Training the bears

A lot of news organizations in Montana and around the Yellowstone region struck viral gold today thanks to an image posted to Reddit showing a comment card for a Xanterra hotel.

The card, posted here, says that the departing guest’s visit was wonderful but “we never saw any bears. Please train your bears to be where guests can see them.”

No name, date, time or room number was added to the Xanterra comment card.

In the Reddit posting, the original poster, user the_midgetaur, says it’s from a friend who works at Yellowstone, and the card was left at the front desk “this morning.”

The posting had more than 2,200 comments. The words “fake” and “doubt” never appear.

I called Yellowstone National Park’s press office on Wednesday. A park spokeswoman — who had seen the online posting already — verified that that’s what the Xanterra comment cards really look like. However, she could not verify its authenticity.

I also left a voicemail for Xanterra’s public relations firm and haven’t heard back yet.

In all, it’s the perfect “Montana” posting. It highlights the naiveté of tourists, the outsiders and non-locals that many in Montana like to poke fun at online to stoke our superiority complex — as many did earlier this summer when Yellowstone had a rash of bison gorings thanks to the phenomenon of the #bisonselfie. The photo is also anonymous. No names, no identifying clues. No one’s feelings get hurt.

In other words, it’s the perfect social media construct, and as such, I am loathe to believe in it without confirmation.

Perhaps I should believe the OP on Reddit and take their claim at face value. Perhaps Xanterra will confirm to me that it’s legit. But until one of those things happens, I have to believe it’s faked.

And unless the Park told the Lee newspapers and other media sites in the region something different than they told me, that means those sites posted an unverified photo for maximum social media effect and not for news value.

MTN article raises ethics questions

Update: Right now, the article on the KTVQ site has a byline, listing the author as Aja Goare. Was it there the whole time? Perhaps is this a case of someone at KBZK just not updating the CMS correctly? That’s a possibility.

So I’m willing to walk back my qualms about the byline on the article. I changed the headline and text of this post to reflect that. However, I am not willing to walk back my problems with the reporting and ethics of the story. The same questions remain.


 

I was pointed to an article from MTN this morning that circulated on the CBS affiliate sites across the state, including our local station KBZK.

The article is about Visibly Unseen, a Billings-based group the article says wants to end human trafficking. KBZK tells us that two of its members are heading to Iraq to interview victims and “highlight the carnage left behind by ISIS.”

Ryan Mix and Britney Higgs will go to Iraq for a week and a half, but they wouldn’t tell the reporter where they are going or when — for safety reasons — and noted that the blonde Higgs will be coloring her hair brown and wearing brown contacts to disguse her foreignness.

A few things:

  • The article asserts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS has a monopoly on human trafficking worldwide.
  • The article asesrts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS is the largest buyer and seller of people on the planet. (Even if this is true, it does not necessarily follow that the former assertion is true.)
  • Perhaps only a typo? “Stories of stolen men, women and children sold and traded in the midst of a war zone.” That leaves a sentence fragment.
  • “Higgs and Mix hope to return home with a souvenir for change.” There is no indication what this means. It sounds like the unnamed reporter was trying to be profound but failed.
  • The image of the “all-girl” group (which is sending a man as one of its representatives to Iraq) is listed as an MTN News photo, but a cursory Web search reveals that photo and many others from the session posted to both Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page and to other relates sites belonging to Higgs or Mix’s wife, Janine.
However, there are some serious problems with this story, beyond the sloppy writing mentioned in the points above.

The whole feel of the article, claims about the do-gooders’ plans without any concrete detail about their trip, smacks of promotion — promotion for the group and its fundraising. (The link to the group’s website is inserted twice in a short story.)

The Montana Secretary of State lists Visibly Unseen as a public benefit corporation, which would mean that it’s likely a nonprofit organization. However, the corporation was only incorporated in April, and it has not yet filed forms with the IRS that I could find. It is registered to Janine Mix, a Los Angeles-native noted by the site Yellowstone Valley Woman as “Billings Best Dressed,” who is pictured in the VU image posted with the MTN story along with Higgs and an unknown third woman.

Given its newness, VU’s nonprofit status for fundraising is in doubt in my mind, as is its claim on its website that “Your generous donation is 100% tax deductible”.

Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page has a number of postings mentioning the group’s growing involvement with a preacher named Victor Marx, who operates All Things Possible Ministry out of California but recently passed through Montana. Indeed, Marx, whose site boasts that he is the fastest gun disarm man in the world, appeared recently in Bozeman and Visibly Unseen served as his film crew.

A later posting to Facebook notes that VU was picked to film a documentary of Marx’s trip to northern Iraq. This came immediately after a June 17 posting saying VU would be partnering with Marx on his nonprofit’s next “global high risk mission as the documentary film crew.”

From what I can see, it feels more like VU is serving as film crew for someone else’s documentary about human trafficking in Iraq rather than spurring its own project. That feels to me like a reporter who didn’t ask the right questions before putting this group’s representatives on air to provide a clear picture to viewers.

The most disturbing thing, to me, is that the article allows a group to make a public plea for money without the due dilligence of explaining exactly what VU plans to do with that money.

This leads me to wonder just what involvement MTN’s reporter may have with the group to allow VU to put it’s own unverified claims on air and online.

Lee, hell-bent for pageviews, goes the clickbait route

Ed Kemmick hits the nail on the head this morning with his post on the direction Lee Enterprises seems to be going online:

At the same time they are cutting back on staff and by extension drastically reducing traditional newspaper reporting, they are attempting to increase their online presence—in other words, to get more clicks—by constantly running the sort of click-bait crap that already pollutes the Web to such an offputting degree.

Some of it is mildly entertaining, but even the best of it is so obviously designed only for generating clicks that it is embarrassing. I really don’t want to go in search of links, but any regular readers of the online Gazette will know what I’m referring to: the Top 10 Montana references on Letterman, 10 local restaurants that aren’t open anymore, photos of long-ago local rock bands, Montana towns named after foreign places, famous Montanans bitten by three-legged dogs.

OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. What they all have in common is that they require no reporting—unless plumbing the archives or consulting Wikipedia is considered reporting—and they invariably involve a gallery of photos that you have to click through one at a time, the better to generate numbers that can be shown to potential advertisers.

In the short-term—and if there is one thing Lee Enterprises does well it is thinking in the short term—it undoubtedly does generate bigger numbers and probably brings in some revenue. In the long term, even readers who click through all that crap are going to start asking themselves, why bother?

The optimistic, business types among modern newspaper people would see this as brilliant: Make use of the archives that were previously sitting their idle by repackaging and re-presenting them to readers. This sort of recycled content plays especially well on Facebook, whose users feed on nostalgia, and since Facebook is such an important source of Web traffic, it pays to play the game.

Plus, it isn’t like newspapers haven’t been doing the “clickbait” thing for a hundred years. It’s only recently that the practice of trying overtly to attract readers has become an all-purpose means of deriding news organizations and expressing disapproval in their content.

Tim Marchman at Deadspin put it this way last year, journalism is a trade, and its art is “in satisfying a bewildering variety of competing interests by working not only in service of all the impossibly interesting stories in the world—some of them very important, some not very important at all—but also the impossibly busy people who might read them.”

Perhaps there’s nothing wrong in trying to please a varied audience online or play the stats game, but Kemmick is absolutely right about one thing: Such clickbait features can be created by a “producer” sitting around at a computer all day performing searches, the same kind of content farm mentality that has brought us sites like ViralNova and Buzzfeed — sites we hate to admit we spend a lot of time on, judging by their Web stats.

And when the people holding news organizations’ purse strings see that they can get a whole lot of online bang just by paying a few people to sit around on computers all day creating slideshows, rather than by paying reporters to go out and get stories the hard way, what do we honestly think they’ll budget for?

Statehouse reporting is dead; long live statehouse reporting

A lot of pixels have already been spilled in the past week about the closing of the Lee Enterprises state bureau in Helena and the departure of longtime reporters Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison, but I’m going to chip in too, mostly because I feel that their apotheosis has gone far enough.

Were Johnson and Dennison veterans with lots of institutional knowledge? Absolutely. Were they good reporters? Likely they were; but, to be honest, any reporter who has spent long enough on a single beat will appear to be a goodish reporter simply by dint of getting to know sources and topics. I don’t know; maybe that’s enough to be “good.”

Subjectivity aside, bloggers across Montana are heralding their departures as the end of competent government watchdog reporting, whining that Montanans will be poorly informed by the cub reporters paid a pittance to cover the next Legislature. Journalism is dying, alack!

I call bullshit.

Lee Enterprises was not the only news company covering the Legislature. And though Lee was one of only a handful that still sent reporters physically to Helena for the session, they were not the only watchers, not by a long shot.

The Chronicle churned out legislative coverage relevant to our readers on a daily basis throughout the session, covering bill after bill and, I may say, beating Lee on a scoop more than once.

Television, though I am not exactly a huge fan, had reporters in Helena throughout the session too, as did public radio. The University of Montana sends a team of eager student journalists to cover each session as well, providing daily coverage that appeared in newspapers around the state — newspapers, I would note, that were not owned by Lee Enterprises and did not have access to the prose of Johnson and Dennison. And let’s not forget the Associated Press, which also does a fine job of covering the Legislature for readers, spreading news far wider than Lee, which, lest we forget, shares with Lee papers first (and then throws a few scraps to the AP later).

The notion that young reporters won’t be able to cover the Legislature as effectively as the vets would hold more water if the session hadn’t been so well covered by young reporters already. To say that the vets’ B.S. meters are worn in as well as a pair of old cowboy boots while these young cubs can’t yet find the bathrooms (“Ha! Young people are dumb!”) insults the young reporters and their ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow as professionals.

Look, Johnson and Dennison are gone. Instead of pining for the bygone past, we need to decide what we expect from statehouse journalism in 2017 and beyond.

 

TheWeek.com closing its comment section

More and more often I read about news websites shutting down their commenting sections. Just today it was TheWeek.com, whose explanation cited this gem of a reason for getting rid of news site comments:

And so today, the smartest, most thoughtful, and most spirited conversations are being driven not by pseudonymous avatars in the comments sections of news sites, but by real people using their real names on the social web. It is no longer a core service of news sites to provide forums for these conversations. Instead, we provide the ideas, the fodder, the jumping off point, and readers take it to Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any number of other places to continue the conversation.

Back and forth over accuracy of KBZK report

Two statements reported in a television news story about the investigation into Belgrade High School principal Paul Lamb have raised the hackles of journalists across the Gallatin Valley.

A report on KBZK on the evening of Oct. 6 by reporter Brooke Boone told readers that police in Belgrade have completed their investigation into allegation of misconduct against Lamb and that they will request that charges are filed against him.

Lamb allegedly patted down several female students in private while searching for missing money.

Boone reports:

Police have completed their investigation into allegations of misconduct by Belgrade High School Principal Paul Lamb and say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.

Detective Dustin Lensing said a request for prosecution should be in the hands of County Attorney Marty Lambert by the end of this week.

Some supporters of Lamb did not agree with the report and, believing it to be false, contacted Michael Tucker, the editor of the Belgrade News, which is also owned by the Chronicle’s parent company, Big Sky Publishing.

Tucker, who also believed Boone had it wrong, published a piece labeled as “commentary” to the Belgrade News site on the afternoon of Oct. 7. In it, Tucker writes:

The police have yet to finish their report. It is still being written. The news report is false. No one has asked the county attorney to pursue charges.

It’s a difficult thing to say since we’re in the news business, too, but just because someone says the sky is green doesn’t make it true.

Tucker cites no sources in his commentary.

From there, things got a little bit complicated.

Emails and Tweets

Boone, apparently having read the Belgrade News commentary, took to Twitter on the defensive on the night of Oct. 7 and on the morning after.

There was also a tweet Boone apparently deleted in which she directly jabs at Tucker’s commentary.

deleted tweet

Just before 5 p.m. that day, KBZK news director John Sherer wrote to Michael Tucker. In an email forwarded to the Chronicle, Sherer calls Tucker’s commentary “false” and says it should be “corrected in your publication immediately.”

Sherer also writes that Tucker should have called the station before writing about the incident because the Belgrade News editor would have learned new facts from KBZK. “That would be good journalism practice before going to publication,” he wrote.

Tucker responded that no correction would be coming.

Clarification

A few hours later, at about 8:45 p.m., KBZK published a clarification written by Sherer himself.

In the clarification Sherer writes that the final investigation report into Lamb is not complete, only Det. Dustin Lensing’s portion of it, according to Belgrade police Chief E.J. Clark.

Whereas Boone’s original report clearly says police “say they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges,” Clark told KBZK in its clarification that the chief wanted a prosecutor to look over the findings to decide if charges are warranted.

So what went wrong?

The conflict here is over two facts reported in Boone’s original story and then addressed in the station’s clarification:
  • that that the Belgrade police investigation is complete
  • that the Belgrade police will ask that charges be filed against Lamb
As I see it, the first is the result of a misunderstanding. Lensing likely said just what Boone reported, but perhaps Lensing didn’t have the whole picture or Boone didn’t see the whole picture.

The second statement is the result of an assumption. Clark explains in the clarification that the paperwork is referred to as a “request for prosecution,” even though he said the department intends to seek a prosecutor’s opinion on whether charges should be filed.

In her opening paragraph, Boone translated the submission of “request or prosecution” paperwork into “they will ask the Gallatin County Attorney to pursue criminal charges.”

If you’re looking at the words themselves. It’s a reasonable translation, but it’s a translation that also implies something more: that the police believe Lamb did something wrong and charges should be filed against him. Moreover, it implies that police believe so strongly that Lamb did something wrong that they’d speak that fact to a reporter to be presented on the news, even before charges are filed in court.

The wording says something about the guilt or innocence of Paul Lamb, when in fact police are making no such implications. They are only investigating.

Conclusion

At this point, I see this as a matter of hurt pride on all sides. Reporters have famously thick skin, but being accused of getting the facts wrong can get under that skin quickly, as Boone and Sherer showed with their defensive tones.

And when you accuse someone else of having the facts wrong, you should have the appropriate sources on the record. If Tucker had that, he didn’t put it in his commentary.

Also, when a story development seems really good, a reporter should stop, consider, and re-verify it with the source, asking it again to make dead certain it’s right.

We should always remember that people’s reputations can be at stake in these articles.

Corrections and guarding English usage

The Montana State Prison’s spokeswoman public/victim information officer sent out an email Friday to newsrooms across the state (emphasis theirs):

Thank you for your recent articles and coverage of Montana State Prison.  We appreciate your interest in the shortage of correctional officers.

I do have one request.  Over the years, the professionalism of correctional staff has changed substantially.  Whereas the term “guard” was appropriate historically, over the past decade, the training and expectations of prison staff have increased.  We now use the title “correctional officer” to refer to the security staff in Montana’s prisons.  In keeping with that, it would help us if you would refer to prison staff as correctional officers and, where space is limited, as officers.
As one wiseacre in the newsroom noted, I suppose this means calling them “screws” is out?

For the most part, news reporting uses common words. I can’t say it happens with 100 percent certainty and reliability, but so long as the majority of people call them prison guards, newspapers will continue to call them that too.

Fierce backlash over John Walsh plagiarism

Montana Sen. John Walsh has been in trouble this week after the New York Times demonstrated that he had plagiarized large portions of the final paper he wrote in the U.S. Army’s War College back in 2007.

Campaign trackers are saying this is a devastating, if not fatal, blow to his bid for election to the Senate this November against Republican Rep. Steve Daines.

I storified some of the reaction I found today. Predictably, veterans are unhappy that Walsh mentioned post-traumatic stress in connection with his plagiarism, an especially troubling prospect considering Walsh has used his military background to court the veteran vote, and according to our own reporter Troy Carter, Montana’s estimated 101,600 military veterans represent 11.4 percent of the voting-age population.

Meanwhile, Democrats are supporting him fully, at least in words. Democratic bloggers are asking why one incident of dishonesty speak for the whole man and wondering at the timing and origin of this political torpedo.

By far, though, my favorite reaction so far is this one, which Twitter brought to me tonight.

The former writing teacher in me is laughing mightily — and then sighing deeply. You know you’ve made the big time when you’re lampooned on the “Tonight Show.” Or, as the distinguished mayor of Bozeman put it this morning:

But seriously…

On a more serious note, some supporters of Walsh have asked in comments on the Chronicle’s Facebook page and on our articles why this is even a story, and as I noted above, they have asked us to do “real reporting” on the timing of this story’s release.

Is this a story? Yes. Does the single incident of academic dishonesty so far found in Walsh’s past define his whole character? Perhaps not. But Walsh is a public figure, and his mistakes — even seemingly small ones — have consequences for him. And right now, those consequences are a War College investigation into his writing and a media firestorm that’s threatening his campaign. The Chronicle simply cannot ignore it. It’s news.

As for the timing of the release — just a week after a poll showed Walsh closing the gap on Daines in the race… Well, you’re adults. You’ve watched “House of Cards.” Do we really need to explain where the news tip probably came from? It’s politics, and tipping off reporters isn’t illegal.

Regardless of how the Times got the story, once it broke, it was news. And you can’t put that cat back in the bag. Walsh is riding a tidal wave in a dinghy with only a tiny oar to steer with. We’ll have to see where he washes up, if he survives.

Today on the TV news…

One of our reporters found this while browsing the TV news stations’ sites today. I wish the couple luck, but is this really worth of posting to the TV news site? Labeled as “continuous news”?

screenshot

 

Also today in things that probably don’t belong on TV news websites:

screenshotKBZK lists an advertising job with the station in the news stream on its homepage — not differentiated as an advertisement or anything.

Also, Colorado’s “news leader” posts “breaking news” video: Watch a 10-pound block of ice melt live.

Vaccines and junk journalism

Good grief. KBZK posted a story yesterday with the following headline: “Experts: childhood vaccines deemed safe.”

Was this really news on July 1, 2014? Did we not know this one, simple thing before?

Granted, there are anti-vaccination people out there who rely on junk science and exaggerated anecdotes to form their opinions about the safety of vaccines. But, and this is important, they are the minority and they are — and let me be frank — fringe-case nutjobs.

By allowing the pretense that vaccines are unsafe — because otherwise why would we need a news story to say that they are safe — KBZK is pushing out the worst sort of click-bait junk journalism that is aimed to appeal to the controversy and not to the facts.

What worse, when they posted the story to Facebook, the TV station prefaced it with this inane question:

Vaccines and junk journalism

I won’t go into the reasons vaccines are safe; scientists have done that or me over and over again. More evidence of their safety are the decades upon decades of vaccines being used to reduce the number of deaths from diseases. Someone I know also like to point out that if you need more evidence of the hazards of life without vaccinations, visit a cemetery and look for baby and child graves from a certain time period. Then remember that you can vaccinate against polio.

For some reason in this country, people now distrust scientists. I think that comes in part because the Internet makes it so easy to publish nonscientific points of view to a large audience and make them look credible. Plus, the sins of some untrustworthy scientists have given opponents of science, who usually have a financial stake in the opinion they’re supporting or a total ignorance of how the scientific process works (or both), ammunition to bluster that all scientists are corrupt, money-grubbing quacks.

On top of that, in the pursuit of “balance,” journalism often forgets that a story isn’t balanced that gives equal time to nutcases who are demonstrably, scientifically wrong. By making it seem as if the anti-vaccination stance is as valid as the real science and then prompting people to discuss whether the “risks” of vaccination are worth it, KBZK is perpetuating dangerous misinformation.

Shame.