clear its value to communities and relentlessly focus on getting the facts right,” Chan says. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Covering extremism in the digital era: A Q&A with Joel Christopher

Knoxville, TN, as seen from the top edge of Neyland Stadium

Journalists have always had to grapple with how to cover extremists and hate-filled ideologies. But in today’s digital world, and with experts warning about the threat of white supremacy and far-right extremism, journalists are taking a new look at how to cover such stories. 

News organizations must report on these topics without amplifying and spreading hateful messages. The Knoxville News Sentinel faced this test earlier this year after a Knox County detective and pastor gave a sermon preaching extremely anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. When reporting on the story, the Sentinel decided against including videos of the sermons or directly quoting from it. 

Joel Christopher, executive editor of the newspaper, discussed this decision and the challenges of covering extremism in a recent interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics. 

This interview has been edited for length. 

Walk us through the decision to not include the video or directly quote from it in these stories. 

I’ve always had some level of discomfort with giving a platform to extremists in our coverage. I think there’s a tendency to over-cover them at times and to give them way more space or bandwidth than they deserve. You’re actually playing into distributing their message. This has been in my head for as long as I’ve been a journalist. 

Recognizing at the same time you do have to balance the fact that you have to report on this. You can’t just bury it because people have to understand what’s happening in their communities and be prepared to tackle tough issues that arise around these extremists. 

I think there’s a recognition, particularly in the digital era, that you have to be really smart about what you’re doing with your content. The fact that a lot of these extremists have gotten pretty savvy about understanding that there are certain triggers they pull that will initiate coverage from news organizations, particularly at the local level. Once that gets out into the world digitally, it often gets picked up and distributed over and over again by organizations that have much larger reach than any of these extremist groups would have had on their own. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself how much you’re being played to distribute their message on your platforms. 

So when the Fritts’ case broke, my initial reaction was “let’s not put the video out there, it’s not necessary.” You can explain that the video exists, you can explain what’s in the video but there’s no reason that you have to put that particular inflammatory language out there without context. Even with context you’re still amplifying it. 

That runs counter to a lot of natural instincts from journalists, particularly in the digital era. Where the idea is: more access to everything, let readers make their own decisions and it’s going to be out there anyway, and they can find it. Ultimately, we decided in this case, let’s not do it.

We can see that this guy and his group are intentionally putting out a series of different videos that seem designed specifically to trigger media coverage. They got increasingly more inflammatory, it’s like they tried a couple times, and no one bit on it. The one that got our attention came to us through somebody who said they used to be part of that church and weren’t anymore. I had some suspicion about whether or not that was true.  It felt like it was designed to put it right in our laps and make sure that we would cover it. 

The positive part of it from my view was that I know that video didn’t get seen as much as it would have if we’d put it out there. We still absolutely accurately explained what the extremists’ message was for people in a way that they could act on it, without doing it in a way that inflicted damage on the communities that were targeted. All the reactions that you would hope to come out of coverage like that still occurred, but without amplification and inflicting damage on communities that were targeted. There was no attempt to submerge the coverage or to whitewash it to the extent that you couldn’t tell how awful the message really was. But it was in our words not the extremist’s words.

Are decisions like this made on a case-by-case basis? Or do you take a more general approach?

We’re part of a nationwide network of newsrooms [USA Today], our company wisely doesn’t mandate blanket policies in how local coverage decisions are made. Other than that, they comply with our principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms. But there’s room within those principles for a traditional type of approach and the approach that I described. 

That’s a long way of saying I think we would still consider it on a case-by-case basis. But I can tell you that I’m done directly putting out hate-filled messages in a way that gives them massive amplification. I think it’s ludicrous. Part of being a news organization is not being played, not being used to be an instrument of propaganda. We think about that all the time in political coverage. We don’t often use the canned quotes that you see in a news release from a Democratic or Republican party spokesperson, we talk directly to the public official. We don’t use that language that is designed as much for fundraising as it is for actual adding to the political conversation. So why would we switch our standards for extremists? 

Some of it, like all things in life, aren’t new. During the civil rights movement newspaper editors and publishers sort of had an “aha” moment. You don’t need to put all your effort into covering the segregationists and the advocates of Jim Crow. You cover the people who are trying to change that system, and that changes the narrative of what’s happening, and it changes the conversation around those efforts. And can you say there’s advocacy in that decision making? Sure, it’s advocacy in favor of weighting the scale on the side of human rights and dignity over hatred and extremism. That’s a place I think any publisher or editor can safely land and defend. 

What techniques and methods can you use to balance drawing the public’s attention to these types of stories while not spreading an extremist’s message? 

I think the answer to that is really easy. There’s no news organization in Knoxville that covered Detective Fritts more than we did. And there’s no news organization that reached more people in coverage than we did. And we very clearly explained what his message was. We just did it in our language, instead of his. 

Fundamentally what his call was, was state-initiated arrests and execution of LGBTQ people. Now he said it in ways that I would never say it, and I won’t dignify it by saying it the way he said it. But I just explained to you very clearly what he said. And you can get the impact and the horror of that statement without me saying it in his words. And we didn’t shy away from being very clear that’s what he was saying. But we just don’t owe anybody, including our audience, an unfiltered pipeline from the extremist to the receiver of that message. It’s not hard to go find what he did and what he said. But I don’t need to take you directly to it. 

There’s another component that doesn’t get into the conversation often enough. From a pure mechanics of how the digital world functions; in search [engines], established reputable news organizations are the gold standard in terms of referrals. Every time we directly link to something like that, we’re telling search engines “this is good content, this is content you ought to direct people to.” 

We’re giving them an endorsement in some sense. A spider that’s searching the web doesn’t understand that there is good content and bad content based on us linking to it, they just know that we linked to it so it’s “good” content. Why would we put that powerful endorsement onto content that we think is abhorrent? From a purely technical issue you have to be very thoughtful about it. 

Thirty people would see a video like this if we don’t link to it. We link to it with an audience of millions? You have to be smart about that. We put more thought into the inadvertent obscenity that might appear in a raw video of a police shooting for instance. And there are lots of news organizations, and I’ve been in the middle of these coverage efforts, where you don’t think twice about putting out someone calling for violence or suppression of rights against minority groups, under the guise that it’s necessary for people to know what’s out there. 

How do you determine when to label someone or an organization a white supremacist, and what are the ethical implications of that language? 

I think the Associated Press has done a really nice job taking news organizations through that thought process and making sure that you fully understand what the terms mean. Our own organization, the USA TODAY NETWORK, has thoughtful guidelines to talk you through when that’s appropriate language. 

There are also great organizations who study these groups for a living, Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance. They don’t lightly attach extremist labels to groups because they want to reserve it for those that truly fit that description. I think following that thought process in news coverage is useful, as well. It’s never a decision that would be made lightly at a level in the news organization that wouldn’t require approval all the way through the organization. 

How has news coverage of these types of stories changed as the digital world has grown and messages spread more rapidly? 

A good analogy to how coverage has evolved on this is The Westboro Baptist Church. They figured out how to trigger media long before anybody else did and got really good at getting coverage everywhere. By the end they were so effective at it they weren’t even showing up at places. All they had to do to trigger coverage in a community was send out a release saying they were coming there. It took a long time for news organizations to figure that out. 

Finally, enough smart editors said, “What are we doing here, why are we covering those guys? Why are you inflicting this hate-filled message on a minority community without thinking about what the effect is on folks? There’s not a debate here that’s going on about different schools of thought on American Constitutional rights. It’s the equivalent to extremist trolling.” 

I think some of that same thought process has gone into coverage of other extremists. There are times in my career where, if you had the ability to put a video out there, why wouldn’t you? We can see it, why shouldn’t everybody else see it? Nobody’s a gatekeeper.

Now I think there’s more of a realization that no, you’re not a gatekeeper in the sense that you could have been in a pre-digital era where you really could keep something away from the vast majority of people. But you can still be a gatekeeper on the standards of what you put in front of large audiences. Whatever people want to say about media these days, your news organization is still the biggest one in town and still has the biggest local audience digitally. Think about if you want to lend that audience to extremists. 

In the past, I probably would have put a video up. Maybe would have done an explicit language warning. Or maybe if we didn’t put the video up, we still would have quoted very directly and extensively from it and have been very clear where people could find it. A lot of those things we’ve definitely rethought. I guarantee if you call 20 of my colleagues, you would get some different schools of thought. Which is OK too, I’m not pretending that I have the only and correct answer here. 

Law enforcement agencies continue to warn that far-right groups and white supremacists are a growing threat. Do news organizations have a role in combating that threat?

On issues of law enforcement, our role is the same as it’s always been. We’re not agents of law enforcement, and we should never consider ourselves to be. How law enforcement combats that are entirely different questions from how we cover it. We should never be comfortable to be in collaboration with law enforcement on strategies involving extremists. 

What we should be concerned about is what are our constitutional obligations to cover both those groups and government reaction to it? And what’s the interplay between those interactions with the constitutional rights of those who aren’t extremists.

Some of the best First Amendment law came out of really offensive speech in a lot of cases. So you have to be really careful about calling for some sort of ban or trying to erase the fact that these groups are out there, that’s not the intention at all. But you have to report on it in a thoughtful manner. 

What can national news organizations learn from local newsrooms when it comes to covering these types of stories? 

All national stories start local. That sounds obvious, but people don’t think about that sometimes. It’s just that they resonate in some way that goes beyond the particular local audience. News organizations that have national reach need to be super thoughtful of the fact that their ability to amplify is so much more powerful. The thought they put into it has to be measured with that power. I think a lot of national news organizations do a pretty darn good job of it. I think in a lot of cases, they have more structure in place and more process that they don’t generally lightly make decisions to post things without a lot of thought about what the message is. 

But they make mistakes too. However you fell on it in the end, The Covington Catholic experience showed news organizations that there needs to be a checklist in place for how you vet video that you post. And I think those same principles could apply to any inflammatory or extremist content as well. It’s important that the national news organizations, and local news organizations, are clear about how and why they’re doing what they’re doing. 

For more guidance in reporting on extremism, please see this tip sheet from Journalist’s Resource. 

 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

 

Doing no harm: the call for crime reporting that does justice to the beat

 

If you ask Carroll Bogert, crime news in the U.S. is broken.

Building off renewed interest in the Central Park Five case spurred by Ava Duvernay’s Netflix series “When They See Us,” Bogert attacked criminal justice coverage in a May 2019 op-ed published by the Los Angeles Times and the Marshall Project, the nonprofit criminal justice news outlet where Bogert serves as president.

“News coverage has contributed to wrongful convictions and, more generally, to decades of draconian criminal justice policy,” she said.

The Netflix miniseries follows the arrest, conviction, prison sentences and eventual exoneration of five young men who came to be known as the Central Park Five. The series has had considerable impact, affecting key players in the case. A prosecutor who advanced a theory that the defendants formed a “wolf pack” to attack a jogger lost a lucrative publishing contract. Another gave up her position in the Columbia University Law School.

Yet media outlets that swallowed the “wolf pack” framing whole and uncritically echoed the prosecution’s story seem to have escaped largely unscathed. The New York Daily News even republished its infamous “Wolf Pack’s Prey” story in 2013, never noting its role in amplifying a false narrative.

Today, the criminal justice system is at the center of bipartisan legislation and partisan debates. It’s also increasingly a focus of media coverage, with national outlets rolling out major investigations and newer nonprofit news outlets such as The Appeal and The Marshall Project reporting exclusively on the topic.

But crime is local, and so is most of the crime reporting Americans see. Some veterans on the beat worry that local newsrooms, increasingly asked to do more with less, may inadvertently harm themselves, their communities or the institution of journalism with their coverage. To report responsibly on this high-profile and complex beat, they say, newsrooms will need new ethical standards, deep conversations, better training and more diversity in the ranks.

‘Where is the line?’

Keri Blakinger now reports for the Houston Chronicle, where she spends much of her time covering prison conditions, but some of the toughest ethical decisions she’s wrestled with as a journalist came on her first beat: breaking crime news.

It’s a common assignment for the youngest and least experienced reporters, who typically have no background in criminal justice. “I get why that happens,” Blakinger said, “but it means that the people who have to face these questions everyday don’t have the years of knowledge developed to be able to ask questions as broadly, in many cases.”

Reporters face decisions about what crimes are worth covering or whether to run a mugshot photo, Blakinger said, and in the current media environment, many will have to decide on their own.

“Maybe you have a really good editor who has a good sense of this. Maybe your editor doesn’t give a shit,” Blakinger said.

For Blakinger, these questions are personal. Having spent 21 months behind bars following a 2010 drug arrest, she remembers what it was like to see her own mugshot in the newspaper.

But in her first reporting job, she sometimes found herself writing the kind of low-level crime stories that she now feels might do more harm than good. These questions later became a source of newsroom dialogue.

“We definitely started having a lot more discussions about ‘Where is the line?’” Blakinger said, noting that what might count as a newsworthy crime at that alt-weekly in Ithaca, New York, was different than at the Houston Chronicle. “It’s a little bit of a different ballgame when one of the towns you’re covering has 5,000 people.”

Newsrooms need to talk about these things, Blakinger said, so individual reporters don’t have to make these choices on their own.

‘The equivalent of eating a giant bowl of M&Ms’

Some veteran crime journalists criticize the “If it bleeds, it leads” editorial approach, arguing that the most important stories are often not the most dramatic — or the most popular.

Janine Anderson, who spent eight years covering crime and courts for Wisconsin newspapers, quickly learned that she could churn out a high volume of stories based on the day’s criminal complaints.

“They would fill the paper, they were read well online, but they didn’t feel to me like I was actually doing anything that helped people understand what was happening in the community,” Anderson said.

For the readers, Anderson believes, “It was the equivalent of just eating a giant bowl of M&Ms. You’ve consumed a lot of individual things, but you don’t walk away from it feeling full the way you might from a larger analysis piece.”

But those bigger stories can be easy to miss, said Ted Gest, Washington bureau chief for The Crime Report and president of Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only association of criminal justice reporters.

Covering local municipal courts for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1970s, he overlooked a big one. “I completely missed what became the Ferguson story — that the local municipal courts in that area use municipal courts as cash generators and discriminate against minorities,” Gest wrote in an email, praising recent coverage of the practice by his former paper. “I do not know if the courts then were as bad as they were at the time of the Ferguson shooting in 2014, but they may have been.”

There’s good coverage of systems and trends today, said Gest, who serves as a juror for the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Awards for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting and reads dozens of crime stories each weekday to write a crime news digest, but he’s surprised there’s not more.

“It’s a very common cliché these days among politicians to say, ‘The criminal justice system is broken.’” Gest said in an interview. “I don’t think it is, but if that’s really true, you’d think we’d be seeing lots of reporting on that.”

But reporters writing these deeper stories have to work harder to engage readers, said Pamela Colloff, who’s won awards for long-form stories on blood spatter pattern analysis and wrongful convictions. Her secret: character-driven narratives like“The Witness,” which tells the story of the death penalty through a the eyes of a woman whose job required her to observe 278 executions.

“We can write all day long about the problems in the criminal justice system, but it’s not until you get people emotionally invested in a particular person’s journey or a particular case or a particular wrongful conviction or what have you that — I believe — they’re really going to care,” Colloff said.

But those stories take time that many reporters don’t have. “I have the luxury of being able to put in the time to hopefully do things right,” Colloff said. “That doesn’t mean by any means that I always do.”

‘We should have been more skeptical’

Speaking from experience, Gest offers another critique:

“A large percent of stories you see are told totally, 100% from the police viewpoint,” Gest said. Reporters who are new on the beat or strapped for time often rely heavily on what the police tell them, but they should consult other key players like criminologists, victims’ advocates, judges, drug treatment counselors or probation officers, Gest argues.

Reporters shouldn’t treat any source as authoritative, Gest said. It’s a lesson he’s learned from experience.

He recalls one criminologist whom journalists routinely quoted in the 1990s, who said crime would keep going up — a theory that already by the early 1990s had proven false.

“I quoted him about ‘This thing is going to be out of control,’ using, if you can imagine, a graph going straight up for years… and this is a responsible guy who was testifying in Congress about this,” Gest said. “Looking back on that, we should have been more skeptical.”

‘The bullets are still flying’

Gary Fields, who spent more than two decades covering crime and criminal justice for the Washington Post and USA Today, said crime reporters often don’t give a story the time or attention it deserves.

Pressure to meet deadlines or be first on a story can push reporters to publish before they’ve got all the facts, and incomplete or inaccurate stories can harm multiple players. Outlets may have to issue corrections or retractions or fight lawsuits. Reporters may face reprimand. Innocent people may be unjustly maligned, and readers may lose confidence in journalists’ reporting.

“That early stuff’s often not accurate because they’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. We’re out here trying to get the story, and the bullets are still flying, and the shell cases are still dropping,” Fields said.

“That’s kind of a recipe for alterations in your story… You just kind of keep going and hope that this attention deficit disorder society we’re now living in doesn’t remember what you said initially.”

With the move to digital and the accompanying 24-hour news cycle, the pressure has only increased, and reporters sometimes choose being first over being right, Fields said. His advice: “Get it right first, then get it first.”

And, he said, outlets ought to stick with a story to the end. Back when he was a young reporter in Louisiana, he’d visit the Bossier Parish Jail each Sunday to copy down the arrest log.

“Unless it was some high-profile case, we never went back to say, ‘So how was this resolved?’” Fields said, so a reader would never find out whether the charges were dropped, or the case was dismissed. Looking back, Fields said, “That was a huge gap.”

Fields now believes that any journalist who names someone in an arrest is responsible for tracking the story and reporting on its resolution, since an unfinished story could lead to stigma or employment consequences for the person named. “I feel like you owe them that much,” Fields said.

‘Remember the humanity’

With the proliferation of true crime stories on Netflix and podcasts — expanding what some call the “true crime industrial complex” — Colloff worries that the already blurry lines around crime journalism are getting even harder to see.

“It’s something I think about on an almost daily basis because when you’re writing a long-form narrative, it has to be engaging and vivid and thought-provoking,” Colloff said. “How do you write narratives that fulfill that mandate without treading into exploitation or something that feels more like entertainment?”

We should “remember the humanity of everyone involved,” Colloff said, be they victims, perpetrators or anyone in between, and “always have that at the forefront of what you’re doing.”

Much crime reporting doesn’t do that, Anderson said. “It’s the news equivalent of looking at an accident when you drive by it.”

That “rubberneck coverage” can feed division and prejudice within communities, Anderson said. “It becomes a lot of like, ‘Look at that over there! I’m glad I don’t live in that neighborhood.’”

Sensational coverage can also affect whether justice is served. “If you take virtually any wrongful conviction and you spool it back to the beginning, there is very often terrible media coverage at the beginning,” Bogert said in an interview. “I just think very few people who are accused of a crime or involved in a crime come out of it feeling like the media did the right thing, and we’ve got to ask ourselves why.”

Reporting ‘close to home’

One way to promote more nuanced reporting: Hire journalists who’ve experienced the criminal justice system firsthand.

“When you’re reporting on issues that hit close to home, you know what questions to ask and can more easily see how to elevate a story because you might be aware of other angles that someone without that connection would not be aware of,” Blakinger said.

Some might argue that a reporter’s criminal history would bias her reporting, but Blakinger disagrees. “We wouldn’t question, ‘Can women cover women’s issues?’ (or) ‘Can LGBT people cover gay rights issues?’” Blakinger said. “Reporters can be fair or unfair and I don’t think it’s reasonable to make assumptions about someone’s fairness based on their past.”

Her own experience might make her more zealous about her work, she said, but that’s a good thing, just as female reporters might be more passionate about covering women’s issues and LGBT reporters might be more passionate about covering LGBT issues.

“I don’t think those are bad things,” Blakinger said, “and I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you get a criminal justice reporter with a criminal record who can come at it with more intensity than someone with no personal connections to it.”

Colloff argues this reporting is yet another example of the value of diversity in the workplace. Compared to her own early-career self, those who’ve been victims or served time would have a lot more perspective.

“It shouldn’t be unusual,” Colloff said. “I think we miss something if we don’t have more people in the mix.”

‘How does this whole equation balance out?’

Headlines like “Wolf Pack’s Prey” are — hopefully — a thing of the past, Fields said.

“I hope that there’s enough awareness of the power of language,” Fields said, citing the dehumanizing effect of terms like gang and mob. “The words can subtly do things in terms of the interpretation of your audience.

“I hope we have seen enough exonerations in my profession… for us to always keep a little air of suspicion,” Field said.

Blakinger is hopeful too. She sees journalists, including in her own Houston Chronicle newsroom, engaging in “evolving discussions” on issues like what terms to use to describe people in prison or whether it’s appropriate to publish a mugshot.

She believes these conversations, which might not have been imagined five or 10 years ago, are an ethical obligation for the profession.

“While it’s not our responsibility… to do journalism that doesn’t harm people, it should be, morally, as humans, a thing we’re thinking about,” Blakinger said. “If we’re causing harm… what is the news value and how does this whole equation balance out?”

 

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Left out: freelance journalists have no recourse against sexual harassment

 

Despite high-profile firings and policy changes after the #MeToo movement swept through newsrooms, a subset of news professionals often remains unprotected, largely unheard from and without recourse in cases of sexual misconduct: freelance journalists.

Women are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, unwanted romantic or physical advances and assault. “[These incidents] run the gamut,” says Elisa Lees Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation, an organization that works to elevate the status of women in media.

When women report on a freelance basis – working essentially as independent contractors – “they don’t have an organization to back them up or provide any kind of resources [like] medical insurance [or] trauma support,” Lees Muñoz says. “They’re really on their own.”

As in other professions, the number of freelance journalists who experience incidents of harassment is likely far more than those who don’t. “I’ve come in contact with hundreds and hundreds of journalists in my 16 years of working with IWMF and less than a handful of them have ever said, ‘I have not experienced sexual harassment,’”  Lees Muñoz says.

She adds that the nature of freelance work can lend itself to less formal situations and problematic out-of-the-office environments.

“What I’ve heard from freelancers is that the way that you build a relationship with an editor who you’re trying to pitch is to meet them face to face,” Lees Muñoz says. “And because you’re not in the office with them, usually these meetings take place outside of work and frequently outside of work hours.”

“So [as a freelancer], I go out to meet an editor who I’m trying to pitch a story to or who I’m trying to just meet for the first time, and it’s over drinks, and then I get asked out, and then I feel like if I say ‘No’ then the next time I pitch, I’m not going to get the [story accepted] and he’s not going to reach out to me when he has a job,” Lees Muñoz says.

And in a case where harassment has occurred, the freelance journalist has to make a potentially detrimental decision – to report it or not.

Elisa Lee Muñoz

“When [a freelancer] feels that there has been sexual harassment, the contracts that they work under offer absolutely no protection whatsoever,” Lees Muñoz says, adding that the women often feel, “I need to make a choice between denouncing the harassment and my professional best interests, which are to maintain the relationship with this [news] outlet.”

The issue becomes more fraught because freelancers almost always have nowhere to turn beyond the news organization itself.

“It is so very difficult for female freelancers to make these kinds of accusations and to denounce that kind of behavior because there is no governing body, there’s no journalism union that they can appeal to,” Lees Muñoz says. “Their only recourse is to go to the employer of that editor and close the door for future employment [with that news outlet].” 

 

Ample room for new policies 

Anna Therese Day has experienced sexual harassment and worse. 

As a freelance reporter who has worked in dangerous conflict areas for several years, she’s had her boss-clients hit on her and make inappropriate comments about her body. In one case a few years ago, an executive producer followed her into the bathroom and put his hands on her sexually.

“I’ve experienced such a wide range of humiliating behavior,” she says. “[The] sexual harassment from bosses that I’ve had has been probably one of the most deflating and violating experiences because it’s been cumulative.” 

As each new incident occurred, a number of thoughts raced through her mind.

“When these things happen to you, particularly since you know the person [and] you see some of their redeeming qualities from day to day … you don’t realize that they’re doing this to other women, you think maybe it was an isolated scenario, you don’t want to make a big deal about it,” she explains. “It’s such a distraction and disruption from doing your job.”

As a founding member of The Frontline Freelance Register, a membership organization for freelance journalists, Day has heard a number of stories from women. 

She echoes IWMF’s Muñoz sentiments about how “freelancers kind of fall through the cracks and because of that, we’re even more vulnerable.”

But she believes it’s possible especially given the #MeToo movement for things to change. 

Anna Day Long

“If we’re going to finally get equality, this is the moment to do it [because] now there’s more of an openness to have these conversations and really push policy,” she says.

One thing Day would like to see is a database of sorts where women can report incidents and share what happened to them with others. 

“Nobody’s really stepped up to say they will collect stories [of harassment and assault] because nobody wants that liability,” she says. “Nobody seems to feel like they can legally absorb those kinds of complaints without encouraging women to move forward or feeling some responsibility to take legal action against the men, which women might not want to do.”

“[But] I think that’s the missing piece because we notice their patterns of behavior, we know it’s a predatory pattern,” Day says, while acknowledging the problems with lists like this in the past.

In absence of some kind of list, however, women are helping each other. “I’ve seen a lot of leadership from a lot of women journalists and a lot of it’s behind the scenes,”  she says. “A lot of it’s [women acting as] caseworkers to their friends and colleagues.”

 

How media organizations can help

Lees Muñoz believes the first step is to add language against sexual harassment and assault to freelancer contracts. 

“Media organizations that have taken on this issue and are grappling with how to handle it internally should definitely make sure that whatever it is that they’re developing applies to freelancers,” she says. “And that people who are on the hiring end with freelancers have really clear guidelines about how you interact with freelancers, including when you meet with them.”

“Just make sure that [freelancers] are part of your overall policies. [If] you hire freelancers, they should be included … in the contracts, talk about how one reports this [behavior] … it should be made very clear,” she continues, adding that the only media organization she’s heard of to update their freelance contracts in such a way was National Geographic following the ousting of a photo editor for sexual misconduct.

In the past, “many women just put their heads down, kept working, pretended it didn’t happen and didn’t make waves because they valued their careers,” says Lees Muñoz.

“Many, many others left the profession altogether or got pushed out because they didn’t have any recourse,” she adds.

That cannot continue. “Freelancers have been left behind [in this] conversation and any attention that can be brought to them, particularly given that the journalism enterprise is more and more relying on freelancers [is needed],” Lees Muñoz says. “If you’re not creating an environment where women can operate safely, then you’re contributing to a less diverse news media and less viewpoints and less perspectives. And so it’s really a critical issue.”

 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

 

“Not good enough”: gender imbalance drives efforts to use women as sources more often

Kate McCarthy, director of programs for the Women’s Media Center, speaks about SheSource, an online database of media-experienced women experts, to the staff of Voice of America in September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Media Center.

 

Journalism has a gender problem.

In 2019, according to the Women’s Media Center’s Status of Women in the U.S. Media report, men accounted for 63 percent of bylines and other credits in print, Internet, TV and wire news. The same study found that men who report on congress had nearly two times as many followers as women working the same beat.

However, the issue of underrepresentation for women in journalism extends well beyond the makeup of newsrooms — it also exists in the stories they tell.

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, began grappling with this problem in her own stories in 2013.

“Representing women fairly and proportionally was something that I valued and thought was important, but I didn’t know if I was actually doing it. I wanted to find out,” LaFrance said.

She partnered with a graduate student at MIT to analyze 136 stories she wrote for such outlets as The Washington Post, Denver Post, Honolulu Civil Beat and other outlets across a 12-month span. The results, she declared in a 2013 Medium post about the analysis, were not good.

LaFrance found that of the nearly 2,100 people she mentioned in about 130 stories she wrote that year, just 25 percent were women. Further, 52 of those articles failed to mention women at all.

Ever since, LaFrance has consciously sought to improve these numbers. She has rooted her efforts in cultivating new relationships with “really smart women studying the things I was writing about.”

“Stories are stronger when journalists are more deliberate about looking for different perspectives,” LaFrance said. “Over a period of weeks, I made a really dedicated effort to ask people for recommendations [for women sources]. Making sure that you’re thoughtful that you have a mix of people with different backgrounds … ends up paying dividends.”

LaFrance argues, though, that diverse voices shouldn’t be included arbitrarily and that hard quotas on diversity of sources in individual stories are a bad idea.

“If you apply too rigid a framework to what we are trying to do, it doesn’t work,” LaFrance said. “There are so many editorial decisions that go into every sentence of a story, sciencing too much [making sourcing too systematic] doesn’t make sense.”

The push to equally represent women in works of journalism is also being taken on by media organizations as a whole. At the BBC, the 50:50 Challenge is an initiative that started with one program from the broadcaster and has now spread throughout the company.

The challenge is aimed at equally representing men and women across all BBC channels. Amanda Ruggeri, a senior editor and reporter with BBC Future, outlined how her team is tracking their work for the challenge.

“The way our team is counting it is in three different main ways,” Ruggeri said. “One is bylines, which is quite simple. The second is references in stories. For our purposes, that means not only who we are interviewing, but also anyone mentioned in a story, even historical figures. The third strand is pictures. Are we showing more men in pictures? Or women?”

Ruggeri said having the 50:50 Challenge at the forefront of the BBC’s reporting has made a “huge difference” in the stories they have produced.

“Not only do we believe this is the right thing to do, it is also something that makes your journalism better,” she said. “It helps us deliver fair and accurate journalism. Sometimes we’ll only catch our own bias if we speak to someone that has a different perspective than the usual, established pool of sources.”

Ruggeri also emphasized that BBC Future doesn’t seek out a woman as a source just because she is a woman, but that it strives to find the best sources and most qualified experts for every story.

Beyond news organizations, nonprofits such as the Women’s Media Center also seek to tackle the problem of underrepresentation of women in journalism. Founded in 2005, the WMC works “to raise the visibility, viability and decision-making power of women” in media and advocates to make sure women’s voices are being heard.

Part of this push is the nonprofit’s database of experts, WMC SheSource. The online tool is meant to debunk the excuse from journalists that they are incapable of finding women who are experts on a topic they are reporting on, according to Kate McCarty, who oversees WMC SheSource and is director of programs for WMC.

“With SheSource, we can find women who can talk about pretty much any issue under the sun,” McCarthy said. “Journalists saying, ‘We can’t find any women,’ is not good enough.”

WMC SheSource was originally founded by the White House Project, a different nonprofit that promoted women in government but transitioned to WMC in 2009. Since the transition, the database has grown from about 400 experts to more than 1,500.

The WMC is not alone in its mission to connect reporters with women. 500 Women Scientists, a self-described grassroots organization working to build an “inclusive scientific community,” has created its own database to connect reporters, educators and lawmakers with women scientists. Similarly, an organization called Women Also Know Stuff, has developed a database of experts who can speak about topics from African politics to nuclear weapons to terrorism.

Journalists can turn to a number of other databases as well:

Do you know about other resources we should add to this list? Please email ethics@journalism.wisc.edu with a brief description and link.

 

For information on the conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” on April 26, see this summary.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.