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.

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.


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: 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


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.

The worthlessness of “digging deeper”

Lauren Maschmedt at work

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

More NBC Montana ethics issues

Lauren MaschmedtI’m talking local journalism ethics again today, and once again the discussion is prompted by an NBC Montana reporter. And, once again, that reporter is Lauren Maschmedt.

This time, it was [Maschmedt’s report]( on a local meeting of the Bozeman Business and Professional Women and its honors program, which gives awards to outstanding women.

Guess who was a nominee for Young Careerist? Lauren Maschmedt.


Well, at least she didn’t quote herself.

NBC Montana reporter inserted into chain of evidence

Lauren Maschmedt**Update:** Since originally publishing this post, another link has surfaced to [the full report](, written by Maschmedt herself. Apparently the Will Wadley story was only a brief waiting for the full report.

Indeed, the link to the Wadley verison now takes you to Maschmedt’s story.

And what do we learn in the full story? Contrary to what was reported earlier, we now learn that the fishermen never left the river side with the ID and did not appear in the video at least to give it to the reporter.

However, Maschmedt does say it was her who called the Anaconda police chief to come pick up the ID personally (and be on camera the whole time).

What’s left unclear is just how Maschmedt came upon the men on Sunday afternoon. The story glosses over that detail:

>When we caught up with the fishermen on Sunday afternoon, they were just getting ready to turn in the ID. So we called Anaconda Police Chief Tim Barkell, who immediately came out to retrieve it.

(Replace the pronoun “we” in the text version with “I” and you have the script for the video version.)

So what happened? The way I see it, there are a couple possibilities. Either the anglers called the reporter and revealed that they’d found something in the water — which to my mind would mark them as die-hard NBC Montana viewers — or Maschmedt was working a Sunday shift with nothing else to do but tool up and down the Clark Fork looking for anything that might have had to do with Salle’s disappearance.

Both of these seem unlikely to me, but I cannot think of any other possibilities that don’t make me sound like a conspiracy theorist.

No matter how she found the fishermen, Maschmedt injected herself into the story by summoning police for the people she was interviewing for a story.

This was no typical interview. In a typical interview, it’s understood that the reporter arranged time to speak with the subject. The situation is artificial, but that artificiality is known to the readers or viewers.

In this case, Maschmedt had her interviews with the anglers, but then she manufactured their meeting with the police chief by summoning him for the fishermen.

Rather than being the public’s eye recording what was happening — a reporter, Maschmedt orchestrated the meeting, putting reality on her schedule and in front of her camera.

Deja vu.

Tonight, reporter Whitney Bermes turned me on to [a story involving NBC Montana reporter Lauren Maschmedt][NBC] on the discovery today of a driver’s license belonging to a missing woman. Fishermen found the license along the Clark Fork near where a dead body — likely that of the missing woman — was found Saturday.


According to the report, the fishermen handed the ID to NBC Montana reporter Maschmedt, who then turned it over to authorities “to be used as evidence.”

[Haven’t we been down this road before?](

There is a crucial difference this time. Maschmedt didn’t write the story herself; it’s bylined by Will Wadley of KECI. That’s good. It prevents the sort of conflict of interest the earlier situation represented.

However, it does possibly open Maschmedt to being called as a witness in later legal proceedings. Certainly police had to take a statement from her, I’m assuming, when she presented physical evidence in the case of a missing woman. (I suppose I don’t want to assume too much.)

And let’s not forget that this was not simply a good deed. Maschmedt made sure to document the whole situation for TV, as she noted on her [journalist Facebook page][Facebook]:

>still in shock over my story- not only did I come across fishermen who found evidence from a murder, I helped them get it to police, and caught it all on film. the ID for the missing Anaconda woman Tammy Salle was found near where her body was found confirming its her

Now, I don’t watch NBC — we can’t receive it over the antenna at my house in the middle of Bozeman of all places — but I’m fairly sure they would have trumpeted the fact that this new discovery was facilitated by an NBC reporter. I know I like it when the newspaper gets a good scoop.


I’m torn. Certainly, I support journalists being able to accept evidence of all sorts of things — leaked documents, classified materials and such. However, physical evidence relating to a criminal investigation — one of a kind items, like a murder weapon or dead woman’s license — something that you would be compelled to turn over to police and something that no shield law could keep in your hands…

Seems a bad path to walk down. Perhaps it would have been better in this case to follow the fishermen with her camera to watch as they turned the driver’s license over to authorities.

More issues related to quoting from social networking profiles

I wrote Wednesday about a social networking issue: [Should journalists quote from sources’ social media profiles?](

I had a few more thoughts to share that didn’t quite fit into that post, so I thought I’d file a kind of disjointed follow-up.

###The Heinous Crime Provision

First of all, media organizations already quote regularly from personal social media profiles — it just happens to occur most often, at least in my experience, when the person in question has committed some kind of horrible crime, like shooting up a crowded theater.

I’m not sure any of us watching at home really think of this kind of quoting at “not OK,” though we may think it isn’t strictly necessary. Still, in situations like that, the media-viewing public is thirsty for any information about the criminal it can get, and social media profiles provide a glimpse into the perp’s mind.

Does this kind of “mass murderer” provision filter down to the level of the average Facebook user who hasn’t committed an atrocity? These people don’t have the same weight of public scrutiny on them that high-profile criminals do, so do we treat their privacy differently? Are we treating the high profile criminal’s privacy with irresponsible recklessness? (Consider that most of this media scrutiny happens directly after the crime and before any sort of court proceedings have determined that person’s guilt.)

I don’t have answers for these questions, by the way. Sorry to disappoint.

###The Integrity of Quotes

Second, I keep coming back to this thing I wrote:

>Second, why would we necessarily give someone a chance to rephrase their wording for the media? If you see something interesting on a person’s Facebook profile and want to quote it but then you do decide to call the person first, what is he going to do? He’s going to reword himself, polish up the quote — make it media-pretty.
>I suppose it’s up to the reporter to decide whether it’s OK for the source to present a media-savvy front or to be quoted in situ. If the quote is worth quoting and it’s public, I’d say go use it.

We do this all the time already. When I worked in public relations at the local university, before rejoining the newspaper, we did it. We let sources edit and then OK their quotes.

Sometimes in the modern newsroom, we call sources before a story runs and read quotes back to them. This is done to make sure the quotes are accurate. The ethical reporter shouldn’t change a quote at a source’s request — probably — especially not if it is simply to make the source look better.

But what if the change the source requests improves the accuracy of the quote? What if changing one word is the difference between being wrong and right? Do you edit the existing quote to reflect the change or make them say it again? Is it enough for the source to say to you over the phone, “That quote you read me? Add in that one word and then consider that to be what I said.”?

Quotations are always tricky when the interview wasn’t recorded or when it was just you and the source in a one-on-one discussion. If a reporter has nothing but her notes as the record, then who is to say that when you sit down to write out that story that you got that source’s words *exactly* right? Add to this the fact that most people wouldn’t be able to tell you the precise words they spokes hours or days before.

With the social networking thing, you have a record of exactly what was said, and even if you call a source back and ask them about the thing they typed as a status update, all the pretty quotes they can give you over the phone doesn’t change the fact that they wrote it in the first place.

###But then again…

What if the source changes the privacy settings on the post in question after a journalist has seen it? Can they pull something back out of the public sphere after it has been seen?