Journalism, 30 Years Later

Tim McGuire, who teaches journalism ethics and on the business of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, recently asked some journalists about today’s business, compared to 30 years ago. Some excerpts:

One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

…As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. …Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

–Pam Fine, University of Kansas journalism professor


We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate.

–Arnie Robbins, St. Louis Post Dispatch editor


I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done

–Gregory Favre, Distinguished Fellow of the Poynter Institute


Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide.

In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments.

–Rick Rodriguez, faculty of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. –—Len Downie, former editor, The Washington Post

[All emphases added]

Preserving Access

Jeff Zucker’s departure from NBC is not a story I would waste much time reading about.  But I’m glad I glanced at this short piece in Crain’s New York Business.  What caught my eye was the teaser on Romenesko’s website:  “Why media didn’t report what they knew about Zucker.”

It seems most reporters knew that Zucker was a dead man walking.  That seems obvious given his much publicized failures.  But he signed a contract extension after Comcast bought NBC Universal, and he insisted he was staying.  Reporters weren’t buying it, but they weren’t reporting their suspicions either.  Greg David’s damning conclusion seems spot on:

Reporters knew all this. Some believed they couldn’t write it unless someone told them it would happen. They also knew that if they did write Mr. Zucker was doomed, he might not be accessible to them and he could even shut the NBC Universal door entirely to reporters who angered him.

The end result, of course, is that readers of the NBC stories wonder why the reporters were so wrong about Mr. Zucker’s future.

I visited an undergraduate journalism class at Baruch last week and was asked how much advertising pressures affected editorial coverage in my years as editor of Crain’s. The answer was hardly at all. Rather, I told the students, reporters self-censor themselves not over concern about advertising but because they want access to companies.

The Zucker story showed that once again that is reporters’ interest in access not advertisers who censor the news.

And writing “he said, she said” stories protects reporters from charges that they are making judgments or calling out obvious false statements.  All is a day’s work to preserve access.

Post Defends Anonymous Sourcing of Pushback Article Against Rolling Stone

The Washington Post defends the article that allowed anonymous allies of Gen. McChrystal to attack the integrity of Rolling Stone and its writer Michael Hastings.

“The sources would only allow us to use the material on condition of anonymity,” Post National Security editor Cameron Barr told Yahoo! News. “Given the significant impact of the Rolling Stone story, we felt the public’s interest in seeing what military officials had to say about how it was reported and fact-checked was greater than in keeping that information to ourselves because the officials wouldn’t come on the record,” Barr continued. “We independently contacted several sources for the story.”

…Barr explained that “the story went through changes throughout [the] day as we added reporting to it that made the piece more comprehensive,” adding that the Post will “often revise webfiles for the paper.” The A1 print story included some additional reporting, such as when McChrystal first learned the details of the Rolling Stone story. However, it still included no on-the-record sources making the charge that Hastings used off-the-record materials or details to back up the allegation.

Still sounds like a bad call by The Post.

‘Dirty Little Secret’

Former CNN Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre on the difference between Michael Hastings Rolling Stone report on Gen. McChrystal and the MSM beat reporter’s approach (from “On the Media”)

JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, the difference is the sort of one-off reporter doesn’t need to worry about whether he’s going to get future access or not, whereas the beat reporters, like when I was at CNN, I needed access; I needed to be able to get to the key people to find out what was going on when bombs were dropping or things were happening.

And the way you do that is you forego reporting all of the sort of off-color jokes or informal banter that goes on when you follow these guys around, focus on the big picture, and they begin to trust you. As a result, when you need to know what’s going on, you get access.

If you do what Michael Hastings does, they’re never going to talk to him again. Of course, he — he doesn’t care. The fallout from that though is that they may also not talk to a lot of other reporters, as well.

BOB GARFIELD: Not reporting the off-color jokes, the intemperate comments and so forth, you call that the dirty little secret of beat reporting.

JAMIE McINTYRE: You know, it implies this sort of overly cozy relationship. These military officials that we’re following around, they’re not our friends. We’re frenemies, we’re not friends. You know, one thing we’ve learned from this whole episode is that military officers cannot tell you what they’re really thinking without being in peril of losing their jobs.

So the dirty little secret is yeah, we sort of informally agree not to report a lot of things that we see and hear, some of it for legitimate security reasons, and some of it because it could just be embarrassing. And the tradeoff is we get a continued relationship with these people and we can get information.

And by the way, it is information that we can still hold them accountable for, it’s just that we sort of cover them.

Did Politico Hide the Dirty Laundry?

In case you missed it, an interesting story about Politico and the scrutiny it’s received for scrubbing an “inside journalism” quote from an earlier version of a story about Rolling Stone’s Gen. McChrystal article.  Jay Rosen at Press Think has the details.  CJR follows up.

A Freelancer’s Ethical Problem

A private investigator hired a freelance writer to dig into the background of two FDA officials.  The firm, Kroll, was hired by drug maker Amphastar Pharmaceuticals that was frustrated that its generic drug wasn’t getting approval fast enough. 

At one point, the investigators hired a freelance reporter to file Freedom of Information Act requests, using her status as a journalist to request Woodcock’s emails, phone records, voicemails, calendar and expense reports, among other documents – without mentioning that she was being paid for her efforts by a private investigative firm.

“I am making this request as a journalist and this information is of timely value,” Melanie Haiken, a San Francisco-based freelance reporter wrote to the FDA. “As a journalist, I am primarily engaged in disseminating information.”

Haiken did not disclose that she was working for the private investigators at the time. In an email explaining its fees, Kroll told Amphastar that the expenses related to the FOIC covered “the cost of the person we are using to make the requests untraceable to you, the client.”

…Haiken, the freelance journalist, confirms that she filed the FOIA on behalf of Kroll. But Haiken said her intent was journalistic, and that she hoped the FOIAs would yield an interesting story. “I’m not really an investigator, I’m a health writer,” she said. “I have a right to get a story tip from somebody, even if it’s somebody at Kroll.”

This is a horrible breach of ethics for a reporter—freelance or not.