Journalism

A few days ago, when I first decided to try to write something about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, I looked for a quote I could start with, and I found one about a small family-owned pizza joint called Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, where the owners were saying they won’t cater any gay weddings:

“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Crystal O’Connor tells WBND-TV, adding, “We are a Christian establishment.”

Family members say they agree with Gov. Mike Pence that the bill does not encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“We’re not discriminating against anyone, that’s just our belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything,” O’Connor told WBND.

Well, actually, refusing to cater their wedding pretty much is discrimination and…oh, never mind.

I got distracted before I could write any more, and meanwhile the outrage machine got rolling and soon everybody was talking about that little pizza joint. And eventually Memories Pizza closed because they were getting threats. Because there are assholes on all sides of this issue.

So now I find myself feeling uncomfortably sympathetic toward the Memories Pizza folks and the way they’ve been dragged through the media. Jack Marshall had this to say:

Announcing that the law would allow them to refuse to cater a gay wedding, they injected their biases into a debate they were neither legally, ethically, morally or intellectually equipped to participate in.

That’s not quite right. These folks didn’t go looking to make a statement to the world. They’re the local pizza joint in a small town surrounded by farmland and some damned TV reporter went into their place looking for a quote that she could turn into a story. And they were unfortunately nice enough to give her one. And all hell broke loose. By the time the story got to Huffington Post, it had turned into, “Indiana’s Memories Pizza Reportedly Becomes First Business To Reject Catering Gay Weddings.”

Because a digital media empire going after a small family-owned restaurant is really speaking truth to power.

I used to cover community police meetings for a little while as a volunteer reporter, and I remember that after one of them I got to chatting with one of the cops and he started grumbling about some commanders and the way they promoted their friends over more qualified candidates. Since I had already identified myself as a reporter, and we hadn’t gone off the record, there was nothing to stop me from turning this into a story:

CHICAGO — 16th District Police Commander Bob Jones on numerous occasions promoted friends over other more qualified candidates, according to Patrol Officer John Smith…

I didn’t write that story, because (1) it’s not fair to treat people who aren’t used to dealing with the media as if they were the White House Press Secretary, and (2) there really isn’t a lot of news value in reporting that some police officers don’t like their commanders’ decisions. “Man Strongly Disagrees With How His Boss Runs Things” sounds like an Onion headline.

The Memories Pizza story wasn’t quite that unfair — the owners pretty clearly knew they were being interviewed — but remember that this story wasn’t about anything that had actually happened to anyone. Reporter Alyssa Marino’s story was originally headlined, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service,” which is misleading because no one at Memories Pizza had actually refused a request to cater a gay wedding. No gay couple had ever asked.

The headline has since been changed to the slightly better, “RFRA: Michiana business wouldn’t cater a gay wedding,” but that doesn’t save it from the basic problem that is apparent from a more honest headline such as “Owner of Small Town Pizza Joint Says He Would Refuse To Cater Gay Weddings If Anyone Ever Asked Him To.” It just isn’t much of a story. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Gay marriage is still not acceptable to a lot of people. Heck, there must be thousands of small business owners in Indiana alone who oppose same-sex marriage. That doesn’t make it right, but there’s no reason to pick on these particular small business owners. This kind of journalism is one step more sophisticated than flying a news team down to Texas to do man-on-the-street interviews in the hope that someone with an amusing accent will say something bigoted on camera.

Scott Greenfield is a little peeved that reporters don’t give credit when they pick up stories from bloggers:

For many years, mainstream media got a lot of juice as a result of links from the web, from blogs.  We would see a story and pick it up, run with it, comment on it, and people would find it sufficiently fascinating to go read the source article in a paper they would never otherwise know about. Do you read the Times? Or the Gate? Or the Christian Science Monitor, or USA Today, or tiny local papers no one outside of bumfuck has ever heard of?  Not unless there is a reason to do so.

Yet, when a blawg picked up on a story or opinion that subsequently caught the interest of a newspaper reporter, they were happy to run with it, but there was almost never a mention of the fact that it came via a blog.  Reporters saw no need to credit blogs, as they were, well, blogs. Beneath their dignity and inconsequential, tapping away with crazy eyes in bathrobes in the middle of the night.

Scott is right about reporters not giving credit to bloggers, but I think he’s wrong about why. Well, some reporters sneer at bloggers, but I think there’s also a bit of a culture clash between the conventions of journalism and blogging.

The reason traditional journalists cite sources in stories is not to give credit, but rather to describe the origin of statements of facts within the story, thereby giving some indication of their credibility. A story which says that “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to an anonymous source” is not as credible as a story that says “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to a statement issued Wednesday morning by former comptroller Melvin P. Jones.”

This is basically the journalist’s version of footnotes. In an academic paper, the same statement would probably look something like this:

Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry.1

1Melvin P. Jones, former comptroller, statement on January 29, 2014.

With this cite to a source, readers and other journalists can judge the story’s veracity or even try to contact Melvin P. Jones directly to verify the facts or get additional information.

But regardless of how you write it, as a journalist or as an academic, it doesn’t really do the reader much good to know how the author discovered this fact. “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, who this reporter contacted on a tip from accountant Mike Devlin, who he heard about from receptionist Debra Stevens, who he first met while doing another story four years ago.”

Unless they’re interested in the actual reporting process, readers don’t need to know about any of the people the reporter talked to along the way to Melvin P. Jones. They’re not sources, they’re just people with tips and ideas about stories, and journalists usually don’t mention them. (In fact, many of them prefer it that way, so they can keep their jobs.)

Similarly, a journalist who writes something like “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, in a story first brought to our attention by Scott Greenfield,” isn’t really adding anything that has an impact on the credibility of the facts being reported. Neither is it worthwhile to mention that other media outlets are reporting the story, for the same reason. And it certainly adds little of value to the reader to know from which particular media outlet or blog the reporter got the idea.

One time when media outlets do credit each other is when they don’t have their own sources. So if the Times is reporting the Governor Smith bribery story, and the Post doesn’t have their own source in the Governor’s office, then the Post‘s only choices are to either not run a story about the Governor’s bribe-taking at all, or run the story and credit the only information source they have: “Governor Smith took bribes from the construction industry, according to former comptroller Melvin P. Jones, as reported in the Times.” This lets readers know that the facts come second-hand by way of the Times, which may or may not make the story less credible for them. Think of it as the journalist’s equivalent to the academic rule discouraging citing secondary sources in footnotes: Use them only when you don’t have a primary source.

This is one of the reasons journalists get so excited about exclusive stories: If any other media outlet wants to talk about your story, they have to credit you. It’s also why it sucks to play catch-up on a story: You have to keep crediting the competition. You can bet that the Post will try to get their own reporter to talk to Melvin P. Jones before the next edition, so that they can end the humiliation of crediting the Times in every single version of the story.

Bloggers think about this completely differently. For one thing, unlike the news media (or academics writing footnotes), we are far more willing to cite secondary sources. In part, that’s because we don’t generally do much reporting. Most traditional bloggers don’t interview people or gather facts, and this puts us in the same position as the Post above: We have to link to other web pages to cite sources for our material.

Bloggers can also be freer in their use of secondary sources because our form of journalism developed in the age of hypermedia. So if I want to write about the recent accusations against Woody Allen by his daughter, I can link to Gideon’s analysis of whether he can be prosecuted or Jack Marshall’s brutal takedown of one of Allen’s defenders and trust that my readers will be able to follow the links to the primary source if they want to. In this way, linking to secondary sources actually provides more information than just linking to the primary source because it also provides links to other people who have interesting things to say.

Since we do this all the time, as an intentional part of blogging, we don’t think of it as a bad thing, the way traditional journalists do. Mentioning other websites and including quotes and links is just how blogging is done. In fact, finding other interesting websites and blog posts is recognized as a big part of the value of blogging: We go out and find interesting stuff for you to read. One of the reasons Glenn Reynolds’s Instapundit blog was so wildly influential is because he was always finding interesting new bloggers for his readers to enjoy.

Also, the early bloggers were somewhat embattled — under attack from traditional journalists and from many of the politicians, business leaders, and celebrities they wrote about — and this led to a sort of “brothers in arms” camaraderie: You suck and your ideas are stupid, and in my post explaining why you suck and why your ideas are stupid, I’m going to pay you the respect of linking to you and giving you credit for the things you wrote because we’re all bloggers and we have to support each other. After all, people who disagree with us are also great sources of material for blog posts. Even our ideological opponents help us succeed at blogging.

If reporters’ citing sources of facts are the journalistic equivalent of footnotes, then bloggers’ links to posts that inspired them are the blogospheric equivalent of a book’s Acknowledgements.

Traditional journalists just don’t think that way. They expect to have competition on stories. Even when a story starts out as an exclusive — and every other news outlet has to credit them as the source — they assume other journalists will be contacting the same sources and searching the same files as they did, and that they will eventually publish substantially similar stories without acknowledging that someone else got there first. That’s just how journalism is done.

Also, traditional journalists are taught to keep themselves out of the story. (You wouldn’t know that from TV reporters, but it’s generally still the case with print media.) That means they generally just tell the story without saying how they got it, or where they got the idea for it, or who else has been writing about it. They assume readers will not be interested in that stuff, or in the general history of how the story has been playing out in the media. After all, even book authors usually put the Acknowledments section at the end, where people don’t have to read it.

I just noticed that Matt Haiduk posted a complaint a few weeks ago at his Kane County Criminal Lawyer blog about how often news stories about crime are based on nothing but press releases:

If you read a newspaper article and don’t know what’s going on, you’d think a newspaper reporter was sitting in a courtroom watching trials as they unfold. That certainly does happen a lot of the time. What happens more often is that a reporter sits in for parts of a trial. […]

Anyhow, what seems to be happening more often (especially in Kane County) is that media and press releases are pushed out to media outlets, who then write stories based largely on the reports.  Of course, those reports are coming from the Kane County State’s Attorneys office, and the police departments.

Haiduk then goes on to give an example by quoting parallel bits of text from a press release from the Kane County prosecutor’s office and from an uncredited story in the Elgin Courier News. It’s not quite word for word, but it’s close.

There’s nothing unethical about working from a press release — it’s a statement from a source, just like any other — but when that’s the only source of information, it makes the story unbalanced. In this story, for example, there’s no evidence that anyone at the paper tried to get a statement from the defendant or her lawyer. Every attribution is to the prosecutor’s office. Furthermore, given the minimal rewrite of the press release, it’s pretty lazy. I imagine that’s why there’s no reporter’s name on it. And I guess the credit to “Submitted Reports” is the paper’s way of saying they used a press release.

This sort of thing has been going on for a long time, and it’s not just police and prosecutors or even just government. In newspaper terminology (somewhat obsoleted by the internet) the combined amount of print space in the whole paper that’s not advertising is called the “news hole.” And the news hole has to be filled every day.

(On the internet, it’s less about filling the hole and more about pushing out enough content to get enough people to click on the ads, so everyone gets a paycheck.)

Some days, there’s so much going on that the news hole isn’t large enough and stories get left out or saved for later. But on days when there’s not enough news, the editors have to look for filler, and press releases are an easy source of material. This happens a lot, especially in business reporting, which is why most major corporations issue press releases. A whole distribution network has sprung up to handle the flow.

For example, I picked a large company that doesn’t normally generate a lot of media coverage (so not Microsoft or Apple) and visited their press releases page. Then I opened the most recent story “Caterpillar Announces Officer Retirement” and picked a short paragraph near the top:

After more than 15 years with Caterpillar, Hans Haefeli, vice president with responsibility for the Advanced Components & Systems Division (ACSD), has elected to retire to return to the United Kingdom. Haefeli’s retirement will be effective April 30, 2014.

That paragraph doesn’t have a quote in it, so the news media would have no obligation to report it verbatim.

I dropped that paragraph into Google search and looked at the results. The first result is the Caterpiller press release itself. The rest are news outlets:

  • MarketWatch reprints it verbatim off of PR Newswire, and properly labels it as a press release.
  • As does the Wall Street Journal.
  • Rental Equipment Register reports it as a story.
  • HighBeam Research rewrites it as a story about the the replacement and hides part of it behind a paywall.
  • Jutia Group pulls a piece of it off of PR Newswire, and throws in a bunch of other boilerplate.
  • ABC 27 (WHTM), out of Harrisburg, PA quotes it verbatim as coming from “an independent third-party content provider” which is apparently PR Newswire.
  • Benzinga pulls it from PR Newswire.
  • NBC 26 (WAGT), out of Augusta, GA also quotes it verbatim as coming from “an independent third-party content provider” which is apparently PR Newswire. It looks like ABC 27 and NBC 26 are both getting the PR Newswire feed from some sort of news service called WorldNow.
  • The WorldNow version also hits NBC 4, KXXV, WSPA, maybe CNN Money, KCEN, WJHL, Toledo News Now, and many, many more.

There are three lessons here: First, if you want to learn about the world from the news media, learn to tell the difference between news reporting and reprinted press releases.

Second, if you want to get your version of the story out, write press releases. If you’re not sure how, there are plenty of unemployed journalists these days who would be willing to help for a small fee, but basically you just write a story about yourself or whatever you want people to know about. It has to have the same structure and tone as a real news story, and it shouldn’t be full of blatant cheerleading, but there’s no need to bother with balance. Also, remember this is just filler, so it only just barely has to be newsworthy — you wouldn’t believe the crap I get as press releases in my blog email.

Here, let me see if I can make up an example:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Attorney Haiduk Blasts Elgin Courier News Editors

December 10, 2013, Geneva, Illinois — Kane Country criminal defense attorney Matthew J. Haiduk lashed out at the Elgin Courier News over their practice of rewriting press releases and publishing them as if they were reporting actual news.

“If you read a newspaper article and don’t know what’s going on, you’d think a newpaper reporter was sitting in a courtroom watching trials as they unfold,” said Haiduk before providing examples of a December 6th Courier story and a press release the same day from the Kane County State’s Attorney Office which had multiple sections that were nearly word-for-word identical.

“It’s not so much an article as it is a rebroadcast of a prosecutor’s statement about the outcome of the case,” said Haiduk, who went on to describe the problem as widespread and recurring. “This happens nearly every day, all over Chicagoland.”

(You’d need to polish it and pad it out a bit, but that’s easy to do when you can quote yourself as saying something because there you are, saying what you said, right there in the press release!)

The third lesson is to use PR Newswire, or something like it. The PR Newswire website describes itself as “the authoritative source of news and information for leading global media organizations,” which certainly seems to be true, given the large number of media organizations quoting from it.

In two places, there are big green buttons labeled “Send a News Release” which take me to an “Online Member Center” that offers such wonders as:

  • Content Distribution
  • Targeting Monitoring and Measurement
  • Online Engagement
  • Social Media Distribution
  • Multimedia Content Submission
  • Online Press Kits

I don’t have an account, of course, but clicking “Sign up to get started” takes me to the membership signup page, which tells me that for $195 per year I will get:

  • Ability to distribute news via the newswire network with the greatest reach and most comprehensive reporting in the industry…
  • Pre-registration, verification, and setup for news release distribution…
  • Quarterly re-authentication of all of your organization’s “authorized senders”…
  • Complimentary access to Premium, member-only webinars that teach you how to effectively leverage your content and engage with your key audiences…
  • Complimentary organizational archive (with logo) on www.prnewswire.com, our award-winning, heavily trafficked, and search-engine optimized news and information site, attracting over 2,800,000 unique visitors each month.
  • 24/7/365, concierge-level professional services and customer support
  • Complimentary phone/webinar training for all major services. Extra fees may apply for in-person training.
  • Complimentary audience engagement counseling. We’ll provide you with effective guidance to help you achieve your communications objectives.

Manipulating the media about big things is hard — just ask the NSA and the President — but when it comes to the small stories, it sounds like you can do it for a low annual fee, billable to your credit card.

I keep telling myself I’d like to do more actual journalism here on Windypundit, and to that end, I’ve been reading the Associated Press Reporting Handbook by Jerry Schwartz. The first few chapters give examples of AP news stories and then discuss the reporters’ approach to getting them.

The third chapter discusses “Main Street Welcomes McDonald’s — but Worries” a story about how the people of Coudersport, PA reacted to a McDonald’s restaurant opening in their small town. Schwartz discusses reporter Ted Anthony’s approach to reporting in some detail. Amusingly for a book about journalism, he makes a small factual error:

Coudersport was only one part of the story. Anthony wanted to look at the idea of Main Street in America — to look at whether the popular, idealized conception of the virtues of small-town life was valid. Anthony also wanted to know more about McDonald’s and about the philosophy of fast food. He read a book about the corporation’s history, “Behind the Arches.” He interviewed folks at McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Park, Ill.

Oops. No.

I used to live half a mile from Oak Park, and it’s a mostly-residential community that would be unlikely to host the headquarters of a major international corporation. Besides, everyone around here knows that McDonald’s headquarters is in nearby Oak Brook. (Kim Bhasin at Business Insider has a nice pictorial tour of McDonald’s HQ.)

The book was from 2002, however, and the story was written even earlier, so I thought it just might be possible that McDonald’s used to be headquartered in Oak Park at some point, but Lisa McComb, Director of McDonald’s U.S. Media Relations, was nice enough to confirm for me that McDonald’s has never had an office in Oak Park.

She suggested that the mistake might have arisen because McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc lived in Oak Park at one point, but I think a more likely explanation is that Schwartz simply confused the similar village names. Settlers (or developers) here must have really liked Oak trees, because in addition to Oak Brook and Oak Park, Illinois also has Oak Grove, Oak Lawn, Oakdale, Oakford, Oakwood, and Oakwood Hills.

People complain about reporters asking asking crazy questions, but those are sometimes the ones that get the most interesting results.

For example, in the video below, the reporter goes through the trouble of setting up an ambush interview on a Congressman, and then asks him a really dumb generic question: “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?”

I mean, seriously, couldn’t he have phoned that one in? Ambush interviews are supposed to be for hitting people with questions they really don’t want to hear, like “We have a witness who says you sold your BP stock because you received inside information from the CEO. How do you respond, Senator?” or “Is it true you just spent a week in Argentina with your mistress?”

A good ambush interview is wasted on a pointless question like “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?” which any seasoned politician can answer with a platitude like “My voting record speaks for itself.” There’s no way you can get a good story out of that.

Unless, that is, you get a response like this guy got from Democratic representative Bob Etheridge:

Of course, this is all over the internet. Yet, as Ethical Alarmist Jack Marshall points out, the news media is missing the story:

Today, the day after a video surfaced showing North Carolina Congressman Bob Etheridge grabbing, restraining, and wrapping his hand around the neck of a young man who dared to ask him a question on a Washington D.C. sidewalk, “The Daily Beast’s” #4 story was the revelation that former Ebay CEO and current G.O.P. candidate for governor of California once shoved an Ebay subordinate in a moment of anger and paid six figures in damages. The story about a sitting U.S. Congressman assaulting a U.S. citizen without provocation on a public street doesn’t appear anywhere in the liberal-leaning news aggregation site’s news summary.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post relegated coverage of the Etheridge attack to its blogs, most of which made the focus of their coverage the “mystery” of the assaulted student’s identity and that of his companion. This theme was picked up elsewhere too: Who were these guys? Were they Republican operatives? Right Wing hit men disguised as students? Was this a plot?

Here is the complete list of people who could have been the victims of Etheridge ‘s assault whose identity and motives would change his culpability: nobody. It doesn’t matter if the student Etheridge assaulted was really Karl Rove on his knees, or Ann Coulter in a mask, or Lindsay Lohan in a desperate cry for help. It doesn’t make one bit of difference. A U.S. Congressman assaulted a citizen in public.

Really, shouldn’t that be the big story?

Some people have suggested that this is a Republican dirty trick of some kind, buttressing their arguments with the fact that the face of the on-camera interviewer is blurred out, and he has not been identified. As some Democratic party hack puts it:

“Motives matter, and I think you can see who was behind this,” said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse just now. “This was a Republican party tracking operation. If it wasn’t a party tracker or intern, why is the face blurred and why is the source hidden? You know if it had been a right wing blog, they’d identify themselves and they’d be booking this person on TV all day. Republicans know if they admit their involvement in this game of gotcha it will undermine their credibility. One minute this guy is interviewing a member of Congress on camera and the next a video is released with his face blurred out? If that doesn’t tell you this is a Republican Party hatchet job nothing will.”

I was inclined to buy this scenario at first. I know if I had been the interviewer and gotten a video this great, I sure wouldn’t have taken my name off of it. It does seem a little suspicious.

(Note that I was just buying the scenario, not the argument — assaulting people on the public street doesn’t become okay just because they’re members of the opposition party.)

But then, I got to thinking…If this was a setup, what exactly was the plan here? How could these supposed Republican party operatives have known the Congressman would go off like that?

And here’s another one:

“It was pure Gotcha, try to trap a congressman, because they refused to tell them who they were, what school they were from,” [Democratic Consultant Brad] Crone said. “And if you’re working on a project, tell the truth.”

Crone’s got a point. It’s not required by law or anything, but most real reporters give their names and the name of the organization they work for. I know I try to do it when I interview someone, but I sometimes forget. Maybe the kid forgot too.

Or maybe he intentionally withheld his identity.

But so what? If this was a “Gotcha,” what was the plan? How was asking a simple, vapid question a “trap”? Most public figures would have politely asked for a name and then walked off if they got no response. Again, for this to be some sort of Republican plot, these two guys would have had to somehow predict that Etheridge would go nuts like this.

I’m not buying it. Etheridge assaulted some guy on the street. That’s the story.

Update: Jamison Koehler discusses the legal definition of assault in D.C.

With regard to the issue of giving credit for discovering the “Sotomeyor & Associates” issue, Eric Turkewitz comments:

Something might be in the public domain, but it if is buried in a box of other documents, someone still has to go find it.

Whether this qualifies as that proverbial box of documents is, of course, another question. I have to assume that, given the high profile nature of the filing, this would have been found by others eventually.

Except that no one said a word for three weeks afterward.

Absolutely. Eric Turkewitz spotted this issue in Judge Sotomeyor’s answers to the Senate questionnaire before anyone else. The first appearance in the major media was in the Washington Times three weeks later. And they mentioned Turkewitz’s blog.

Eric Turkewitz scooped everybody.

So why not give him credit? Why did the New York Times article on the issue not mention that Turkewitz got there first? I speculated about this in my previous post, but I wasn’t really satisfied with what I wrote. Now that I’ve had more time to think it over, I think I can explain why the New York Times‘s behavior doesn’t seem outrageous to me.

(My understanding of how journalists handle this is cursory at best. I’d love to hear from a real expert on sourcing issues.)

I think the key insight is that newspaper stories don’t cite sources to give credit, they cite sources to give readers a way to judge the accuracy and importance of a statement of fact or opinion in a news story. Giving credit has nothing to do with it.

If a newspaper reports that the mayor of a big city is using his control of federal stimulus funds to reward political supporters, it helps to know whether this information comes from “a source within City Hall”, “a former staff member”, “a press conference by an opposing candidate”,  or “an official involved in the Justice Department investigation.” It matters where the information comes from.

In Turkewitz’s original blog post, one of the key facts is that Judge Sotomeyor said she had a brief solo practice with “Sotomayor & Associates.” Turkewitz was the first to report on this important fact, but he is not the primary source of this fact. Sotomeyor’s Senate questionnaire is the primary source of the fact, and that’s what any reporter would cite in a story about this issue.

So why did the Washington Times mention Turkewitz’s blog in their editorial? Here’s the relevant section:

As reported by New York Personal Injury Law Blogger Eric Turkewitz, who first discovered this detail: “in New York, the conduct would fall under DR 2-102″ of the New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility, “which bars misleading advertising on a letterhead. If in fact Sotomayor had no associates at her firm, it would appear she overstepped the bounds of self-promotion by making her firm seem bigger than it was.”

As you can see, the Washington Times mentions Eric Turkewitz because they are using him as the source for two points they are raising: First, that the conduct falls under section DR 2-102 of the New York Lawyer’s Code of Professional Responsibility, and second, that Sotomeyor overstepped the bounds of the rule.

(They also mention that he was the first to discover this detail. In part, I think this is to explain why they consider his opinion important.)

In the New York Times story, reporter Serge F. Kovaleski cites Sotomeyor’s questionnaire for mentioning “Sotomeyor & Associates” (as did the Washington Times story) but he gets his legal opinions from New York University Law School Professor Stephen Gillers instead of Eric Turkewitz.

(Kovaleski can’t just make assertions on his own because that would be setting himself up as an authority, and reporters are never supposed to do that. They have to cite sources. They’re never supposed to write from their own knowledge. This is one reason I prefer blogging. I think I know stuff.)

Basically, Eric Turkewitz has no essential contribution to the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s solo practice. He doesn’t have any information about Sotomeyor that isn’t available more directly from other souces. All he brings to the story is his opinion, and if a reporter doesn’t want to use Turkewitz’s opinion, he doesn’t need to mention Turkewitz.

We haven’t seen the last of Eric Turkewitz in the media, however. He’ll be popping up in stories all over the country as Sotomeyor’s confirmation hearings commence. There’s a good chance his name will even come up in the hearings themselves.

I know I just said that Turkewitz has “no essential contribution to the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s solo practice,” but that’s not the only Sotomeyor story reporters will be doing this summer. They’ll also be doing the story of Sonia Sotomeyor’s confirmation process. And on that, Eric Turkewitz is much more than a source for the story, he’s part of the story.

(This is another reason the Washington Times mentioned him. Their editorial was partially about the confirmation process.)

This issue will probably come up during the hearings (Turkewitz has already taken a call from a Senate staffer), and when it does—or even when it’s anticipated to come up—reporters will write stories about it. This time, their stories won’t be about Sotomeyer & Associates, they’ll be about the controversy over Sotomeyer & Associates, and Eric Turkewitz is a part of the controversy. After all, he started it.

Humble blogger Eric Turkewitz is now part of the history of Judge Sotomeyor’s confirmation process. We’ll probably hear more criticism of Sotomeyor about this issue from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Republican politicians, and Fox News, but any honest account of the history of the controversy has to mention that Eric Turkewitz got there first. He’ll probably even be mentioned in books about Sotomeyor’s life.

Expect to see the phrase “first raised by New York Lawyer Eric Turkewitz” a lot.

Radley Balko used to piss me off. Back in my early days in the blogosphere, I sent him a few links to stories I thought might interest him. He then mentioned those stories in his Agitator blog, but didn’t credit me for sending him the links. Of course, I had no way of knowing for sure if he was using the links I sent or if it was just coincidence, but it happened often enough to make me suspicious.

Now Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice refers us to a case where the New York Times put out a story about an issue first raised by Eric Turkewitz in his blog.

Nowhere does the New York Times mention that Turk was the source of its “news”.  At least when Turk uses the Times as a source, he links to the original story.  The Times doesn’t return the favor.

Not only does the Times free-ride off Turkewitz, but it does so without acknowledgment that some lowly blawger came up with news that they didn’t, and that they had to steal from a blawger to get the story.

Most of us in the blawgosphere, and I include myself in this group, go to great lengths to give credit to the source of our posts, whether it’s a hat tip to a reader who sent a lead or the newspaper that carried the story or another blog that brought it to the fore.  Whatever it may be, we give attribution.  Not only is it a matter good etiquette, but it’s the honest thing to do.

Back when I thought Radley might be using my tips without crediting me, one thing puzzled me: Radley seems like a nice guy. Why wouldn’t he give me credit?

The answer I came up with is that Radley came to blogging with a bit of a journalism background, and he was following journalism’s ethics for sourcing a story. As I understand the rules, journalists cite sources for facts that make it into the story. They don’t cite sources for the idea of doing a story, and they don’t cite people who give them tips on a story.

If a friend tells me about a local family-owned restaurant that is being forced out of business after several years to make way for new development, and I go interview the owner, the developer, and the alderman, and write it up for the Chi-Town Daily News (as if I were still an active contributor), I’d cite the owner, developer, and alderman in the story, but not the friend who gave me a tip.

Then, if the Pioneer (or whatever they are these days) picked up on the story—perhaps as part of a larger story on development in Chicago—they could do one of two things: Either cite the story I wrote (“The Chi-Town Daily News is reporting that…”) or go out and interview my sources themselves and cite them directly. If they did the latter, journalistic ethics would almost certainly not require them to cite my story, since they have independent sources for the facts.

So, by journalism’s standards, Radley Balko didn’t owe me a mention because I didn’t give him any facts. I just tipped him off to something. If I used one of his posts as a story idea, but did my own reporting, my guess is that he wouldn’t have an ethical objection. I don’t know if any of this is really true, but it makes me feel better.

As for the New York Times reporter who wrote the Sotomeyor & Associates story, it seems like the same situation. Even if he got the idea from Turkewitz’s’s blog, he probably considers the idea public property because the primary source for the blog post—Sotomeyor’s questionnaire—is available to anyone, and Turkewitz doesn’t have any ownership of the story just because he wrote about it first. Newspapers chase each other’s stories this way all the time.

That’s different from blogger ethics. Much of blogging is adding commentary to something someone else wrote, so bloggers have a habit of crediting earlier posts about the same subject, even if they don’t really use anything from the earlier post. This acknowledges the effort to find the story and rewards bloggers for coming up with original ideas.

Basically, it’s a culture clash. Just as bloggers don’t mind other bloggers riffing off their posts, journalists don’t mind when someone else covers the same story. Of course, just because there’s a little cultural relativism going on doesn’t mean that one of the cultures has a better ethical system. Personally, I like the blogger way better.

There’s also the possibility that the New York Times reporter, Serge F. Kovaleski, didn’t steal the idea. Turkewitz did a great job spotting the issue a month before the Times did, but maybe Kovaleski spotted the issue on his own.

For one thing, Kovaleski’s expert contradicts Turkewitz on whether Sotomeyor did any advertising:

Turkewitz:

Did she have any associates when she was advertising herself in that manner?

Kovaleski:

Mr. Gillers said that since Ms. Sotomayor never appears to have advertised or to have put the name on letterhead, it is a technical issue and not one likely to ever have been cited by a disciplinary committee in the New York State court system.

Kovaleski is reporting that there’s no ethical violation because Sotomeyor never used the name in advertising. I’m not nearly smart enough to figure out who’s right about the ethical question, but it seems less likely Kovaleski copied his story when it refutes (correctly or not) a key point from Turkewitz’s.

Also, look at all the sources Kovaleski cites in his story:

  • “Her Senate questionnaire”
  • “the White House”
  • “public records”
  • “associates in the district attorney’s office”
  • “George M. Pavia, the senior partner of Pavia & Harcourt”
  • “White House communications officials”
  • “a White House spokeswoman”
  • “a spokesman [for Sotomeyor]”
  • “a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, Alicia Maxey Greene”
  • “several former members of the office”
  • “Katharine Law, a friend of the judge”
  • “District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau”
  • “Stephen Gillers, professor of legal ethics”
  • “White House officials”
  • “Hal R. Lieberman, a former disciplinary committee chief counsel in New York”
  • “a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt”
  • “tax experts.”

Does Kovaleski hate blogs so much that he’d cite all these people, yet refuse to admit he got the idea from Turkewitz? Kovaleski was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that reported on the Spitzer prostitution scandal. Why would he have to steal from a local blogger to cover a national story?

Then again, stranger things have happened at the New York Times. If this controversy gains momentum in the blogosphere, perhaps someone at the Times will give the public an explanation.

Update: None of of this changes the fact that Eric Turkewitz scooped everyone.

A couple of weeks ago, Kip Esquire posted a New Years Day update explaining that he was changing careers. He’s made up his mind do something entrepreneurial rather than work for someone else, but,

I would entertain one exception: namely this blog. Punditry and commentary. If anyone out there has any interest in hiring me as a paid occupational journalist or commentator, then I would consider that — but nothing else.

I didn’t say anything about it at the time, but the more I think about it, the more I think Kip doesn’t have a chance. It’s not because of any shortcomings on his part; nobody else has a chance either. Despite my dislike for blogger triumphalism, I think the long historic view of newspapers will be that they sprang into existence with the invention of the printing press, which made it affordable for everyone to be a reader, and then vanished with the invention of the World Wide Web, which made it affordable for everyone to be a publisher.

Many news stories are little more than some reporter summarizing what he or she has been told by one source and then getting a response from the opposition to provide some balance. With the explosive growth of the web, however, interested readers can skip the reporter’s story entirely and visit both sides’ web sites themselves. They can even do their own background research using Wikipedia and a search engine.

There will still be room for good old-fashioned shoeleather reporting at its most fundamental, interviewing participants and eyewitnesses and then writing the story, but I can’t see why it would have to be done in the context of a traditional newspaper, not even in one of its online incarnations. Already, nearly every other component of the traditional newspaper has been or will be replaced by something on the web:

  • Weather: Available from several sources, including direct from the National Weather Service. Current measurements, forecasts, and even radar and satellite imagery are all available in near-real-time on your computer’s desktop.
  • Movie listings: Available from several sources, including direct from the movie theaters.
  • Television listings: Available from several sources, including direct from the television stations. If you miss a show anyway, you can probably download it.
  • Financial data: Available in vast steaming piles all over the web.
  • Classified ads: The lifeblood of newspapers, and almost completely replaced by things like Craigslist and Ebay.
  • Sports: Information is available everywhere, including directly from the leagues and teams, and you can re-watch highlights or entire games over the Internet. I’m sure they’re working on streaming live games.
  • Commentary, editorials, opinions: 50 million bloggers.

The most important thing that newspapers still provide is editorial control, and even that is slipping away from them.

When I used to read the print edition of the Chicago Tribune, the appearance of a story in the paper told me two things: (1) The Tribune‘s editors believed the story was accurate, and (2) the Tribune‘s editors believed the story was worth my time to read.

(Anyone who doesn’t think those are important services should try clicking the Next Blog link on Blogger a few times and reading stuff at random. Actually, does anybody remember back when Technorati and the big blogging hosts had “random blog” links on their home page? There’s a reason those have gone away.)

Nowadays, however, I get most of my news by reading blogs that cover subjects I’m interested in and following the links to the stories in the primary media. In other words, I have replaced the Tribune‘s editors with a bunch of bloggers whose news decisions are more to my liking.

As a consequence, I am no longer limited to the contents of one newspaper but can pick and choose article from many papers all over the country. Under such a system, it’s difficult to imagine a role for newpapers themselves. We can replace the traditional editorial function with some combination of news aggregators, bloggers, social network voting systems, and search engines. All we need are the reporters writing the stories and the bloggers who link to them.

This brings me, at long last, to my point: If you or Kip or anyone else wants to be a reporter, just get out there and do it. Interview someone, take a picture, write a story about it, and publish it on your blog.

If you want something a bit more organized, or a bit less lonely, join a community publication like Chicago’s Chi-Town Daily News. With no print edition and absolutely no non-local reporting (not even the suburbs), a paper like the Daily News is essentially a city news bureau, pumping out pure news stories without doing much else that newspapers usually do. It’s likely to be around a lot longer for that reason.

It may not earn you much money, but neither will choosing journalism as a career these days.

I’ve had a few short seminars in newswriting, and one of the things they emphasize is writing a great lede. That’s the first sentence of a news story, and it’s supposed to hook the reader into the rest of the story.

I spotted this awesome lede in a piece by AP writer Rob Gillies:

Greyhound has scrapped an ad campaign that extolled the relaxing upside of bus travel after one of its passengers was accused of beheading and cannibalizing another traveler.

That’s a hard one to beat.

My editor at the Chi-Town Daily News (I promise I’ll write something for you soon, Geoff!) is sounding off on his blog about foolish protests against media consolidation. This line pretty much sums it up:

[A]dvocating for media reform seems like campaigning against scurvy. It’s energy spent solving a problem that no longer exists.

These days, anyone interested in a media landscape that is less consolidated and more inclusive can start exactly that kind of media organization online, rather than merely demonstrating against existing ones. The costs are negligible.

Read the whole thing.

If you were a business writer for a news service, and you had the job of writing the daily stock market news article, and writing essentially the same story day after day was burning you out, maybe you’d do what AP writer Joe Bel Bruno just did and start the next article this way:


Wall Street fluctuates on first day of 3rd quarter

NEW YORK – Wall Street began the third quarter by fluctuating Tuesday as investors looked for bargains and also digested a report that showed U.S. manufacturers remain under duress.

The market fluctuated. Good to know.

Update: The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped, so Bruno has re-filed the story with a new lede paragraph (the rest is the same):

Wall Street declines on 1st day of 3rd quarter

NEW YORK – Wall Street began the third quarter Tuesday with another sharp decline as rising oil prices and weak economic data made it clear the country can expect no respite anytime soon from its morass of financial problems. The Dow Jones industrials skidded nearly 150 points, and Treasury prices rose in a flight to the safety of government debt.

Glad he cleared that up.

Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Mark Bennett wrote about reporter Jennifer Latson’s attempt to interview an accused criminal without approval from his lawyer. The suspect’s lawyer was not amused.

The lawyer wrote to the reporter requesting that she not talk to his client without first asking him.

Her response was “I’d refer you to the United States Constitution, Amendment I. I can attempt to interview your client until I’m blue in the face; he doesn’t have to agree to see me.”

I’m sure Latson is right about the basics, but that’s kind of a silly response. There’s no need to go all First Amendment on the lawyer. Everybody knows about the First Amendment, but it cuts both ways: The reporter can try to interview the suspect, but the lawyer can try to convince the reporter to knock it off. It seems like everybody’s just doing their jobs.

I don’t know, maybe the unnamed lawyer was rude about it, and Latson just responded in kind. I think I would have just ignored the lawyer’s request, or sent back a polite “thank you for your input” response, or maybe tried to use this as an opening to bounce a few questions off the lawyer. Then again, I’m not a professional journalist.

Bennett continues,

That is certainly true: a reporter can try to interview an accused person until she’s blue in the face (or until the jailers stop letting her in to the jail).

It seems like an excellent way to make sure the criminal defense bar is reluctant to talk to you about anything else, though.

Really? I don’t think member of the defense bar talk to reporters out of affection. They talk to reporters for the same reason every other media savvy person does: They want to influence the story.

As long as the reporter writes fair and accurate articles, I have trouble believing that any defense lawyer would pass on a chance to get his client’s story out if he thought it was important to do so.

The New York Post seems rather proud of itself for what it claims are the first public photos of Ashley Alexandra Dupre since it was revealed that she was the “Kristen” that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer paid $4300 to have sex with.

I’m more than a little appalled that this young lady is being hounded by the media.

At the same time, as a photographer and fledgling journalist, I have to admit I’m a little in awe of the Post‘s work ethic.

Reading between the lines, it appears that despite the two months that have elapsed since the scandal broke, when the Post got a tip that Dupre left home to take a bus into Manhattan, the paper dispatched two photographers to catch her at the Port Authority Bus Terminal and take pictures.

As a blogger, I get to write about whatever interests me.

One of the things that did not interest me, however, was the upcoming Democratic primary race for Cook County State’s Attorney. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t even know that office was up for a vote (although I probably could have figured it out…). The current state’s attorney, Dick Devine, is retiring, which leaves the race wide open.

One of the candidates for that office is 38th Ward Alderman Tom Allen. Since that’s right near where I live, the Great and Mighty Geoff at Chi-Town Daily News assigned me to interview Allen for the race.

Preparing for the interview, I read a bunch of background material about the State’s Attorney’s office, the issues in this race, and what the candidates are saying, so now I know something about it all. I’d love to blog about it too, but that might give the appearance of a conflict of interest, as far as the Daily News is concerned.

So now I’m interested, but I can’t blog about it.

I’m going to have to think more carefully about that next time I get an assignment.

Here’s my interview with Alderman Tom Allen.

Update: I might as well post the full list of Chi-Town Daily News interviews with the Democratic candidates for Cook County State’s Attorney:

  • Tom Allen (38th Ward Alderman) by Mark Draughn
  • Anita Alvarez  (Chief Deputy to the Cook County State’s Attorney) by Beatrice Figueroa
  • Tommy Brewer (Defense attorney) by Natasha Eziquiel-Shriro
  • Howard Brookins Jr. (21st Ward Alderman) by Marcie Hill
  • Robert Milan (First Assistant to the Cook County State’s Attorney) by Marcie Hill
  • Larry Suffredin (Cook County Commissioner) by Tasha Clopton-Stubbs

We didn’t bother to interview the Republican candidates—no doubt because of liberal media bias—but here’s the complete list:

  • Tony Peraica (Cook County Commissioner)

Vote smart, everybody.

Kip links with some derision to an op-ed by journalism professor David Hazinski about the trend toward citizen journalism. Kip, who has other unkind things to say about the piece, quotes this bit:

Advocates argue that the acts of collecting and distributing makes these people “journalists.” This is like saying someone who carries a scalpel is a “citizen surgeon” or someone who can read a law book is a “citizen lawyer.”

Kip’s objection:

It is precisely the fact that occupational journalists are not “professionals” on the same plane with physicians (or nurses, attorneys, veterinarians, accountants or even optometrists) that is finally being exposed by blogging.

Elsewhere, Kip wrote:

…journalism is not a true profession, therefore there is no such thing as a “professional journalist”…

Actually, I think anyone who gets paid for journalism is a professional journalist, but that doesn’t make journalism a profession. It’s unfortunate that the word root has these two different meanings, but I think the first one is as correct as the second.

That said, one of the distinguishing features of a profession is that you can get sued if you screw it up, and that just doesn’t happen to journalists, as far as I know.

I’m not just talking about getting sued for libel or invasion of privacy—we can all be sued for those—I’m talking about a legal obligation to give correct information. If journalism was a profession, then licensed journalists who screwed up a story could be sued by readers who relied on it and suffered damages.

Kip continues:

Occupational journalists face no mandatory educational curricula. They face no licensing examinations, no continuing education requirements, and need not subscribe to any legally binding code of ethics.

The very fact that occupational journalists often cannot see the difference between a journalist and a surgeon is why they are increasingly being ignored. They are not credentialed — and it drives them batty that laypersons no longer see any need afford them the respect that they afford the true (i.e., credentialed) professions.

From my reading of Hazinski’s piece, that’s precisely what he’d like to change, with national standards and licensing—much of which would depend on journalism professors like him.

Although Kip characterizes this as “licensing bloggers” I really don’t think that’s where Hazinski was going. I think he’s mostly trying to warn mainstream media companies to be careful about publishing web stories or photos contributed by outsiders, and to that end, he has several recommendations:

  • Major news organizations must create standards to substantiate citizen-contributed information and video, and ensure its accuracy and authenticity.
  • They should clarify and reinforce their own standards and work through trade organizations to enforce national standards so they have real meaning.
  • Journalism schools such as mine at the University of Georgia should create mini-courses to certify citizen journalists in proper ethics and procedures, much as volunteer teachers, paramedics and sheriff’s auxiliaries are trained and certified.

(There’s so much wrong in that last paragraph. I’m not sure which is worse, that he thinks an uncertified journalist is as dangerous as an uncertified paramedic or that—by lumping them in with volunteer teachers and cops—he seems to think paramedics are are some kind of volunteer doctor.)

The national standards and certification are a silly idea, but the training is not. I do some citizen journalism for the Chi-Town Daily News, and we have regular training sessions where experienced journalists explain the rules and the tricks of the trade. The stories are small-time and local, but that’s kind of the point of citizen journalism.