Spotlighting undercovered news: Northeastern students reach beyond the headlines

COVID infections are down both nationally and in Massachusetts. Photo (cc) 2020 by
Daniele Marzocchi.

Previously published at GBH News.

In a time of national crisis — make that crises — there’s plenty of important news that gets overlooked. Vaccine delays, President Joe Biden’s economic-rescue package and, of course, Impeachment: The Sequel have overshadowed other topics to which we ought to be paying attention.

Every semester, I ask my journalism ethics students at Northeastern University to come up with a list of undercovered stories. Their answers are always intriguing. Invariably they find Washington, D.C., politics to be less compelling than what’s going on internationally and locally.

From a farmers’ strike in India to Australia’s crackdown on Google and Facebook, from good news about the coronavirus to still more good news about struggling Massachusetts cities like Chelsea and Brockton, my students have come through with stories we all ought to know more about. Even better, they’ve pretty much written my column for me this week.

Here are some highlights. The ranking is mine, but the ideas are all theirs.

7. Pandemic puppies. The isolation created by COVID-19 has led to an enormous upsurge in pet adoption — which, in turn, has fueled demand for purebred puppies, a problematic development for anyone who cares about animal welfare.

“During lockdown, puppies appealed both to single people facing months without human contact and to desperate parents seeking playmates for their lonely, screen-addicted children,” according to the Robb Report.

But as Robb and The Guardian reported, this demand has kept so-called puppy mills in business and has given rise to dogs that are genetically predisposed to health issues such as epilepsy and immune-system disorders.

6. Chelsea morning. During the pandemic, the news out of low-income cities in the Boston area such as Chelsea and Brockton has usually been bad — people of color working in service jobs and living in cramped quarters have had some of the highest rates of disease in the state.

This challenge, though, has also created an opportunity for activists to improve life in the state’s gateway communities. The Boston Globe’s “On The Street” series has documented some of those efforts. In Chelsea, for instance, Roseann Bongiovanni, the executive director of GreenRoots, told the Globe that the pandemic has led to new levels of cooperation among the city’s social-service providers.

“We’ve really broken down the silos,” Bongiovanni was quoted as saying. “I think post-pandemic you’re going to see a lot of collaboration, and this might give us an opportunity to think about the larger structural issues. Like why are so many people in Chelsea food insecure? Why is it that Chelsea was so sick?”

5. A revolution in sports viewing. In some parts of the mediasphere this is very big news indeed: The New York Times reports that NBCUniversal is shutting down the NBC Sports Network, moving some of its programming to the USA Network and — of more relevance — some of it to Peacock, its internet streaming service.

As more and more viewers are cutting cable and moving to streaming, media companies are attempting to move with them. The result is a dizzying array of options that, when you add them up, start to look like the same high price tag that viewers were paying for cable for so many years.

Media executives in charge of sports programming have been slow to embrace streaming because their viewers tend to be older and more likely to stick with cable. Yet the revolution is coming. GeekWire observes that some NFL games are already being shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.

4. Down under with Big Tech. In a case that ought to be watched closely in the United States, Australian regulators are waging war against the American technology giants Google and Facebook. At issue: The Aussies are insisting that the platforms pay for the news content that they use. Google and Facebook say they’ll delete news from what they publish before they let that happen.

The BBC reported that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government has the right to set its own rules for how the internet is governed within its borders. “Let me be clear: Australia makes our rules for things you can do in Australia,” Morrison said. “That’s done in our parliament.”

At a time when disgust with Big Tech has led to calls for regulation in the U.S., the standoff in Australia is well worth keeping an eye on. Local news is in crisis. If Google and Facebook can be persuaded — or pressured — into helping to fund community journalism, it could make an enormous difference to news organizations’ bottom lines.

3. The feminization of unemployment. The pandemic-related economic collapse has hit different communities and groups of people in different ways. Some have hardly been affected. Others are really suffering. What few news organizations point out, though, is that the burden of lost jobs has been disproportionately borne by women.

In December, according to the National Women’s Law Center, 156,000 jobs were lost in sectors that traditionally employ women, while male-dominated jobs actually increased by 16,000. Overall, since February of last year, women have lost more than 5.4 million jobs, amounting to 55% of net job losses since the beginning of the pandemic. The situation is even worse among Black and Latina women, the center reports.

This trend, though, has not broken through in media reports. A recent article in The New York Times made little mention of the disproportionate effect of pandemic-related unemployment on women, and a Washington Post story made no mention of it at all.

2. Farmers’ strike in India. One of the biggest stories on the planet right now is getting scant attention from the American media. Tens of thousands of farmers in India, the world’s largest democracy, are on strike, protesting attempts by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to impose new laws that they say will make it harder for them to sell their crops at a fair price.

According to The New York Times, one of the few U.S. outlets to cover the strike in any detail, the farmers’ action represents a significant challenge to Modi. Hartosh Singh Bal of The Caravan, a New Delhi-based magazine, wrote in a Times op-ed: “For the first time in six years, Mr. Modi is encountering opposition that he has not been able to stifle or tar with his extensive propaganda machinery.”

Modi is one of a number of authoritarian-minded rulers who have dominated the international stage in recent years. But now Russia’s Vladimir Putin faces massive protests. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is losing popularity over his handling of the pandemic and corruption. And, of course, former President Donald Trump is gone after encouraging an inept but deadly assault on Congress. Seen in that context, the challenges facing Modi may be further evidence that the autocratic wave has crested.

1. Good news on COVID-19. Despite the shimmering promise of highly effective vaccines that, so far, not nearly enough people have been able to get, the day-to-day news about the pandemic remains grim. Hospitals in some parts of the country are full, dangerous new variants are spreading across the globe and the U.S. death toll will likely hit an unimaginable 500,000 in a few weeks.

Yet the curve of new cases nationwide is trending sharply downward, The New York Times reports. In Massachusetts, too, the most recent surge is easing, from a seven-day average of more than 6,000 new daily cases in mid-January to around 3,400 today, as this Boston Globe chart shows. Maybe it’s because enough people have now been vaccinated to make a difference. Maybe it’s because admonitions about masking and social-distancing are being taken more seriously. Or maybe it’s just a lull before the next storm.

Regardless, fewer cases and fewer deaths are good news for all of us — and a reminder that, just like pandemics of decades past, this one, too, will end.

Saving face

Faceless snowman this morning on Centennial Common at Northeastern University.

Mitt and the media

Northeastern’s communications folks interviewed me about Mitt Romney’s touchy relationship with the media, and what both his campaign and the traveling press corps should do to make it better.

Mayor Menino, Chick-fil-A and the First Amendment

There may be more to say later, but I want to offer a few quick thoughts on Mayor Tom Menino’s declaration that he intends to keep Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of the company president’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as reported by Greg Turner of the Boston Herald.

Chick-fil-A has long been at odds with the LGBT community. But things got a lot worse this week, when company president Dan Cathy said, according to the Washington Post, that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

That brought this response from Menino: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

My gut reaction is that Menino is wrong. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be any end to this if government officials decided to approve or reject business licenses on the basis of their executives’ religious or political beliefs. There are First Amendment issues at stake as well. Can’t the head of a company say what he thinks without risking the wrath of the government?

Starbucks, as you no doubt know, has earned a lot of praise for its support of gay civil rights. There are plenty of municipalities out there whose officials might be tempted to deny Starbucks the right to operate inside their borders. And they could point to Menino for support.

Earlier this year my employer, Northeastern University, disinvited Chick-fil-A from opening in the student center after a number of people protested. I was among those who signed an online petition asking to keep Chick-fil-A off campus. But I see a huge difference between voluntarily inviting a business to operate on your private property, as would have been the case at Northeastern, and acting to keep a business off someone else’s private property, as Menino proposes to do.

Chick-fil-A has a serious issue on its hands, and it may well have to do some damage control that goes beyond the cosmetic. The San Jose Mercury News reports that residents in Mountain View, Calif., want to keep the chain out of their community. And we can expect to see a lot more of that.

Menino actually missed his best argument for keeping Chick-fil-A out. Restaurant executives apparently want to open in a tourist-heavy area along the Freedom Trail. If I were doling out food licenses in Boston, I would be very reluctant to hand over such a prime location to a business that is closed on Sundays.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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.”

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.

My interview with Kevin White

Photos © 1978, 2012 by Barbara Kennedy

One afternoon in late 1978, my future wife, Barbara Tanski, and I were ushered into a dark, comfortable room in the Parkman House, a city-owned mansion on Beacon Hill. I was a senior at Northeastern University, and I was there to interview Mayor Kevin White for the Cauldron, the school yearbook. Barbara took the photos.

As you have no doubt heard, White died on Friday night at the age of 82. The must-read is Brian Mooney’s in-depth obituary for the Boston Globe. Also outstanding is this Hub Blog post by Jay Fitzgerald, who observes that White was the best of five consecutive good mayors.

In re-reading my Cauldron piece, I’m struck by how young White was. Just 49 years old at the time of our interview, he would walk away from public life at 53, and was rarely heard from again.

My story has a few cringeworthy moments, including some structural flaws I warn my students about. I’ve fixed a few typos. Other than that, here it is, exactly as it appeared in the 1979 Cauldron.

THIS IS THE CITY:
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS

The Mayor talks about his city … where it is
today and where it’ll be tomorrow

Kevin H. White sat down on a couch, balanced himself on the edge and pondered the comeback his city has made during the past five years.

“I think that a city is no different than a single individual inside of it,” he said, pausing every few words for emphasis. “You can just be depressed for so long. And there are periods in which you get hysterical and upset.”

As the 49-year-old mayor munched on cheese and crackers in the historic Parkman House on Beacon Hill, waiting for supper, he tried to explain the sense of optimism he sees infesting Boston today.

“I think that, probably, when you add in all of Vietnam, all the problems of Watergate, throw in busing — those are abnormal problems ladened on the problems of crime and taxes and those things that are normal. Then it does get you down.

“I think city people are particularly resilient and vibrant, and they can take the normal problems,” White said. “It was the abnormal problems thrown on top of them that depressed them, that gave them a sense of malaise and despondency I think hung on the town as you came in in ’74.”

***

It was a hot, muggy day in late September 1974 when the Class of 1979 arrived at Northeastern. Many students were seeing the city for the first time and had no idea what to expect.

Continue reading “My interview with Kevin White”

How to drain the cesspool of news-site comments

I’m speaking to Professor Nick Daniloff’s Journalism Ethics and Issues class at Northeastern University tomorrow. Since the topic may be of general interest, I thought I’d post the slides in advance.

Forbes tries to justify four-year error

The Boston Globe checks in with Forbes to find out how the magazine’s annual rankings could penalize Northeastern University for having a low four-year graduation rate given that it is a five-year school. And a magazine editor actually defends the methodology, saying, well, gee, we’ve got to base our rankings on something.

We also learn that 27.5 percent of the rankings are based on student satisfaction, “determined primarily by feedback on RateMyProfessors.com.” Wow. Without getting into the pros and cons of RateMyProfessors, let me just observe that the sample size for most instructors is so low that the data are entirely anecdotal.