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.

Who’s that? That’s who

Earlier this week, this tweet from The New York Times generated a discussion about style and grammar:

Here is the question from Kelly Flincham, who teaches journalism at Hofstra University: Shouldn’t it be “a teen who vapes”? Isn’t there a rule that says use “who” for people and “that” for objects?

Patrick LaForge, an editor at the Times, responded with this link from Grammar Girl’s website, suggesting that the two words are interchangeable, at least grammatically. LaForge said later that the NYT stylebook prefers “who” in those situations, although such guidelines are more loose on Twitter.

As the Grammar Girl post discusses, stylebooks differ on “who” vs. “that.” Several recommend “who” when talking about people and, on occasion, animals.

I’ve had my own experience with this question. When I was wire editor at The News & Observer in the early 2000s, I met with a group of readers concerned about coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In their view, the Raleigh newspaper’s news judgment, story placement, headlines and word choice were biased against the Palestinians and in favor of the Israeli government.

One of the readers said that we had published “Palestinians that …” constructions on occasion. She said that using “that” instead of “who” was a way to indicate that Palestinians are not people. I did my best to assure the reader that there was no such intention and that I believed that Palestinians and Israelis are humans who deserve fair treatment in the news media.

Since that conversation in the N&O newsroom years ago, I have held fast to this distinction between “who” and “that” on stylistic grounds. So if you say you want to talk to a teen that vapes, I won’t question your grammar. It’s correct. But to be on the safe side, I’d make it “who.”

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.

Happy birthday, NewsU

Poynter’s News University, an e-learning site for journalists and other communicators, celebrates its 10th birthday this week. Hooray!

I have worked with NewsU when it was a toddler and I was a new faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill. In August 2006, I saw a NewsU booth at the AEJMC conference in San Francisco and struck up a conversation with Vicki Krueger, who is now manager of NewsU. It was my first encounter with online education, and I quickly saw the power and effectiveness of this method of training and instruction.

Between then and now, I’ve worked with the NewsU crew to create a course on alternative story forms and contributed to a course on the fundamentals of editing. An all-new version of the ASF course will debut on the site this year. In 2013, I led a Webinar on headline writing for digital media.

I’ve also used several NewsU Webinars in my editing courses on topics such as verification and curation. My students learn a great deal from these guest speakers, and so do I.

To mark its birthday, NewsU will hold a Webinar on Friday called “NewsU at 10: Top Lessons from a Decade of E-Learning.” I’ll be there, and I look forward to celebrating the occasion with some virtual birthday cake.

Happy birthday, NewsU, and congratulations on 10 years of journalism education. Here’s to many more!

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.

Student guest post: “Breaking news” is broken

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 10th of those posts. Mark Lihn is a senior journalism and political science major from Arlington, Virginia. He will begin pursuing a master’s degree in international relations next fall. 

In today’s media world, people get their news from a wide variety of sources, from television to the Internet to newspapers. While the print industry is struggling, it was never the ideal method of distribution for breaking news. However, the Internet and social media are perfectly equipped to spread the newest news, keeping people updated on their tablets, computers and smartphones.

But how long can breaking news be considered “breaking”?

The rise of the 24-hour news cycle in cable television and the Internet has had its advantages. News is more accessible across the country than ever before. If I want to know what is going on in the world, I simply have to check an application on my phone or turn on my computer or television. We generally learn breaking news long before I have to turn on a television or computer though.

The first time I hear a big news story tends to be through word of mouth or my smartphone. I either see the news on Twitter or my CNN app first, or I hear about it from a friend who learned about it a similar way. In today’s modern society, it seems safe to assume that most people who would turn to the Internet for their news get their breaking news this way.

The amount of time a story remains “breaking” is open to interpretation. It certainly seems safe to assume though that a story I have heard about three or four times already is no longer breaking news to me.

Why then do websites like CNN.com insist on having a breaking news story front and center 24/7? If a story broke in the morning, then in the afternoon, it is no longer “breaking.”

Such is the case with most of the major stories that CNN covers, like the recent tragedy of the plane crash in France. The crash of the plane was a breaking news story. However, the first story that the plane crashed keeps its timeliness far longer than any update to that story. The update that the co-pilot of the Germanwings plane was medically unfit to work broke this morning. At 4 p.m., the same update to a story that began three days ago is still labeled “breaking.”

The infatuation with breaking news on Internet news sites leads to the devaluation of breaking news. I have become immune to the monstrously large headlines and pictures of the lead pack on CNN’s site. They are always there, no matter what is going on the world, there seems to be a breaking news story.

News happens all of the time, which is why it is news. Simply because a story is new, though, does not make it a breaking news story.

Editors need to be more aware that they can wear out their audiences by overusing the categorization of breaking news. Breaking news stories can garner clicks, leading indirectly to increased revenue, but if editors are not careful, their audiences will become immune to their stories and their sites. It is something I have encountered with CNN, and it has led me to look for other news sources.