News next: a journalism teacher's diary

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.

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
Tags: , , ,

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
Tags: , ,

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.

July 8, 2011

Another reason to distrust the news

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 10:28 am
Tags: , , ,

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
Tags: , , , , , ,

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…)

February 8, 2011

Whose story is it anyway?

Filed under: None — Bernard L. Stein @ 5:13 pm
Tags: , , , ,

As far as Emily Whitmer is concerned, the journalist who devoted 8,000 painstakingly-researched words to re-examining the validity of shaken-baby syndrome is morally equivalent to the woman she believes abused her baby son and destroyed his brain.


In the lead article in the February 6 New York Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon, a lawyer and journalist who edits Slate’s legal column and its feminist blog, calls into question hundreds of child-abuse prosecutions for shaking infants, which is held to be responsible for brain damage, and often death, for some 200 babies each year. (more…)

November 28, 2010

If it’s on the web you can use it, can’t you?

When a student in my Neighborhood News class posted a story on the Hunts Point Express website, I was surprised by the quality of the accompanying photo. Then I looked at the credit. The photographer was one of The New York Times’ best.

“That’s stealing,” I wrote to her. “Photographs are copyrighted, and can’t just be lifted and used.”

She replied: “I thought that that was okay. Ive seen that done before as long as credit was given to the photographer.”

Well, we’ve all heard of people who rob banks or mug old ladies, too, but that doesn’t make theft okay. (more…)

October 19, 2010

Sex in the Tribune Tower

Under new management, the Tribune executive suite had an Animal House atmosphere, according to The New York Times

The headline got your attention, didn’t it? Sex sells, and that’s undoubtedly why a front page article in The New York Times of Oct. 6 begins with a dirty story.

To set up his tale of how the Tribune Company, proud publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, The Hartford Courant and The Orlando Sentinel, destroyed some of the finest newsrooms in the country and collapsed into bankruptcy, David Carr describes an after-hours gathering of the company’s new chief executive Randy Michaels and some colleagues in a hotel bar.

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”

Does anyone else feel queasy about this anecdote? The reporter bases it on two anonymous sources; Michaels says it never happened. How does Carr, who wasn’t there, know the story is true? How do we? (more…)

July 7, 2010

Hardy perennials: how do you write about what everybody knows?

It’s 103 degrees out as I write this. So every newspaper website and tv station is running a story about the weather. We’ve all read these stories, again and again and again. The heat wave; the cold snap; the hurricane/tornado/wind storm. The run-up to the election. Graduation. They’re stories that have to be written, but that can be so tedious to read, and to write. And they’re stories you know the competition is writing, too. So how do you set yourself apart from the pack?

The Times did it with an amusing piece that took off from a cliche–“hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk.” Was it really?

The Boston Globe’s media columnist surveyed his domain and offered a tip sheet on keeping the heat wave story from wilting.

Some good examples of how to cover an election without writing as though it was a horse race come from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Student reporters fanned out all over the city to collect man-on-the street reports from far-flung neighborhoods, writing about and videotaping first-time voters, immigrants, young people, people in nursing homes, even political meet-ups in bars. A far cry from either policy wonk analysis or poll-driven winners-and-losers reporting.

Perhaps the most famous example of making an ordinary story extraordinary is Jimmy Breslin’s account of the funeral of John F. Kennedy. Knowing that every news outlet in the world would be covering the obsequies, Breslin turned his back on the body lying in state, closed his ears to the dignitaries’ eulogies, ignored the grieving family, and instead wrote about Clifton Pollard, the man who dug Kennedy’s grave.

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