Monthly Archives: February 2012

How should journalists handle graphic citizen media?

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Bob Garfield of NPR’s “On the Media” has a fascinating conversation this week with NPR’s Andy Carvin and Sky News’ Neal Mann about whether they felt comfortable tweeting a horrifically graphic video of a Syrian boy whose lower face was blown off in the city of Homs, which is under attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Mann’s answer: No. Carvin’s: Yes, with appropriate warnings.

I want to play the segment for my Reinventing the News students tomorrow. I thought it was a great example of the dilemmas faced by professional journalists whose duties now include curating citizen media. And I considered whether to show them the video. It’s not hard to find, though I won’t link to it. I’ve bookmarked it, and I’ll think about it a bit more. But right now I can’t imagine subjecting a captive audience of 15 students to such a disturbing video.

Frankly, even though Carvin says he gave his Twitter followers plenty of warning, I think I’m with Mann. Because what, really, is the larger meaning of the video? Carvin tells Garfield:

I shared the video because I actually thought it would snap people out of their complacency, because we’ve seen so many videos of people protesting, so many videos of people just laying there in hospitals. But there was something about this image, about being able to look this boy in the eye and see the numbness; his soul was already beginning to disappear at that point. It seemed to me emblematic of what was happening in Homs, and I wanted to give people that opportunity to watch it, if they chose.

Yet, driving home this evening, I heard a report about an investigation into the deaths of eight children killed in Afghanistan by a NATO air strike gone awry. Carvin wants us to know about the brutality of the Syrian government. Well, OK, but what about ours? Might a citizen journalist in Kapisa province have shot footage of a boy fatally injured by American-backed forces just as horrific as the one Carvin tweeted?

Not to stack the deck. I have enormous respect for Carvin, and his action definitely accomplished some good. As he tells it, because of his tweet, an emergency medical team mobilized in Lebanon, ready to help the injured boy. Unfortunately, he died before he could be spirited out of the country.

What the Assad regime is doing in Syria is absolutely savage. But the video doesn’t tell us much more than the universal reality that war is hell.

Photo (cc) by Maggie Osama and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Vote for me

Tip O’Neill said you can’t win if you don’t ask for people’s votes. So today I’d like to ask if you’d consider voting for Media Nation in BostInno’s Insider Awards. You can click here or on the blue box to the right. Scroll down to “Higher Education.” The deadline is Wednesday. Thank you.

Mitt Romney, the inevitable and unelectable man

Mitt Romney

It’s only another poll, but today’s news from Public Policy Polling that Rick Santorum has jumped out to a 38 percent to 23 percent lead over Mitt Romney prompts me ponder the fate of our former governor.

From the start, Romney’s candidacy has been defined by two dynamics.

On the one hand, there’s little doubt that he is absolutely unacceptable to right-wing Republicans, which is to say the people who actually comprise a majority of activists in the nominating process.

On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time a serious candidate for national office such as Romney was lucky enough to run against such a weak field of competitors. Santorum and Newt Gingrich are scarcely more credible than Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry. Ron Paul is running for his own purposes, which do not include becoming president. (Frankly, I’m not even sure that was Santorum’s or Gingrich’s goal when they first started running. Gingrich, in particular, mainly seemed interested in selling books and boosting his speaking fees.)

It’s because of my “one hand” that I believed until late last fall that Romney would never win the nomination. It’s because of my “other hand” that I gradually came to believe Romney had to win — and that, in fact, the health of our democracy depended on his keeping genuine loathsome characters such as Gingrich and Santorum as far away from the White House as possible.

After Florida, it looked like it was finally over, and that sullen Republicans would do what they were told. After Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, what will happen next is anyone’s guess. Romney’s craven speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference won’t help him, and his never-ending repositioning on issues has left him with an unappetizing choice between trying to look like he believes in something — anything — or giving in to his urge to tell whatever audience he’s speaking to exactly what he imagines it wants to hear.

If there’s still an authentic Romney underneath all the phony exteriors he’s tried on and discarded, then it is probably someone without a real political orientation — a pragmatic problem-solver, too liberal for Republicans (outside of Massachusetts), too conservative for Democrats, too bloodless and unappealing to be able to turn those qualities into a virtue, the way Ross Perot briefly did a dozen years two decades ago. [Seems like it was just last week!]

I imagine Romney will turn the battleship around and aim the cannons of his Super PAC at Santorum. I’d guess that we’ll be hearing about disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s (as yet unproven) connection to the Republican Frontrunner of the Moment. It may work. And yes, if Romney does somehow manage to stagger to the nomination, he’ll still be a more formidable candidate against President Obama than any other Republican.

But what we’re watching now is a strange and disturbing dynamic, as Romney — someone whose qualifications and experience are impressive, whatever his shortcomings as a candidate — tries to pick his way through the ruins of a once-great political party that has collapsed into a vestigial appendage of the Fox News Channel.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Marty Baron warns press against fear and timidity

Marty Baron

Earlier today I attended an event honoring Boston Globe editor Marty Baron as the 2012 winner of the Stephen Hamblett First Amendment Award, presented by the New England First Amendment Coalition.

Baron is the second winner. The first, in 2011, was retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, a longtime defender of the First Amendment.

Baron’s talk is well worth reading in full. Afterwards he sent me the text at my request, and I’m pleased to present it here. I was particularly struck by this, which comes near the end of his speech:

The greatest danger to a vigorous press today, however, comes from ourselves.

This is a moment in American history when the press has been made a fat target. The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — through words and actions, including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting), and even surreptitious taping, later subjected to selective, deceitful editing. Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda. In some instances, they have deployed scorched-earth tactics against us in hopes of dealing a crippling blow.

In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone. Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.

The full text of Baron’s prepared remarks — minus an improvised shoutout he gave to classmates from Lehigh University who were on hand — follows.

***

This award is named after a great publisher, Stephen Hamblett, who helped build a great newspaper, the Providence Journal.

The first award was given, last year, to a magnificent journalist, Tony Lewis — whose talent and erudition made him a leading expert on the First Amendment and one of the country’s pre-eminent columnists, at the New York Times.

And today I get to stand before so many extraordinary leaders in the field of journalism — publishers, writers, editors, journalists of every type — whose dedication to our craft and our mission serves as inspiration to me daily.

So, I am honored that I was invited to be with you to accept this award. And I am deeply grateful for what it means. This is recognition not solely for me, but also for all of my colleagues at The Boston Globe, many of whom were kind enough to be here today. Continue reading

Birth control and the Church: The missing context

Even a card-carrying secular humanist like me couldn’t help but be troubled that the Obama administration was ordering the Catholic Church to provide birth-control coverage to its employees despite Catholic doctrine prohibiting the practice. My angst only grew last week, when liberal commentator Mark Shields voiced his objections to the policy on the “PBS NewsHour.”

As it turns out, the controversy has much to do with the media’s all-too-characteristic inability to do their homework and provide context.

Which is why you need to read Julie Rovner’s NPR report in which she discovers that the federal government has been requiring religious organizations to cover birth control since 2000. The rule, as is the case with the Obama administration’s approach, applies to non-religious institutions run by religious organizations, such as hospitals and universities.

The only difference is that under the 2000 rule, birth-control coverage was subject to the normal insurance co-pay. Under the current federal health-care law, contraception must be provided free of charge. But it’s the coverage itself that’s the issue, not whether there’s a co-pay.

Referring to the Obama rule, Sarah Lipton-Lubet of the ACLU tells Rovner, “[A]s a legal matter, a constitutional matter, it’s completely unremarkable.”

What’s hard to understand is why the White House didn’t make sure everyone knew there was little that was new about the policy. But it is the news media’s job to provide context and analysis. In this case, and in all too many cases, they have failed miserably.

Photo (cc) by Ceridwen and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Copyright hypocrisy at the New York Times

Last Saturday the New York Times posted a PDF of a 1976 article by the legendary Boston sports journalist Clark Booth that appeared in the Real Paper, an alternative weekly that was published for several years in the 1970s. The article accompanied a column by Joe Nocera on football injuries, about which Booth wrote perceptively some 36 years ago.

I have to confess I didn’t think twice about copyright, figuring Booth, whom Nocera interviewed, had given him permission to reproduce his words. But now Boston Phoenix editor Carly Carioli has pointed out — rightly, in my view — that, in fact, the Times has violated the Real Paper’s copyright and that of the photographer(s) whose work was reproduced. And since the Phoenix acquired the Real Paper’s assets when the paper went out of business, the Times must answer to the Phoenix.

The Times’ reproduction clearly fails the fair-use test, most obviously on the grounds that it reposted the Real Paper article not for the purpose of commentary and criticism, but so that its readers could enjoy reading it. I imagine the Times could also get whacked for taking too much of the article (i.e., the whole thing). Even though it would be tough to argue that anyone lost any money as a result of the Times’ actions, another important fair-use test, I’d guess a judge would favor the Phoenix if it ever came to that.

But Carioli is not concerned with the negligible harm the Times has done to the Phoenix so much as he is with the behemoth’s rank hypocrisy. Former executive editor Bill Keller, now a Times columnist, has been obsessed with the nefarious forces whom he believes have been improperly profiting from Times content. And, Carioli notes, the Times reached out and killed a pretty cool iPad app called Pulse merely because it reproduced headlines without permission.

Writing that “copyright in this country is a goddamn mess,” Carioli continues: “We want an internet and an intellectual-property regime that rewards discovery and innovation. We won’t get it with copyright construed the way it is now.”

And we won’t get it with the Times saying one thing and doing another.

Addenda: (1) I had the privilege of copy-editing Clark Booth’s weekly sports column for a short time in 1990, when I was working at the Pilot, for whom he still writes; (2) you can also read Booth in the Dorchester Reporter.

Disclosure: I’m a contributor to the Phoenix, and was a staff member from 1991 to 2005. I have a standing disclosure here, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to remind people.

New Haven Independent suspends comments

The New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only news site, has long stood as a model for how to handle comments the right way. Though editor and publisher Paul Bass allows anonymity, he makes sure that every comment is screened before it’s posted. His comments policy begins: “Yes we do censor reader comments. We’ll continue to.”

So I was pretty surprised to learn a little while ago that Bass has suspended comments in order to give him and his staff some time to “catch our breath” and think about how to handle a deluge of nastiness — a deluge that he says has been on the increase since last fall’s contentious mayoral campaign. He writes:

The resulting harsh debate made me wonder: Is this the long-awaited new dawn of democracy and accountability we thought we were helping to help spark in New Haven by launching the Independent in 2005? Or are we contributing to the reflexively cynical, hate-filled discourse that has polluted American civic life? Are we reviving the civic square? Or managing a sewer with toxic streams that demoralize anyone who dares to take part in government or citizen activism?

What precipitated the hiatus, Bass explains, was a particularly hateful comment that somehow got posted even though he thought he’d zapped it. (It’s gone now.)

The city’s daily newspaper, the New Haven Register, has had its own problems with hateful, racist online comments. The new editor, Matt DeRienzo, vowed shortly after his appointment last summer that the Register would begin screening all comments — a system that is now in effect.

The idea behind comments is to build a community around the news through a multi-directional conversation. Though community and conversation remain worthwhile goals, nearly 20 years into the online-news era it remains far from clear as to whether online comments are the best way to do that.

Wednesday follow-up: Matt DeRienzo has written a smart reaction piece, asking, among other things, “How can the community be part of your journalism if you don’t even allow them to comment on what you do?”

Debating Keystone, the environment and the Chinese

I honestly had no intention of using Storify again today, or even any time soon. But after Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and I tweeted back and forth over the merits of Joe Nocera’s New York Times column on the Keystone XL pipeline, Reuters media critic Jack Shafer said I should post it. So here it is. The world will little note nor long remember …

[View the story "Hot liberal-on-liberal action" on Storify]