How Scientology tries to silence journalists

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Scientology’s headquarters in Los Angeles. (Creative Commons image)

I recently watched “Going Clear,” an HBO documentary about the Church of Scientology. It’s a hard-hitting look at the organization, told largely through the testimony of former high-ranking members.

Much of “Going Clear” is familiar to me because I had an encounter with Scientology in the late 1990s. At that time, I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my then-wife had taken a teaching job at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. After a year as an adjunct instructor, I too was hired as a tenure-track professor.

One evening, we received a phone call from my sister-in-law. She had recently graduated from college and moved to the Pacific Northwest. She told us that she had a new boyfriend who had introduced her to Scientology. They were both taking classes and working for the organization, and she said how much she was getting out of it.

But there was a problem, she said: Her sister and I were journalists. This fact apparently emerged during an “auditing” session in which Scientologists are interviewed about their personal lives. For her to advance in the organization, my sister-in-law would need a letter from us promising that we would never report or write about Scientology.

We declined to provide such a letter even though we had no intention of writing about Scientology. In fact, we were grateful that Scientology’s paranoia had provided us with leverage to help get our relative out of an organization that we viewed, in the words of Time magazine, as a “ruthless global scam.”

That exit happened suddenly a couple of years later, after we had left Louisiana for North Carolina. After not hearing from my sister-in-law for some time, she called out of the blue and told us she was planning to leave her boyfriend and Scientology as soon as possible. She was frightened. Could she stay with us, where the organization couldn’t find her? We said yes.

When my sister-in-law arrived in North Carolina, she told us about the organization’s dark side. For example, her boyfriend once dragged a former member off the street and into a car to take him back to a Scientology center. She worried that they might come for her too. Thankfully, Scientology never tracked her down, though they did call her parents asking about her whereabouts.

The entire experience showed me that Scientology is scared of scrutiny. As “Going Clear” shows, the organization’s public-relations strategy is to attack not only its critics, but also neutral observers who examine its practices.

The central role of the news media is to act as a check on government and powerful institutions. That includes organizations such as Scientology. Let’s hope that the Tampa Bay Times, HBO and other media continue to shine a light on its operations.

Student guest post: Editors should be wary of clickbait headlines

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Katie Schanze is a first-year master’s student studying journalism. She hopes to survive another year of grad school and go on to work for a travel or lifestyle magazine. Her passions are traveling, eating and promising herself that she will go to the gym tomorrow.

If you ask a room full college students where they get their news each day, you are guaranteed to hear two things: Facebook and Twitter. There are bound to be outliers, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that 20-somethings don’t ever pick up a newspaper. But now more than ever before, news is social.

Facebook and Twitter have essentially replaced Google searches for news and browsing news sites for content. This means that readers don’t go out looking for news — they let it come to them.

This is an important change for editors and writers. If people are waiting for a story to pop up on their feed that is worth reading, headlines have the utmost importance in attracting readers. This leads to less of the summary headlines that ruled newspapers for decades and instead more teaser headlines that provide just enough information that the reader wants to know more.

Headlines that are written to be seen and shared on social media often target the curiosity of the reader, and they don’t have long to grab readers’ ever-wandering attention. While straying away from traditional news headlines may entice people to read more articles they might not have read otherwise, this change in news consumption also leads to clickbait.

Scroll down your Facebook newsfeed and you’re bound to see several examples:

Contrary to belief, all of the content in these articles is within the realm of imagination, and none of it is shocking. Yet these articles have been liked on Facebook millions of times.

These “articles,” to use the term lightly, have one thing in common. They have highly shareable, clickable headlines that target reader curiosity through shock tactics.

According to Vox, clickbait is a misleading headline that under-delivers. Clickbait risks readers feeling that they have been duped into clicking on an article. It works by providing little to no information about the content of the article, and instead using shocking, exciting phrases that challenge a reader to find out more.

Those who are in favor of clickbait often argue that if exciting headlines get people to click the link and read something they normally wouldn’t, than so be it. It’s true: Just because a headline sounds interesting enough to click on doesn’t make it’s clickbait. A flashy headline can accurately reflect the content of the article, but at what point does it put the values of good journalism at risk?

Deadspin wrote this headline for a story about the expected deaths of migrant workers in Qatar: “Report: Qatar’s World Cup Expected To Take More Lives Than 9/11”

People clicked the headline to read more, but that doesn’t mean substance isn’t lost. The content in the article does reflect the headline: Around 3,000 people died in 9/11, and over 4,000 are expected to die in Qatar. However, the connection of Qatar to an unrelated terrorist event is misleading, even if the actual comparison is accurate. Readers took notice, and they felt tricked.

It’s easier than ever to attract millions of shares and clicks with a headline, but there is a line that divides the accurate and truthful from the misleading. Journalists should be cautious that the hype for what’s to come doesn’t surpass the article’s actual level of interest.

Editors should be careful about online headlines. To prevent “bad” clickbait, we shouldn’t tell readers what they’re going to feel when they read an article. As journalists, it isn’t our job to tell readers that they’ll be shocked by our story or that they won’t believe it.

Keywords are important but should fully reflect the article in a way that isn’t misleading. A headline can be clickable and shareable without being over the top, and that leads to more value overall.

Student guest post: Going on the record is a risk for sources

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Tara Jeffries is a senior journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. Originally from Stokesdale, North Carolina, she is interested in longform reporting, politics, criminal justice reform and international affairs.

There’s a conversation every journalist knows. The one many journalists dread. The one that could sink the whole story. It feels like that final, tentative moment at the end of a first date, or the moment of truth at a job interview. Sometimes, it feels like you’re asking too much.

“Please, let me use your name on the record.”

Even as a student journalist, I’ve had a few of these conversations. Few of them ended in a “yes,” and I know why. When you’re a source — especially for a big story, one that challenges a system or institution — you’ve sometimes got a lot to lose. As journalists, we should respect the personal and professional risks our sources take to tell us their stories.

Still, there are good reasons news outlets are wary of publishing stories including anonymous sources, especially stories driven solely by their unidentified testimony. Occasionally, a source might request anonymity not to protect himself from backlash from the system or punishment from his boss, but because he wants a platform for a personal vendetta.

Journalism also owes the public a high degree of transparency, and relying on anonymous sources can cloud that transparency. But perhaps the most important reason is this: Journalism depends on and celebrates openness, accuracy and accountability, and stories with anonymous sources sometimes leave the facts murkier than they should be.

And in stories controversial enough to elicit requests for anonymity, the facts and the details are more important than ever. Earlier this month, I read an article in The Chronicle, Duke University’s student newspaper, about allegations of sexual assault against former basketball player Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from the team.

It came as no surprise that most of the sources in the article were anonymous. (Of course, many publications, by default, do not name victims of sexual assault.) The reasons for anonymity were obvious — publicly challenging an established athletic system is an absolute minefield. It’s clear that the reporters at the Chronicle did the best with what they had and were fairly transparent in their reporting process, noting the steps they took to contact athletics officials. But the proliferation of anonymous sources still made me a bit uneasy.

Most publications have policies in place for dealing with anonymous sources. In my experience as an editor and reporter at The Daily Tar Heel, the use of anonymous sources was discouraged but occasionally allowed, particularly for stories on issues of unfair work environments, stories about sensitive issues like sexual assault or stories that challenged or criticized some aspect of the university. I’ve asked editors to grant my sources anonymity not because I fancied myself Woodward or Bernstein, but because I knew their stories wouldn’t be told otherwise. I should note, too, that my sources and the stories they told were always thoroughly vetted.

I didn’t like having to omit the names of the people I interviewed. I wished they were comfortable being fully on the record. But the anonymity of sources in stories like the one I wrote on graduate students who use food stamps is a part of the narrative. It shows the public how much fear of backlash some people felt when discussing their employment, their low pay, their lack of negotiating power. It shows the public how intense the stigma is against government assistance. And it shows how much risk these people took to tell their story — a sure sign that that story is one worth reading.

Anonymity requires the reporter to put a great deal of trust in a source, but it involves perhaps a greater degree of trust between a reporter and editor. Publishing a successful, accurate story that includes anonymous sources often depends entirely on the integrity of the reporter.

Take, for instance, the infamous “Jimmy’s World” story, written by Janet Cooke of The Washington Post in 1980. The story, which chronicled the heroin addiction of a young boy and won a Pulitzer, turned out to be fabricated. Its main sources were anonymous, their stories (and existence!) not vetted by Cooke’s editors.

More recently, Rolling Stone published a retraction of a story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely that reported horrific incidents of rape at University of Virginia fraternity houses. The story, driven largely by anonymous sources, turned out to be full of holes, factual errors and unreliable reporting. These two examples are enough to scare any editor.

But the story that included the most famous anonymous source — Deep Throat, of Woodward and Bernstein fame — unraveled a political plot whose name is still, some 40-plus years later, shorthand for scandal and corruption. It shone a light on illegal government activity and revealed a president to be a crook. That’s kind of what journalism is all about: speaking truth to power; keeping an eye on the people we elect.

Talking to reporters poses a huge risk for some sources. Editors should appreciate both that risk and the risk they take in their own newsrooms when using anonymous sources. But some stories — especially those that hold powerful people and institutions accountable — deserve to be told.

Student guest post: Editing a rivalry

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Pat James is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in reporting and sports communication. He was born in Asheville, North Carolina, where he grew up constantly watching Tar Heels athletics. He is an assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. Outside of working in the field of sports journalism, James dreams of one day winning his fantasy football league.

It’s just past 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 18, and the UNC men’s basketball team is moments away from a 92-90 loss against Duke University at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As the game ends, fans in the stadium leave, people at home turn off their TVs and those who were listening to the game on the radio turn the dial or wait to hear Coach Roy Williams’ postgame interview.

But as an assistant sports editor for The Daily Tar Heel, my night is just getting started. The deadline for our newspaper is 12:30 a.m., and I need to be prepared for when our writers send in their stories. It’s this preparation that can determine whether we make deadline as well as the edits that can be made in the short amount of time allotted.

The first step of preparation is to know what’s going on in the game as it happens. This can be difficult at times, as we might have other stories and writers coming in throughout the night. In these situations, I tend to keep a play-by-play or Twitter window open on my computer as I edit.

But on this night, the two UNC-Duke stories are the only ones we have coming in. Because of this, I’m able to watch the game in our conference room and keep notes of players, plays, stats and other notes that might be mentioned in our writers’ stories.

After the game ends, I begin searching through my notes and the final box score to determine what information I should start CQing, or fact-checking. In our CMS, links to CQs are included in our articles to help management and the copy desk as they read the story. Good CQs can cut the amount of time it takes for them to read the stories, and it also gives me more time to make my own edits once the stories are sent to me.

Once all of the CQs I can think of our compiled into a single Google document, it’s time to wait for the stories to come in. During this time period, I’m thinking about whether there are any CQs I might have missed as well as what pertinent information, such as records and national rankings, I should be looking for once I start editing.

When the stories come in, I take one story and one of the other assistants takes the other. My first read includes looking over the story to make sure it has all of the essential elements — most significantly the final score in one of the opening paragraphs. I then read for grammar, spelling and style errors. Lastly, I do a full read in which I make sure the story makes sense before CQing it.

This entire process is how I approach every story that comes in late. I believe the routine helps cut down on the amount of time it takes for me to read while also making sure I cover everything that could pose a potential problem once the story gets to management and eventually to our readers the next day.

Us and them — and her

Earlier this week, The News & Observer reprinted this editorial from The Charlotte Observer. The topic was judicial elections in North Carolina. It included this paragraph:

Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

The last sentence caught the eye of a reader, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the use of “her.” The letter writer found it insulting to female voters.

I don’t think the editorial board of the Observer intended to use “her” as a slight. The writer likely intended the opposite: rather than use “him” as the default pronoun for a hypothetical voter, use “her” for balance. A quick edit to “pluralize” the sentence could avoid that issue, of course:

Rational people might just skip over them all and move on with their lives, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.

That would have been my choice if I had been writing or editing that editorial. At the same time, I am increasingly open to the singular they in these situations. Most of us use it in conversation, and I have no objection to it in informal writing such as email.

Then again, I also like the royal we.