The greatest threat to journalism right now is…

I believe the greatest threat to journalism right now is the distrust the public currently has of media. The mentality that major media organizations are “fake news” makes the public less likely to read or watch news from those organizations. Instead, they gravitate toward news outlets that reaffirm the beliefs that they already have. Far-right supporters gravitate toward Breitbart, for example, and pay attention to stories that support their beliefs while ignoring stories that take a different approach. I understand that no one wants to be wrong in their beliefs, so it is natural to seek affirmation, but I also believe that choosing certain publications to consume and distrusting others can give the public a very narrow view.

It’s difficult to solve the distrust of mass media, especially with a President that has labeled major news sources that go against his values as “fake news.” He is fostering the distrust the public has of media and, in turn, fostering the public’s formation of uneducated opinions. Putting a halt to the growing distrust the public has of media and encouraging them to read news from different publications that encompass many viewpoints is not easy, but I believe it starts with transparency.

One of the major arguments to support the labeling of mass media organizations such as CNN as “fake news” is that what the organizations are reporting is false. These organizations can use transparency to show that what they are reporting is, in fact, true. By linking to different sources, including documents in stories and going the extra mile to show why each story takes the angle it does, each article will show that the news it is reporting is not fake, but well-founded.

Of course, that doesn’t solve the problem of people with an opposing viewpoint choosing not to read certain publications. I think the solution to that problem is to make sure that not every article is objective, but that the news organization itself is objective in its publications. While I love The New York Times, the majority of its coverage is liberal. Because of the angle of the coverage, many right-wing consumers choose different publications for their news. By creating more well-rounded coverage, the publication would have an opportunity to attract an audience of wider variety. Of course, doing so does not mean that the publication should sacrifice the truth or sacrifice its watchdog role of public officials. The balance of objective coverage and good, responsible coverage that gives the public important facts to make decisions is a very fine line.

The abstraction of words

It might seem a little out there, but today we talked about how words are really an abstract construction. Words are labels that we assign to things based on the way that we see them. But the way another person might see something could be completely different. For example, while a rose may seem red to us, it could appear pink to another person.

The world is too complex for us to be able to accurately describe using words, not only because we all see things differently, but because there are also so many different ways that we could describe one thing. The ladder of abstraction describes this perfectly – at the top of the ladder, the description is broad. For example, when describing evidence at an investigation, we would describe it broadly as “evidence” at the top of the ladder of abstraction. But at the bottom of the ladder of abstraction we would say something more specific, such as “bloody glove.” And then there’s the muddy middle, with all of the jargon that can be fed to journalists from sources. Jargon that journalists should be able to see past and explain more clearly in their writing.

I thought this lecture was really interesting. As journalists, it’s important to know what words to use and also what level of specificity, or abstraction, to use when writing specific stories. Our choice of words and specificity impacts both the quality of our writing and our credibility as a journalist. I can’t say that the abstraction of words was something I had considered before this semester, but now that I have I hope that I will be able to use it as an effective tool in my future writing.

What I learned from Ann Friedman while she was at Mizzou

I got to meet Ann Friedman this week. It was great. For those of you who don’t know, Ann Friedman is a freelance journalist, podcast host, pie-chart maker and also sends out a great weekly newsletter. I was familiar with Friedman from her podcast, Call Your Girlfriend, that she co-hosts with her friend, Aminatou Sow. I’ve listened to the podcast for about a year now and was beyond excited when I heard that the Mizzou chapter of the Online News Association was bringing her to campus.

While here, she spoke in one of my classes and gave a talk about her journey from a staff editor to a freelance writer who has built her own brand, so to speak. Her podcast is great, but the focus is not journalism, so it was really wonderful to hear about her as a journalist, especially as one who has graduated from the school I am now attending. She offered advice about starting out in the industry, which is a prospect that I know gives me anxiety at least once a day.

Friedman’s perspective is realistic. The first step to her becoming a freelance writer was getting fired from her job as the editor of a magazine, and she was honest about that. She said that everything would turn out alright after we graduate, but we’re also going to get fired at some point. Our first job isn’t going to be glamorous and likely won’t be exactly what we wanted. We’re going to have to take on stories that we don’t find interesting in the beginning of our careers. But her message was that we can build on all of that.

One way to build on it, Friedman said, is through building our own brand. A collection of things or issues that editors come to associate with you and make it so they think of you when a story about a specific issue comes in. One of the important ways of doing that is to have a voice, to commentate on issues and to let your personality come through in side-projects.

That goes against everything the J-School has taught me so far.

Objectivity might be the holy grail of journalism. According to my teachers here at Mizzou, it’s definitely up there in the most important qualities of a journalist. And as a news reporting major who would like to work for newspapers, that’s especially important for me. So how does building my own brand fit into that? How do I have a voice and comment on issues when I’m supposed to be objective? There seems to be a very fine line of having a personality and being objective in journalism, and I’m definitely beginning to see how straddling that line will be difficult.

Fortunately, I had the (amazing) opportunity to introduce myself to Friedman after the Masterclass she held this morning for a small group of students, and she gave me some advice. I haven’t really broken into the field of journalism yet. I don’t yet have a vast network of connections within the journalism industry. I don’t know what prospective editors will be looking for when they consider whether or not to hire me. So until I have all those things and have established myself in my career, Friedman recommends that I hold off on building my own brand, to save my commentary for friends and family and be objective in public. Once I have a network and know what is expected of me, I can begin to comment on issues I believe in without risking my future career.

Sourcing

In class today we watched a movie about sourcing in stories. The movie raised several interesting points, one of them being the false balance some media affords issues such as climate change can mislead an audience. But what the movie focused on was knowing where your source is getting their information and who is paying for that information.

The movie uses flame retardants in furniture as an example. In the debate about whether or not flame retardants were harmful to the health of humans, scientists would argue and present evidence that proved all the reasons it wasn’t and all the side effects it can have on a person’s health. The side that was in favor of using flame retardants in furniture presented a doctor that told a story about a baby whose mother left a candle in his crib. His mattress was flame retardant but his pillow wasn’t, and the baby died after the candle fell over and his pillow caught fire.

But when journalists for the Chicago Tribune looked into this story, they found the doctor had told three different versions of it at three different hearings. When they questioned him, he said that the stories weren’t true but it was the principle that mattered. It turned out that he had been paid to testify by a company that was funded by manufacturers that relied on flame retardants in their products.

When you look at that story, the importance of knowing a source’s motivations becomes evident. You have to know their background and who is paying them to know whether or not what they are saying is true. And it’s important to know that what they’re saying is true, because even if they are a source that you quote in a story, you are attaching your name to that information. Whether or not someone says a fact doesn’t make it true and doesn’t mean it should be published.

Managing the news and your mental health

Last night I went to a talk by one of my editors and a mindfulness expert about how to stay positive and manage stress in a time when the news is largely depressing and overwhelming. The recent change in presidency has heralded attacks on the media and endless news alerts on phones — most of which are stressful. Add onto that working for the Columbia Missourian, a part-time job that actually pays, classes and the fact that I would like actually like to spend some time with my friends, and I’m worn thin. The past few weeks have been stressful.

At the event last night, Dr. Lynn Rossy spoke about about how people can usually consume the news that is being generated by President Trump in bite-sized pieces. Journalists don’t have that luxury. To do our jobs, we have to be constantly looking at the news and Twitter, monitoring the pulse of news first-thing in the morning and last-thing at night. Journalists are also covering some traumatic and depressing events. In order to not let that overwhelm us and not let the stress that is inherent to our job harmful to ourselves, Dr. Lynn Rossy recommended a few tips. One was that when we feel ourselves being overwhelmed by stress to stop, take a breath, observe our body, thoughts and feelings then proceed with our work.

While that may sound like a stereotypical mindfulness message when I write it here, it definitely was not. This talk could have been the somewhat cheesy “take a deep breath” sort of speech, but it went so far beyond that. Yes, we took deep breaths. No, it wasn’t cheesy — it actually worked. The talk was geared toward and relevant to the stress of journalists who are also students and how in specific instances that we face we can manage our stress.

This talk made me aware that the tensing of my body every time a news alert goes off on my phone is a natural reaction. It taught me to view my stress not as something harmful, but as a launching-off point to get stuff done and become motivated. And yes, it taught me to breathe. When I got home afterward, I set a boundary between my personal life and my work (which was also mentioned as important in the talk), put aside my computer and went to bed earlier than I had all semester. This morning, I felt great. So thank you to my editor and Dr. Lynn Rossy, who recognized the unusually high levels of stress in the Columbia Missourian newsroom and did something about it. I know it helped me and gave me tools to use this semester and throughout my career.

Is there such a thing as getting too much information from a source?

This past week I’ve been reporting and writing a couple of stories on subjects that I previously knew nothing about – composting latrines and maple syrup production. Because I knew very little about those subjects when I started reporting I asked my sources a lot of questions about how everything worked so that I could make sure I was writing accurately. What ended up happening was that I got so bogged down with that information that I wrote stories that were mostly about the process, which wasn’t the most interesting or engaging part. My editor worked with me to cut down the amount of information on the process and focus on what was actually interesting to the reader.

After making those edits to my stories I began to think about how I had gone about my reporting. I believe I asked so many questions and was so overloaded with information that it had a negative impact on my writing. But how do you know when to stop? At what point do you look at what you’ve got and say “This is all I need?” One of my teachers once told me that a good journalist never feels like their story is perfect. I’m starting to realize that I may be a journalist that never feels like they’ve done enough reporting, even when I actually have all the information I need to write a good story.

Writing a life story

One of the unique things the Columbia Missourian does is publish life stories about people who have died. A life story is an expanded obituary. The reporter will call family members and talk to them about the person who has died – what their interests were and what some of their memories about them are. The Missourian then includes that information in the information from the obituary.

When I was on general assignment yesterday, I was assigned my first life story. I knew I would eventually have to do a life story, but to be honest, I was a little uncomfortable with the idea. I felt a little bit like I would be intruding by calling the family while they were grieving, not knowing whether or not they would be willing or in a place to talk to me. My assistant editor explained to me that we were giving them a chance to tell the story of their family member or friend.

When I called the family of the person whose life story I was writing, I found out that that was exactly the case. They were very willing to talk to me about their father and share a little bit about what made him who he was. I believe it helped that they were familiar with the J-School and the Missourian, and that led them to understand what we were trying to do. I think that they were actually glad of the chance to talk about their father and share why he was special to them. That experience made me more comfortable with the idea of calling people even when they’re grieving.

Reporting on breaking news

This week we focused a lot on how to report breaking news. Breaking news is something I don’t have a lot of experience in covering, but I’m sure that will change this semester. I’m a little nervous about that prospect because it’s a situation that moves fast and requires a lot of accurate reporting in a short amount of time. The lecture on Thursday gave me a pretty good idea of the steps I need to take when reporting breaking news, from what information I should try and get first to who will be able to give me what information.

One of the difficult parts about breaking news is that some of the information you need either hasn’t come in yet or the person who has the information isn’t willing to share it with you. That makes me more nervous than actually going to a situation and reporting on it. I worry that in that sort of situation I won’t be able to obtain or find the information that I need in the time I have to get the story out. It’s definitely something that I’m glad I’ll have the chance to practice here at the Columbia Missourian before starting a job in the “real world.”

“You’ll have to talk to our press office.”

We’re on our fourth week of this class and I’m already sick of the phrase “you’ll have to talk to our press office.” As soon as someone says that, I know that I’m either not going to get information or I’m going to get the very bare minimum. And that are minimum will be information that makes the group look good, so usually it’s not very useful anyway.

Last week, a co-worker mentioned to me that Senator Roy Blunt’s office was moving. The context it was mentioned in made it seem as if the office was possibly moving because of the large number of protests that have taken in place outside the office since President Trump’s inauguration. The Missourian decided to look into whether or not that was true. Of course, when a reporter called, they were referred to the press office. And when they called the press office, they were told that the office had no announcements about a move at this time and that they would have to wait for a press release. I called back a few days later and was given the same message.

In my opinion, constituents have a right to know if their senator’s office is moving and to where. It was frustrating to try and get confirmation about something someone told me and be told that they weren’t announcing anything at this time. Once Sen. Blunt’s office referred me to the press line, I had a feeling I wasn’t going to get any information. The same thing happened yesterday, when I was reporting on a protest against Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos outside of his office. We went in and asked how many letters from protestors had been turned in, and were again referred to the press line, who of course didn’t give me any information when I called. I’m realizing pretty quickly that press offices have a tendency to not give you the information you need when you’re a journalist, unfortunately.

Objectivity’s role in today’s journalism

This week in class we covered a lot of material, as usual. One of the most interesting discussions, to me, was that of objectivity. Objectivity is one of the most important principles in journalism. It’s what makes those in the craft credible to a wide audience of people and makes the news organization they work for seem unbiased. In the J-School, we’re encouraged and advised to maintain an objective profile, both in person and on social media, and especially in our stories.

But this week for class, we read a blog post from the perspective of a transgender journalist who had been fired from his job after posting about how he couldn’t – and didn’t think he should – remain objective in his reporting about transgender issues. That is by no mean all he said in his blog, and I would encourage you to read the rest of it. But I think what he did say raised an interesting point.

Given today’s political climate, everybody has an opinion. It would be nearly impossible not to. Of course our opinions shouldn’t impact our reporting, so I don’t necessarily agree with that part of Wallace’s blog post. But I think what journalists should consider is whether objectivity or truth is more important in our profession. I do think that in trying to remain objective, we sometimes neglect to tell the truth. This John Oliver clip explains it perfectly. In it, he says that 99 percent of scientists say climate change exists, but the media still reports stories from the perspective that it doesn’t. To me, if 99 percent of scientists say climate change exists, then it exists. Shouldn’t we report on climate change from the perspective that it does exist, rather than hedging some people don’t believe in it, thus giving them fodder not to believe in it? They may say reporting that truth makes us one-sided and liberal, but at least we would be reporting the truth and giving our audience the information they need to be well-informed.

This is by no means a simple issue, and that was just one perspective and one example. But I think the debate is on whether journalism still is objective and whether it should be. I find it to be an interesting debate, and one that I honestly can’t form a concrete opinion on. There are too many perspectives and I am too little informed on all of them for me to hook my star to a specific view on the subject. But I think it deserves a little consideration from all of us.