Category Archives: blogging

Plagiarism is back (Did it ever really go away?)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Jeez, I hope that headline’s original. (I have this haunting feeling that it seems familiar — I better google myself to make sure. Phew. No direct hits. Now, where was I?)

Amidst this recent outbreak of plagiarism charges (the Montana senator, the Times arts writer, some guy at BuzzFeed, and others), it’s worth reviewing what plagiarism is and why it plagues us.

Plagiarism is at once easier to do and easier to catch. Thanks to computers and the internet, it’s very easy to copy things — even things that a journalist, a speechwriter, or any other sincere person intends to use as source material or as quoted matter. On the other hand, thanks to those same computers and the internet, it’s also very easy to catch someone who plagiarizes — whether deliberately or inadvertently.

That’s why I welcome today’s comment by Margaret Sullivan, the NYTimes‘ public editor. Here’s the nub of her (presumably original) comment:

Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.

Use multiple sources; compare, contrast, verify.

 

That could go up on the walls of every classroom at Boston University, where I teach basic reporting classes in our Journalism program. In fact, I may do just that this fall — with proper attribution, of course.

Personally, I think the heart of the matter is in those first four words: WRITE YOUR OWN STUFF. If you are any kind of a writer who cares about words, you will know instantly whether a phrase or sentence or paragraph in some chunk of prose that has your name at the top was written by you or by somebody else. If you didn’t write it, give credit where it’s due. Any questions?

Class dismissed.

 

 

 

 

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News comes from far away. . .

By Christopher B. Daly

Do we get too much information about distant conflicts, or too little?

The New York Times offers two very different answers.

One comes from Anjan Sundaram, a former stringer for The Associated Press in Congo. So, he should know. He laments the withdrawal of American correspondents from many countries, the shuttering of overseas bureaus, and a general decline in the coverage of wars, violence, and the politics of many nations.

News organizations need to work more closely with stringers. Make no mistake: Life as a stringer, even for those eager to report from abroad, is daunting. It’s dangerous, the pay is low and there is little support. For years after I left Congo, my position with The A.P. remained — as it is now — vacant. The news from Congo suffers as a result, as does our understanding of that country, and ultimately ourselves.

The other view comes from my Boston University colleague David Carr, the Times‘ media columnist. In his Media Equation piece today, Carr describes the sensation of information-overload that he has been experiencing lately as social media bring him a flood of data about a rocket war in Gaza, plane crashes, and the other disasters.

Geopolitics and the ubiquity of social media have made the world a smaller, seemingly gorier place. If Vietnam brought war into the living room, the last few weeks have put it at our fingertips. On our phones, news alerts full of body counts bubble into our inbox, Facebook feeds are populated by appeals for help or action on behalf of victims, while Twitter boils with up-to-the-second reporting, some by professionals and some by citizens, from scenes of disaster and chaos.

In my view, they are both right, at least to a degree. Sundaram is correct that many U.S. news organizations have retreated (usually for economic reasons) from their commitment to covering international news. In particular, they have lost the budgets to pay for keeping full-time staffers in locations around the world that are not boiling over. I’m talking here about trained journalists who have the time to become multi-lingual, to learn about other cultures and societies, to develop good sources, and to roam about developing a good first-hand sense of the place they are covering. These are the kind of people you want to be able to in a crisis, to explain a self-immolation in Tibet, or a riot in Indonesia, or a drug war in Central America. And, yes, there are too few of those.

But that’s not the same issue David Carr was identifying. He is describing the flood of images, information, and opinions that come streaming at Americans from the hotspot of the week. And yes, he’s right about. In a country or region that America is paying attention to, the flow of news is usually pretty abundant. That doesn’t mean that it’s always very useful, only that there is a lot of it.

This general problem was identified almost a century ago by Walter Lippmann — journalist, author, and media theorist — in his landmark book about journalism, propaganda, and politics, Public Opinion.

News comes from a distance; it comes helter-skelter, in inconceivable imgresconfusion; it deals with matters that are not easily understood; it arrives and is assimilated by busy and tired people who must take what is given to them.

That is, for passive news consumers, the picture of the rest of the world is fragmentary, random, and often blurred or blacked out. I dare say that I am not the only avid consumer of U.S. news reporting who could not tell you a single meaningful thing about Indonesia (the fourth most populous country on Earth and the largest Muslim-majority nation). I don’t know anything about it, because no U.S. news organization has a single full-time correspondent there. I cannot say I am bombarded by social media (or any other kind) about Indonesia. But if something should happen there that draws the attention of the United States, we can be sure the firehose will be turned on, and we will start to absorb a torrent of images, facts, and opinions. Until our attention shifts.

Thurber-Lippmann screenshot

by James Thurber

 

 

 

 

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Must-read article about Brazil and the World Cup

By Christopher B. Daly

If you read only one article about Brazil as the country starts to host the World Cup, here is the one to read. It is written by one of my star former B.U. students, Matt Negrin (who would be my first choice in a pick-up game that involved reporting, initiative, imagination, and writing).

Matt is an intrepid explorer, as this piece amply demonstrates. (“Not killed” is a recurring theme. .  .). He is also a graceful, often playful, writer. In this piece about play, I enjoyed his many references to the games of his own childhood (from the Sims to adult-driven, trophies-for-everyone American soccer). At

The beautiful game Getty

The beautiful game
Getty

the same time, he’s deadly serious about the life he is seeing in the favelas, and he brings a measure of respect and gravitas to people who don’t have much of either.

This piece is part of a bigger project Matt is working on — a book about the insanity of soccer fans worldwide. He has made stops in Asia and Europe (that I know of), and he is naturally in Brazil now for the Copa.

His work makes me happy to read, and it makes me optimistic about the future of storytelling.

[BTW, Matt’s Brazil piece was published (if that’s still the right word), by SB Nation. (They did a beautiful job on it, but I personally would like to see a much blacker typeface; if you are going to go long, you can’t ask people to read that faint gray type all day. Sheesh.) If you think “sports writing” is all about who won a game or about how some young millionaire’s groin feels, this is the piece for you. SB Nation (short for Sports Blog Nation) is part of the growing Vox Media online empire, and I hope they are making gobs of money. H/t to Glenn Stout for acquiring Matt’s piece.]

 

"That's just the way it is" Getty

“That’s just the way it is”
Getty

 

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SCOTUS: If you make journalists criminals, then only criminals can be journalists.

by Christopher B. Daly 

It’s no surprise, I suppose, that the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from a New York Times reporter who has been seeking to avoid being sent to jail for his refusal to testify about his sources. The ruling is a setback for reporter James Risen and for the entire enterprise of journalism as well. The reason: the high court cannot find protection for reporters in the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment famously says (in part): “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of the press.” As I have written, I believe that the First Amendment goes beyond the right to disseminate news and includes the right to gather news. In some situations, that news-gathering function, also known as reporting, may require reporters to extend a promise of confidentiality to a source. I believe that they have a constitutionally protected right to do so. (Actually, to be precise: I believe that you and I and the rest of the American people have the right to learn what the journalist can learn — that is, we are entitled to information, especially controversial, secret information, that will enable us to make good decisions about powerful institutions.)

Many people disagree. They invoke the ancient legal doctrine which holds that justice demands every person’s testimony — no exceptions (oh, except for the “testimonial privilege” widely granted to clergy, attorneys, spouses and others — plenty of people enjoy the right not to testify with no deleterious effects on society). Superficially, this makes a certain amount of sense. But it overlooks the chilling effect on both sources and reporters if journalists can be dragged into court and ordered, under oath, to break their word and reveal the identities of their confidential sources. The fully predictable result of this doctrine will be that the people will not learn all that they might about difficult, hidden truths.

And a word here about criminal justice. Obviously, the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of crime is an important value in society. I would not want to live in a society that did not suppress crime. But we must bear in mind that law enforcement is not a transcendent value; it is not so important that it can be used to sweep away all other rights and values. It has to be balanced against other important priorities (like being secure in our persons and papers).

I maintain that it is better for a handful of prosecutors to miss out on the testimony of a handful of people than it is to impose blinders on the press. I don’t want to live in that kind of society, either. Prosecutors pursue justice; journalists pursue truth. Those are both important, and sometimes allied, enterprises. But they are not identical, and when they conflict, my default position would be to privilege truth-seeking.

Also, bear in mind: prosecutors have plenty of techniques and powers that journalists don’t have.

–They have the power to subpoena (non-journalist) witnesses and question them under oath.

–If witnesses lie, prosecutors can charge them with perjury.

–Prosecutors have the power to induce suspects to talk by negotiating plea-bargains.

–Prosecutors have the home-team advantage in every courtroom in the country.

–Prosecutors have the power to get a search warrant and spy on suspects.

If prosecutors can’t solve a particular crime with all those powers (which journalists don’t have), then maybe they’re just not trying hard enough.

One implication of today’s Supreme Court ruling: until there is a new array of justices on the high court who properly understand the Constitution, I guess the only remedy is to support legislation (S. 987) to create a federal shield law for reporters. Incidentally, most states already have shield laws that protect journalists in state courts, and we have not suffered any terrible crime wave as a result. All those state AGs and DAs somehow manage to live with laws that uphold press freedom and balance it against the imperatives of law enforcement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MEDIA: David Carr has seen the future

By Christopher B. Daly 

And the future for journalism is . . .

  DIGITAL. . .

                                           PROFITABLE . . .

                                                                 AND HERE NOW!

Focusing on the recent decision by Ezra Klein to decamp from the old-school Washington Post

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.  AP photo

Ezra Klein, pointing to his major asset.
AP photo

when the legacy medium could not accommodate his demands, Carr sees an array of “digital natives” who are managing to do good (or at least decent) journalism and make money at the same time.

 

If true, three cheers for those on-line winners!

 

Here’s Carr’s take:

In making the switch, Mr. Klein is part of a movement of big-name journalists who are migrating from newspaper companies to digital start-ups. Walter Mossberg and Kara Swisher left Dow Jones to form Re/code with NBC. David Pogue left The New York Times for Yahoo and Nate Silver for ESPN. At the same time, independent news sites like Business Insider, BuzzFeed and Vox have all received abundant new funding, while traffic on viral sites like Upworthy and ViralNova has exploded.

All the frothy news has led to speculation that a bubble is forming in the content business, but something more real is underway. I was part of the first bubble as a journalist at Inside.com in 2001 — an idea a decade ahead of its time — and this feels very different.

The web was more like a set of tin cans and a thin wire back then, so news media upstarts had trouble being heard. With high broadband penetration, the web has become a fully realized consumer medium where pages load in a flash and video plays without stuttering. With those pipes now built, we are in a time very similar to the early 1980s, when big cities were finally wired for cable. What followed was an explosion of new channels, many of which have become big businesses today.

Still, some things don’t change all that much. As Carr points out, it still takes some serious money (about $25 million, he says) to launch a big site, and it takes time (5+ years, he estimates) to work out the kinks, find your audience, build a staff, and earn a reputation for being worth a visit.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: David Carr is no longer just the most influential columnist writing about media and the web, but he is also a new colleague of mine on the Journalism faculty at Boston University, where is the new, inaugural Andrew Lack Professor in the economics of journalism.]

 

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Narrative: how long is too long?

By Christopher B. Daly 

That’s a question raised by a controversial recent piece on the Grantland site and by a critique posted today on the Times op-ed page. As Jonathan Mahler puts it:

There’s a lot of excellent magazine-length journalism being done now, and Grantland publishes plenty of it. The problem is that long-form stories are too often celebrated simply because they exist. And are long. “Long-form, on the web, is in danger of meaning ‘a lot of words,’ ” as James Bennet wrote recently in The Atlantic, the magazine he edits.

Turns out, there are some unknown number of readers who like long articles and books and will hang in there through thousands upon thousands of words (provided, I assume, that the words are actually interesting).

Don’t take my word for it. Look at sites like longform and longreads. Get comfortable.

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Partisanship in journalism: a discussion

By Christopher B. Daly

For readers’ convenience, I am posting some material that airs out the issue of partisanship in the news media. In sequence, here are:

1. A NYTimes invitation to a Sunday Dialogue, a feature of the paper’s Sunday Review section in which readers are asked to respond to a short essay.

2. My reply as published on Dec. 7, 2013.

3. A thoughtful email that I got from a reader, who gave me permission to post his ideas here.

4. The Sunday Dialogue replies by people other than me.

5. The original author’s reply to the replies.

6. My reply to that reply.

08letters-articleLarge

 

How Fox News, MSNBC and others present the news.

 To the Editor:

An autobiography gives an intimate account of a life, but to get the larger picture, you also need the biography.

The same goes for news. Relying on one source, or even on several sources with the same bias, will leave you with only part of the story.

That’s why the much maligned right-wing media is just as important as the so-called mainstream press. Fox News and others on the right certainly have a deeply embedded conservative bias, but the liberal bias on the other side is just as pervasive. Taken together, they roughly fill each other’s omissions.

Fox, for example, spent a good part of the past year digging into the Benghazi attack and I.R.S. tax-exempt status stories and talking hopefully about smoking guns, while the mainstream press was determined to take the Obama administration’s word for it that it did nothing wrong in either case.

More recently, when the president’s pronouncement about keeping your health insurance proved false, it was reported as a lie by the right and as a simple misstatement by the left.

And when the Obamacare website failed so miserably that not even the mainstream press could cover for it, the networks were obliged to sound like Fox for a while, although noticeably lacking was the appetite for pursuit that characterizes their coverage of Republicans.

Fairness in journalism requires not that every story or point of view receive equal weight but that every valid position receive equal respect. Thus the pro-life position should be treated with the same validity as pro-choice; small-government conservatives with the same respect as tax-and-spend liberals; Republicans as more compassionate than they sound and Democrats as less omniscient than they think.

But since journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, one must sift through the best reporting and punditry from each side of the journalistic divide and take all the biases and agendas into account to arrive at an informed understanding of any story.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 2, 2013

The writer is an antiquarian bookseller.

Here’s my comment:

In his lament about bias in the news media, Mr. Godburn assumes that unbiased journalism is possible and desirable. History suggests otherwise.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, American journalism was highly political, often polemical and openly biased. That was the kind of journalism in which the likes of Sam Adams and Thomas Paine gloriously argued for liberty, and it was the form of journalism that was on the founders’ minds when they enshrined the doctrine of a free press in the First Amendment.

Only later, beginning with Benjamin Day’s Sun newspaper in 1833, did American journalists begin to develop a strong tradition of factual reporting. In part, this was the result of Day’s ambition to sell his paper to every reader (“It Shines for All”) and not limit his audience to members of any one political party.

In the 20th century, the major broadcast network news divisions, first in radio and then in television, reinforced this idea. They not only wanted the highest possible ratings, but were also operating as publicly traded corporations and were regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Nowadays, from within the turbulence of the digital age, we can begin to see that the years when big media companies were purveying what they described as nonpartisan, factual reporting were actually a historical period that is already fading into the past. The Internet has reinvigorated the “advocacy tradition” in journalism, and it has also made possible new forms of reporting such as crowd-sourcing, reporting that enlists the audience and the like. The spirit of innovation lives.

CHRISTOPHER B. DALY
Boston, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of journalism at Boston University and the author of “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.”

Here’s the email I got from blogger Steve Claflin:

Professor Daly:

Thank you for “Partisanship in the Media” in the December 8 New York Times letters.

The revived “advocacy tradition” problem you mention might be easier to manage if we had a form of majority rule that allows the general public to have more influence.

In the old days, the House was able to vote on any bill and the majority would prevail. Until an important bill recently passed by a wide margin, a Tea Party minority could usually intimidate other members, especially the Speaker, and prevent legislation that would easily pass from even getting to the floor. The minority party in the Senate can routinely block action on bills, because minority rule is built into Senate procedures. 60 votes are needed, with the help of a fickle minority, to pass legislation.

Is there anything more vital to democracy than majority rule? Is this what distinguishes democracy from autocracy? Is this what a democracy needs in order to succeed? We have the elections we normally associate with a democratic process. We reassure ourselves by going through the motions.

But the active ideological minorities in Congress, and the members who are owned and operated by special interests that donate large sums of money, are repeatedly able to slow or block or derail changes those few oppose and the rest of us generally favor. As such repeated occurrences so rudely remind us, we can have the structure, the trappings, the proceedings, the appearance of democracy without having majority rule.

Here are the other comments published in the Times:

Readers React

In an ideal world, graced by Enlightenment ideals, Mr. Godburn’s recommendation that citizens sift through biases of diverse news media outlets to form a complete perspective would be warmly endorsed. However, in this far-from-ideal world, individuals live in media echo chambers, selecting out viewpoints that agree with their own and sometimes avoiding conflicting ones.

Research finds that conservatives gravitate to Fox News and liberals to MSNBC — as well as to like-minded websites. A Pew Research Center study reported that from August to October of 2012, just 6 percent of Fox News’s election stories about President Obama were positive, while only 3 percent of MSNBC stories about the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney were positive.

Exposure to biased media strengthens partisan biases, exacerbating political polarization rather than producing the more informed understanding that Mr. Godburn desires.

RICHARD M. PERLOFF
Cleveland, Dec. 4, 2013

The writer is a professor of communication at Cleveland State University.

I read The New York Times every morning. I also watch more MSNBC than I like to admit. Occasionally, for entertainment, I’ll wander to Fox for a Bill O’Reilly moment or two.

Mr. Godburn’s thesis is an example of false equivalence. The Times is real journalism. But even The Times sometimes stretches too far in the service of “journalistic objectivity.” When one perspective is true and the other is propaganda, they should not be presented as equally valid.

As to MSNBC and Fox: The MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, for example, is surely dramatic. But I have never encountered an instance in which she was fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, Fox is frequently and outrageously untethered from the truth, and its talking heads are attack dogs. Anyone consuming equal doses of this “news” will have intellectual indigestion.

If you bend over too far in the effort to be balanced, you’ll fall flat on your face.

STEVE NELSON
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Well said, Mr. Godburn. Political correctness and a pervasive left-wing media bias are corrosive and do immense harm to the democratic process. People eventually find out that they have been misled. This breeds cynicism and mistrust. The left and the right learn to develop their own separate versions of the “truth.”

But while most right-wing news sources acknowledge their bias, those on the left deny their bias. Left-wing news sources are suffering a fallout in ratings because people are waking up to these facts and don’t like being manipulated.

FRANK COOK
Wayne, Pa., Dec. 5, 2013

Mr. Godburn makes a telling point, but he doesn’t go nearly far enough. His assertion that liberal and conservative news outlets “roughly fill each other’s omissions” assumes that there are exactly two reasonable points of view toward any given social issue; that these viewpoints are locked in a zero-sum game whereby each one can be validated only to the degree that the opposing one is impeached; and that they happen to correspond to the platforms of our two leading political parties.

Both parties are only too eager to promote this theory themselves, since it implies that together they have a monopoly on the truth. So a responsibility of both a free press and its readers is to examine both contrary viewpoints critically and consider other viewpoints — a third, fourth or fifth perspective — that have not been embraced by either side.

THOMAS LEITCH
Newark, Del., Dec. 4, 2013

Balanced news media is essential in any democracy. But let’s remember what brought us to the present situation — the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required the airing of contrasting views on public issues, and the loosening of regulations on media concentration, allowing many media outlets to fall under the control of a few corporate-owned conglomerates.

Both have created a situation in which media is not only biased and unbalanced, but overwhelmingly influenced by the opinions and wishes of its corporate masters.

DOMINIC QUINTANA
Astoria, Queens, Dec. 4, 2013

Having recently returned from a trip to Brussels, I found the evening news there to be refreshing and professional. One subject wasn’t beaten to death 24/7 as it is here. You didn’t have to flip from channel to channel to see the “whole” picture, and the news was international in nature. In the United States you rarely hear about what is going on in Africa, Australia and, actually, most of the world.

It is a shame.

BONNIE CHALEK
Ridgewood, N.J., Dec. 4, 2013

I agree with Mr. Godburn that we need different perspectives. I would like to point out that Fox News is the No. 1 news source in America. Surely, that should qualify Fox as “mainstream.”

Studies have also shown that, for many Americans, Fox News is their only source of news. Those viewers are getting a slanted perspective — not balance. Defenders of Fox News often portray it as an underdog struggling to have a voice in the crowd of “mainstream” outlets, but that depiction simply isn’t consistent with its ratings.

I commend Mr. Godburn for admitting that news outlets he identifies as left-leaning did report on the problems with Obamacare. I find that so-called left-leaning news outlets, including The New York Times, are frequently critical of Democrats and their policies.

Mr. Godburn would have a much more difficult time finding comparable examples of Fox News criticizing the G.O.P. — except perhaps when it criticizes moderate Republicans for not being in lock step with the rest of their party.

TOBY PLEWAK
Easton, Mass., Dec. 4, 2013

It may be a fool’s errand to think that we can overcome media bias. The media is ultimately a collection of voices of various people, who generally stick to certain biases and opinions. The answer instead may be to encourage media outlets to be more forthcoming about their biases.

If we, as media consumers, know that a mainstream news outlet typically holds a certain viewpoint, then we can take in the news with a better understanding of what information may be missing or may be shaded one way or another. As it is, given the rather obvious political positions held by certain newspapers and television news divisions, many of us have already begun interpreting the news in this way.

MATTHEW K. KERFOOT
New York, Dec. 4, 2013

Here is Godburn’s last word:

The Writer Responds

Professor Perloff reinforces my point by noting that conservatives gravitate to right-leaning news sources and liberals to left-leaning ones, often without being exposed to contrary views or inconvenient facts.

But then he says that going to such biased sources only exacerbates the problem, as if he thinks there are reliably unbiased sources that one can go to instead. There are not, and that is why it is necessary to mine a variety of biased ones.

Mr. Nelson engages in the cheap liberal tactic of Fox-bashing. If Fox’s talking heads are attack dogs, they are poodles compared with the pit bulls he favors at MSNBC. Simply calling one’s favored sources true journalism and the other side propaganda doesn’t make it so. And if too much news causes intellectual indigestion, too little causes intellectual blinders.

Mr. Leitch is correct that there are more than two points of view. And examining all of them will not necessarily allow one to arrive at some desired middle ground. Just because you have one foot in hot water and the other in cold doesn’t mean you’re comfortable.

Professor Daly’s claim that I assume unbiased journalism is possible and desirable may have been a good lead-in for his journalistic history lesson, but that’s not what I said. The problem is not that journalists are biased — it’s that they claim they aren’t.

MARK R. GODBURN
North Canaan, Conn., Dec. 5, 2013

And, of course, since this is my blog, here’s my final, final word:

I will grant that maybe I misread his original post. When he wrote that all journalists and news organizations are partisan at heart, I thought he considered that a flaw. Perhaps inevitable, perhaps correctable (by reading multiple sources from different perspectives) but still a problem. If he says he doesn’t think so, then who am I to argue? I would say that many people (including a lot of journalists) do consider partisanship some kind of original sin of journalism.

Comments?

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