Student guest post: BuzzFeed should re-evaluate its news judgment

Students in MEJO 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the first of those posts. Luke Bollinger is a junior majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He enjoys reporting for The Daily Tar Heel and all things “Game of Thrones.”

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a dossier containing unverified information should cause journalists, especially editors, to contemplate the importance of sound news judgment when fake news is rampant and trust in the media is dishearteningly low.

The dossier contains uncorroborated information that Russia has damaging information on newly elected President Donald Trump. The dossier had been circulating among government officials. News outlets reported on the documents but did not disclose the specific details.

BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the full dossier instantly ignited a debate of whether they should have published the documents.

The question of whether BuzzFeed should have published the document, despite knowledge of its potential falsity (this sounds a bit like actual malice) is a question of news judgment and how it should be exercised.

BuzzFeed stated that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” And the story does hold practically every news value editors consider when deciding what to publish: impact, magnitude, conflict, timeliness, proximity and emotional impact.

Yet, this looks like fake news.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it.”

It is not reporting if a journalist simply regurgitates information; there needs to be a process of verification.

This is not the fake news grounded in imagination that normally plagues Facebook and Twitter, but it has similar effects. Fake news sensationalizes, and BuzzFeed has done the same by publishing the dossier.

The story has been sensationalized; BuzzFeed has put itself at the center of attention and some of the more perverse contents of the dossier have been turned into internet memes.

There is definitely cause to report on the dossier circulating among senators and top intelligence officials. The dossier is concerning; the possibility that a foreign power has compromising information on President Trump is frightening. This needs to be reported on, but this is where exercising cautious news judgment is critical when considering the prevalence of fake news.

The BuzzFeed article said the reasoning for publishing the dossier was “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”

Presenting the people with the information and letting them make their own conclusions is something journalists should work toward every day, but not to the extent that a journalist no longer practices accurate reporting.

Fake news is a huge problem, a problem that diminishes the value of accurate information and jeopardizes the effectiveness of journalists that actively seek to provide the truth. BuzzFeed should have considered how publishing the dossier would work against journalists who verify their information.

Many journalists took offense. Columnists and commentators scolded BuzzFeed Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith for his decision and news judgment while CNN released a statement distancing itself from BuzzFeed.

The next four years will most likely hold plenty of controversy. Situations such as the dossier complicate editorial decisions when you have the responsibility of keeping an audience as informed as possible, as well as the responsibility of seeking the truth. In the era of fake news, finding a balance should rely more on truth. Not the possibility of truth.

Student guest post: Photoshop fails — celebrity edition

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the ninth of those posts. Paola Perdomo is a senior majoring in graphic design and information science. She does marketing and design work for UNC Campus Recreation, where she loves to bridge the gap between fitness and awesome visuals.

Knowing how to use Photoshop has become an extremely desirable skill in our selfie and social media-driven society. As a designer, I see Photoshop as a platform where I can always learn new tricks. I can replicate and hide and blend and alter colors to my heart’s desire, with the key always being in subtlety.

It is at this point that some of the most popular celebrities are failing, throwing subtlety to the wayside and making their photo edits obvious. Not on purpose, I hope, but obvious, nonetheless.

I can imagine that posting photos becomes an art form for popular personas like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian. A photo on Instagram is more than a snapshot of an individual’s life. It influences millions of people that follow these accounts and potentially creates a profit for the poster. It makes sense that posting the “perfect” photo becomes the ideal, but doing so creates unrealistic standards for girls and boys of any age.

Both Beyoncé and Kardashian, who have 64.5 and 64.7 million Instagram followers, respectively, have been repeat offenders of the dreaded “Photoshop fail.” Beyoncé has been caught making her legs appear thinner on multiple occasions, and Kim Kardashian has thoroughly changed her body features: thinner arms, smaller waist, straighter nose and flawless skin. How can we tell, you ask? Every one of these photo fails have included similar telltale signs like unnatural curved spaces and unbelievable features.

Take a look at some examples below:

beyonceedit

kimedit

Why two seemingly fit and extremely successful women want to enhance (or reduce) their bodies only to release it to millions of people who will then scrutinize every inch of the image seems counterproductive. Photoshop, when used incorrectly or too much, is fairly easy to spot, which makes me believe that both Beyoncé and Kardashian edit their photos believing they will get away with it. Although no longer active, an Instagram account was created solely to expose celebrities editing their photos. When these two women have been called out on their botched edits, neither has commented.

I’ve focused on these two particular celebrities, but they are not, by far, the only ones. I would venture to predict that others will join them, including men. Just like women are plagued by images of desirable figures, men are saturated with masculinity and “ripped bods.” It seems that there is a fascination with taking things to the extreme in this increasingly exposed culture. Strong people need to become stronger, thin people need to be thinner, people who have lost weight need to lose more, and so on.

New photo-editing apps are consistently released to the public, touting their new and easy-to-use features. Filters within social media platforms are widely used and constantly updated. It all means one thing: altering and enhancing is more popular than ever and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. So the question remains: How can we use photo editing for good?

It’s important to be aware of this development, not only to set a better example of self-confidence and self-acceptance to the general public but also to reverse the trend’s popularity. Let’s not make Photoshop the enemy here.

Student guest post: Objectivity and its murky future

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the sixth of those posts. Kevin Mercer a reporting major from Chapel Hill. He is on the sports desk with The Daily Tar Heel, and he also writes for Southern Neighbor

It was Saturday, Feb. 13, and my friends and I had returned to our dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill from a night of ice skating in time to see the Republican debate on CBS News. Donald Trump, leading most Republican primary polls, said prominent Republican politicians should not allow President Barack Obama to appoint a new, ostensibly liberal, justice to the U.S. Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died earlier that day: “It’s called delay, delay, delay.”

Some in the dorm room were liberals, some conservatives. Some argued for the president’s obligation to appoint a new justice when a seat is vacated. Some argued that such an action would work counter to the president’s role as a representative of the American people. Neither debate solved much of anything. The dispute still rages.

For the rest of the night, I saw liberals and conservatives spar on Twitter and Facebook about the issue, using as ammunition news articles that align with their beliefs. An objective summary of the facts of Scalia’s life and death or of the appointment of new Supreme Court justices were not the articles getting shared, and therefore read.

It is no secret that the field of journalism has changed and continues to change. Traditional print media has lost favor with some, and social media is here to stay. Qualities that journalists used to hold dear — like the importance of specialization — are being pushed aside because of the evolving demands of media. Is political objectivity the next to go?

Don’t get me wrong. The importance of objectivity has been ingrained in me during my time in the School of Media and Journalism at UNC-CH. There is still plenty of objective news in every journalistic medium, but increasingly there is a shift to subjectivity in favor of objectivity. Think of Fox News and MSNBC on television or “The Rush Limbaugh Show” on the radio, or The Progressive in print.

And it makes sense. The business model used by traditional media began to become less viable. Media organizations needed to adjust – and they have – but they now find themselves in a hyper-competitive field vying for consumers’ attention.

Media organizations have discovered that people are drawn to news presented in a way that reinforces their beliefs. A study from Ohio State University suggests that consumers spend more time with media that support their opinions. Media organizations have had to appeal to as many readers as possible or else get pushed to the wayside by the many news outlets more than willing to provide consumers with what they want.

Call me a cynic, but I think the journalism profession collectively would sacrifice almost any enduring tenet to remain profitable. The thought of sacrificing accuracy seems incomprehensible to every journalist I know.

But we’ve largely done away with objectivity.  Decreasing objectivity can increase readership temporarily, but how will someone trust any media organization if the stories they tell of the truth are distorted by political opinions?

Consumers will become disillusioned with media generally and eventually flee.  I think, however, there is a way to reconcile objectivity with the way in which media are now consumed.

News publications would disassociate themselves completely from individual journalists. Writers and videographers would build their own unique brands and market themselves to publications as freelancers, embracing and disseminating a political ideology.

To reach more of an audience, The New York Times, for example, would hire a known liberal writer and a known conservative writer to both cover the same story. The Times would maintain its objectivity while consumers would still get the slanted news they crave. An average person would read The Times’ brief synopsis of every pertinent fact of a breaking news story, but the synopsis would direct the reader to the longer and subjective material he or she would undoubtedly want to read.

Whether it’s practical or not is uncertain, but I believe something has to be done to curtail the abundance of biased media sources we have now.

Q&A with Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics

Sydney Smith is managing editor and reporter for iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit organization covering issues in the news media. Smith previously wrote for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and has worked as a public relations consultant. In this interview, conducted by email, Smith discusses her role at iMediaEthics and some of the ethical issues facing news organizations.

Q. Describe your job at iMediaEthics. What is your typical day like?

A. One of the things I love about working with iMediaEthics is that every day is completely different and can go in any direction. One day I’ll be researching a story about political reporting in Australia, the next day the fallout from the phone hacking scandal in England, and the next may be something going on with a tiny news site in the middle of nowhere.

We publish at least one story seven days a week, so every day I’m writing something. I typically start the day off reading and responding to email, scrolling through Twitter and reading a ton of Google alerts and various sites looking for stories or ideas. Depending on the day/week, I’m also researching or editing anyone else’s stories, writing our weekly newsletter, checking out tips or trying to chip away at older reports in the never-ending backlog of stories that need to be finished.

Q. How does iMediaEthics decide what to write about, and how do editing and headline writing work at the site?

A. We’re open to tips and cover media ethics around the world. That said, our publisher, Art Science Research Laboratory, which was co-founded by Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer, calls for featuring the quantifiable.

Cases involving fact checking, libel, fabrication, adherence to standards —those are clear-cut issues we are always up for.

We are particularly interested in covering issues that are gray areas that require judgment like whether to publish something, how to sensitively report on victims or how to best report on issues like suicide for the simple reason that it’s not always an easy call. It requires editorial debate, sensitivity and discussion.

In terms of editing: Alan Bisbort is our copy editor. For our day-to-day stories, unless it’s breaking, he edits before publication. In cases of breaking news, I’ll post something, and he’ll read it typically right after. Our editor-in-chief and publisher Rhonda also reads every story and sends feedback. I write an initial headline, but I’d say about a third of the time Rhonda will suggest a change and we’ll update.

All hands are on deck for our bigger news stories and special investigations. At the minimum, two editors will read and edit anything before publication, often several times, and work together on a headline.

Q. What are some of the pressing ethical issues you see in journalism today?

A. Fact checking is probably at the top: It’s so, so simple, but we see so many problems — like libel threats, fabrication, hoaxes or plagiarism — which could have been prevented or possibly caught with more (or any!) fact checking.

After fact checking, transparency comes to mind: transparency about everything — not just in saying who you are but also about the reporting process (where information came from, how it was checked, etc).

For a third, the need for sensitivity, which comes into play with invasion of privacy, graphic content, bad taste and a lot of other issues. Is that graphic photo necessary? OK, then why. Or if it’s really not, then don’t run it. Should you publish this private information just because you have it, or is it going too far? Is that turn of phrase something you’re going to regret later because it is more insensitive than clever?

Q. Writing about journalism ethics sounds like a great gig. What advice do you have for journalism students looking at jobs similar to yours?

A. It is! Really the same advice for any job — be ready for anything, read everything you can, doublecheck everything and then once more, find out where information is coming from, and ask questions.

Student guest post: Graphic video of S.C. shooting needed a warning

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Amanda Raymond is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and psychology, with a minor in English literature. She is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in Concord, North Carolina, for the past 11 years. She enjoys spending time with her family and close friends and watching movies and television. She loves reading fiction novels and often buys four new books before finishing her current one.

As the credits rolled signaling the end of one of the primetime TV shows I watch during the week, a teaser for the 11 p.m. news started to play. It was what looked like a citizen video of a police officer shooting a man that was running away from him until he fell to the ground. There was no lead-in, no warning. The new station showed almost all of the video during a promo. I was shocked.

The anchors went on to say that the video was of a white officer (Michael Thomas Slager) shooting an African-American man (Walter Scott) in South Carolina. Stay tuned for all of the information brought to you by your local news at 11.

If the station wanted to get my attention, they accomplished their goal. I was stunned into watching the first 10 minutes of the broadcast. I can understand that this story is especially relevant because of the other white-officer-shooting-black-civilian stories that have been cropping up recently. The story also has a proximity value because South Carolina is practically in our own backyards. But was it a good idea to show the most graphic part of the video without any warning during a promo?

There is always going to be hesitation when a newsroom wants show a graphic video on the air. On the one hand, using videos by witnesses does add to the credibility of the story. Videos can be used to verify what the journalist is reporting. And allowing the audience to actually see the video adds a higher level of believability to the story. As they say, seeing is believing. Showing a video can also add clarity. A journalist can use all of the words in the dictionary to describe an event, but it still won’t compare to actually seeing it for yourself.

On the other hand, news organizations run the risk of the video’s content disturbing their viewers. No parent would want their young child to see someone being burned alive by terrorists if they happen to be passing by the television. And some people would simply prefer not to see those kinds of things. It’s all right if you tell them about it, but they cannot handle seeing the graphic details.

Using bystanders as sources can be a risky move. There is always a chance that the video has been digitally altered. Also, some videos are just one moment in the timeline. We do not see anything that happened before or after that moment. One moment could mean 10 different things when put in different contexts.

Some news organizations will choose to show the least graphic parts of a video on their broadcast while verbally explaining the more violent parts. Others will mention the contents of the video and tell the viewers to go to their website if they want to see it. Others still will choose to show the most graphic parts of the video with a verbal warning beforehand.

I think it’s safe to say that all of the news organizations will show the video in some capacity (either on air or online) because if your station is the only one not showing the video, the station will look like it is not as knowledgeable. If the station does go that route, I think audiences respect them if they give a statement about why they made that decision. That way, the viewers know the station is aware of the video and are deliberately choosing not to show it.

There are obviously many pros and cons to using graphic videos during a broadcast. As more residents record the actions of law enforcement and other officials in order to keep authority in check, editors and news organizations will have to weigh those considerations to determine if using the video adds value to the piece and is necessary for the audience to see, or too graphic for most people to handle and better explained with words.

Regarding the broadcast that used the South Carolina video as a teaser, as a viewer, I would at least appreciate a warning before that kind of graphic content is shown.

Student guest post: UVa newspaper shows limits of ‘satire’

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Nick Niedzwiadek is a junior from Latham, New York, majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. Like Jerry Seinfeld, he too transferred from SUNY Oswego.

It’s hard to be funny.

News organizations, which typically pride themselves on directness and objectivity, are particularly vulnerable to underestimating humor’s difficulty. Journalists can be tempted to show they don’t take themselves too seriously, but The Cavalier Daily showed how easy it is for satire to go too far and be offensive.

The University of Virginia’s student newspaper featured an April Fools’ Day story called “ABC agents tackle Native American student outside Bodo’s Bagels.” Not only was it reminiscent of the events that led to black UVa student Martese Johnson’s violent arrest earlier this month, the subhead “Students decry ‘Trail of Schmears’” offended Native Americans. The Cavalier Daily also ran an article titled “Zeta Psi hosts ‘Rosa Parks’ party.”

The backlash against the story resulted in the articles being removed from the newspaper’s website, and it quickly posted an apology.

The Cavalier Daily could have learned a lesson from N.C. State’s student newspaper, Technician, which ended its spoof edition in 2013. The Daily Tar Hell was typically published when N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill squared off in men’s basketball, and it copied the style of UNC’s paper, The Daily Tar Heel. The editor who ended the tradition, Sam DeGrave — perhaps prophetically — wrote that he did it because “the humor, if you can call it that, which the editions relied on was sexist, racist and most commonly homophobic.”

While these faux-newspapers are only meant to be light-hearted college hijinks, they often cross the line between pointedly funny and offensive — something even professional comedians can struggle with. Very few people fully appreciate the amount of time and thoughtfulness that goes into articles on The Onion, or even The Minor — which did a better job of ribbing UNC than Technician ever did.

An editor’s job is to uphold and protect the organization from embarrassing mistakes, even it leads to unpopular decisions like DeGrave’s. Besides, truth can be stranger than fiction anyway: The same day as The Cavalier Daily’s stories, The Daily Tar Heel’s front page included stories about the university possibly buying a porn domain name and a whistleblower lawsuit involving a sex-for-hire scheme in the housekeeping department. Both were real stories that didn’t have much trouble getting attention in print or online.

Defending free expression doesn’t require republishing offensive material

News from Paris this week has shocked the world. Terrorists killed editors and cartoonists at a satirical publication called Charlie Hebdo. The assailants died in a standoff with police two days later. The overall death toll from the mayhem was 20.

The assault on Charlie Hebdo was apparently prompted by the newspaper’s cartoons mocking Islam. Other targets of the cartoonists’ pens included Jews, the pope and French politicians. Some of the cartoons’ imagery has been described as pornographic and racist.

U.S. news organizations have responded that the attack on Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression. Deans of top journalism schools issued a statement condemning the “brutal assault on our colleagues in Paris.”

That view is widely shared, if not universally. The question of whether U.S. media should reprint Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons is more divisive, however.

The New York Times, for example, decided not to do so on the grounds that the caricatures were offensive. That led to this testy exchange on Facebook between the newspaper’s editor, Dean Baquet, and a journalism professor.

My daily newspaper, The News & Observer, has not reprinted any of the cartoons in its coverage of the Paris attack and has no plans to do so, according to editors there. The Raleigh paper has described the cartoons in news stories and written an editorial defending Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish them.

I believe that is the correct call. This situation reminds me of a Supreme Court case involving content that might offend readers of a mainstream publication like the N&O.

In 1988, the court ruled in Hustler v. Falwell that a satirical advertisement was protected speech under the First Amendment. Hustler magazine’s mock ad described an incestuous liaison in an outhouse between the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his mother. It included sexual, scatological and profane language that was typical to Hustler but not to daily newspapers.

In covering the court’s ruling in favor of Hustler, mainstream newspapers did not need to reprint the satirical ad. Doing so was not necessary to a full understanding of the topic. Describing the ad, as I have done here, is sufficient. Likewise, it is possible to write an editorial defending Hustler’s right of free expression without republishing the offensive material.

I suggest the same approach now: Provide comprehensive news coverage of the events and issues surrounding the violence in Paris. Publish strongly worded editorials on freedom of the press paired with evocative cartoons on the topic. That communicates a powerful message of freedom without publishing material that may offend some readers.