Category Archives: journalism

On Journalistic Self-Censorship and Transparency


Originally I named this post “Journalist Self-Censorship, or Could You Please Pretend You Don’t Have An Opinion?” But I figured that was both too inflammatory and too long to tweet.

But that is essentially the problem I want to address in this post.

What journalists are not

Before we get any further down the controversial road of objectivity vs. transparency in the media, let me explain something that I’ve always taken for granted. Journalists are critical thinkers. We are trained to evaluate information and fit it into the context of the world at large. And since journalists aren’t zombies, we are probably going to have an opinion. It’s inevitable.

However, the whole idea of objectivity now seems to be that journalists have to pretend to not have opinions. I’ve heard of some journalists who literally do not vote, EVER, because they don’t want to seem biased in any way. Opinions are only for the op-ed pages.

However, call me wrong, but that doesn’t seem possible. Journalists are not zombie robots. They are people trained to analyze information, make quick decisions, ask the tough questions and inform their public. OF COURSE they’re going to have opinions. How could they not? Not only that, but your opinions inform, even subconsciously, how you view a story, what angle you pursue, who you interview, how many column inches you beg your editor to let you use.

So wouldn’t it maybe be better to let people know what side of the spectrum you’re on and go from there?

This issue became closer to my heart and experience over the last two years when Walker took office and the protests began around the Capitol. Now that I am no longer a journalist, I can freely admit this: I participated in the UW walkouts, leaving my Media Ethics class to march for my professors, TAs and friends in the teaching profession with the full support of my professor. I took my poor little 5 megapixel camera all over State Street and the Square. I filmed rallies, I tweeted from inside the Capitol building, I took innumerable photos that ended up on Flickr. Needless to say, I did not support Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal.

Those photos, videos and opinions ended up on this blog. I didn’t write a lot about it, I was too upset and as I said in one post, “I can’t write about this with any objectivity, so I won’t.” Luckily, I got a journalism internship and a job working for a small print newspaper after graduation, even with those opinions out there for anyone to read.

I say luckily because others weren’t as the years wore on. One journalism student had their internship offer rescinded after admitting to signing the recall petition.

While I didn’t have my offers of employment rescinded, an intrepid reader who stumbled upon my blog after Googling the new reporter brought it to the attention of my editor about a month after I landed my first real journalism job . While my editor, in the spirit of fairness, told me he couldn’t require me to take down posts written before I reported in any official capacity, he did ask if I could delete them. The recall election was heating up and I’d inevitably be covering it in some way within a month or two.

After a night or two of soul-searching, I agreed. I didn’t want to compromise my integrity in a new town where no one trusted the reporter who was only 3 months out of school and I wanted people to think I could listen to them and report fairly on both sides of the aisle.

But I have to admit that I almost didn’t. This blog was inactive at that point. The way I saw it, I shouldn’t have to sacrifice having beliefs to be able to do my job. But worry about the appearance of integrity won out.

I also didn’t sign the petition to recall Walker. In this case the law came down from the main office in Madison. Signing a petition would be sacrificing integrity. We agree to keep our personal opinions to ourselves when we take on the role of being journalists.

It killed me to not be able to participate. It took all my strength to not pull over and sign when I saw someone standing at the corner with a drive by petition signing booth. I seriously considered saying screw journalistic principles and doing it anyway. But I didn’t. I’m thankful as well, considering the investigation that went down later on within Lee.

But that was a major factor when deciding whether or not to leave my journalism position two months ago. I couldn’t bear to spend my entire life pretending I didn’t have opinions.

In my media ethics classes, we spent a lot of time debating objectivity vs. transparency. Objectivity is the idea that journalists are neutral. As I’ve established, I believe that’s totally impossible. Here’s where transparency comes into play: Instead of pretending to be objective, let readers know where you’re coming from, especially on political issues.

My coverage of the recall election and petition signing was possibly some of the least “biased” coverage I gave to any story while I worked as a reporter. Why? Because I knew my own limitations and biases and did my best to keep them out of the story. I believe every journalist does the same.

As Reuters columnist Jack Shafer said after Gannett reprimanded employees for signing the petition:

“So the ethical crime in Wisconsin wasn’t having political views, which the Gannett code allows. It wasn’t expressing those views in secret. It was expressing a weakened form of them in a way that could go public. As long as you conceal your views from the ethics cops, you’re safe….At the core of the current journalistic codes is the notion that judging journalism requires us to judge the conduct of the journalists producing it. Instead of suppressing the political lives of journalists, why not allow that which is now covert to become overt and give readers more information to assess coverage?”

Guess who’s back (back, back), back again!


So a little over a month ago I quit my job as a journalist for the Times-Press. Amazing for the girl who spent the last seven years convinced that all she wanted to do was be a journalist.

A lot of things went into this decision, not all of which are relevant for blogging in an era where everything is cached for eternity. Suffice it to say that a combination of money, work environment, commuting (which should fall under money but is really it’s own separate heading), boredom and a loss of ideals all contributed to the switch.

I now work for a company in Madison as a Project Manager. It’s not as satisfying at the end of the day as putting out the news for an entire town, but I do know I’ve done a job well, made customers and coworkers happy and learned something new. And that’s a good place to start while beginning yet another new adventure. I’m far more content where I am, though I do hope that journalism will continue to be something I pursue later in life.

However, since I can’t seem to stop writing to save my life and the new HBO show The Newsroom has me thinking again about a lot of journalism and politics related topics (I had to take a break after months of covering the recall elections for the Times-Press so I wouldn’t lose my sanity) I’ve decided to start Policy Dorks back up again.

I can’t promise a post every week, but I will do my best to present my (three) readers with the same researched, well thought out opinions that I would be proud to present as opinion pieces in any newspaper I’ve worked for so far and any I may work for in the future.

You will also notice some changes to the format of this blog soon. While this template worked well for me two years ago, I’m not so keen on it now. So we shall see what stays and what goes. Expect much prettier things soon (and possibly even a domain name! Gasp!) I may even learn the WordPress CMS while I’m at it. Woot woot.

In my next post, which will likely come by Thursday, I’m going to discuss something I’m sure I’ve touched on previously here: why I hate the idea of “fairness” and “objectivity” in journalism. Where it came from, where it is now and why it made my life hell this last year.

So welcome back, everyone! I can’t wait to have you join me on my ride to stay sane through writing!

6 qualities required to be a journalist


Editor’s note: I started this post on my birthday, a little over a month ago. Apparently drinking mojitos alone on your birthday while you’re sick means you’ll feverishly start blog posts and then totally forget they exist. Oops. I have been thinking about this post for a while though and apparently was pretty far along, so I’m going to finish it up. With some editing for drunken stupor.

So I’ve been thinking a lot the last few weeks. I’ve been wearing several different hats at the JT, and it’s made me think about the qualities needed to be a journalist, no matter what kind. So here’s my list, composed in my head over days of stories. (I may add to this post or create a new one when I come up with more.)

1. Curiosity: You must always be thinking, “Why?”
Why do you have to bore 1 1/2 inches into that tree to treat it? Can the people still live in the house after the fire? Why did that alderman vote that way in that controversial ordinance? What signs mean you have a ghost in your house? (Yes seriously, I did a story on a ghost hunting group this summer.)

2. Persistence: You have to always be ready to call back.
So, so, so many times this summer  I’ve waited for a call back from someone, only to call them an hour later and have them be free and willing to talk. People, myself included, aren’t good at returning messages. But if you call them while they’re slogging through their afternoon work email, they’ll be happy enough to take a break and talk to you about something they actually care about.

3. Personality: Connect with your sources.
People, especially in smaller towns, love to have their name in the paper. Despite dropping circulation, the paper is still  the first way people get their news, be it the print or online edition. And if you chat them up first, they won’t mind telling you intrusive details like their age and occupation. Honestly, they’ll feel flattered by the attention. But in return you have to really listen. You have to take notes on what they say, get them to tell you what they were thinking and feeling, and then come back to the office and synthesize it into a 12 inch article. If you do it right, people will email you to thank you. If you do it wrong, your editor is bound to know. So make sure to connect.

4. Composure: You WILL do awkward things in the name of a story, get used to it.
Last week, a woman died in a car crash in Sturtevant, a suburb-ish area absorbed into Racine. My first day as cops reporter was filled with calling every single Stewart in the local area to ask if they were related to her. Then the city clerk. My fellow reporter Stephanie called the local councilman to see if he knew. Ultimately, no one had any idea who she was, but let me tell you, I have had to do far less awkward things than call up random households and say, “Hi, is this the Stewart residence? Yes, my name is Alicia, I’m calling from the Journal Times. Are you related to Judy Stewart? No? Thanks much.” But you do it anyway.

5. Meticulousness: The Devil is in the details
This seems totally self-explanatory, (how can you be a good journalist if you’re not detail oriented and vaguely OCD, right?) but it’s not. I’ve partnered with some journalists in college that were possibly the least organized people I know, and it showed in their work, their grades, and I imagine in their later job search. You have to know more about your story than you put into it. Not just most of the time, but ALL the time. You have to dig. Why this? Who’s that? Why was he there? How do you feel about him being there? How will this affect that random thing over there? This goes back to #1, but holds a different side. Don’t just ask why, make sure you have ALL the why.
Also. make sure you don’t lose your pen. Having like 10 in your purse is a good start.

6. Patience: Or how you will work the weirdest hours of your life in this job
Here’s the thing no one tells you in college about being a journalist. (Or maybe someone did and I just forgot about it in my enthusiasm to write things for money.) You will work the most whack hours ever. Some days you’ll come in at 7:30 and be out by 3:00. Some days you’ll come in at noon and leave at 9. Some days, and these are the worst, you will come in at 9 a.m. and work till 9 p.m. You will likely be expected to write an article at the end of this 12 hour day. Probably more like two or three. It doesn’t matter that the last thing you ate was a bagel around 3 p.m. That’s just how it works. If you want a 9-5, do something else.

Alright, there you have it. After months of consideration, here’s my list. It may update or change the further I get into this job, but the key principles stand.

P.S. I have an awesome job as a real reporter for the Reedsburg Times-Press now! Yay, I have a big girl job! You can find all my articles online, published every Wednesday and Saturday at http://www.wiscnews.com/reedsburgtimespress/. Yeah, that’s what’s up.

 

Lessons in losing


Today is another break from Teh Commerz Clawz day. (Though according to my ever-growing page hits, I’m pretty popular when you search for anything regarding Gibbons v. Ogden or FDR’s court packing plan. LOLZ.)

This post has been floating around in my head since before the brutal attempt on Congresswoman Giffords’ life and the resulting discussion surrounding the dangers of overblown political vitriol. So let me preface this by stating that I don’t believe someone as out of touch with reality as Laughner really paid that much attention to politics. Selectively maybe, but the immediate conclusion that political name-calling led to her death is ridiculous. Thankfully some columnists kept their heads while the rest of the media was losing theirs, and it seems discussions about gun control and mental illness are finally springing forward. Ugh.

But back to my point. I’ve been thinking about this idea of bitter, mean-spirited politics since January 1st, actually. Several of my more liberal minded friends started ranting about how life was going to be over in Wisconsin as soon as Scott Walker took office, and were instrumental in calling for his repeal.

First, there’s the bit where Walker can’t just be repealed like he’s an offensive bill, since he’s an actual elected official that won fair and square. Obviously. But that’s not the issue. The issue is the current insistence on combativeness in the political process. (If you need another example, the Republican insistence on a symbolic health care vote should be enough.)

Now I understand that politics create controversy. My opinion is not going to be the opinion of someone on the far right. Or the far left either. And I don’t expect those two people to agree either with me or with each other. That’s what makes democracy work, and theoretically with debate and compromise all those different ideas lead to the best deal for everyone in America. But that’s not what happens anymore.

Instead we end up with the ridiculous amount of name-calling familiar to anyone who even vaguely follows politics. This person is the incarnation of the devil! This person’s policies will make your crops wither and die! That person is a witch! This liberal wants to send all our old people to death camps! That conservative is a Nazi and wants you to march in lock-step for the rest of your life as punishment for having brown hair!

I only made up the second and part of the fifth one.

As soon as the opposing party takes power, suddenly the world is going to end. “Life will never be the same!” the losing party exclaims. “This is the worst thing to happen to our (city, district, state, country) since (last terrible buzz-person) ran everything into the ground! Run for the hills!” They inflame their staunchest members with floods of fund-raising emails. They tell half-truths when they can. They get everyone they can all riled up. And suddenly people actually believe that the President wants death panels. They believe that this person is the incarnation of the Devil or is a witch or a Nazi or a terrorist or whatever the buzz-word of the day is. Not everyone pays enough attention to know better.

This just isn’t on the left or on the right. This isn’t just from the Republicans or Fox News. This comes from Democrats and MSNBC commentators as well.

We’ve forgotten, as a country, how to lose gracefully. We’ve lost our sportsmanship. We’ve lost our ability to shake hands with someone that ran a better campaign than we did and tell them “Good game. There’s always next time.” We’ve somehow misplaced the lessons taught to us when we were young, lessons about not throwing down our ball and stomping away to pout when the game doesn’t go our way.

And we, as people involved and commenting on the political process of the United States of America need to relearn that skill. Maybe, if there’s anything to learn from this truly pointless murder spree, it’s how to lose gracefully again.

Instead of continuing to rant myself (I have to admit this was far less intimidating to talk about before a prominent Congresswoman almost died) I’m going to let one of the only people I still fully trust in politics finish off with a talk of his own.

I give you: Jon Stewart. He says it better than I do anyway.

Arizona Shootings Reaction
www.thedailyshow.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:370499
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Wikileaks? Wikihow can they do this, anyway?


Welcome back from Turkey Day, y’all! Hopefully you are all full and hungover today, which is as it should be. (Just a quick plug…Badgers are going to the Rose Bowl, baby! Woo!)

I’m interrupting our Teh Commerz Clawz series in the interest of doing something more immediately relevant that I’m being bombarded with pretty much everywhere this morning…In other words, the entire WORLD is freaking out right now, all because of a nice little site called Wikileaks.

In their own words, Wikileaks’ goal is to “bring important news and information to the public.” In other words, they provide a place for the Deep Throats and Daniel Ellsbergs of the world to talk. And they’ve gotten their lovely hands on almost 40 years worth of confidential U.S. government diplomatic cables, the kind that historians normally don’t get to see until all the people in them are dead or so far retired that it doesn’t matter who knows what they did or didn’t do.

Most people are ecstatic about this. Expose government corruption? Let’s do it! Find out what’s really going on for once? Boo-freakin-yah! Let’s get to it! The New York Times, The Guardian in Britian, El Pais in Spain, Le Monde in France, and Der Spiegel in Germany have all been given access to these documents before they hit the web and the revelations are starting to come fast and furious. The government is obviously incredibly worried, invoking that now common phrase “threat to national security.” Which honestly, many of us may have started to look at as a joke. It’s been used one too many times.

I personally think Wikileaks is doing a great service, and is an incredibly innovative way to use the Internet and new media in the service of truth in journalism. Also, check out the headlines from The Guardian. It’s always insightful to see how other countries view our government.

In preparation for tomorrow, Antique Lolcat approves this message.

But, even with the First Amendment seemingly giving the newspapers the right to do this, how can the New York Times blithely publish documents that might threaten national security?

 

The reason is something we’re all at least vaguely familiar with, even though it was long before my time: the Vietnam War. Now, to get a complete history here’s the Wikipedia link (oh, the irony), but the basic idea is that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara commissioned a giant history of the Vietnam War in 1967. It was classified as Top Secret, and only 15 copies were made. Even the President had no idea it was being compiled. Basically, the whole report showed that we’d been muddling around in Vietnam with no idea what we were doing. As many vets had already told us, the whole thing was a mess.

In 1969, a young man named Daniel Ellsberg, who had worked on the Pentagon Papers in 1967, decided he was against the war and it was time to blow the lid off this Popsicle stand. He eventually took his copies to The New York Times. The Times, never wanting to miss a great scoop, decided there was no way this wasn’t getting published. Their legal counsel said no, but outside council said what we all now take for granted: the First Amendment makes this ok.

Good old Nixon tried to stop them with an injunction, citing executive authority, national security, and lots of other -ity words meant to scare the crap out of the Times and the lower federal judges. As expected, this quickly wound its way to the Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. United States.

The New York Times argued that the government could not use prior restraint to stop them from publishing these documents. There has always been a high level of scrutiny applied to prior restraint of the press, even in times of war. In 1951, Dennis v. US had established the grave and irreparable danger standard. This standard holds the government accountable for proving that “grave and irreparable danger to the American people” would result from the publication of documents before they could be eligible for prior restraint.

The Supreme Court held for The New York Times, saying in what was for them an extremely brief decision that this vague word “security” was not enough to stop the press from publishing these documents. This precedent continues to be used now, and would definitely be used if there was a challenge to the press publishing sensitive government documents again.

Commerz Clawz resumes tomorrow!

Teh Commerz Clawz: Swift and Co v. US


Welcome to the third installment of Teh Commerz Clawz, where I explain the precedent to the state’s challenge to the health care bill in super simple speak. Also with lolcats. And today, lolcows.

cow picture

Mooovin on...to the stockyardz. Thanks to futurity.org for the pic.

Today’s episode deals with cows. Lotz and lotz and lotz of cows. And some railroads too. And some people. But mostly, a lot of cows, where they go, and why teh federal government had a beef with monopolies.

So when we left yesterday, we’d determined from Gibbons and E.C. Knight that there are limits to what the national government can control through teh Commerz Clawz. For example, manufacturing is not commerce, and so is regulated through state “police powers” instead. (BTW, if this police powerz thing has you a bit confused, it does everyone. There’s really no hard and fast line for what’s a state and what’s a federal police power. Don’t sweat it.)

Swift and Co. v. US also concerns monopolies, just like yesterday. In this one however, instead of nummy shoogar, we haz stockyards in Chicago wreaking havoc. (Though, come on, what else can you expect from good old Illinois, right Mr. Blagojevich?) Basically, the way the meat industry worked, and still kinda does, went something like this. Farmers raise cows. Farmers bring and sell cows to stockyards. Companies would purchase the cows from the stockyards, slaughter them, and then sell the meat to local stores in the area. Pretty simple, and everyone makes money right?

Theodore Roosevelt cartoon

Teddy Roosevelt was so awesome he killed trust bears all by himzelf! Also, old cartoons rock.

Except Swift and Co. controlled about 60% of the fresh meat market, and they weren’t doing it honestly. They made agreements with other meat houses for what prices would be so there wasn’t any real competition, and thus set artificial prices for everything. The farmers made less money for their meat, which sucks considering the cows had to transported sometimes thousands of miles on railroads. The meat monopoly men manhandled the railroads into charging them artificially low rates for transporting these cows.

So nobody was making a bunch of money except for Swift and Co.

When the government found out about it, they were obviously very pissed off about it.

Fed govt: No! We haz tell u already! No monopolies. Ur buisness practises r bad! We sue u!
Swift: Iz not interstate commerz. Our stockyards r liek 3 miles frum our slaughterhauses and stuff. Plus, how were we spossed to kno? Teh Sherman Act iz too vague 4 anyone 2 use.

Now, when the Sherman Act went into effect, President Grover Cleveland and the Court that decided E.C. Knight believed that monopolies were part of progress, and so the Sherman Act was actually really vague. One of the main ideas behind laws is that if they’re too vague for people to know what they can or cannot do, or cover too much, then they’re no good and will be thrown out. So this was actually a great argument against the Sherman Act.  (This is why you can find so much porn on the Internet so easily. It’s so far been impossible for Congress to craft an easily implementable, concise law that isn’t so vague that it covers everything. More on that some other time.)

But in 1909, when this case was decided, Teddy Roosevelt and a more “liberal” court were in power, and people were starting to realize what a pain in the butt monopolies actually are. Case in point: Swift and Co.

But since most of their operations are only in a few states, would that make it interstate? Remember, in E.C. Knight, the Supreme Court didn’t let that one slide.

Justice Holmes had a ginormous moustache

Antique Kitteh has the day off. Love Baby Kitteh instead!

A new Supreme Court Kitteh shall explain:

“So, Swift saiz dat since all teh company commerz happens in teh same state, kinda, dat he iz not part of interstate commerz. BUT!

“In E.C. Knight we tellz u about teh concept of “direct” v. indirect effect on commerz. Manufacturing haz an indirect effect on commerz. But dis iz a diffurent storeh. Why? Cuz teh monopolies deal in buying and selling tings, and dat effect on commerz iz not “not accidental, secondary, or remote,” but iz very purposeful. Swift iz tryin 2 control prices by cheating ppl. Dis iz a verry direct effect.

When dey taeks da cows frum 1 state, and send dem somewhere else in a diffurent state, and da stockyardz iz inbetween, and dis happens all teh time, then it iz interstate commerce.

Teh Court iz going to taek this 1 step moar. They tink there iz a stream of commerz, and that tings affecting that stream can haz regulationz. “When this is a typical constantly recurring course, [like with the stockyards, Ali note] the current thus existing is a current of commerce among the states, and the purchase of the cattle is a part . . . of such commerce.””

So now we have this idea of a “stream of commerce.” When things go from one place to another, just because something happens in a state that stops the goods for a bit, doesn’t mean that part is out of the flow. It’s like a river. Everything from where that river starts to where it stops is part of the river. No quibbling allowed.

But then there are moar probz. What counts as the start of this stream? What if the stuff is only on the banks so to speak? When does it complete this trip?

All that and moar in Friday’s installment of Teh Commerz Clawz, when we learn about sick chickens and Teh Grate Depreshun. (Not to be confused with the current “Great Recession.” Ugh.)

Teh Commerz Clawz


So, I have been reading Hyperbole and a Half far too much this week, (yay for procrastination, which apparently stems from a fear of failure and not laziness, according to You Are Not So Smart), and was realizing that A) not everyone finds politics extremely interesting, and B) everyone loves Lolcatz. Also, C) even though I have spent 2 months exclusively studying the Commerce Clause, it’s really, incredibly boring, and you have to be a policy dork to care, and D) you have to dumb it down to your own level of comprehension.

My notes from Law classes generally look something like this:

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

“Guy in England named Martin inherited property, Virginia made a law that ppl in England couldn’t inherit land cuz they were traitors, Martin got pissed and appealed, Sup Crt said Virginia couldn’t do that, Virginia went back and did it anyway, SC had to make VA toe the line. Established supremacy of national government!”

Which is much more interesting than the alternative, which you can read here on Oyez.com.

Then in discussion, I read through a case and then explained it to my group mates in exactly the same manner. And one of them said that it was possibly the best and easiest to understand, yet thorough description they’d ever heard. So, for the next week, I’m going to explain, incrementally, the cases that form the precedent for the current challenge to HR 3962 Affordable Health Care for America Act, and then explain the decision that allows the states to continue challenging the bill. In super simple language. It’s actually entirely possible I will use LOLspeak. Because it sounds fun.

That is all.