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.

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.

Debating when to publish public documents

Chronicle crime reporter Whitney Bermes got into a discussion this morning with Missoulian crime reporter Kathryn Haake over documents with stories online.

Particularly, Bermes was surprised that the Missoulian published the ticket along with the affidavit in the case of a 46-year-old Butte man accused of driving drunk the wrong way for 20 miles on Interstate 90.

The ticket, as opposed to the affidavit, contains information such as the man’s exact date of birth, his driver’s license number and his home address.

The full Twitter exchange is in the Storify embedded below (and linked here).

I can understand the differences in choices about publishing information online. The Chronicle chooses not to publish the ticket because these people are merely accused of crimes and because the ticket contains such personally identifying information. Haake made clear that the Missoulian publishes the ticket because “it’s public record.” That’s a fair difference of journalistic opinion. If a little harsh. (Do they publish documents in rape cases too? Because those documents are also public.)

What stood out from the conversation most to me was Haake’s response to Whitney’s initial question:

That shows a reporter too ready to jump to the conclusion that a person is guilty before they’ve had a crack at due process. That makes me uncomfortable.

I also found great irony in the difference in opinion between a reporter at this branch of a Lee Enterprises paper and the editor at another one.

On March 28, the Billings Gazette earned the ire of media critics when Jim Romenesko linked to a Feb. 23 editor’s column titled “The Hidden Freedom of the Press.”

In it, editor Darrell Ehrlick explains why the paper chose not to run a copy of state Sen. Jason Priest’s affidavit online when he was accused of assault. He said, apart from the case involving children, that the documents, “if true, paint a picture that is deeply troubling.”

More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it’s up to the courts to decide Priest’s innocence or guilt.

This is a discussion we have had concerning mugshots here at the BDC a while back. We decided that the en masse publishing of photographs of people only accused of crimes was not something we wanted to do because those photos can imply guilt. You’ll of course note that we do publish photos of people in court when we write stories about their cases, though. Clearly, there is disagreement among Montana papers over handling mugshots too.

Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone

On being late on the Yellowstone quake story

This tweet met me when I opened up the Twitter this morning:

It seems there was an earthquake in Yellowstone over the weekend, the biggest in three decades, in fact. And as it came along with a swarm of other earthquakes, people (and the media) naturally assumed a connection to the supervolcano.

Scientists say there is no danger of an eruption, but as Blake Maxwell at the Magpie points out in his tweet, there was no way to know that from the Chronicle, until I got into the office this morning, that is.

I’m not sure whether Maxwell is right about the lack of this news from the Chronicle being a sign of the newspaper apocalypse. But still, other news organizations got it out over the weekend while we didn’t — even the Magpie managed to “cover” it by linking to an AP story in the Flathead Beacon in its aggregator.

(In fact, considering that the story has been on the Associated Press for some time, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t moved onto our site yesterday. I’m going to look into why that didn’t happen.)

In reality, it was a minor quake in a sparsely populated area that barely shook anything in West or Gardiner, and there were no reports of damage or injuries. Objectively, it really wasn’t all that newsworthy, my inner defense mechanism says.

And while that all may true, determining newsworthiness isn’t a 100-percent objective process. The quake was a story people would have read — had we carried it and shared it widely. It is, therefore, something we should have had sooner.

There’s no way around the lack of a Monday paper, not unless the company’s profits suddenly soar and stay up consistently. And with no Monday edition to put out, there is of course little justification to staff the newsroom fully on Sundays, which means that we’ll be weak on that day. It’s a fact of modern newspaper life — not necessarily a fact of the newspaper apocalypse.

Yet even a skeletal staff should have been paying close enough attention to hear about the Yellowstone quake. Even if they didn’t feel it shake, they should have felt it newsworthy.

clickbait

NBC Montana reporting non-news from Chicago

A couple days ago, a man named Panson De Oaks wrote to us on Facebook, linking to a video from the TV station WGN in Chicago. The video was a segment on vacation destinations — mostly high-end, expensive ones. Included was a vacation destination in Montana, Paws Up, a “glamping” destination in the Missoula area. When the guest on the video announces the destination is Montana, one of the anchors sort of goes “Ugh.”

It’s clearly a city-folk reaction to activities such as camping, rock climbing and horseback riding, but De Oaks felt that it was a frontal assault on Montana’s reputation. A screenshot of his initial post on the BDC page is below.

Panson De Oaks screenshot

Before I responded to him, I clicked on the link to his Facebook profile, which was mostly private. However, on his “About” tab, one of the websites listed for him is: http://www.pawsup.com. A Google search for his name turns up a more specific connection. De Oaks is the managing director of The Resort at Paws Up, at least according to his LinkedIn profile.

When I noted to him via Facebook that we wouldn’t be getting involved in his company’s dispute with WGN over coverage of his resort, he called it an “attack by a news organization against the state of MT.”

Panson De Oaks 2

So a businessman felt snubbed because of an anchorwoman’s mild distaste for non-urban outdoor activities. I informed him we’d not be getting involved and left it at that.

However, NBC Montana didn’t leave it at that.

No, in an example of unsourced, un-bylined, click-bait journalism at its finest, KTVM posted a skeletal story about the “incident” with the non-news headline “Chicago anchor doesn’t appear to be a fan of MT” and replete with a big Montana state flag image and “UGH” in all-caps with an exclamation point. There is no mention of the clear source of the story, De Oaks, who posted the same news tip to KTVM’s Facebook page as he did to our page. He seems to have gotten a more more receptive response:

KTVM De Oaks


Update

There were some fun new developments in this case of click-baiting this morning. NBC Montana Today posted this message to its Facebook page:

NBC Montana baiting

 

Yep, that’s NBC Montana’s morning show bragging about trying to bait anchor Robin Baumgarten into responding to the non-story the station had already run.

Here are the relevant tweets embedded, starting with Painter’s post at 5:41 this morning:

And Baumgarten’s replies beginning six minutes later:

I suppose I could take this as a journalism lesson. If my story isn’t generating enough buzz, try contacting the sources you didn’t contact before you wrote the story and then ask them to react publicly to the story you already wrote about them. For bonus points, make sure to involve yourself personally somehow, like by inviting said source to an activity you already know they’ll reject.

Lauren Maschmedt at work

The worthlessness of “digging deeper”

One morning. I stayed off Twitter for a one morning, and this is what happens?

The Chronicle’s Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan tweeted his amusement and frustration at NBC Montana’s Lauren Maschmedt for her falling prey to that TV news stable: B-roll that shows the reporter herself doing something mundane.

It snowballed a bit from there.

Maschmedt eventually responded with sarcasm and veiled charges of bullying.

Bullying might be too strong a word, but there is definite mockery there. It’s certainly not fun to be the brunt of a Twitter conversation questioning the job that you’ve done — especially when one of the people joining in is a fellow TV newser.

And, admittedly, some of the non-Maschmedt tweets are a bit cavalier and maybe unprofessional. I’ll chalk that attitude up to a passion to see the job of journalism done well, no matter who is doing it.

Yet the criticism of NBC Montana’s story is deserved.

The story in question is about the FBI filing charges against Bozeman escapee Kevin A. Briggs. Maschmedt’s voiceover carries us through all the facts, but the video accompanying it shows us close-ups of the federal documents too close up for us to really read anything in them, shots of Maschmedt sitting at a table in a darkened room reading those documents, a close-up of her hand taking notes on a legal pad, on her eyes scanning the lines of text.

Shots of a reporter “digging deeper” into documents have no place in a news story. They aren’t telling the public anything important. Instead, those valuable airtime seconds are marketing the reporter and the news station.

“See? See? Look how much work we are doing to inform you, viewers. The work is so important, watch some of it being reenacted while my voiceover tells you what I found.”

I do see. I see you doing your job, plain and simple. But the work of journalism isn’t news; the results are news. And those results are what we need to be giving viewers and readers, not self-aggrandizing B-roll.

A parallel is to be found in a recent post from journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis, who is somewhere in the middle of a series on rethinking TV news. Jarvis’ post targets the stand-up (where a reporter simply stands in front of the camera at some location and says things into the camera).

The stand-up has zero journalistic value. It wastes time. It wastes precious reportorial resource. It turns the world into a mere backdrop for entertainment. It’s a fake.

The B-roll shots of the reporter walking in to a public building or flipping through file drawers are just as big wastes of time.

Sometimes we get stuck in the form of news and forget that the first mission is to deliver the facts. TV reporters have to fill airtime, and they are taught to fill it with something other than them just sitting there reading the news. It’s a convention — just like the one that we face at the newspaper when we have to have one story with “main art” on the section front pages — even if that means covering less-than-impactful feature stories.

But to keep our work relevant, we have to remember that conventions are not set in stone, and that if there’s a better way to tell people the news efficiently, we should take advantage of it. Our audiences will appreciate it.

And snarky journalists won’t make fun of you for it.

The mystery of the disappearing KTVM story

Cops and courts reporter Whitney Bermes pointed out this interesting disappearing-story mystery today.

Whitney received a phone call today from VOICE Center Director Alanna Sherstad and Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan got one from Bozeman police Chief Ron Price. Both callers wanted to talk about a story detailing the affidavit for Kevin A. Briggs.

Briggs is the man police say walked out the front door of the Law & Justice Center in Bozeman while wearing shackles and handcuffs. He was initially arrested in connection with a reported rape and knife assault.

nbc montana logo

NBC, said Sherstad and Price, had aired a story on its 10 p.m. newscast in which the station identified the woman by her initials. Both wanted to speak about why they thought that was a bad idea and make a case for why the Chronicle shouldn’t.

It was an argument they didn’t have to make. The Chronicle has a policy of not identifying confirmed or alleged victims of sexual assault. We even went back and removed a few details from our initial report this morning that, in retrospect, could have been too harmful for the woman in this case.

Here’s where the mystery comes in. NBC aired the story, but the video for it can be found nowhere on its site. Searching for “Briggs” on the KTVM site brings up a video story titled “Court documents lay out events leading up to Briggs arrest,” but the video that plays has to do solely with University of Montana students’ reactions to the possibility Briggs was in their town. It’s clearly not the correct story.

A tweet from NBC Montana still points to the story:

But it leads to a dead link.

This is me hypothesizing about the missing story: I believe KTVM realized that it had gone too far with its report and “disappeared” the story from its website.

I see this as a serious matter, ethically.

While it was probably the right decision to trim back the details in its report to minimize harm (an SPJ Code of Ethics pillar) KTVM was wrong to make the story disappear.

NBC should have corrected its story online, noting what was changed in the article (as we do at the Chronicle). And it should have aired a correction on its next broadcast. Deleting the mistake and trying to forget it existed is not good ethical practice.

Of course, neither is letting an outside party influence your coverage, like letting a couple phone calls guilt you in to deleting something. Again, I don’t know that’s what happened in this case, but it seems possible considering the phone calls Whitney and Ted received this morning. (Acting independently is another SPJ ethics pillar.)

Come to think of it, I have never seen a TV station in our area issue a correction. This concerns me because no newsroom gets it right 100 percent of the time. (I could always be wrong. If you’ve seen one, feel free to let me know in the comments.)

The ethics of a TV reporter’s “undercover” bus ride

It all started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet.

The post comes from Cody Butler, a reporter at our local ABC/Fox affiliate, and it aroused an inordinate amount of interest in the newsroom yesterday afternoon.

Exactly what does it mean to be “undercover” on a school bus? Was he in disguise? What grade level was he pretending to be? What cartoon character was on his backpack?

So members of the news staff stayed to watch the 5:30 news. When the story didn’t appear before the weather, we knew our hopes were sunk. The story must have been so good it was held for sweeps.

As it turned out, that wasn’t far off because no one who noticed the initial tweet seemed to notice that the shortened link pointed to Facebook, where the full text of the post made it clear that the story will air in February – during sweeps.

Still, by logic, we are left with several tantalizing possibilities:

  1. Butler was actually undercover on the bus, which would mean that an adult television reporter was pretending to be a minor around real minors who would not have been informed an adult was in their midst.
  2. He was pretending to be a bus driver, which would mean he was driving a bus, which requires special training and license provisions a reporter isn’t likely to have.
  3. He was pretending to be some other adult who would be on a school bus?
  4. Butler doesn’t know what “undercover” means.

A post to Butler’s Facebook page gives us a possible hint about his “undercover” investigation. The photo shows one of the folding, flashing stop signs on the driver’s side of a school bus. Does this mean his story is about how many people obey the law regarding stopped school buses?

The simplest answer is usually the correct one.

It seems like a small matter – a reporter seeming not to know what “undercover” means or exaggerating his tease of a sweeps story. But undercover reporters and schools have, ironically, been in the news lately, and it hasn’t been a good thing.

According to a write-up at Poynter, a television station in St. Louis on Thursday night reported about a school lockdown – that one of its reporters caused.

The station, KSDK, was doing a report on school security that involved sending a reporter with a hidden camera into a school to see how far they could get before being stopped by security. The reporter’s actions prompted a 40-minute lockdown at Kirkwood High School, during which students huddled in darkened classrooms and one teacher gave a student “a pair of scissors to use as a weapon.”

Lindsay Toler at the Riverfront Times wrote that KSDK made the situation even worse. The reporter, who did leave his name and phone number at the office after roaming the school for a while, asked where the bathroom was and then turned the wrong way, arousing a clerk’s suspicion.

For the next hour, Kirkwood school officials tried to prevent a lockdown by asking the station one simple yes-or-no question: Was the man in the office a reporter on assignment? But KSDK refused to explain.

First, officials called the number left by the reporter, but he never answered. The outgoing message identified him as a KSDK reporter, so the school resource officer brought in Ginger Cayce, the school’s communications director, to demand answers from the station. Cayce says she called KSDK over and over to halt panic by confirming the news team’s stunt.

I know the St. Louis incident is a bit more extreme that Butler’s bus ride, but it’s worth keeping in mind before we absently throw around words like “undercover.”

Edit: Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan pointed out to me on Twitter that a clause in the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics deals with this very topic:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story