News next: a journalism teacher's diary

January 5, 2010

An experiment in teaching and learning

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 2:12 pm
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Though no one can predict the future in detail, it is likely that at some point in my students’ lifetime, newspapers, magazines, television, and radio as we now know them will have migrated from the printing press and the airwaves to the World Wide Web.

I’m an old-fashioned newspaperman trying to learn new ways and hoping my students will help me. As I show them the fundamentals of reporting and writing news, together we’ll practice enhancing our story-telling with the tools the Web makes available, incorporating photography, audio, video and interactive features into our work.

I’ll use this blog to share ideas and to keep track of successes and pitfalls.

I’ve stolen some ideas from a former colleague, Cindy Rodriguez, whose students at NYU published their classwork on individual blogs. (To my students: Note that a hyperlink is one of the simplest but most effective interactive devices, allowing the writer to acknowledge the work of others and to offer illustrations and expanded explanations without bogging the text down.)

January 9, 2015

Should news outlets reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 4:46 pm
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European newspapers reproduced the controversial cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

European newspapers reproduced the controversial cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.

Twenty-five years ago, I watched flames consume the office of The Riverdale Press, the community newspaper my father had founded and I had edited for a decade.

The issue on the newsstand that week included an editorial that defended our right to read Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. When I wrote it, I never imagined that it would make my newspaper an early victim of terrorism.

The editorial criticized the big bookstore chains—Barnes & Noble, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton—for pulling the book from their shelves. Its central argument was: “To suppress a book or punish an idea is to express contempt for the people who read the book or consider the idea. In preferring the logic of the executioner to the logic of debate, the book burners and the Ayatollah Khomeini display their distrust for the principle on which self-government rests, the wisdom and virtue of ordinary people.”

The shattered Riverdale Press office: 1989.

The shattered Riverdale Press office: 1989.

I thought that was motherhood and apple pie. We’ve all learned differently since then, most recently in the horrific assassinations at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

When The Press fought back–by bringing out its next issue on time a day after the bombing, by continuing its tradition of hard-hitting opinion writing, by publishing a defense of Rushdie on the anniversary of the bombing for the next 10 years—it had help.

Residents, elected officials and community leaders, including many who had criticized the paper in the past, rallied behind it. But the most important source of aid came from the state’s other community newspapers. They reprinted the editorial that had provoked the bombing.

Together with its publication by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Congressional Record and its reproduction in New York Newsday, they brought the message of a 13,000-circulation newspaper to a million readers, a stinging defeat for the terrorists who had sought to suppress it.

In letters and conversations, many editors of those little weekly newspapers around the state told me that they were frightened about the consequences of publishing the editorial about The Satanic Verses. Some also said they disagreed with it; they believed that it was wrong to ridicule religion or thought that Rushdie should have known better that to bait devout Muslims. Nevertheless, they published the editorial because they wanted to stand in solidarity with The Press and with the principle that argument, not violence, was the way to express disagreement.

Sadly, most American news outlets, including The New York Times, the Associated Press and the major broadcast and cable news networks, have flinched from publishing the controversial cartoons that incited the bloodbath in Paris. Worse, some have used technology to blur the images, as if they were obscene, or so horrific that readers and viewers needed to be shielded from them.

In justification some have said that they found the cartoons disagreeable or crude or childish or needlessly provocative. Those judgments are condescending toward readers and viewers, who are deprived of the opportunity to judge for themselves. They also miss the point.

The issue is no longer whether Charlie Hebdo’s demonstrated contempt for Islam (and religion generally) is justified. It is certainly not whether its means of expressing that contempt is effective.

The murders call for us to defend the principle that in a free society no doctrine should be exempt from criticism and no criticism should be punished by violence.

The refusal of leading American news outlets to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons declares that in perilous times there are visions that must not be imagined and thoughts that must not be uttered.

It is a victory for the forces of silence.

May 21, 2013

Advice on writing and reporting

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:23 am
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Students ask me all the time about perfecting their craft. Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute recently posted the notes he took at a conference after “listening carefully to four of the [Washington] Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters: David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.”

My favorite advice came from Finkel, who said in part about reporting from Iraq:

My intent was to answer a question that needs answering for the reader: What was it like for a soldier to be there in Iraq.
The fact that I stayed in the war zone made all the difference. I was a continuing presence, not someone who parachuted in and out.
Go to a place where other reporters aren’t. Go to the hidden place, the unseen place.
If the tractor with bread and water is headed to feed the refugees in the field, take a flying leap onto the back of that tractor.
Assume nothing, ask everything.
If a refugee is wiping his face with a handkerchief, ask about the handkerchief (turned out to be a gift, a “love letter” from his illiterate wife).
You reach the point where you are “living with people” who become characters in your stories.

Here’s some of what I told students in my opinion writing class:

You have to respect your readers.
You have to investigate—to be a reporter. Telling people what you think they should know and care about is a heavy responsibility. You need to be certain the facts are straight.
You have to give issues a human face or a human voice, to let readers know why they matter.
You have to write well. There are only two ways I know to learn to do that: by writing; and by reading.
Like athletes, writers need to stay in shape. If you take a week off or a summer off, your eye will be less keen, your voice will squeak, your prose will get flabby.
And you need to read omnivorously. Not just newspapers and magazines, but novels, poetry, history, philosophy, science. In particular you need to read what Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said”: all those dead white men who are so scorned—the Greeks; the King James Bible; Shakespeare; Tolstoy; Hobbes; Marx; Freud; Melville; Mark Twain.
Reading good writing is like eating good food. You incorporate it as muscle and energy. It enters the bloodstream of your prose.

January 3, 2013

The Times steals a story

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 9:28 am
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In May, the public editor of The Times published a well-deserved rebuke to the newsroom for using the work of others without acknowledgement. The Times, he wrote,

can take a complex and difficult issue and, with its unmatched reporting resources, pull together in-depth work that tells a complete story to a vast audience.

But what about the other, smaller news organizations and independent journalists who got there ahead of The Times, breaking important elements of the story first, laboring in the face of intense community opposition? No credit went to them in The Times’s series.

Let’s be clear. Copy-cat news isn’t plagiarism. But if you’re guided to a story or to an idea to pursue by someone else’s work, an acknowledgment is common courtesy, especially if your hat-tip can give legitimacy to the embattled reporter who set you on the trail.

On Facebook, I posted about my own experience, saying that “as editor of The Riverdale Press, I grew accustomed to seeing our stories and those of other community papers in the Metro section. More recently, as editor of Voices of NY, I read many of the stories in Jewish news outlets that helped The Times craft its excellent blockbuster series on abuse in the Orthodox community. Good for Arthur Brisbane for raising the issue publicly.”

That post brought a raft of comments from journalists who had been stung to see their work used without acknowledgment. Wrote David Goldiner of the Jewish Daily Forward:

We broke many of the stories….especially charles hynes’ disgraceful (and surely illegal) blanket policy of refusing to identify orthodox jewish sex abuse suspects.

Karyn Miller-Medzon, who started her career at The Press and is now a producer at Boston’s public radio station WBUR added:

I remember this happening so many times during my years at the Press. There was one story in particular, about lead in the water pipes in homes in Riverdale and Kingsbridge that we ran, that lead the Metro section in the times a few days later. At the time I was in disbelief. I got used to it.

That got a sarcastic riposte from a friend of hers:

Of course, no public radio program ever decided what was news based on what was printed in the New York Times.

Commenting on the Times website, a former TV reporter agreed:

If you want to know what is going to be on television news in three days, read the Times and the WSJ today. The reporters are handed a copy of the story and off they go.

And, of course, they’re right. With its still-huge news staff and its commitment to serving as the paper of record, The Times does set the reporting agenda for many.

The Times’ status makes it different, argued former Press managing editor Tom Watson.

There’s a strong disproportionality between the mighty NYT and a feisty community newspaper, which to break a big story, spends a huge % of its reporting resources over a period of time. That’s real commitment and the product shouldn’t be lifted (like we’ve all had it done). And if we’re honest about it, having our exposes picked up by the Times for wider distribution is a big win for a swashbuckling weekly – not just for the attention but because it’s more likely to influence public policy. And getting the proper credit is part of that.

Mary Beth Pfeiffer, the award-winning investigative reporter at The Poughkeepsie Journal added another example:

Been there too. NYT editorial based on a story only I wrote; NYT articles that failed to credit.

But maybe public editors make a difference, she speculated, and word in the newsroom that Brisbane was taking on the subject had led to a change:

That is, until last week, two days before the Brisbane piece. Hmmmm. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/nyregion/us-cites-medicaid-overpayments-to-new-york-state.html

Smaller news outlets are guilty of purloining stories too, pointed out Jordan Moss, founder of the Bronx News Network and former editor of the Norwood News, serving neighborhoods in the Northwest Bronx.

It wasn’t just the Times (particularly the City section) but Bronx News 12 that regularly used the Norwood News (and still does I’m sure) as a free AP Wire that refused to credit the publications they got their stories — and sources! — from. In fact News 12 would occasionally call me and ask me for the phone numbers of sources. I would always say they could only have it if they promised to credit us. The reporters were never able to do that.

November 8, 2011

Names are news: spell them right

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 2:59 pm
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There are journalism teachers who give an automatic F to any student who misspells a name. I’m not quite that much of a hardass, but I did lower the grade of a student who misspelled the name of her subject in a profile, and I was distressed to see another student get the name of the main spokesman for an organization he was writing about wrong, even though he had it in front of him in black and white.

“Getting people’s names right is one of the most basic tasks of reporting and editing.” I didn’t say that; a New York Times editor did. So far this year, writes Philip B. Corbett on the Times Topics blog, The Times has published 2,800 corrections, and 480 of them have involved people’s names. He adds:

And every time we get a name wrong, we chip away at The Times’s credibility in the eyes of readers. It’s embarrassing when we misspell well-known names. Even worse is misspelling the names of ordinary people who may appear in The Times only once. Their moment in the spotlight is spoiled, and they’re likely to tell everyone they know that The Times can’t get its facts straight.

Here are some of Corbett’s tips for getting names right:

  •  In every interview, ask the subject to spell his or her name.
  • If you use another source, online or elsewhere, be sure it’s reliable. (Don’t take a Google poll and go with the spelling that gets the most hits.)
  •  Don’t just check how [The Times] spelled the name last time — [its] archive is, among other things, a minefield of past errors.
  • Watch out for names with common variants — Stephen and Steven, O’Neil and O’Neill and O’Neal.

And a couple more tips from me:

  • If you’re at a meeting where there’s a sign-up list for speakers or an athletic event where there’s a lineup card or roster take a picture of it.
  • If you’re handwriting is awful or you’re a little bit dyslexic, hand your notebook to the person you’re interviewing and ask him (or her) to print his name.

October 2, 2011

Why did The Times change its protest report?

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 12:26 pm
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What do you think? Did this story change because 20 minutes after it was first published the facts on the ground had changed?

Was the second version a row-back? That’s journalism jargon for an effort to quietly correct a mistake in the facts, the angle or the tone of a story without acknowledging that anything was wrong with the earlier version.

Or was the change, which is accompanied by the introduction of the byline of The Times reporter who is stationed at Police Headquarters, what the many people who posted this on Facebook allege: an example of the newspaper’s bias against the Occupy Wall Street protest?

The Village Voice interviewed City Room bureau chief Andrew Newman for The Times’ response, but expressed skepticism about it, noting that the later stories eliminated a passage that said police allowed demonstrators onto the roadway.

September 16, 2011

Tips on taking notes

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 6:55 pm
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Photo by quinn.anya/licensed under creative commons

Want to know what to do when you’re interviewing someone who talks faster than you can write? how to get that great quote that can make your story? how to avoid burdening your story with too much quotation? or even opinions on the best notebook and the right kind of pen?

A colleague at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, Indrani Sen, has been collecting tips on taking notes. She put them in a handout for her students, and I thought I’d share them with you.


Note-Taking Tips From Professional Journalists

The best reporters return from every assignment with a notebook stuffed with quotes, information and sensory detail — the raw material we need to build a story. But how do we fill those notebooks? One of the most difficult skills for new reporters to pick up is also one of the most basic — note-taking.

Every reporter has his or her own systems for note-taking, which start with some nuts-and-bolts decisions: Reporter’s notebook or steno pad? Ballpoint or roller ball? Shorthand or cursive? To record or not? Try a few combinations and figure out what feels most comfortable for you over a long day of reporting.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the importance of solid notes. As well as providing the material for your story, your notes are also your documentation of your reporting process. Your editors or professors may on occasion ask to see your notes. They don’t need to be tidy, but they do need to be complete — if it’s in your story, it should be in your notes or your research. Your notes should also provide avenues to verify information and quotes — phone numbers, email addresses, website urls. Your integrity as a journalist rests not only on your finished product, but also upon your reporting process and your ability to document that process.

In 2007, I asked some friends to explain their note-taking systems and offer tips. Please add your own in the comments below! (more…)

August 5, 2011

Leading with your best punch

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 3:43 pm
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Daily News cop house reporter Bob Kappstatter posted this little anthology of classic tabloid leads on Facebook, saying they were “left many years ago by overnight reporter Tom Raftery, a true Daily News legend.”

Read ’em and weep. Read ’em and chuckle. Read ’em and learn. (more…)

July 8, 2011

Another reason to distrust the news

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 10:28 am
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Many readers see journalists as living a more privileged life than they do. That’s one reason for the growing distrust of big media. An off-hand characterization in a recent story in The New York Times demonstrates that readers are right to detect a gap between their lives and the lives of those who bring them the news.

Anthony Weiner's Congressional portrait

For his story on the resignation of Rep. Anthony Weiner, the New York Congressman caught in a lurid internet sex scandal, Metro reporter Raymond Hernandez spoke to friends of Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who described her as worried about the couple’s financial future, since she is pregnant and he has never held a job outside of government.

Reintroducing the subject later in the story, Hernandez writes:

“Neither Ms. Abedin nor Mr. Weiner earn lucrative salaries.”

The silence of the editors gives consent to this description. Would you, or most New Yorkers, agree?

As a member of Congress, Weiner earned $174,000. According to the Plum Book of federal jobs, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff Abedin, who is 35, would be paid at the GS 15 level, which would make her salary somewhere between $123,827 and $160,886.

A public school teacher in New York City earns $45,530-$100,049; full-time faculty at the City University’s senior colleges are paid from $42,837 to 116,364.

Weiner represented Brooklyn and Queens where the median household income is $42,932 and $54,671, respectively, and per capita income is $22,959 and $25,268, according to the census. The couple reside in Washington, DC, where the comparable figures are household income $58,906 and per capita income $40,846. Nationally, household income is $50,221 and per capita income is $27,041.

I don’t know what a reporter at the New York Times is paid. I think journalists should be well compensated, so I’m glad that at a relatively junior level, a reporter can regard people who earn six times the median per capita income as people of modest means. But a reporter shouldn’t be so far divorced from the life of his audience that he forgets that many would envy this young couple’s wealth.

That thoughtless lack of empathy poisons–if only by a drop–the relationship between reporter and reader.

July 7, 2011

Sex and the New York Post

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 6:04 pm
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Strauss-Kahn's mug shot

When the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn collapsed, the New York Post piled on with a bombshell claiming that the hotel chambermaid who accused the former head of the International Monetary Fund of raping her was a prostitute.

The story begins in textbook fashion:

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser wasn’t just a girl working at a hotel — she was a working girl.
The Sofitel housekeeper who claims the former IMF boss sexually assaulted her in his room was doing double duty as a prostitute, collecting cash on the side from male guests, The Post has learned.

Leads make promises. This one asserts categorically that the housekeeper was a whore. Does it keep the promise? Does the Post really know what it says it knows? (more…)

February 20, 2011

Let’s be careful out there

In the six years that my students have reported for The Hunts Point Express, no one has been a victim of a crime, but the women reporters have been victimized by crude remarks, whistles and catcalls. Some have responded with anger; some with fear. Some have pushed forward aggressively; some have retreated in shame.

Reporting from an unfamiliar place always has its risks, and the risks are especially acute for women. (more…)

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