News organizations need to stop stonewalling on layoffs and diversity data

Photo (cc) 2009 by Richard Kendall

The Poynter Institute has published an important story on the difficulty of tracking layoffs of journalists, especially journalists of color. As Kristen Hare writes, very few news organizations let it be known when they’ve eliminated positions. “For an industry that prizes transparency,” she says, “we’re experts at asking for it and rotten at actually offering it.”

She’s right, and it’s something I’ve found pretty frustrating whenever I hear reports that newspapers owned by Gannett or Alden Global Capital have downsized once again. Since many news organizations follow the practice of last hired, first fired, journalists from underrepresented groups tend to be disproportionately affected — but finding out exactly what happened is difficult if not impossible. Hare offers three explanations for why this information is so hard to come by:

  • “Lack of public notice about who was laid off and where
  • “A reluctance among some journalists to say anything publicly
  • “Growing use of nondisclosure agreements that include non-disparagement agreements”

Hare also quotes my Northeastern journalism colleague Meredith Clark, who’s been working with the News Leaders Association to revive its annual survey of newsroom diversity — a survey that was suspended several years ago because so few news organizations were responding. Dr. Clark puts it this way:

The thing is, journalism as an institution, as a business, has a vested interest in continuing to isolate people in terms of their knowledge of what the field actually looks like. And the corporatization of journalism helps with that because it’s easy to say, “Oh, this is a problem for HR,” or, “Oh, because of legal we can’t do this.”

Clark is absolutely right, and it extends well beyond layoff and diversity numbers. I’ve been covering the news media for more than 25 years, and though I’ve found a great deal of openness to the idea that journalists should be as transparent as they expect their sources to be, I’ve encountered plenty of examples of the opposite, too.

Unfortunately, we can’t file public-records requests or demand the right to attend  meetings at media outlets. Rather, we have to rely on news executives to do the right thing. If they think government officials should be compelled to release data that casts them in an unfavorable light, then why do they think it ought to be different for media organizations?

What, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story on SCOTUS and masks?

Nina Totenberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by the Asia Society.

It’s impossible to know what, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story about a mask dispute between Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch without also knowing the details of Totenberg’s interactions with her unnamed sources — or source.

But it has the hallmarks of a situation in which the justices, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, jumped on a small wording problem in order to back away from a controversy they regretted. Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs reporter, was the collateral damage.

It began with a report last Tuesday morning in which Totenberg noted that, since the rise of omicron, all of the justices had been wearing masks to hearings — all, that is, except Gorsuch. Sotomayor, who has diabetes and who normally sits next to Gorsuch, had been appearing remotely from her office.

Roberts, Totenberg reported, had “in some form asked the other justices to mask up,” and only Gorsuch had failed to comply.

The next day came this, also under Totenberg’s byline:

On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a statement saying that she did not ask him to wear a mask. NPR’s report did not say that she did. Then, the chief justice issued a statement saying he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.” The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come “in some form.”

NPR stands by its reporting.

So what did Roberts actually say? We don’t know. NPR’s ombudsman, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, wrote that Totenberg remained confident she got it right but was hazy on exactly how Roberts indicated to the other justices that he wanted them to wear masks. “If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it,” Totenberg told  McBride. “Instead I said ‘in some form.’”

McBride’s conclusion was that Totenberg’s story was essentially accurate but that she shouldn’t have used the word “asked,” even modified by “in some form.” McBride also called for a “clarification,” but not a correction, to be appended to Totenberg’s story. Which in turn led Totenberg to tell The Daily Beast, “She [McBride] can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true. She’s not clarifying anything!”

The situation reminds me of the smackdown delivered by then-special counsel Robert Mueller in early 2019 after BuzzFeed News reported that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had told investigators that Donald Trump had “directed” him to lie under oath before Congress about a Trump Tower deal in Moscow. Mueller had his spokesman characterize the story as “not accurate,” and the episode was seen as a serious blunder by BuzzFeed.

Lo and behold, several months later we learned that BuzzFeed had it right all along. If I may speculate, it looked to me like Mueller took advantage of a minor exaggeration in the story in order to denounce the whole thing at a moment when it looked like Trump might shut down the entire special counsel’s investigation. BuzzFeed was thrown under the bus, and the investigation was saved.

Totenberg’s story was the culmination of an eventful few weeks for Justice Sotomayor. On Jan. 8, Washington Post “Fact Check” columnist Glenn Kessler took her to task for saying during oral arguments, “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.” That number appeared to be 20 times higher than was actually the case. Kessler saw fit to assign her statement a “Four Pinocchios” rating, thus labeling what was almost certainly a spontaneous slip-up as a lie.

At around the same time, Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter ran a story and a photo showing a woman who was identified as Sotomayor sitting back-to at a restaurant with Democratic members of Congress. O, the hypocrisy! Except that it wasn’t Sotomayor — it was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall. “Our tipster got it wrong, but we should have double-checked,” Politico said in its correction. No kidding.

As for whether and how Chief Justice Roberts asked “in some form” that the justices mask up, we’ll probably never know precisely what transpired. But we do know this: Every justice has been wearing a mask to oral arguments except Gorsuch. And Sotomayor didn’t feel it was safe for her to attend.

A for-profit newspaper asks its readers for donations in the name of its journalists

Several readers called this Washington Post piece to my attention over the weekend. It’s about a fundraising drive recently held by the Tampa Bay Times to offset some of the advertising revenue it lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Post reporter  Elahe Izadi observes that the idea isn’t entirely new. The Seattle Times has engaged in community fundraising drives, and The Times-Picayune and The New Orleans Advocate (one entity) received $1 million over the summer from the Ford Foundation. For that matter, The Boston Globe pays for some of its education reporting with a $600,000 grant from the Barr Foundation.

What makes the Tampa Bay project unusual is that the paper asked for people to donate in support of individual journalists, by name. That makes me a little uncomfortable, and I hope the next time they do this they abandon that particular wrinkle.

As you may know, the Tampa Bay Times, a for-profit newspaper, is owned by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education institute. Back when Nelson Poynter melded the Times and the institute together, the expectation was that the newspaper — rolling in cash — could use some of its revenues to support the institute.

Needless to say, that stopped a long time ago. The Times has struggled for the past few  years, and has cut back its print edition to twice a week. It’s still a great ownership model, though, emulated several years ago when Philadelphia Inquirer owner Gerry Lenfest donated his paper to the nonprofit Philadelphia Foundation. After Lenfest’s death, the organization that was set up to own the Inquirer and make investments in journalism was renamed the Lenfest Institute.

By the way, I really like the front page of today’s Tampa Bay Times. Let’s just hope they’re not fundraising off a commemorative issue later this week. Go Sox!

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The ‘60 Minutes’ report on DeSantis is an unusually clear case of liberal media bias

It’s a rare day when we encounter as blatant an example of liberal media bias as in the “60 Minutes” report last Sunday on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. It’s not that the mainstream media aren’t broadly liberal — they are. But such bias normally affects things like story selection and tone, and does not interfere with a fair presentation of the facts. Unfortunately, the botched story on DeSantis, a Republican, will be cited by conservatives for a long time as evidence that you just can’t trust the media.

So what happened? “60 Minutes” reported that DeSantis awarded a contract to the supermarket chain Publix to distribute COVID vaccines after Publix had made a $100,000 campaign donation to the governor’s political action committee. The governor refused to give “60 Minutes” an interview. But in a confrontation at a DeSantis news conference, “60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi asserted that the vaccine contract was a “reward” and asked him: “How is that not pay to play?”

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There are two problems here. First, the story accurately describes the quid but never manages to nail down the quo. It would be strange indeed if Publix did not make campaign contributions to DeSantis, as he is a major political figure. Large businesses do what they have to do to get along. Moreover, Publix stores would be obvious, logical places for administering vaccines.

The system was far from perfect. The report points out that, in some cases, Publix markets are far from communities of color, requiring two bus rides in one example. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis acted as he did because Publix had given him money. As media ethics expert Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute puts it:

In the story, there was a direct line between the campaign contribution and the rewarding. And they never proved that. I think they owe it to everybody — they owe it to the governor, they owe it to Publix, they owe it to the public — to explain to us how they came to that conclusion.

Second, having watched the news conference confrontation as edited for broadcast and compared it to the full, unedited version (above), I think it’s clear that DeSantis’ remarks were edited to cast him in the worst possible light. Journalists are free to use as little or as much as they like of an interview or, in this case, remarks at a news conference. But they are not free to edit those remarks in a way that changes their meaning or leaves out important context.

Among the people who have come to DeSantis’ defense, according to The Palm Beach Post, is Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat. “They are hellbent on dividing us for cheap views and clicks,” Kerner said in a written statement. “‘60 Minutes’ should be ashamed.” (Not every elected Democrat agrees with Kerner, including County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay.)

I doubt the problems with this story were the result of liberal bias in the sense of deliberately making things up in order to make DeSantis look bad. Nor do I think it was the only form of bias at work. There is the bias for confrontation and controversy, which is the most pervasive type of media bias that there is. There is the bias in favor of producing a “gotcha” story.

As for how liberal bias figures into this, I would say — and this is only guesswork, of course — that “60 Minutes” decided DeSantis had done a bad job of managing the COVID pandemic in Florida, and that he had been getting undeserved praise for reopening the state at a time when numbers are continuing to rise. So when Alfonsi confronted DeSantis with the revelation about Publix’s campaign contribution, she and her crew had already come to a conclusion and were simply looking for some good video to go with it.

Which brings us to another form of bias. As one of my graduate students said, the story also looks like an example of confirmation bias. “60 Minutes” didn’t take the necessary steps to verify its story because no one could see any problems with it. And that may be the most pernicious effect of all when it comes to having a newsroom that is populated almost exclusively by liberals.

Trust in the media is scraping the bottom, especially among Republicans. The “60 Minutes” report on DeSantis certainly doesn’t help.

How six women fought for (and won) better family leave at The Boston Globe

Poynter has published a terrific story on six women who pushed for a better family-leave policy at The Boston Globe. They won — but it took two years.

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Poynter features ‘Moguls’ — and some upcoming events locally and in D.C.

The Poynter Institute, a leading journalism-education organization based in St. Petersburg, Florida, has published a doubleheader on “The Return of the Moguls”: an essay about how the book came together and an excerpt on the newspaper business’ bumpy transition to the digital age. Here are some upcoming events:

It’s time for Poynter to apologize to Romenesko

Jim Romenesko, the original media blogger (and still the best), is cutting back, although he wants us all to know that he’s not retiring.

Benjamin Mullin of Poynter interviews Romenesko and almost but not quite acknowledges that Poynter officials did Jim wrong when they flung bogus plagiarism accusations against him as he was leaving in 2011. As I wrote then for The Huffington Post:

It was ridiculous to accuse of him plagiarism or something like it because he didn’t claim that anything he was posting was his original work. And he always linked to what he was excerpting — that was the whole idea. I consider him to be among the most ethical and transparent of journalists.

It’s time for an apology.

More: Here are some reactions from Poynter’s faculty that were posted at the time of Romenesko’s departure. Some didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong. Some thought his attribution practices were sloppy, though they didn’t think it quite amounted to plagiarism — though that’s certainly how it was framed in public.

The larger issue, it seems to me, was that Poynter benefitted from hosting Romenesko’s blog for 12 years without questioning his aggregation practices, and then overreacted to a Columbia Journalism Review inquiry as he was heading for the exit.

That said, Romenesko and Poynter remain must-reads for those of us who follow journalism and media issues.

Correction: The spelling of Mullin’s name has now been fixed.

Pierre Omidyar’s dicey embrace of nonprofit status

220px-Pomidyarji
Pierre Omidyar

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who’s part of the high-profile news project being launched by the tech entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar, writes that the operation’s journalism will be incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

But will it really be that simple? As I wrote earlier this year, the IRS has cracked down on 501(c)(3) status for journalism, apparently (it’s not entirely clear) because the agency doesn’t consider journalism to be an approved “educational” activity.

Rosen calls the venture, to be named First Look Media, a “hybrid” that melds for-profit and nonprofit operations: there will also be a for-profit technology company that, if it becomes profitable, will subsidize the journalism.

But that’s not what we normally think of when discussing hybrid journalism models. The usual route is for a nonprofit of some kind to own a for-profit news organization. The example most often cited (including by Rosen) is the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, a journalism research and training organization.

The difference matters, because a nonprofit news organization is prohibited from endorsing political candidates and engaging in other activities that might be deemed partisan. By contrast, a for-profit enjoys the full protection of the First Amendment, even if it’s owned by a nonprofit.

Not that a nonprofit can’t do great journalism — nonprofits ranging from Mother Jones to the New Haven Independent have proved that. But it will be interesting to see how First Look and its high-profile contributors, including Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, negotiate the tricky nonprofit landscape.

Photo via Wikipedia.

Poynter analyst hails Globe’s prospects

Rick Edmonds

Earlier this month, before the New York Times Co. announced it was putting The Boston Globe up for sale for the second time in four years, Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds sat down with Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab for the lab’s weekly podcast, “Press Publish.”

Toward the end of their nearly hour-long conversation, Benton asked Edmonds which newspapers he thought had the brightest prospects over the next few years. Edmonds responded that he could think of four major metros that were getting it right: the Globe, the Seattle Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Tampa Bay Times — formerly and still better known as the St. Petersburg Times.

(It should be noted that Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times, although I think anyone would point to that paper as one model for how to do it right.)

What Edmonds meant: the four papers had done a better job than most of maintaining the quality and depth of their journalism while at the same time achieving some measure of success financially. Earlier in the podcast, Edmonds voiced his enthusiasm for flexible online paywalls such as the Globe’s (now becoming less flexible).

As another prominent newspaper analyst, Ken Doctor, observes, a lot of newspapers are likely to be sold in the months ahead. The business has recovered slightly since the depths of 2009 and prices are low. Of course, prices are low because the long-term prospects for newspapers remain grim. Still, there are no doubt a number of prospective owners who have enough money and ego to think that they will be the great exception.

Seen in that light, the Globe is a prime property that can be acquired for an attractive price. “The Globe isn’t going anywhere,” Globe columnist Kevin Cullen writes. “It’s changing owners.”

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.