Student guest post: ethics and photojournalism

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kathryn Trogdon is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is majoring in journalism and specializing in editing and graphic design. She is a senior writer for The Daily Tar Heel, loves politics and hopes to go into communications for the NHL.

Where’s the truth in photo editing?

Less than a week after the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, old photos of the incident are resurfacing in newspapers and on television. While this horrible day should be remembered, it brings up an issue raised after the attack about the ethics of photo editing.

Within minutes of the attack, images were appearing on television and online. Many of these photos were shocking, showing missing limbs and a lot of blood. But some media outlets chose to shield their audience from these disturbing images by cropping or editing them.

For example, The New York Daily News ran an edited version of a gory photo to erase a victim’s leg wound. Many editors and photographers criticized this choice, including Orange County Register editor Charles Apple, who wrote in his blog: “Looks to me like somebody did a little doctoring of that photo to remove a bit of gore. If you can’t stomach the gore, don’t run the photo. Period.”

According to the National Press Photographers Association’s code of ethics, “Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.” While being sensitive to your audience and the victims of an attack should be a consideration, at what point do journalists and editors cross the line with photo editing?

On a less sensitive issue, since Barack Obama won the presidency, he has been a figure in several altered photos, including on the covers of The Economist and Time magazine.

The Economist’s cover was a photo of Obama after the BP oil spill in 2010. The cover was titled “The damage beyond the spill,” and some readers interpreted this to mean the damage to the president’s reputation.

In the image, Obama is standing on the beach looking at the ground unhappily and alone with an oil rig in the background. However, it was later revealed that the original photo included two advisers who had been cropped out. The story launched a media frenzy, but the magazine’s editors failed to comment at the time.

Emma Duncan, the deputy editor of The Economist, later said, “We often edit the photos we use on our covers, for one of two reasons. Sometimes … it’s an obvious joke. Sometimes … it is to bring out the central character. We don’t edit photos in order to mislead.”

Even if they didn’t intend to, did The Economist mislead its readers? And did it hurt their credibility?

So when is it acceptable to crop or edit photos? When it doesn’t change the meaning of a photo? When it is a graphic image? When it is clear to the audience the image has been edited? Or is editing a photo never acceptable?

While it is ultimately up to the editors of a news organization, I never want to look at a photo in a newspaper or magazine and have to wonder what part of the image is true.

Student guest post: CNN’s sensational coverage of Flight 370

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Jasmin Singh is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill with a major in reporting, focusing on medical and science writing and minors in biology and chemistry. She is a senior writer for the Daily Tar Heel and the health and science correspondent for Carolina Week. Besides pursuing a career in science journalism, she aspires to be a full-time physician in the Eastern North Carolina region.

As a reporter for the school’s paper, I was told to keep it simple and not to exaggerate. I came to love the simplicity of the newspaper and online news – I don’t have to dig around or read a huge anecdote before I get to the point of the story.

But when I was writing stories for a broadcast journalism course, I was in shock. I’m talking about sensationalism.

Sensationalizing the news isn’t new. We can think of yellow journalism used in the late 1800s, where reporters used misleading headlines, dramatic quotes and scary pictures to draw their readers in.

Nowadays, newspapers work away from this form, trying to present the most honest, factual stories possible. One of the few places in print that we still see this sensationalism is in tabloids. But there is another medium that uses it far too often.

TV news loves to sensationalize. But if we do so in print, our editors are quick to calm it down. Is this a double standard? Take for example CNN’s online coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner.

Flight 370 was a trending topic on CNN’s homepage since it first disappeared March 8. At first, CNN reported hard facts, or stories about the passengers, following what many other news organizations were doing at the time.

But as the search continued, CNN brought in analysts to talk about theories and potential flight paths  – even though the Malaysian government hadn’t released any new information at the time. And as CNN’s March 22 headline read, “When facts are few, imaginations run wild.”

And wild they were. Headlines changed every hour on CNN’s homepage, each one leading to a new theory, like those of terrorism, pilot suicide or hijacking. But no new information was being used for these stories – it was the same few facts being repeated, or twisted to create a new theory.

Is there a reason that CNN can do this while other news sources can’t? Is it because CNN is a large broadcast, 24/7-news network, or because it has the power and name to do so? I don’t know, but it could be a mix of the two. But when a smaller organization came out with their theory, CNN was quick to turn it down.

Wired magazine published an article (originally published on Google Plus) presenting a very simple and realistic theory that the plane tried to land at a nearby airport. The article was written by a former airline pilot with over 20 years of flight experience.

However, CNN’s analysts quickly turned down the pilot’s theory, saying it wasn’t possible – probably because CNN analysts had other theories: The pilots could be terrorists or the plane was hijacked.

On March 24, the Malaysian government released information stating the flight was officially lost in the Indian Ocean. The final transcript of the conversation between the pilots and flight control were released on April 1. And again, CNN continued to post updated stories by its analysts using this small amount of information. The latest headline as of 8:32 p.m. April 3, “Flight 370: Search to resume with high-tech help, hopes for breakthrough.”

So how can we avoid these sensationalized headlines and news stories? Beth Winegarner of The Poynter Institute wrote a list of five simple things we can do to make sure our stories are clean and still draw in readers.

Stick to facts: When we have a fact and it is confirmed, use it. News stories should be filled with facts. When we hear about breaking news, we need to make sure it is accurate and is supported by evidence. If we don’t have the evidence or the facts to support a claim, we shouldn’t publish it.

Be careful with identifications: This is important for a story regarding a crime. If we have information about a potential suspect, we must make sure that we identify the right person. Is it John A. Smith or John R. Smith? The middle name, age, height and even race can destroy your credibility if you misidentify a suspect.

Be a skeptic: This would be a useful tip for CNN. Winegarner said we should be skeptical of experts. Nobody knows everything, so we shouldn’t trust everything they say, especially if our credibility is on the line. Seek out counterarguments and other outside experts who have no affiliation to the story or the organization.

Give details. A lot of them: Our readers want to know everything that is going on, so if we have the details, use them. Details help develop the story and also create a mental picture of what is going on, which can help make the story easier to understand. Using details also strengthens your credibility because you are giving your readers every fact available, leaving no room for questions.

Write a good story: If you have all the facts, outside sources, use caution and include a lot of details, the story will write itself, with no need to sensationalize.

I think that’s what reporting is all about. Delivering the facts in the most basic, honest way possible. If we sensationalize it, do we really have a story to tell?

 

Student guest post: Bias in journalism can be a positive force

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Amanda Hayes is a senior journalism major specializing in editing and graphic design. She is a staff writer for The Daily Tar Heel, and she plans to attend law school in the fall.

Journalism students are taught to deliver information objectively. Objectivity is an important journalistic principle, and it is a form of professionalism. But is it necessarily wrong to be a little biased if circumstances dictate it? Could a little bias actually be a positive push forward in journalism?

In the 1950s, Americans were on edge about a possible impending nuclear attack. Tensions between the United States and the USSR were reaching explosive levels, and everyone was suspicious of each other.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy was perhaps the most prominent figure during the Red Scare. McCarthy accused many innocent people of having ties to Communism.  He referenced distorted evidence or didn’t bother to provide any evidence at all.

Once people were accused of being Communists or Communist sympathizers, they were blacklisted, and no one wanted anything to do with them. This led to problems in the workforce and the community as the accused had a hard time finding a job and their neighbors shunned them. Some believe that one man was mostly responsible for the downfall of McCarthyism.

Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow spoke out against McCarthy on his show “See It Now,” a half-hour program that covered controversial issues. During the episode of “See It Now” titled “A Report on Joseph McCarthy,” Murrow showed clips of McCarthy’s speeches and pointed out the times when McCarthy contradicted himself. At the end of the episode, Murrow invited McCarthy on the show to respond to the criticism. Three weeks later, McCarthy appeared on the show. It did not go well for him.

Murrow had to persuade CBS to air the special. CBS executives were hesitant to do so because Murrow had taken such a strong stance on a risky issue. McCarthy could easily claim that Murrow and others at CBS were Communist sympathizers because they disagreed with him.

The special aired, and Murrow’s report was called a turning point in television. Murrow clearly took a side against McCarthy and expressed his disgust and contempt for the senator. The anger in Murrow’s report alone was biased. Yet Murrow was commended for his bravery and integrity. In this case, a little bias was positive. Even more, a little bias from a journalist in particular was positive.

Murrow was a trusted figure in journalism, and he had built up years of credibility. It was fitting for him to be the one to represent the thoughts of almost every American. An ordinary American could have made the same points as Murrow but he or she would have likely been overlooked or successfully discredited by McCarthy. But because Murrow was a trusted journalist, he was able to take McCarthy down with his reports and thus be a positive force for the American public.

Murrow is evidence that sometimes bias can be positive in the newsroom. In certain cases — like during McCarthyism — when there is a corruption and the general public is being disregarded, journalists need to step up and become more than just devices.

Some journalists need to not only deliver the news, but also be the voice in the news. Many times being the voice in news requires losing objectivity. Therefore, it is not always wrong to be biased in journalism, and sometimes it can be for the better.

Student guest post: How can editors stop plagiarism and fabrication?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Andy Bradshaw is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in political science and reporting. He writes for The Daily Tar Heel and hopes to write for a legal publication in the future.

In 1998, Stephen Glass was at the center of possibly the most infamous instance of fabrication within the world of journalism. At just 25 years old, Glass had risen to prominence as one of the most high-profile reporters in Washington, D.C.

His stories for The New Republic, a magazine with a focus on political commentary, had that extra little quote or character that made his stories stand out above the rest of the pieces in the magazine. Glass always presented vivid, enigmatic figures with heartwarming back stories.

But behind the scenes, Glass was inventing entire companies, sources and stories purely from his own imagination. When he wrote an entirely fabricated piece centering on a 15-year-old hacker breaking the firewall of an entirely fictional company under the name of Jukt Micronics, Charles Lane, Glass’ editor at the time, expressed some suspicion.

When Lane forced Glass to take him to the conference room of a Hyatt hotel where Glass had stated the young hacker and the software company had met up to make a deal, Lane discovered that on the day Glass said the meeting took place, the conference room had been closed. After Lane found out that Glass had fabricated this story, he and other editors at the New Republic discovered that at least 27 out of the 41 stories Glass had written for the magazine contained at least some fabricated material.

This was truly a case of a lose-lose for all those involved. Glass’ name still evokes contempt from most of the journalism world, and The New Republic had a stain on its reputation that took years to diminish.

Since this scandal, fabrication has remained a prominent issue for reporters and editors. In 2003, Jayson Blair was forced to resign from The New York Times in the wake of the discovery of his plagiarism and fabrication in his stories. Just last year, a student journalist at the University of Alabama was discovered to have quoted up to 30 nonexistent students in her stories for The Crimson White. And in this past week, three Bangladeshi journalists were held in court for writing a fabricated story.

What seems clear is that fabrication is a problem with a wide scope — it can occur at a small college newspaper or even at a respected media behemoth like The New York Times. As editors, it’s our job to maintain accuracy. But how far can we actually go to ensure that reporters are engaging in ethical journalism?

The Poynter Institute has laid out some guidelines to prevent fabrication in the newsroom, and among them are some tips that editors may find useful. Sourcing notes can help force reporters to link their sources to biographies, names and titles. This makes it much easier for editors to be able to verify that their reporters are being honest in their stories. Had the editors at The New Republic used sourcing notes with Glass’ stories, they would not have been able to verify many of his sources, and thus suspicions likely would have arisen earlier.

But perhaps we as editors should take sourcing notes one step further. For digital stories, I would suggest placing hyperlinks to source information. This not only makes it easier for editors to verify source information, but also to open up the editing process to readers. As editors we bear the weight of the verification process, but we could use all the help we could get from our readers to ensure the stories we put out to the public are accurate and fair.

Furthermore, linking our sources lends context and authority to the story as a whole. Linking to information that was plagiarized could alert an editor to the fact that the information was taken from another source. However, when it comes to fabrication, the solution remains muddled. But sourcing notes can help editors easily get in contact with the sources listed in a story to verify that what the reporter wrote was truthful.

Overall, the process of preventing plagiarism becomes easier when editors employ techniques such as providing links to sources and incorporating those links in digital stories. This would make it easier for editors to detect if any information in the story was stolen from another source. Fabrication presents a new set of problems, but by providing these links with contact information, editors can get in contact with sources listed in stories to verify information.

Had these practices been in place when Glass and Blair were slipping their fictional stories under the eyes of editors, the damage they caused to their own reputation as well as the integrity of their institutions may have ended much sooner.

Student guest post: The role of editing in public diplomacy

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Melissa Tolentino is a senior double major in journalism (editing and graphic design) and Japanese studies. As a former intern at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, she has a passion for public diplomacy, particularly with youth. She also loves pugs. In the fall, she is moving to Tokyo to attend graduate school for international communications.

The relationship between the government and the media has always been a tricky one. In the three years I’ve been taking classes in the journalism school, I’ve heard time and time again that journalists are supposed to act as the government’s watchdog—though sometimes, that role changes to lapdog, depending on the issue. Regardless of the role, we’ve seen how government scandals and officials have been handled by all kinds of media. Just look at the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks and Valerie Plame’s outing as an undercover CIA agent in The Washington Post.

But let’s take a step back from the notion of bureaucracy for a second. There’s another aspect of government that the media has to deal with every day, and it doesn’t carry the same stiff reputation. It’s called public diplomacy, which is a more grassroots form of diplomacy that relies on fostering mutual understanding among countries through international communication. Rather than do this through bureaucratic channels, though, public diplomacy relies on the people, which is why it’s often called “the people’s diplomacy.”

The most important word in that definition is communication. Any form of international relations would not exist without it, and the media is the perfect channel through which such communication should occur. No matter the region or the culture, newspapers, blogs and news broadcasts carry the same purpose: to inform.

But the way an event is interpreted by the American media may not be the way it is interpreted by media outlets in Argentina or Laos. This is why editing is so important. I don’t just mean editing for style and grammar, I mean editing for the audience, which may be the most difficult job of all. There are so many questions to ask:

  • Is the information presented in the news piece biased toward Americans?
  • Does it make any cultural faux pas that could potentially be damaging to international relations?
  • How can I word this to make it sound neutral and not hurtful to any other people?

Granted, this isn’t usually a job for the typical journalist, especially one who works at a local newspaper. But if you work at a more prominent U.S. newspaper, especially one with international desks, this is something to keep in mind, as the consequences could build into something irreversible.

As an example of this, I spent my senior year writing an honors thesis that looked at how Filipino women are portrayed by Philippine and Japanese media sources, particularly newspapers. The articles I analyzed were rife with negative images, most of which were based on stereotypes, and all for the sake of familiarity and convenience. Most of the images weren’t even obvious — many were subtle, sneaked into a paragraph through a well-placed word or the absence of another. And the prominence of these constructions give the media power to subordinate minority groups.

This is something we have to avoid. Though I know it’s difficult (and much easier said than done), I want journalists to strive not only to inform their main audience, but the global audience beyond, in a way that really and truly promotes people-to-people communication rather than blind bias. Luckily, the U.S. Department of State is helping local and international journalists with that, as they have several journalism-oriented exchange programs, one of which — the Edward R. Murrow Program — is partly held at UNC’s own j-school.

I know the snag in the road is that there is no such thing as truly bias-free media. But I also believe that there is a point we can reach in our journalistic practices and pieces that can communicate the U.S.’ news and messages to the rest of the world in a way that promotes cross-cultural understanding rather than breaks it. Journalism is no longer — and has never been, really — a narrow, bounded industry. It was meant to be globalized and to globalize. We just have to find the right way to do it.

Student guest post: Catastrophe, photography and media ethics

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Kinsey Sullivan enjoys studying and writing about international arts and culture. In May, she will graduate from UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, after which she is excited to move to London for work. Follow her on Twitter at @misskinseylane.

We were still reeling from the news of the bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday when we learned another devastating explosion had occurred near Waco, Texas, in the early hours of Thursday morning. Images of burning buildings and of the wounded ran constantly, a byproduct of the 24-hour news cycle.

As we cope with these catastrophes, it is critical that we evaluate not only what we information we create and consume, but how we create and consume it. Specifically, we must consider the ethics of photo editing in conflict situations, because of the graphic and exposing nature of these images.

Photos are valuable in conflict situations because they do help viewers understand and contextualize the information they receive; they help tell the story more effectively.

Think to the photographs circulating post-9/11, with which the New York Times did an exceptional job. Those images helped people around the world conceptualize the utter devastation and heart-wrenching grief, as well as the resilience and strength of the human spirit. Both aspects of conflict situations are vital to understand, and photography allows an unprecedented closeness to both extremes.

Journalists often walk a fine line between documenting and exploiting in sensitive situations, and this is particularly true of photos and film.

Photographs offer a seemingly unbiased and unmediated perspective on these events. In essence, they offer the illusion of objectivity. However, objectivity, even in photography, is impossible.

The framing of the photo, the perspective, the focus and the proximity all affect how we interpret the image; all of these elements are determined by a photographer. This fact, combined with the potentially disturbing nature of such photos, means that we must tread very delicately as reporters and editors.

As we edit such images, we must question the ethics of images and avoid exploiting the situation or the victims at all costs. Since such editing is subjective, it comes back to editing and taste. A few things to consider:

  • Does the image help propel the story and aid readers, while avoiding sensationalism?
  • Is the image respectful of the situation and the victims?
  • Does the image present an accurate depiction of the situation?
  • As a photographer or editor, would you be willing to be in the image?

Some examples from CNN’s coverage of the bombing at the Boston Marathon will help illustrate the potential problems. Though it isn’t graphic, this CNN slideshow does not propel the story and seems gratuitous.

However, this slideshow includes many graphic images that are both troublesome and seem to lack sensitivity. Additionally, viewers are not warned about the upcoming graphic images. While photograph four does seem to express the chaos of the situation while being deferential to the victims, photograph seven shows, I think, extremely poor taste in editing.

As we deal with the news of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, let us remember that these are not just stories but human stories. Editing the images of conflict is critical, and in these situations, it is critical that it is done well.

Student guest post: When are warnings in headlines enough?

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Sarah Sessoms is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill double-majoring in journalism and sports administration. A former world champion equestrian, she grew up on a horse farm in Hillsborough, N.C. She is an intern for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team and hopes to embark on a career in the athletic administration after graduation in May.

During the NCAA Tournament this year, there was one storyline that you could barely miss hearing about: Kevin Ware’s injury. (In case you did miss it, the Louisville basketball player broke his leg in a horrific way during the game again Duke in the Elite Eight).

CBS showed the injury during its live coverage, then again on replay before deciding not to air the injury again. If you were watching it live like me, you were probably OK never to see it again. But the video of Ware breaking his leg blew up on YouTube, and now, over two weeks later, it has almost 5 million hits.

CBS started the discussion with what they thought was the best decision for everyone: don’t replay the injury and keep the coverage to the basics. No warnings, no graphic images. Many followed CBS’s lead.

But other media outlets didn’t choose to do it this way. One such example is Deadspin’s headline (I won’t link to it, because it takes you to the video of the injury itself). The headline to its article and accompanying media reads: “Kevin Ware Suffered Maybe The Most Gruesome Injury In The History Of Televised Sports [WARNING: VERY GROSS]”.

But when you write a story, is the headline with a warning enough? Is it too much? Should an editor warn the audience that the article, or any corresponding media, is graphic? Should readers be prepared for the content?

The answer is that it depends. Warnings for graphic content are common, but they need to be used sparingly.

What to focus on here is “Warning: Very gross.” True, the break is extremely gross. You could even call it disturbing.  They’re right about needing a warning on some level, but it shouldn’t be in the headline. And there has to be a better, more professional way to put it. In this piece Deadspin goes beyond reporting the injury, they sensationalize it.

But is this enough of a warning for the violent leg break? Is this even enough warning for the giant video that graces the front of this article? Did the editors who wrote the headline think that a warning would be enough? Or is this sensationalism for the sake of getting more hits on the website? There’s no clear answer, but I have a feeling that the more gruesome the headline, the more people would want to click on it.

Let’s compare with some other headlines from the incident. “Louisville’s Ware leaves with right leg injury” or “Horrific injury: Louisville’s Kevin Ware breaks leg vs. Duke in Elite Eight.” These headlines are far better for the privacy of the student-athlete, his family and his team.

Warnings are a really good tool to make sure that readers are aware of the disturbing content. In fact, one of the articles gives its own warning when linking to pictures of the injury. But the fact that it is in the body of the text makes it a much better option than sticking it in a headline. By putting a colloquial warning in their headline, Deadspin took away from the news value of the incident and placed it squarely as a spectacle.

When writing a headline for something this shocking, it’s good to remember all of the parties involved. Yes, it’s good to get readers’ attention, but it’s better to inform them of what happened.

The latter headlines are better for search engines and give many more details to readers in a rush. The headline with the warning only makes a bigger deal out of the injury, with little respect for Ware. In this situation, some media outlets forgot that the injured athlete is still a person, even if his leg break was “very gross.”

All in all, readers needed to be aware that the content of the Ware injury could cause some discomfort. In this case, the warning was definitely warranted, had it been phrased correctly. Where the warning goes wrong is focusing on the gruesomeness of the injury and by doing so taking away from the humanity of the situation.