Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Internet and the future of Chinese journalism

Wu Nan

Wu Nan, a Chinese journalist who’s spending the academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, compares investigative reporting in China to “playing a video game” — negotiating the system is like finding your way through a maze, and it takes “wisdom and courage” to avoid the obstacles that keep popping up.

“On the other hand,” she told Northeastern students on Thursday, “it’s very addictive.”

Wu showed a video report she produced on black-lung disease suffered by Chinese coal miners, and discussed stories ranging from the outbreak of SARS to a train crash in Shanghai last summer in which a microblogger pushed government authorities to step up their lifesaving efforts.

“They had to admit they’d made a mistake,” she said.

Wu also said the sheer size of the Chinese Internet — 420 million Internet users, 270 million mobile phone users and 250 million users of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter — gives her hope that the government will limit its efforts at censorship. The half-dozen or so largest Internet companies are one-fourth the market value of Apple, she said, and the government is dependent on the tax revenue they generate.

Those remarks were accompanied by a PowerPoint slide that was optimistically titled “Online Media: Too Large to Control.”

Wu earned a master’s degree in journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, and also spent three years as a news assistant in the Boston Globe’s Beijing bureau.

Asked about the difference between reporting for the Chinese media and for the Chinese edition of the Wall Street Journal, where she has also worked, she responded that in China, reporters always lead with policy, whereas at the Journal, the rule is to lead with an anecdote. But, she said, “the essence of journalism is the same.”

“NPR” is not a synonym for public radio

This is a mistake that comes up over and over, and today’s offender is the Boston Globe. The headline on an editorial about the Mike Daisey/“This American Life” debacle reads “NPR: Exposing Apple’s worm, and its own.”

The editorial itself refers to “This American Life” as an “NPR show.” It goes on to note that Daisey’s fabrications about his trip to China were unearthed by “another NPR reporter.” (“Another”? Daisey is not a reporter.)

If you haven’t figured out where I’m going by now, “This American Life” is not an NPR program. It’s produced by Chicago’s WBEZ Radio, a public station, and distributed by Public Radio International, a competitor of NPR’s.

Daisey’s assault on the truth was exposed by a reporter for “Marketplace,” which is produced by American Public Media, yet another NPR competitor.

But wait. Doesn’t “This American Life” appear on NPR stations? No. And here’s where it gets confusing. Plenty of public radio stations market themselves as NPR stations because it’s a name brand they can use to attract listeners and advertisers — oops, sorry. Underwriters. NPR itself does not own stations.

Both of Boston’s large public stations, WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) call themselves NPR stations. But WBUR’s license is held by Boston University, and WGBH is an independent nonprofit organization that includes radio and television stations. (Disclosure: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH.) NPR is just one of several services (albeit the best-known) from which public radio stations buy programming.

“In a just world,” Reuters media columnist Jack Shafer recently tweeted, “we could say ‘NPR’ to describe all public radio, just as saying ‘Kleenex’ covers Scott Tissues and generic brands.”

Shafer was kidding, of course. And it does get confusing. But NPR takes enough grief from its critics without having to get blamed for programming on rival networks.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to send an email to CNN complaining about Sean Hannity.

Afternoon update: The headline and editorial have been rewritten, and a correction has been appended.

Photo (cc) by Raul654 and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

City settles with man arrested for video-recording police

Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab has posted a useful round-up following the ACLU’s announcement that the city of Boston will pay $170,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who was arrested while attempting to video-record police activity.

The suit was filed by Simon Glik, a lawyer, after he was arrested while recording the arrest of a teenager on the Boston Common in October 2007. The settlement follows a ruling last fall by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that Glik was “exercising clearly established First Amendment rights.”

The Boston Police Department has since reversed its stance that such video-recording violated the state’s wiretapping law. Said Glik’s lawyer, Daniel Milton:

It is important that citizens be able to record police acting in public so that the police can be held accountable for their actions. As we see all around the country and world, images captured from people’s cellphones can have a remarkably important effect on public debate of public information. It is ultimately a tool of democracy.

As media observer Dan Gillmor noted on Twitter, “It’s not the city of Boston that will pay for violating 1st Amendment; it’s the taxpayers. Good result anyway.”

Here’s the full text of the ACLU press release:

BOSTON — Simon Glik, a Boston attorney wrongly arrested and prosecuted for using his cell phone to record police officers forcefully arresting a man on the Boston Common, has reached a settlement with the City of Boston on his civil rights claims. The settlement requires the City to pay Glik $170,000 for his damages and legal fees.

Mr. Glik was forced to defend himself against criminal charges of illegal wiretapping, aiding the escape of a prisoner, and disturbing the peace. After a judge threw out those charges, Glik filed a civil rights suit against the city and the arresting officers in federal court in Boston, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Boston attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton. This settlement resolves that case.

The settlement follows a landmark ruling last August by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, declaring that the First Amendment protects the right to record police carrying out their duties in a public place, Glik v. Cunniffe 655 F.3d 78 (2011). The First Circuit’s ruling is binding only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico, but its persuasive reasoning has been cited by courts and lawyers nationwide facing the recurrent issue of police arresting people for filming them.

The Massachusetts wiretap statute prohibits only secret recording of audio. The First Circuit in Glik’s case affirmed that an arrest under the statute for openly recording the police would violate not only the First Amendment right to gather information but also the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against false arrests.

“The law had been clear for years that openly recording a video is not a crime. It’s sad that it takes so much for police to learn the laws they were supposed to know in the first place. I hope Boston police officers will never again arrest someone for openly recording their public actions,” said Glik.

“The court’s opinion made clear that people cannot be arrested simply for documenting the actions of police officers in public. With this issue squarely resolved against it, it made sense for the City to settle the case rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money defending it,” said David Milton, one of the attorneys for Glik.

As part of the settlement, Glik agreed to withdraw his appeal to the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel. He had complained about the Internal Affairs Division’s investigation of his complaint and the way they treated him. IAD officers made fun of Glik for filing the complaint, telling him his only remedy was filing a civil lawsuit. After the City spent years in court defending the officers’ arrest of Glik as constitutional and reasonable, IAD reversed course after the First Circuit ruling and disciplined two of the officers for using “unreasonable judgment” in arresting Glik.

After Glik filed suit, the City of Boston appeared to change its policy of letting police officers arrest and charge people with illegal wiretapping for recording them with cameras or cellphones in plain sight. The City developed a training video based on facts similar to the Glik case, instructing police officers not to arrest people who openly record what they are doing in public.

“The First Amendment includes the freedom to observe and document the conduct of government officials, which is crucial to a democracy and a free society. We hope that police departments across the country will draw the right conclusions from this case,” said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Boston Globe’s faster horse

Henry Ford is often credited as saying, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Maybe he said it, maybe he didn’t. But I cite it in order to let you know that, this week, the Boston Globe unveiled a faster horse — the ePaper, a digital version of the Globe that looks just like the print edition.

On my laptop, the ePaper looks pretty much like replica editions I’ve tried for a number of other papers, including the Boston Herald, the Providence Journal and the New Haven Register. As these things go, the Globe ePaper is well-implemented. Just click on a headline and the story comes up. As with some other replica editions I’ve seen, it will read the stories to you in a slow, robotic voice. Unless you are visually impaired, you won’t want to do much with that.

But it’s the iOS version that I found to be a bit of an eye-opener. You would never think a full-size newspaper could be adapted to the small iPhone screen, but the Globe has somehow managed to make it usable. It was even better on Mrs. Media Nation’s iPad. Also with the iOS version, the entire paper automatically downloads to your device, so you can take it with you and read it in places where you don’t have Internet connectivity.

Also smart: You can buy a single edition through the iTunes Store for 99 cents.

Personally, I don’t picture using the ePaper often — I’d rather read BostonGlobe.com. But as someone who has severed ties with the print edition except on Sundays, I’m sure there will be times when I find myself calling up the ePaper. For instance, I may want to see how a particular story was played, or whether the print headline differed from the online headline. Or there may be a can’t-miss political ad.

For the most part, though, I’d rather drive a car than ride a horse. Even a faster one.

Tracing the arc of the narrative

By Bill Kirtz

As media analysts dissect the latest example of fabrication presented as fact, top narrative writers agree that nothing — however creative the writing process — can be made up.

Their comments came at last weekend’s Narrative Arc conference hosted by Boston University’s School of Journalism and co-sponsored by the Poynter Institute.

Conference organizer and BU journalism professor Mark Kramer, author of several non-fiction books and editor of “Telling True Stories,” said that as narrative journalism has developed into a genre, standards have gotten tighter. His often-repeated rules: make nothing up, no “tweaking” time sequences and be straight with sources.

When memoirists and others violate these standards, he added, they hurt the credibility of all non-fiction practitioners.

“An accumulation of bad examples has moved me from skepticism to cynicism about memoirs,” said Roy Peter Clark, a Poynter senior scholar and prominent writing coach and author. He and other speakers said non-fiction writers should spell out their techniques at the outset.

“Creative non-fiction is not a license to steal,” said Mitchell Zukoff, a BU journalism professor whose most recent book is “Lost in Shangri-La.” “Anything between quotes has to be what someone actually said.”

Zukoff acknowledges that in probing into long-past events, there are things you simply can’t know for certain. But you can describe a centuries-old figure by writing something like “paintings of the time show him with thick, wavy hair.”

Adam Hochschild, whose most book of historical non-fiction is “To End All Wars,” will reconstruct events but insists that everything “has to be true.” To bring the past to life, he focuses on scenes. “I try to think like a filmmaker. Where do I put my camera?”

Instead of interviewing someone, Hochschild advises reporters to follow them around and see how they interact with others.

Tom French, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer and Poynter writing fellow, made a similar point. Before you start — and even on deadline — think about whose experience is most important. Figure out which character in your story has the most at stake. In a story about a proposed ban on lap-dancing, for example, a St. Petersburg Times reporter accompanied the dancers to the hearing. Rather than simply quoting politicians, they got such detail as body glitter and the dancers on city council chairs.

“Open strong and build to better,” French urged. Contrary to standard beliefs, he said the lede is the second most important part of a story. The ending is the most important. So he said a reporter should ask herself: what do you want the reader to remember most?

French said stories can come alive when they shift between opposites: in an Occupy story, alternating a protester and a shop owner’s points of view; long and short sentences, external and internal action.

How to spark such vivid writing? Jan Winburn, a well-known newspaper editor and writing coach now senior editor for enterprise at CNN.com, said reporters need editors with “infectious enthusiasm” who will encourage them with “tell me more” comments. She said editors should be good listeners, letting writers test ideas by saying them out loud.

“Stay surprisable,” she said. “You want the writer to find out what the story is, not what you think the story is.”

As Winburn helps bring long-form storytelling to a website known for breaking news, two multimedia editors detailed their experience blending narrative and visual elements.

Christian Science Monitor senior editor Clara Germani supervised an award-winning project that followed a Congolese third-grader and his family for a school year in Atlanta.

The series, which has 33 multi-media elements, won acclaim. But Germani said, “Multi-media on the Web doesn’t pay.” Reporter Mary Wiltenburg got a small monthly stipend and received two Pulitzer Center grants to go to Tanzania, while Germani had to handle the project besides her regular job supervising in-depth stories.

Amy O’Leary, a reporter in the “How We Live” group at the New York Times, has found that throwing too many elements into a series can produce confusion. She said “The Debt Trap” lost the audience because the story was too complex for the format, she said.

The Times had better results with “Flipped.” Showing how private equity dealmakers win while their companies lose, The Times implanted a narrative question early in the piece to make viewers and readers curious. “We kept it simple, limited choices and gave people the incentive to keep on,” O’Leary said.

Surveying the multi-media universe, Dean Starkman wrote a much-discussed Columbia Journalism Review article urging publishers to give staffers the time and space to do what he considers journalism’s core duty, public interest reporting.

In a keynote talk at the BU conference, Starkman, part of a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team and managing editor of CJR’s business press section, described “a hole in the peer-produced [amateurs doing professional work] model for news: there’s no way to produce great stories.”

To Starkman, authorship is needed: In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” New York University professor and prominent new media commentator Clay Shirky sees great promise in crowdsourcing and collaborative media efforts. But Starkman notes that “Here Comes Everybody” wasn’t written by everybody but by one person.

Saying the muckrakers of a century ago should still challenge us, Starkman believes their “towering ambition is missing today. We have to hang on to [their] values: going after huge targets without fear.”

Starkman doesn’t see the need for the journalism industry to make a stark choice between professional reporting for many and netcitizens providing information for each other.

“The two cultures have to come together, and if they do there’s amazing potential,” he said.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston.

At GateHouse, bonuses and a whiff of bankruptcy

CommonWealth Magazine has an update on GateHouse Media, whose top executives are once again receiving handsome bonuses while their company staggers under a mountain of debt.

GateHouse owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, including such notable titles as the MetroWest Daily News, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Enterprise of Brockton.

The CommonWealth item includes a link to my 2008 article on GateHouse, in which company executives tried to make the case that the debt woes were not insurmountable. Now, CommonWealth’s Jack Sullivan writes, GateHouse’s annual report openly uses the “B”-word — as in bankruptcy — in describing what may soon be down the road.

Three must-reads on the Mike Daisey meltdown

The blog semi-hiatus continues this week. But I do want to break my silence long enough to recommend three must-reads on the matter of Mike Daisey, the lying liar who bamboozled the public radio show “This American Life” about Apple and China, and was brought down last week:

You can listen to Ira Glass’ remarkable interview with Daisey here.