Context, verification and BuzzFeed’s decision to publish that dossier …

A few people have asked me what I think of BuzzFeed’s decision to publish a 35-page document describing unverified claims about connections between Russia and President-elect Donald Trump.

Here’s my take: This story required news organizations to navigate the sometimes competing demands of verification and contextualization. BuzzFeed chose a (perhaps radical) version of the latter. CNN broke the story Tuesday and took a different approach, holding back the dossier itself but reporting that Trump and President Obama had been briefed on its contents.

The  existence of the documents and their inclusion in presidential security briefings is, indeed, newsworthy. This is not, as Trump said on Twitter, “fake news.” CNN was right to report the information and did a good job unpacking a rather serpentine narrative. It was also appropriate for other news organizations, BuzzFeed included, to advance the story.

The debate over how to best accomplish that represents the very public way editorial decisions unfold in today’s media landscape. At first, I was firmly in the verification-above-all-else camp, especially given the digital proliferation of hoaxes and half truths. In general, I admire BuzzFeed’s news operation, but I rolled my eyes when I saw its push notification about publishing the dossier.

After I read the documents, though, the situation felt murkier. In many ways, the specter of the dossier was more salacious than its actual contents. The allegations are troubling but not surprising. Reporting on the intelligence community’s reaction without providing the full context of what it was reacting to creates an environment ripe for rumors. By publishing the documents – and  pointing out potential problems with the information – BuzzFeed may have made a complicated story more accessible to the average reader.

Or it might have done just the opposite, making it even easier for partisans to play fast and loose with facts. We still don’t know and may not for weeks or months to come.

As BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith wrote in a memo to his staff, the decision to publish “was not an easy or simple call.” Instead, Smith said, it reflects BuzzFeed’s tendency to be transparent whenever possible and “how we see the job of reporters in 2017.”

Transparency is untidy, but that’s neither new nor bad. Journalism is a study in humanity and, as such, has always been messy. It’s inherently full of contradictions, chaos and, as Jack Fuller once wrote, “provisional truth.” When deadline hits, questions remain unanswered. Some may never be answerable at all. Digital publishing makes it more necessary that we’re honest about this reality, both with ourselves and with the public we serve.

We must remember, though, that messiness and sloppiness are not the same. Being open about the former and guarding against the latter is something else journalists must do in 2017 and beyond.

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Makeover time!

Quick note: I’m spending the final days of 2016 overhauling this site, so please excuse whatever mess I’m about to create and come back in January to see what’s new.

As always, thanks for reading.

Meg

 

September and everything after

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The September 11 and 12, 2001 editions of the Biddeford Journal Tribune, where I worked my first job as a reporter. The Journal Tribune was an afternoon paper, giving the editors time to remake the front page after the attacks began.

Every time I pass through Southern Maine, I’m startled by its openness. There are no roadblocks on the highways or police officers patrolling the bridges. Portland harbor is busy, traffic is often heavy, and airplanes pass overhead. To a casual visitor, there’s little to hint at the shock and fear that descended there 15 years ago.

My tenure as a resident of Southern Maine was brief, but those 11 months are inseparable from one brilliant, blue September day and the grim autumn that followed. To me, it’s a region frozen in time, and even the briefest visit evokes a dizzying disconnect, similar to what happens when I remember my college journalism students were preschoolers when Mohamed Atta boarded an early-morning commuter plane at the Portland Jetport.

When it happened, my college diploma was three months old, and I dreamed of a life as a writer. Late that August, I’d started my first job as a reporter at a little paper in Biddeford, a city about halfway between Portland and the New Hampshire border. I had a shitty apartment in a building that reeked of tobacco and sweat. On most nights, the guy down the hall came home drunk and screaming. I installed yellow contact paper on the backsplash in the galley kitchen, stuffed my bookcases with empty journals I planned to fill and began learning the intricacies of covering city government.

The editors at that paper were the best first bosses I could have hoped for, especially on that day. When we knew the second plane was not an accident, there was no coddling – just assignments and a promise that we would shovel information to our readers until we dropped from exhaustion. A photographer and I crisscrossed the city, stopping at a high school, a department store, a college. We paused downtown, where the streets were silent and drivers wept in pulled-over cars. Later that week, I sat across a kitchen table from a woman who’d escaped one of the towers and come to Maine to stay at her parents’ beach house. I stumbled through my questions, scribbled notes and wondered how long it had taken to wash the dust from her hair.

For a long time, I tried not to think about what that autumn was like for me. I wasn’t in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. or Shanksville. I didn’t know anyone who died. It felt wrong to make myself a protagonist in a story that harmed so many others in so many more devastating ways. My thinking is different now, mostly because of my journalism students. Last year, I walked into a crowded classroom and started a discussion about coverage of the Paris terrorist attacks. The cafes, the theater, the dead and the wounded were on another continent, but my students were frightened in a way that tugged at something deep in me. At some point, they began to ask me about the fall of 2001 the way I ask my parents about Kennedy and Kent State.

Over the years I’ve developed a September tradition of reading E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York.” It’s a sweeping meditation of the city’s speedy post-war evolution, beautiful, chaotic and, as he writes in this passage, terrifying:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition. All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation.”

We no longer need to live in physical cities to feel this kind of geographic vulnerability. We spend our days inside a sprawling, digital metropolis of videos and photos. Every place can feel like our place. Paris. San Bernardino. Brussels. Ankara. Orlando. The shattering headlines aren’t one giant break but an evolving tangle of tiny, thread-like fractures.

Two weeks ago, I met a new batch of bright journalism students. I hope we make it through this year without another act of violence that spurs questions about where I was – about who I was – on that day 15 years ago.

That is, alas, unlikely.

When it happens, we’ll look at the news alerts, analyze the credibility of facts, critique the narratives that emerge. If they ask about that time I lived so briefly in Southern Maine, I’ll answer. I’ll also tell them this: We were not annihilated then. By embracing knowledge and compassion and grace, we will not be annihilated now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Pulitzer (almost) lost to history

I spent a weekend last fall in the basement of a public library in rural Maine, picking through century-old letters between two sisters, Laura Richards and Maude Howe Elliott.  They were both writers and both living the kind of creative existences that were rare for women in that era.

Together, they produced a sweeping biography of their mother, the abolitionist and suffragist Julia Ward Howe. (If that name takes you back to grade school history, it’s probably because she also wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic.)

In 1917, her daughters became the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize but, as I discovered in my research, neither was associated with the honor until recently. You can read the full story here.

Three things Pokemon Go reminds us about journalism

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  I had some help writing this post.

In case you missed my two posts celebrating feminism in the Star Wars universe, let me issue this disclaimer: I’m a geek, something that predated – by decades – the mainstream coolness of Comic-Con, Peggy Carter and Mr. Spock.

Pokemon, though, was never my scene. Too many rules. Too many obnoxious noises. Too many cartoon creatures teetering between adorable and terrifying.

Still, I joined millions of other people in downloading the app last weekend, motivated not by nostalgia but by curiosity about augmented reality and how it might change the way we tell stories. After several days as a Pokemon trainer, I have a lot to think about in terms of AR. I was also reminded of three truths about journalism:

1.) Look for layers. Augmented reality superimposes information over physical space. (Great explainer here about AR and the origins of Pokemon Go.)  Playing the game requires exploring its digital landscape, a process that can teach us about our surroundings. For instance: I discovered a couple of local historical markers while stocking up on Poke Balls last night. Finding and telling news stories also requires shifting the way you see the world, looking for different lenses through which to view our communities. Practicing journalism and experiencing AR both require embracing new ways of seeing.

2.) You’ll do much better if you leave your office and walk around. Sure, the occasional wild Eevee wanders across my desk, but I’ve caught more – and more diverse – Pokemon while walking my dog or chatting up people downtown. Reporters also find richer, more interesting stories by roving around and talking to people face to face. I know email is a journalistic necessity, but human contact is always better. Besides, my inbox has yet to yield a single Bellsprout, Jynx or Rattata.

3.) Verify everything. In the days after Pokemon Go’s launch, my Facebook feed was awash with headlines reporting the game’s dire consequences: murders, car accidents, exposure to Satanic rituals. Most of that stuff is bogus, something we know thanks to websites like Snopes.com. It’s crucial for journalists to engage in this kind of debunking in a world where falsehoods evolve as quickly as a Jigglypuff hopped up on candy. (For the uninitiated: Sugar makes a wild Pokemon morph into a larger and slightly fiercer version of itself. Or something like that. I’m new here, remember? Here’s more from a far more credible source.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear a Pidgey in my attic.

White journalists need to do better

Most American journalists are white. That’s something we should all remember as we follow the news during a week that just keeps getting worse.

Individual journalists – myself included – strive for transparency, fairness and accuracy, but when just 12.7 percent of editorial staffers in traditional U.S. newsrooms* are people of color, even responsible reporting on Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas is likely to carry subtle, unintentional biases.

As I’ve written before, these biases are concerning in any organization that serves as a conduit for information, but they can become even more problematic when breaking news and systemic racism collide.

Plenty of good journalists of all backgrounds devote time and energy to covering racial issues in meaningful ways, but without diverse newsrooms, those stories may lack important context. Other stories may not get covered at all. As former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote last year, diverse newsrooms produce stronger journalism:

When the group is truly diverse, the nefarious groupthink that makes a publication predictable and, at times, unintentionally biased, is much more likely to be diminished. And that’s a good thing.

In other words, homogeneous teams often don’t know what they don’t know until it’s too late.

As a human being, I’m deeply troubled by everything that’s transpired in the past few days. But as a white person, I have no sense of the kind of fear, pain and exhaustion Fusion’s national political correspondent Terrell J. Starr describes in this video. Nor do I understand what it’s like to watch someone who looks like me die over and over and over again on the evening news. Or to tell the young people in my life that the way they dress or move could make them targets.

I’ve contemplated these kinds of differences every time stories break about race and policing, but contemplation isn’t enough. Not for me, not for any of us who purport to care about the future of journalism and the importance of a free, open and responsible press.

White journalists – especially the white, male journalists who hold the majority of newsroom leadership positions – need to do more. Much, much more.

Let’s start, as the American Press Institute suggests, by acknowledging that bias exists and “is embedded in the culture and language of the society on which the journalist reports.” API also reminds us that some forms of bias may actually be necessary to quality journalism:

 One can even argue that draining a story of all bias can drain it of its humanity, its lifeblood. In the biases of the community one can also find conflicting passions that bring stories to life. A bias, moreover, can be the foundation for investigative journalism. It may prompt the news organization to right a wrong and take up an unpopular cause. Thus, the job of journalists is not to stamp out bias. Rather, the journalist should learn how to manage it.

Beyond that, there are a handful of specific things we can do in our daily professional practices:

  • Anyone covering or editing stories like the ones out of Dallas or Louisiana or Minnesota should use even more care than usual when it comes to verification and consider questions like these when determining if, how and when to use graphic videos. Think about how you’re portraying victims and, whenever possible, seek to minimize harm to vulnerable parties.
  • Those of us teaching journalism should engage our students in conversations about race, gender, sexual identity, power and privilege. We should also encourage them to take non-journalism classes that explore those same themes.
  • When we’re hiring for our newsrooms we must, in the words of Robert Hernandez, understand that there is no pipeline problem when it comes to talented journalists who are not white, straight men. Click on that link to read his excellent tips on diversifying the application pool.

We should also constantly educate ourselves about the complex, challenging history of how the press has covered (and failed to cover) racial disparities in the U.S. and beyond. To that end, I’ve created a reading list at the bottom of this post. If you have other titles or authors to add, please do so in the comments.

*It’s unclear how the proliferation of digital-only publications will change journalism’s demographics. Recent research – including my own – hints that emerging news organizations may be replicating the racial and gender disparities in legacy news. But, as this Columbia Journalism Review piece points out, a growing list of digital publications have beats focused on race, culture and identity “baked into their organizational hierarchy.”

A Partial Reading List on Race and Journalism 

Chasing Newsroom Diversity: From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action, book by Gwyneth Mellinger

The Diversity Style Guide, online handbook

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation, book by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff

Race and Reporting, the spring 2015 issue Nieman Reports

Why aren’t there more minority journalists?,  CJR piece by Alex T. Williams

Update (7/11): 

I received some great suggestions via Facebook and Twitter. Here they are:

Josh Stearns sent me a few links via Twitter. He suggests:

1.) News for All the  People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, book by Juan González and Joseph Torres.

2.) Moving the Race Conversation Forward, a report by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation

3.) This NPR story featuring African American journalists reflecting on covering the public deaths of other African Americans. In addition to audio, the package includes an essay by Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team. He writes:

As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there’s an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country…What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health — that we don’t stop being black people when we’re working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game.

On Facebook, former Concord Monitor reporter Jeremy Blackman suggested this guide to better reporting on race, police and community.

Keep the suggestions coming, please. Add titles in the comments below or ping me on social media.

ICYMI: Worried about bias at Facebook? Then worry about this, too.

I wrote a column for USA Today last week exploring why Facebook’s political leanings should be one small part of a broader conversation about the demographics of the people building the social web.  Here’s an excerpt:

Anyone troubled by the notion of bias at Facebook …  should also be upset by its lack of diversity and the homogeneous workforces of many tech companies. These cornerstones of the social web play significant roles in determining what is and isn’t news. If the default worker is white, male, straight and liberal, that increases the risk that journalism’s future will repeat the mistakes of its past.

Read the whole thing here.