Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mapping digital media in New England


Please have a look at my students’ final projects in Reinventing the News. Students wrote about a digital-media project of his or her choosing, took photos, shot video and plotted the location of their story on a Google map. It’s always great to see what they’ll come up with for stories and what approach they’ll take.

Maneuvering around the embedded map is difficult, so click here for an easier-to-navigate version.

In Bridgewater, a dispute over free press and privacy

I had wanted to talk about this yesterday on “Beat the Press,” but was unable to verify the facts in time. Today, the Boston Globe’s Peter Schworm reports on a controversy that has enveloped The Comment, the student newspaper at Bridgewater State University, which is under fire for reporting the name of an alleged rape victim who spoke at a public rally.

University officials are insisting that [see below] pressuring The Comment to remove the woman’s name from the online version of its story. But on Friday, The Comment’s editor, Mary Polleys, told me that the woman had been identified by name in an announcement sent before the rally to about 400 people via Facebook. The outdoor rally was attended by about 200 people. And, Polleys said, the woman was introduced by name and then proceeded to address the crowd through a bullhorn. Indeed, the story, by Leah Astore, is accompanied by a photo of the woman holding the bullhorn and standing before a large crowd.

I am not identifying the woman here only because I don’t wish to become a player in this controversy. But I see nothing wrong in what The Comment did, and I think Polleys has taken exactly the right stand in refusing to unpublish key details. Essentially The Comment is in trouble for committing journalism.

The one decision The Comment made that I might question is identifying the woman’s previous college on the basis of information that it found online. Under the ethical guidelines that are followed by virtually all news organizations, victims and alleged victims of sexual assault are not identified by name without their consent. It’s clear that the speaker at the rally had given her consent to be identified publicly, only to have second thoughts once she saw her name and photo in The Comment. But I’m uncomfortable with the paper’s decision to add details that the woman herself did not offer.

Another interesting aspect is the unintended consequences of what happens to news in the online era. If this story had appeared only in print, then it wouldn’t have circulated beyond campus, and it’s unlikely that it would have sparked much of an uproar. Certainly no one would be calling for the unpublishing of the woman’s name. (We recently talked about unpublishing on “Beat the Press.”) Indeed, this entire story strikes me as an example of the increasing confusion we’re all experiencing over what’s public and what’s private in the age of social media.

The Brockton Enterprise has been covering this story, and it appears to have a worthwhile follow-up today. I can’t get GateHouse stories to load today, but perhaps it will pop up later.

My friend Harvey Silverglate’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), has gotten involved as well.

And the story has now gone national at JimRomenesko.com.

Note: Polleys informs me by email that though the administration is pressuring The Comment to remove the speaker’s name, it has not insisted on it. It’s a fine line, but it’s worth making the distinction. Needless to say, the administration is welcome to weigh in here as well.

Hockey, race and the ghosts of Boston’s past

Joel Ward in 2011

No rational person thinks the racist tweets that followed the Bruins’ loss at the hands of Joel Ward on Wednesday represented any more than a tiny, ignorant minority of hockey fans (see this, this and this).

But there’s still something uncomfortable about hockey and race, especially in a city whose racial history is as troubled as ours. (And no, we don’t know how many of those offensive tweets came from Boston.)

The fact is that there has always been a certain subset — subspecies? — of hockey fan who likes the sport in part because nearly all the players are white. I grew up here, and I heard plenty to that effect when I was a teenager, and even in my 20s.

It’s no accident that the Bruins of Bobby Orr (two championships) were far more popular than the Celtics of Bill Russell (11). Or that the Celtics finally became the toast of the town after the face of the franchise turned white, first with Dave Cowens and later with Larry Bird.

Of course, Boston is not the same city today that it was in the 1970s and ’80s. The Celtics of recent years, led by three star African-American players and a black coach, have been as loved as any team in Boston. Even the Red Sox have put their ugly past behind them.

But there’s a context for hockey that doesn’t exist in other, more integrated sports. Among other things, Boston Herald writer Ron Borges couldn’t have made his non-racist but stupid observation about Tim Thomas with any other sport because getting beat by a black player would have been entirely unremarkable.

And the mouth-breathing racist fans who tweeted the “N”-word would have long since come to terms with minority athletes (or stopped watching) if we were talking about any sport other than hockey.

It’s not the NHL’s fault that there are so few black hockey players — it’s a function of geography and culture. Indeed, Major League Baseball itself has very few African-American players today, a demise that has been masked in part by the rise of Latino players of color.

Nor does this have anything to do with the vast majority of hockey fans. I don’t like hockey, but I know plenty of people who do. And they are good, decent people who follow the Celtics, the Patriots and the Red Sox just as avidly as they do the Bruins.

But race is an issue in hockey in ways that it just isn’t in other sports. And when you combine that volatility with Boston’s reputation, what happened this week was perhaps inevitable.

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

Journalism that deepens our understanding

Walmart in Merida, Mexico

I’d like to call your attention to three stories that stood out for me yesterday as examples of high-quality journalism that tells you something important that you didn’t already know, that places isolated facts within a broader perspective, or both.

• First up is David Barstow’s remarkable New York Times story on Wal-Mart’s Mexican bribery scandal — a scandal that was known to few outside Wal-Mart before this weekend. Clocking in at a New Yorker-like 7,600 words, Barstow’s article documents corruption at every level of the company, from active bribery in Mexico to passive acceptance at Wal-Mart’s U.S. headquarters.

Given the complexity of the story, I thought the “Guide to People in This Article” was a nice touch. So was the inclusion of Wal-Mart’s full response as a stand-alone document.

The story is a tour de force with implications that will be playing out for some time to come. It’s also a reminder that there are certain types of public-interest journalism that can be carried out only by a high-profile, well-funded news organization with its own army of lawyers.

• Next is Meghan Irons and Beth Healy’s Boston Globe article on the financial crisis that threatens the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, a leading institution in Boston’s African-American community that is in big trouble over an ill-advised expansion project.

The church’s primary lender is another African-American institution, OneUnited Bank, which brought down the hammer in part as a reaction to its own problems related to the national mortgage crisis.

The story has been in the news for some time now, but Irons and Healy are the first to pull all the strands together in a way that makes sense, even though no one from OneUnited would talk with them on the record. It’s fleshed out with photos and a video of a recent protest by African-American leaders in front of OneUnited headquarters.

• Finally, I was driving home from work on Sunday when I heard a long (11:29) piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered” called “Poverty in America: Defining the New Poor,” which explained how Clinton-era welfare reform has resulted in a shift toward food stamps as the primary means by which the government provides assistance to poor families.

During the recession of the past several years, the number of Americans on food stamps has risen from about 30 million to about 46 million.

Particularly riveting was NPR’s interview with Vicki Jones, who recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun-Times on what it’s like to live on $60 a week in food stamps while going to chiropractic school full-time and supporting her 7-year-old son.

Although the clear message of the story, reported by Guy Raz, is that we are not doing enough for the poor, the piece also functions as an outstanding explainer, bringing into focus a number of issues that are poorly defined when used as debating points by partisans.

Thanks to the Times, the Globe and NPR, I know more today than I did 24 hours ago.

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

Sox talk

Mrs. Media Nation and I were in a bar along with two other couples on Saturday, pleased to be parked near a screen that had the Red Sox-Yankees game on rather than the Bruins. Once it got to 9-0, I figured even the Sox’ bullpen couldn’t blow it.

By the time we left, it was 9-8. I caught the rest of the disaster after we walked home.

I don’t have much to say about the Red Sox’ start except for a few obvious observations. It’s not Bobby Valentine’s fault. I’d like to see Daniel Bard make it as a starter, but the bullpen implosion might negate that. The injuries have been devastating, but there’s more than enough high-priced talent on the field that they should be playing a lot better. As for the small sample size, I’m inclined to combine their miserable start this year with their miserable finish in 2011. That’s not a small sample.

Anyway — have at it. And I hope the Celtics go on a run.

Scott Brown’s flexible New Year’s resolution

Click on image for Boston Herald story and video

Argh. I see Politico beat me to it. But I do want to take note of a rather remarkable statement that U.S. Sen. Scott Brown made Friday on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) — that he had not touched alcohol since Jan. 1, and wouldn’t until the polls close on Election Day. According to the Associated Press, “Brown called the decision ‘one of those New Year’s things’ that he did ‘on a stupid bet.'”

Well, as Politico puts it, “It depends on what the definition of ‘drinking’ is for Brown.” Because just a week earlier, he allowed Boston Herald reporter Hillary Chabot to accompany him on a day of campaigning. And one of his stops was the Blue Hills Brewery in Canton. “He likes the Red IPA, by the way,” Chabot says in the John Wilcox video that accompanies her story.

In the video, Brown can be seen sampling the brewery’s wares, but if he took more than a sip, the camera didn’t capture it. Chabot’s story resulted in a brief flurry on Twitter among those who thought Brown was setting a bad example by drinking and driving (his truck, of course).

That criticism struck me as overwrought, and it still does. Chabot wrote only that Brown “tasted one of the lighter brews,” although she quoted him as saying of the Red IPA: “You can pound those pretty good.” Sounds like he may need a designated driver in the wee hours of Nov. 7.

But I guess he needs to revise his New Year’s resolution to “No Drinking until Election Day Except with Hillary Chabot.”

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.