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.

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.