A note on style

From the time that I began writing Media Nation in 2005, I’ve been following the Associated Press Stylebook. I don’t particularly like it. In many ways, it’s the least common denominator of styles. But it is what we teach at Northeastern, and I thought I should model good behavior.

Now I’m moving on. As some of you know, I’m writing regular commentaries for WGBH News, which uses the Chicago Manual of Style (more or less). Among other things, that means italics for the titles of newspapers, books, movies, and the like; Oxford (serial) commas; and an after an s apostrophe, as in Fred Jones’s car rather than Jones’. (No italics for the titles of reference books, in case you were wondering.)

I happen to prefer these differences. Chicago is what we used at The Boston Phoenix, and what is used at most magazines. More to the point, the switch will make it easier for me to repost my WGBH stuff to Media Nation, which I do for archival purposes, and for the folks at WGBH to scrape Media Nation. I also occasionally write for The Huffington Post, whose style guidelines are similar to those at WGBH.

Now I’ll just have to remember the differences between Chicago and AP when I return to teaching next year.

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Drip, drip, drip: The third person’s name is leaking out

Who is the Rhode Island person being questioned by authorities in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man on Tuesday? So far, at least, most of the local media aren’t saying. But already a Rhode Island television station has breached the wall of silence, so you can be sure we’ll all know soon enough.

According to The Associated Press and numerous other news reports, police confronted Usaama Rahim on Tuesday as Rahim was preparing to carry out a plot to behead a police officer. Rahim was killed by police after he reportedly refused to drop a military-style knife. Rahim, a relative named David Wright and the Rhode Island man met recently on a beach in that state, according to news accounts.

On Wednesday’s 10 p.m. news on WBZ-TV (the Channel 38 version), we were told that the station would not identify the man unless he is charged with a crime. The Boston Globe takes the same stance this morning: “The Globe is not naming the third person Rahim and Wright allegedly met with because he has not been charged. But after Rahim’s shooting, officials searched his Warwick, R.I., home on Aspinet Drive.”

The Boston Herald refers to the man only as “a third unidentified person.” WFXT-TV (Channel 25) informs us, “His name was being withheld by authorities.”

The Providence Journal takes us one step closer, publishing not just the street he lives on but his exact address. The Journal also quotes a neighbor who calls the person of interest “a nice young man” who has cerebral palsy, walks with a limp and works at a gas station.

Using a reverse address directory, I found the name of a man whose age bracket (18-24) made him seem likely. So I Googled his name and discovered that, in fact, WJAR-TV (Channel 10) of Providence had already identified him as the person of interest. The story includes this: “At one point, according to a neighbor, he was the area paperboy. Within the last few years, though, neighbors claim he changed his appearance. He grew a long beard, wore robes, and prayed often outside.”

A search for the man’s name on Google News suggests that WJAR is the only news organization so far that has identified the man, though I can’t be sure. I will not identify him, nor will I link to the WJAR story.

The question is whether this is ethical journalism. I say it’s not, and it’s clear that other news organizations saw no problem with holding back on naming him in these early, confusing days of the investigation. What you gain by being first with his name is minuscule; what you lose if he turns out to be uninvolved could be considerable depending on the circumstances.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Clean water, political infighting and the View from Nowhere

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I’ve asked my students to come up with examples of news stories that reflect the View from Nowhere — an idea advanced by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen that, to oversimplify, amounts to “he said/she said” objectivity in its most mindless form — and to balance that with a second story demonstrating the View from Somewhere.

Since some of my students seemed a bit bewildered by the assignment, I thought I’d give it a try. My example is an announcement made on Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The two agencies have issued a new set of rules aimed at protecting small streams under the federal Clean Water Act. The rules are a reaction to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that cast the government’s regulatory authority into doubt.

My leading contender for the View from Nowhere is an article by The Associated Press whose very headline announces the story’s flaws: “New Federal Rules on Stream Protection Hailed, Criticized.” The reporter, Mary Clare Jalonick, focuses almost entirely on the political debate sparked by the new rules. The lede is serviceable enough. But watch what happens in the second paragraph:

WASHINGTON (AP) — New federal rules designed to better protect small streams, tributaries and wetlands — and the drinking water of 117 million Americans — are being criticized by Republicans and farm groups as going too far.

The White House says the rules, issued Wednesday, will provide much-needed clarity for landowners about which waterways must be protected against pollution and development. But House Speaker John Boehner declared they will send “landowners, small businesses, farmers, and manufacturers on the road to a regulatory and economic hell.”

And so it continues, with Democrats defending the new rules, Republicans criticizing them and advocacy groups on either side of the issue weighing in. Yes, there’s some explanation along the way, but you never get an entirely clear sense of what the rules would actually do. Rather, it’s a political story, played out against the backdrop of partisan Washington. The informational needs of an ordinary member of the public are scarcely addressed.

I’ll get to my example of the View from Somewhere in a moment. But first, I want to flag this Washington Post story, which is largely grounded in the View from Nowhere but does a better job than the AP of telling us what we need to know — starting with the headline, “EPA Strengthens Federal Protections for Small Streams.” The emphasis is on what the EPA actually did and what effect it might have rather than on partisan politics. The first two paragraphs are full of useful information. Reporter Darryl Fears writes:

Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court pointed out the confusion over exactly which waters fall under the Clean Water Act, the Obama administration responded Wednesday with a new rule that states what is protected and what is not.

Navigable tributaries, as well as the rivers they feed into, are protected because the flow of streams and creeks, if polluted by farming and development, could affect the health of rivers and lakes, the rule states.

Farther down, Fears veers into the partisan battle, quoting an opponent, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, as well as the White House response. The story is also interspersed with tweets from elected officials. But partisan politics are not entirely unimportant, as congressional Republicans could overturn the new rules. Overall, Fears shows how to write a story that embraces the View from Nowhere while still managing to provide a coherent explanation of what happened and why.

My morning search for a story exemplifying the View from Somewhere failed to turn up exactly what I was looking for. But I did find an excellent article on the clean-waters issue from last September in Slate, which has always been a good source of explanatory journalism. With minor updating, the article, by Boer Deng, could have run today — and cast a lot more light on the EPA’s announcement than the AP or even the Post managed to provide. Look how she begins:

Everyone wants clean water, but not everyone agrees on how to make sure it stays pollution-free. The Clean Water Act is one of the most successful pieces of environmental legislation in American history: Forty years ago, only a third of the country’s lakes and rivers could support fishing or swimming. Now two-thirds do. But when a bill for the CWA was offered up in 1972, Richard Nixon vetoed it, complaining that it would cost too much. It took a bipartisan congressional override to enact the law.

Controversy over the CWA continues, and a particularly ambiguous phrase in the law has been a perennial source of legal trouble. The CWA compels the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect the integrity of the “waters of the United States.” Industrial interests argue that a reference in the text of the law to “navigable waters” limits federal jurisdiction to waters you can boat on. This has let them get away with discharging pollution into smaller waterways. Regulators disagree, since pollutants in these waterways drain into and threaten larger navigable waters, too.

OK, I’ll concede that Deng is leading with background information, which is generally thought of as not the best way to structure a story. But this is a really complicated issue. Thanks to Deng’s explanation, you now know exactly what it’s about before she asks you to jump into the deep end.

One characteristic about the View from Somewhere that can be difficult to get across is that though journalism with a point of view is sometimes opinionated, it doesn’t have to be. Deng takes a first-person stance and expresses the point of view that clean water is, in fact, a good thing. But she does not state an opinion as to whether the regulations that were then being considered were the best way to accomplish that goal. This isn’t opinion journalism. Her point of view is her expertise, which she earned by going out and doing the reporting.

As a result, opponents become human beings rather than caricatures. Instead of House Speaker John Boehner or Sen. Inhofe saying predictable things, she gives us Bob Stallman, head of the Farm Bureau, who asks a very reasonable question: “A good portion of the water on my rice farm would count as wetland ‘water of the U.S.’ Will I now need a permit every time I want to water my rice?” And Deng attempts to provide an answer: “The EPA says this is nonsense — and some of its administrators have expressed exasperation with what they see as willful misinterpretation that has undermined efforts to craft sound policy.”

Jay Rosen’s idea of what journalism can be is animated by the debate between two great philosophers — Walter Lippmann, whose book “Public Opinion” (1922) argued that ordinary people lacked the information, time and interest to be full participants in democracy, and John Dewey, whose retort to Lippmann, “The Public and Its Problems” (1927), took a more optimistic view. Rosen, in his 1999 book “What Are Journalists For?”, describes Dewey’s beliefs:

Democracy for Dewey meant not a system of government but a society organized around certain principles: that every individual has something to contribute, that people are capable of making their own decisions, that given the chance they can understand their predicament well enough to puzzle through it, that the world is knowable if we teach ourselves how to study and discuss it. Time and again Dewey argued that to be a democrat meant to have faith in people’s capacities, whatever their recent performance.

(I put together a slideshow for my students on Rosen’s description of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which you can see by clicking here.)

For Rosen, and for all of us, the question is how to encourage the journalism we need for John Dewey’s vision of a democratic society to work. It is also at the root of my 2013 book on new forms of online local journalism, “The Wired City.”

Stories such as Deng’s Slate article may not conform to the old rules of objective journalism. They may not embrace the View from Nowhere. But they tell us a lot more about what we need to understand public policy — about what our government is doing for and to us — and, thus, it provides us with information we need to govern ourselves.

Photo by Sergei Rubliov is in the public domain.

How social media contribute to ‘remote-control terrorism’

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

NEW YORK — Tracking “remote control terrorism,” showing climate change’s impact and following readers’ shifts to mobile devices were panel highlights at last weekend’s Columbia Journalism School reunion.

Top reporters stressed the so-called Islamic State’s ability to innovate, forge social media connections and take “credit” for terrorist attacks it didn’t plan.

NPR counterterrorism expert Dina Temple-Raston noted that while U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are a “matrix,” ISIS keeps experimenting and improving their outreach to alienated youths.

“Don’t over-ascribe associations” between ISIS and every case of violence, she said. “But they’re very careful to take credit” for such incidents.

Washington Post reporter Abigail Hauslohner expanded on that. “An obsessive focus on ‘who gives the orders’” for a terrorist attack misses the point, she said. You can find “inspiration online.” You don’t have to go to Yemen for training.

“The remote-control terrorist” is a new phenomenon, said Fox News chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge. With social media, today’s teenagers can have “one-on-one intimacy” with ISIS recruiters without the need for face-to-face contact.

A former Al Jazeera English producer and host, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, said that framing the war against terror as a “clash of civilizations plays into ISIL’s hands. Two to three weeks of incessant texting” can convince alienated youths to adapt terrorism as a way of defending their culture.

It’s not easy being green

Climate change is a concept that’s hard to grasp. But its effects are real, and ClimateWire editor John Fialka tries to deliver the message through stories that use popular-culture references.

An example this week cites “Game of Thrones”: “As fans well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.”

Former Associated Press environmental journalist Dina Cappiello said the topic is underreported because “politics dictates where the coverage goes.” Now with a public relations firm, she said 2016 presidential voters will focus on health care, the economy and their own jobs — not on the environment.

Serving the mobile audience

How to give time-starved mobile device clickers both what they need to know and what they want to know?

Lydia Polgreen, New York Times deputy international editor, said her paper’s “future lies in figuring out what 20 stories each reader wants to know.”

She said the Times hopes to provide a personal and a general experience. The challenge is how to preserve the serendipity of riffling through the paper and finding interesting stories about random topics — while giving them what they need to know.

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

Boston Herald settles libel suit

In a final coda to a longstanding libel suit, the Associated Press reports that the Boston Herald has agreed to pay $900,000 to Joanna Marinova, the woman whom the paper had falsely claimed engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate she was visiting at Bridgewater state prison.

I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disparity between the $900,000 reported by the AP and the $563,000 cited last March by attorney Jeffrey Pyle in a guest commentary for Media Nation.

The details of the case are enormously complex. Here is what I wrote when the jury verdict against the Herald was handed down. It includes links to more background information.

Courage and terrorism in the Middle East

James Foley speaking at Northwestern University in 2011
James Foley speaking at Northwestern University in 2011

Both James Foley, a freelance journalist who was reportedly beheaded by ISIS terrorists, and Steven Sotloff, a freelancer who has been threatened with execution, worked for Boston-based news organizations — Foley for GlobalPost, Sotloff for The Christian Science Monitor.

GlobalPost is currently going with a story reporting that the authenticity of the video apparently depicting Foley’s murder still hasn’t been confirmed. The story includes this statement from GlobalPost CEO and co-founder Phil Balboni:

On behalf of John and Diane Foley, and also GlobalPost, we deeply appreciate all of the messages of sympathy and support that have poured in since the news of Jim’s possible execution first broke. We have been informed that the FBI is in the process of evaluating the video posted by the Islamic State to determine if it is authentic. … We ask for your prayers for Jim and his family.

The Monitor so far has only run an Associated Press article on Foley with no mention of Sotloff. Foley is from Rochester, New Hampshire, and the Union Leader reports on the local angle. So, too, do The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald.

The Washington Post reports on the unique dangers faced by freelance journalists in an era when fewer and fewer news organizations have the resources to send staff reporters into conflict zones.

Most journalists are like me: the biggest risk I take is that I might get overcharged for lunch. People like Foley and Sotloff — and all reporters and photographers who put themselves in harm’s way to bring back the story — are the true heroes of our craft.

More: GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott talks with WGBH Radio about Foley: “Jim had an amazing passion. He was courageous, he was fearless, and at times that caused great worry, concern and anguish for his editors. Foley took risks all over — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and definitely in Libya, where he was captured, and he was held for 45 days, and eventually released. That changed him. That changed his sense of the calculus of risk, but it didn’t change his passion for what he wanted to do.”

Photo via Northwestern University, where Foley spoke about his earlier captivity at the hands of Libyan militants.

Kimberly Atkins to cover Washington for the Herald

Kimberly Atkins
Kimberly Atkins

A very smart move by the Boston Herald: Kimberly Atkins, who covered state politics for the paper before moving to Washington in 2006, will become the tabloid’s full-time Washington reporter. Atkins has been writing a political column part-time for the Herald in recent years in addition to covering legal issues for the Lawyers Weekly newspapers. She tells me by email:

I’m really excited! Covering the law was fun, but I really missed covering politics regularly. And with all the big Supreme Court cases coming up (Facebook threats, state same-sex marriage ban challenges, the trio of Obamacare challenges) I’ll still be able to flex my legal brain pretty frequently as well.

Atkins, who’s also a lawyer, will be the Herald’s first full-time Washington reporter since Andrew Miga, who’s been working for the Associated Press since 2005. Herald editor-in-chief Joe Sciacca says in the Herald announcement, “Kimberly is very smart and politically savvy and our readers will benefit by her knowledge of the inner workings of the nation’s capital.”

A venerable precedent for nonprofit journalism

Here’s something I completely forgot when I wrote recently about the IRS’s assault on nonprofit journalism: The Associated Press is a nonprofit. It’s time for the IRS to resume approving 501(c)(3) status for nonprofit news organizations.

Edward Snowden and the peril facing journalism

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The editors of The New York Times appear to have forgotten an important principle: the First Amendment is for all of us, and does not grant any special privileges to the institutional press. Thus if Edward Snowden is prosecuted for leaking classified documents about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs, the news organizations that published those documents could face criminal charges as well.

The possibility that journalists could be in legal jeopardy for doing their jobs seems not to have occurred to whoever wrote an editorial in today’s Times, which argues that Snowden should be prepared to pay the price for civil disobedience by way of his leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Though the editorial dismisses the absurd notion that Snowden has committed treason, it concludes with this observation, which comes across as semi-sympathetic but contains toxic implications: “Mr. Snowden may well be going to jail for exposing practices that should never have been secret in the first place.”

In fact, if Snowden, as seems likely, is charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, there is nothing to stop the government from going after The Washington Post as well — or The Guardian, if someone would like to seek extradition of Glenn Greenwald, who broke the story, and his editor, Alan Rusbridger.

American journalists in these situations operate on the premise that they are free to publish information even if the source or sources who gave it to them violated the law in obtaining it. That’s largely true — First Amendment protections against censorship are extraordinarily high. The corollary, though, is that there may be consequences to be paid post-publication.

The best-known example is the Pentagon Papers, a case that should be near and dear to the hearts of Times editors. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Times and the Post could not be prevented from publishing the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War.

But as civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in a 2006 article for The Boston Phoenix, five of the nine justices essentially invited the government to file charges against the Times and the Post after publication — and the Nixon administration was preparing to do just that before it got caught up in the burgeoning Watergate scandal.

Silverglate was concerned that the Times faced possible charges under the Espionage Act for revealing the existence of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. Even though the program illegally circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, then-president George W. Bush called the Times’ reporting “a shameful act” — and Gabriel Schoenfeld, writing in Commentary, was just one on the neocon right who argued that the Times should be prosecuted.

More recently, the Times published many of the WikiLeaks documents exposed by Bradley Manning, who is now on trial and who may face a life sentence. And in 2010 John Cook posted a short piece in Gawker making the commonsense observation that the Times potential liability was precisely the same as that of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who had been targeted by Attorney General Eric Holder. Cook wrote:

So if it was a crime when Assange obtained the database, why wasn’t it a crime when the Times did? The Espionage Act makes no distinctions when it comes to sources of defense information: It’s a crime to “obtain [it] from any person, or from any source whatever.” Assange got it from Manning, the Times got it from the Guardian; both transactions are equally criminal under the act.

More than a year ago, I argued that President Barack Obama was engaged in a “war on journalism” stemming from his administration’s obsession with rooting out leakers. Recently we learned that the Justice Department had spied on the Associated Press and on Fox News reporter James Rosen, and had even gotten a judge to sign a search warrant identifying Rosen as a criminal co-conspirator. Now U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is calling for journalists to be prosecuted for publishing the NSA documents leaked by Snowden.

This is a moment of great peril for journalism. With 56 percent of Americans saying they don’t mind if the government monitors their phone records, public opinion is hardly on the side of whistleblowers and the news organizations that work with them.

Whether we approve of everything Edward Snowden did or not, The New York Times and others in our craft ought to show more solidarity. If he is in trouble, so are all of us.

Targeting of the AP is neither new nor illegal. Just outrageous.

AP logoA lot of outrage has been generated over the Department of Justice’s secret subpoena of the Associated Press’ phone records, and I share that outrage.

But what the DOJ did was not new and not illegal — it was, rather, the latest example of overreach by an administration that has demonstrated its contempt for the role of a free press in a democratic society. Which, of course, makes the Obama White House no different from (though more zealous than) most of its predecessors.

Erik Wemple of The Washington Post explains by dredging up a similar, if less sweeping, case from years past, and in the process does a good job of showing why it matters. If the press can’t promise sources anonymity, it can’t perform its role as a check on government.

An editorial in The New York Times endorses a long-stalled federal shield law that would provide journalists with greater protections than they now have with regard to protecting confidential sources — a move that President Obama is now pushing for.

But what does Obama care? As the Times points out, such a law probably would have made no difference in the AP scandal, since all the DOJ would have had to do was invoke one of the exceptions built into the bill.

The next time you hear someone say that the DOJ’s actions violated the First Amendment, run the other way. A century’s worth of rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court holds that though the media have an enormous amount of protection under the First Amendment to publish or broadcast, they have no more rights than ordinary citizens when it comes to newsgathering.

Here is the Supreme Court in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972) explaining why it would be impossible to created a protected class of journalists who would enjoy an absolute right to protect their sources:

Liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer who uses carbon paper or a mimeograph just as much as of the large metropolitan publisher who utilizes the latest photocomposition methods.

The reason that Eric Holder and company could secretly subpoena the AP’s phone records is because they can do it to anyone. It’s a matter not of the Constitution but of judgment — something the Obama administration has demonstrated very little of on this issue.