Archive | January, 2012

Case Study 2: Jimmy’s World

30 Jan

Five things I found suspicious during my first read-through of “Jimmy’s World”:

  1. Could a child survive for three years as a heavy heroin user? Wouldn’t there be other side-effects?
  2. Would a 5-year-old really ask to be injected with a needle?
  3. Why would these people be so open about their lives to a reporter? They aren’t clearly identified in the story, but I feel like they wouldn’t divulge information such as this to just anyone.
  4. Jimmy’s mother doesn’t like the fact that other people inject her son with heroin. Even though she said she “allows” it because, she said, he would eventually develop a drug habit anyway, those things don’t add up. Why wouldn’t she have made at least some effort to stop the heroin use?
  5. The mother’s $60-a-day habit seems like a LOT. In today’s dollars, that’s almost $150 a day. That may not be considered a lot by heroin-users’ standards, but it seems excessive and unlikely to me.

After reading Laurie Phillips’ article about “Jimmy’s World,” I definitely feel uncomfortable. Had I read that story on its own (not as a copy editor, but as a reader of Nieman Reports), I would have been at most skeptical about the story overall, but I would have trusted that the publication would not intentionally mislead me. I would be inclined to accept the story as truth if I read it in print. As a copy editor laying eyes on this piece before it was printed, I would have been very uneasy about not being able to accurately check its facts. The story itself raises red flags in my head only because it seems to unbelievable, but as I read, I thought, “Just because you’ve never heard of a child who enjoyed being a heroin addict before doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.”

Comparing my list to the ACES’s shows me I was mostly on the right track, but I definitely didn’t consider several of the things the ACES editors did.  I think the difference in the mother’s speech bothered me on some level, but I didn’t consciously consider it to be a problem. Looking at it now, almost all the dialogue in the story seems a little too “good” to be true; each quote flows more like fiction than the often-stilted, reluctant speech that would (and, perhaps, should) result from such personal interviews. I didn’t think about the fact that Jimmy’s teachers most likely would have reported his drug use. I think because his schooling was so downplayed (he only pays attention for math, he doesn’t often go to school because he prefers to stay home, etc.), school didn’t appear to be a part of his life that mattered much, so I didn’t pay attention to it.

Reading about this story emphasizes to me how crucial it is for an editor to be skeptical. It’s OK to question and triple-check your best and most trustworthy writers; no one such be exempt from thorough fact-checking. No matter how clean the copy is, if any piece of a story is fabricated, the publication responsible for it will suffer.

Ever-changing role of blogs good for journalists and readers alike

25 Jan

Rachel Rowan

When I was about 13, I opened an account on It was all the rage to “have a Xanga,” as my friends and I called it, because you could “friend” each other on the site and read each other’s posts. We thought it was the coolest of cool things to publish our words on the Internet where anyone — but especially our peers — could read them.

These days, I know that what I was really doing was blogging. Posting to Xanga, for me, was like posting my thoughts to a public journal where anyone could weigh in. This, I realize now, is exactly what it means to have a personal blog: It is an avenue through which people can deliver their thoughts and, in theory, instantaneously share them with an audience of active listeners.

Personal blogs by no means define all blogs, however. It is incredible to me to see how much the game has changed for blogging in only the last couple years. The development of news blogs and blogs connected to well-known publications has given the concept of “web-native” Internet publishing a little street cred in the world of media. Instead of waving off blogs as something people use to rant about anything and everything to the Internet at large, news organizations have realized the power of blogs to fulfill niche-specific news needs. Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab describes how bloggers can cover specific aspects of a community, citing blogs such as The Empire, which covers only New York state politics. Bloggers can also interact with readers within these communities via comment threads, creating a feedback loop that can produce more story ideas in the future and also provide bloggers with sources for stories.

Blogs are constantly evolving to fit the needs of their users. A few years ago, what constituted a proper blog post was not clearly defined. Advice on how much and how often to post seemed to indicate there would eventually be a standard that all blogs would follow, much like the media follows AP style. However, as the concept of blogging has evolved, this has not proven true; I would argue there are as many different styles of blogging as there are bloggers. There doesn’t seem to be a formula for posting in terms of length, content and style that works for every blog across the board. News blogs have had to adapt to this free-for-all medium, and bloggers have learned from earlier efforts what works and what doesn’t.

So, what is a blog? Is it merely a text box with a publish-to-the-world option that allows all kinds of user-generated, unedited content? Is it a tool that is creating a new kind of news-cycle reciprocation for journalists and their readers? I think it’s all of the above, and blogs could prove to be something else entirely in only a few years. The “adapt-or-die” nature of the Internet and its ever-changing tools practically requires that it must.

Case Study 1

25 Jan

Rachel Rowan

The eagle versus dog story is the kind of story that puts the news critic in me on high alert. When I first read it, I didn’t understand why it was published. The story has some entertainment value as far as unusual stories go, but overall, it seemed like an odd choice for a news story.

First, it’s a one-source story. How do we know the gas station attendant’s account of the event is accurate? I would’ve asked the reporter if he or she had been able to talk to anyone else in the area, or, failing that, if the reporter could find an account of a similar event detailed in the newspaper’s archives or another credible source. The addition of that information would, at the very least, confirm the likelihood of an eagle carrying off a dog.

I also think the story could’ve benefited from further reporting in the form of contacting expert sources. Instead of reporting only the incident, the writer could’ve spoken to a wildlife expert about how an eagle managed to nab a dog and how often something like that occurs.

To me, the biggest issue with this story is its deceptive simplicity. It is tempting to go after stories that may draw a lot of readers to the paper, but reporters and editors should think about the quality of information available. If a story’s quirkiness is the reason a reporter wants to cover it, that’s all well and good, but the quirkiness shouldn’t constitute the only reason for publishing the story. Multiple sources and good fact-checking should be taken into account as well.

I had never used Quora before this assignment, but I think it’s a great tool for journalists. It’s the best means of crowd-sourcing I’ve seen from social media. Instead of posting a question on Twitter that would most likely get buried in Twitter feeds and trending topics, Quora allows users to direct their questions to people interested in topics relevant to their questions. The question-plus-brief-explanation format is also more useful than Twitter’s 140-character limitation in that the questions work like headlines to draw in readers, and if readers are intrigued by what they see, they can opt to read more.

The question I asked was, “Is it always OK to take witnesses at their word?” I was thinking in terms of what we discussed in class about the validity of the source of the case-study story. All the reporter had to go on was the word of the gas-station attendant who said he saw the entire event unfold. There is something to be said for trusting people, but as journalists, we have a responsibility to report the truth. Without anyone to back up this person’s claim, who’s to say he didn’t make up  the entire story? There’s simply no way to verify his claim because he is the only one who can back it up.

I got one answer to the question I asked on Quora. It was from a user named Todd Gardiner, who said:

Journalists are very careful to report what a person says and attribute it to them, rather than reporting their statements as a fact. Facts that are reported in an article need to be fact-checked and verified and a sole witnesses statement has to be attributed as such.

So, now it should make sense why a report will say:

Some of Clair’s patients reported infections after he performed root canals on them, said Grant Woodman, a spokesman for state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office prosecuted Clair.

Rather than:
Clair’s patients suffered infections after he performed root canals on them.

I find it interesting that his answer is basically that it’s OK to publish a first-hand, one-source account as long as it’s attributed. I agree with Gardiner, but I don’t think it’s OK to publish a one-source, first-hand account entirely on its own. To be considered a solid piece of journalism, a story should have multiple points of view, and it should have more value than simply relaying an event that happened. It should educate as well as inform.

Week One: Aggregation

18 Jan

Rachel Rowan

As a person who has grown up in the age of the Internet, I am at home with the concept of having access to billions of gigabytes of information at my disposal. However, it’s often difficult for me to decide exactly what I want to know and where the best place is to find that information. Of course, a quick Google search is usually my first step if I’m looking for something specific, but if I’m just browsing to catch up on the day’s news, searching Google can be wildly unhelpful because it provides too much information at once.

It’s this reason that makes me agree with bloggers like Josh Sternberg when he says journalism will thrive because of news curators. Using media editors as filters through which to access information is a concept that is not new, Steven Rosenbaum of says, but the increase in information is so monumental these days that media editors are becoming essential for helping readers sift through the news. It’s up to media editors to find the most accurate, complete sources of information and to combine them in a single post, complete with links and, possibly, analysis, in order to give readers a chance to get every side of a story they can.

The process of curation is largely about narrowing down information. As Mindy McAdams explains, journalism curation can be compared to museum curation in many ways: Like museum curators, reporters have access to thousands of “artifacts” (snippets of information), but they need to be able to narrow down the information into one “exhibit” (an article or blog post) so as not to overwhelm readers.

News aggregation online saves readers several steps, depending on how far they want to delve into the information provided. By providing links in stories, readers no longer have to take journalists at their word: If readers want to hear something directly from a source, they need only click through the links. When I read aggregated posts, I often find the links provided useful, if a bit distracting. As nice I think it is to have immediate access to specific additional information without going through the hassle of a Google search, sometimes I think it’s great when I simply read an article, get the information I need quickly, and think, “OK, that’s that. I don’t need to go any further; I know what I need to know.”

Deciding when not to curate is a complication I hadn’t considered prior to reading Mallary Jean Tenore’s article, “The aggregator’s dilemma,” but it is one I believe is important. Even though aggregated stories link back to the original posts, is it ethical to eliminate the need to visit these sources by providing all the essential information they contain? Aggregated posts are helpful, but they run the risk of taking the spotlight away from original sources. I would much rather be provided with a link to the original source of a story if an aggregated post is only going to summarize it without providing additional insight.

A couple of these articles mention Tumblr, which is a tool I use often, but only for fun–I mostly follow personal blogs dedicated to TV shows, actors and books series I’m a fan of. I run across media Tumblrs every so often as I browse my dashboard (a composite list of blog updates), and I’m always impressed by how media outlets choose to cater the information they provide to Tumblr users. Media posts are often short, to-the-point and–if the subject calls for it–lighthearted. The editors of these blogs not only know how to cater to their readers, but they also know how readers prefer to be addressed in such an informal setting. The reblog function of Tumblr allows free commentary on these posts, which I can only imagine provides insight that helps drive future use of the tool and which may also provide story ideas and a greater variety of sources for media outlets.

Curation and aggregation of the news, to me, is as fascinating as it is useful. The fact that social media tools are allowing readers to contribute the news cycle and even perpetuate it tells me journalism is indeed adapting to the information frenzy inspired by the Internet, and news aggregation is simply the next step in the process.