Archive | February, 2012

Case Study 6: ‘Suicidal’ Blonde

29 Feb

I’m not even sure where to start with this story. There is so much I’d like to change about it that I want it entirely re-reported (if that makes sense). First, there is barely evidence apart from “police said” provided in the story to call what the model did a “suicide attempt.” Her lawyers deny it, and there doesn’t seem to have been an effort to contact Sliwinski herself for a comment.

If I had to mention suicide in the story, I would only put it in reference to what the police said. I don’t think “suicidal blonde” should be used at all. It makes assumptions we can’t know for sure without confirmation from Sliwinski, and she’s not talking.

*The story and headline use charged adjectives such as “beloved” and “suicidal,” which have no place in this story. It looks to me that the writer was going for the “sexy” angle of the story, which is inappropriate in a situation where three people died.

**Has to be either “today” or “this week,” but can’t be both. Research I did showed it should say “today.”

Chicago murder trial begins for ex-model

Three musicians died after woman’s car slammed into theirs

They probably never saw her coming.

During lunch hour on July 14, 2005, three local musicians who worked together at an audio electronics company were stopped at a traffic light in a Honda Civic in a suburb north of Chicago.

At a speed authorities estimate at 70 miles per hour, a former model ran three red lights and slammed into the Civic from behind in her red Mustang convertible.

Both cars went airborne on impact, witnesses said, and each landed, crushed, upside-down on the pavement.

The three young men died. The woman broke her ankle.

Today, more than two years later, her murder trial begins.**

Police said Jeanette Sliwinski, then 23, was trying to kill herself, but her lawyers have denied it. Her attorney did not return a call seeking comment on the case.

“The one thing that would have brought this thing to closure would have been had she been successful in what she set out to do that day,” said Dave Meis, older brother of victim Douglas Meis, referring to Sliwinski’s alleged suicide attempt.

The crash and subsequent arrest brought Sliwinski Internet infamy. Many blogs and websites have posted modeling pictures of Sliwinski since she was arrested.


Links in online stories should strike balance between informative and interactive

29 Feb

In the years since Jim Stovall’s “The Art of Linking” was published, journalists’ attitudes toward linking have changed drastically. In his article, Stovall says he doesn’t think journalists are taking advantage of the opportunities for elaboration that linking within stories provides. He says journalists are used to their stories being “autonomous,” and they don’t want to add links that would lead readers away from their stories. Six years later, the debate is whether linking is used too much.

I agree with Stovall that links “tap into the interactivity function of the Web,” and being able to include links to sources and additional information, pictures, video, etc., is the strongest argument for publishing stories online. But there is a line between interactivity and over-activity. Pages of links can be exhausting to look at, and overdoing inline links can be distracting and annoying. Striking a balance between useful and informative can be tricky, but pulling it off is vital for publishing successful stories online.

Links can and should be used to improve reading comprehension. When reporting on a science-heavy topic, for example, reporters can use links to explain complex ideas. The nice thing about reading on the Internet is that if there’s a topic you don’t understand, a Google search can clear up confusion quickly. But journalists should aim to save their readers that step and instead provide them with more information in the form of links within the text so readers don’t wander.

However, external links can be dangerous. Consider, for example, linking to someone’s personal blog. Even though the post you link to is relevant, intelligently written and you think it supports your story well, there is a higher probability for issues to arise because it’s a personal site. It could get hacked, edited, etc., and you may not be aware that it’s happened. It’s important to have guidelines, like the BBC’s, for using external links to prevent mishaps like this from happening and clouding the credibility of your site. Links shouldn’t be used, as the BBC says, to promote commercial products in exchange for money, and they should be accurate, relevant and suitable for the intended audience (something The Miami Herald failed to check out before linking to an adult film star’s porn website in a 2010 story. Oops.)

In this New York Times story about mainstream media linking to each others’ sites, Scott Karp, chief of Publish2, makes an excellent point about why it’s OK to link to other sites from your own. He says Google is a great example of why “link journalism,” a term he coined, is effective. “It’s all about sending people away, and it does such a good job of it that people keep coming back for more,” he said. If readers know your stories reliably provide links to other sources of useful, pertinent information, they will most likely come to you first to see what your site can provide them.

Dossier of group members (Posting as a link to Dropbox because it contains personal information of others)

It was easier than I thought it would be to put together many pieces of my group members’ lives using only Google. I expected to have to wade through lots of junk right off the bat to get to relevant links, but I was pretty lucky. I didn’t search just their names; I put the words “Gainesville” or “University of Florida” after both to narrow the search right off the bat.

They both had their personal websites (blogs) and social media accounts clearly labeled with their names, so those rose to the top of the search results. Tyler’s name (Tyler Parks) gave me some trouble because of his last name — I got a lot of results for local nature attractions and theme parks in the area. Emily’s name (Emily Burmaster) is more unique, and it produced many more relevant results in the first two pages of links. I saw a lot more results for sporting competitions she’s participated in than I listed here; there were many.

I logged out of my Facebook to do these searches, so I used only what I could find publicly. Emily’s Facebook page did not show up in a Google search, so her privacy settings must be pretty high. However, Tyler’s did, and I got some personal information (likes and dislikes, favorites, etc.) from it.

Vampire compile assignment

26 Feb

Link to dropbox

Case Study 5: Misleading, inaccurate headlines

20 Feb

The headline “Falcons ‘won’t forget’ Brees airing it out late to break record” is, at most, misleading. While the phrase “won’t forget” can imply that the moment in question was, for those who witnessed it, worth remembering, it can also mean that the team as a whole was upset and would let its anger hold over until the teams’ next meeting. It is clear from the story that not everyone who watched Saints quarterback Drew Brees break Dan Marino’s passing record late in a game that the Saints were winning handily was impressed, but there is no evidence in the story to show the entire Falcons team felt that way. There was only one Atlanta Falcons player who said his team “won’t forget” the decision to “go for it”: “No need for that,” one player said, according to CBSSports.com. “It came on our watch, but it didn’t have to come that way. We won’t forget it.”

Misleading, inaccurate headlines should be avoided entirely. If a headline is attention-grabbing enough to get a reader to look at a story but is not backed up by the story itself, it’s not a good headline. Writing clear, informative headlines can make a world of difference, potentially bringing in more readers and page views.

Topic pages good for news comprehension, searchability

19 Feb

When elementary students are first taught how to write essays, they are introduced to the utility of a topic sentence. Topic sentences are handy tools that not only clue-in readers on what it is an essay is about, but they also help writers organize thoughts and put the main idea of their paper in context.

Topic pages do the same thing online for news organizations. A step beyond sections with rotating stories and headlines, topic pages have a permanent URL that readers can track and visit often for updates on ongoing stories. The pages make Google searches simpler by gathering content pertaining to one topic and putting it on one, easily searchable page. Google Vice President Marissa Mayer says it is important for news organizations to have topic pages, making sure they lead to “obvious and engaging next steps for users.”

Topic pages make use of all the visual and interactive advantages the Internet provides. A print publication can only share with a reader copy, photos and graphics, but an online publication can go many steps beyond, including incorporating video, audio and even flash animations into the explanation of a story.

The two most important functions of topic pages are details and context. Often, readers end up on a topic page after an Internet search, and they’re not looking for just one loosely related article, they’re looking for a broad spectrum of related information that fully fleshes out a topic. Compilers of the page should assume the reader knows next to nothing about its topic beforehand and strive to put it in context using links, video, timelines, etc. as effectively as possible. Identifying what kinds of information to include on a topic page can involve editors delving into archives to find years-old stories, making sure the topic and its stories make sense to readers and aren’t rendered “monkey screech.” Providing third-party content is important, too, and can be one of the best ways to provide context and build trust with an audience, according to NewsCred’s Content Strategies blog.

Individual stories are effective “when they are enriched with articles, graphics, reader discussion and the like,” said Richard Gingras, chief executive of Salon Media Group Inc. Topic pages, which compile all data a news organization has onto one easy-to-find page, foot the bill for simplicity and user-friendliness. Instead of reading just one “enriched” story, however, topic pages allow users to discover other related content that helps with overall news comprehension. So often, people complain of “news fatigue,” which results from gathering a lot of information in the form of quick updates that lack deeper information. Topic pages are the cure for that. The pages allow users to “get caught up and stay caught up” on topics of interest, said Ryan Pitts, senior editor for digital media of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. They provide background and context for stories, not just the latest updates that would make little sense if a reader hadn’t been following along from the beginning.

Most interesting to me about so-called “evergreen” topic pages is that journalists should not strive to update them daily; instead, topic pages should stand on their own as a permanent resource for a specific topic, says Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review. The key, Niles said, is to keep the pages sharply focused, using keywords users would search for when looking for information. Topic pages should be linked to from the front page of a website and its interior pages so search engines will consider them important.

Finding information online is as easy as typing keywords into Google, but getting details on a topic in context is much more difficult. Topic pages are the cure for the common Twitter feed, bolstering those 140-character news updates with in-depth information that can be found in the same place with one search.

Delicious: A Social Bookmarking Tool

I like to think of delicious as stripped-down aggregation. Instead of posting links within original content on a blog, you need only compile the links themselves. For journalists, this would be a very simple way of sharing online sources for stories with readers and other journalists, and following other journalists would enable them to see which websites their peers find most useful.

Case Study 4: Google Alerts

11 Feb

When every conceivable kind of information is available instantaneously to anyone with an Internet connection and shrewd search skills, it can be immensely difficult to narrow the heavy stream of information to an easily understood trickle. Tools such as Google Alert make streamlining the information wave easier by allowing users to pick out only the topics they really want information on. No longer do users have to sift through pages of irrelevant or uninteresting news; they can sign up to receive Google Alert for only those topics or keywords they care about.

Google Alert can be a great tool for journalists attempting to keep in touch with the needs of their readers. Beat reporters can plug in general keywords related to their beat, set Google Alert to tell them when it pops up on the Internet and keep up with the buzz surrounding it. Receiving an alert can be the jumping-off point that gets a story idea going, or it can add insight to a story in progress. It also saves reporters a tremendous amount of time that they would be spending manually searching various sites for relevant information.

There is also a feedback advantage to Google Alert. Tracking your name and blog can be an easy way of finding out what people are saying about your posts, and it can help generate followup stories.

When fans of Jim Morrison appealed to former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to posthumously pardon him, a reporter was tipped off by a Google Alert set to search the Web. This is an example not only of how the tool can help reporters uncover off-beat (and potentially huge) stories, but also of how it can be used most effectively: Had the reporter not had his alerts set for the Web, he would have most likely missed out on the story.

Internet story-searching is in, but don’t lose sight of seeking stories the ‘old-fashioned’ way

11 Feb

Writers of all kinds have drawn inspiration from the world around them for centuries. Poets will never cease to be inspired by the natural world, novelists can always look to their own lives and the lives of people around them for story lines, and so long as there are people to create news, journalists will never run out of news stories to write.

But how will finding news story ideas change in the age of instant information?

As journalism adapts to changes in technology, reporters should realize that not everything has to change. There’s no substitute for on-the-ground observation — not every aspect of a story can be absorbed from a Google search. Mark Glaser of MediaShift put together lists of “The Way It Was,” “The Way It Is” and “The Way It Will Be” for journalists,  noting ways in which the processes of reporting then and now differ. The lists, though they get increasingly longer, are not altogether different; each one, for example, includes an editing process, discussion of the story idea and feedback from readers. Also included is the go-out-and-get-it reporting technique, meaning if it’s possible to physically visit a place connected to a story, the reporter should do so.

Search engines and social media make the reporting process easier in many ways for journalists, including coming up with story ideas. Google isn’t everything, however — story ideas still abound outside the Internet, and reporters should always have their eyes and ears open when searching for a story.

Sites such as reddit can be fantastic for following what the Internet is buzzing about, and journalists should, at the very least, be somewhat familiar with how to use them. Story ideas can blossom from posts that seem random and strange to writers but that could be pertinent and relevant to readers. There is, however, an issue of quality control when looking for ideas and sources on the Internet. Before going ahead with an idea or taking an interview with a person via email, reporters should vet sources to ensure the information they gather isn’t completely arbitrary.

Social media can also be useful in fleshing out story ideas. Once an idea is agreed upon by an editor, a reporter can post it to a network and get feedback from readers and gauge interest. If, for example, a reporter is writing about the local economy, he or she can make sure there will be an interested audience for the story beforehand. Readers can add to the story and offer different perspectives, making for a more well-rounded story overall.

As journalism professors often remind their students, story ideas are everywhere — the trick is spotting them. Methods of finding ideas are changing to accommodate the Internet, but keeping your eyes open when you’re out in the world is a tried-and-true method of finding stories that matter to readers that will always be relevant, no matter what.