Never forget about the human element when doing data journalism, reporter says

By Bianca Cseke

Sandhya Kambhampati knows a thing or two about data journalism.

As a reporter on the Los Angeles Times’ data desk, she covers everything from elections to demographics and how natural disasters affect tourism in small California towns. When she was with Propublica Illinois, Kambhampati helped with an investigation on the Cook County property tax assessment system, a piece that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2018.

But even though nearly all of Kambhampati’s work uses data and public records to get vital information to the public, she never forgets about the people who her stories impact.

“People are always at stake,” she said. “You always want to go back to the people whose lives and livelihoods are impacted.”

For example, the property tax assessment story Kambhampati worked on started with a tip Jason Grotto, the other Propublica reporter she worked with on the story, received from a real person — not from digging through sets of data on a fishing expedition. The reporters also told the stories of people impacted by property tax assessments favoring pricier commercial buildings at the expense of the owners of cheaper ones.

That included Brenda and Larry Doyle, a couple who own a daycare in Chicago’s West Auburn Gresham neighborhood. Their business’s property value was assessed higher than what they had actually paid for it and that value never went down, while a nearby larger, more expensive building kept getting lower assessments.

When asked what a journalism student who’s about to graduate should know about data reporting, Kambhampati said what reporters from every area of journalism have given as advice: Understand how to write a story and how to conduct an interview.

While it can be useful — even vital — to know how to clean data so it can be understandable for reporters and the general population, once that part of the job is done, even a data reporter needs to be able to think in terms of old-fashioned, basic reporting.

“The way you interview people, you want to interview your data,” Kambhampati said.

That means that when a reporter looks at a set of data, they should ask “the same fundamental questions,” such as why the data says something, who is responsible for it and who it affects, how it came to be and what it is truly saying in the first place.

And no matter how much a data journalist immerses themselves in numbers, they should still remember to always include the people affected by the story.

“Don’t bog the story down with too many numbers,” Kambhampati said.

Other than that, aspiring data journalists should remember to send out records requests early on in the reporting process rather than waiting until later, she said. You never know when officials will put up a fight in getting a reporter the information they need.

Plus, that data can take a lot of work to clean up.

“That’s the thing about data: It might be clean in the heads of the people who put it together, but it might not be for everyone else,” Kambhampati said.

By never forgetting about why most journalists do the work they do — to help people — Sandhya Kambhampati has managed to produce work that has made a difference beyond just the awards her work has garnered or been a finalist for, like when she was part of a team that investigated the German nursing home system. That investigation brought about discussion across Germany about how its nursing homes should be evaluated. By following some of Kambhampati’s advice and working to produce journalism that makes a difference, journalists can help change lives for the better.

 

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A changing political landscape means changing our tools, not our ethics

By Sahi Padmanabhan

Fake news, media bias and out-of-touch reporting; with the increasingly divisive political climate shaking up the way we cover politics, ethical debates about covering elections and political bias are more relevant than ever.

Many hard-nosed political reporters don’t vote; some, like Peter Baker of the New York Times have openly said that they don’t vote, don’t belong to non-journalism organizations, don’t belong to political parties and don’t even voice opinions on political issues in private.

For New York Times reporter Astead Herndon, the debate is much more nuanced than just a blanket ban.

“I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule for folks,” Herndon said. “I think that you should do the things that you feel comfortable with and not think that things like voting in a political election makes you less biased, more biased, unless it does.”

It’s a matter of introspection. Without the understanding of what makes one biased personally, it is irrelevant to talk about issues of voting or not voting, he noted.

“I think that the question of voting is small potatoes,” Herndon said. “There’s a more important thing which is about maintaining a journalism that is more than just performatively objective, but fair.”

Herndon has spent much of last year covering the presidential election and will continue to do so until the general election this November. Much of his coverage has discussed black voters, and he hopes to give black voters more well-rounded coverage moving forward.

“I try to take it as, ‘if you’re just writing about the group writ large, you’re probably not showing the necessary nuance between them,” Herndon said. “It shouldn’t be a story about black voters by itself, but generational differences or ideological differences between them.”

Political journalism has always been flawed, Herndon says, and all election coverage has good and bad sides. He says that the only way to provide fair coverage is to actually talk to voters.

“I think that all presidential elections involve good and bad journalism,” Herndon said. “I think that one of the things that we’ve tried to make the priority here is to get out on the road and to make sure that we’re not just embedded with the campaigns themselves, but also (in) the kind of communities which decide our elections.”

One major criticism of political journalism is that it focuses too much on the politicians and not enough on the other stakeholders in our political climate. According to Jonathan Stray in a Medium article, many people who grew up with the internet—people who are now considered a part of the group vaguely termed “young voters”—have become disillusioned with the horse-race style of covering politics, and want to see more of the community and society as a whole reflected in political coverage.

Stray brings up the example of the push for gay marriage, which largely took place in the courts between community activists and stakeholders. Political coverage that focuses entirely on politicians would have missed most, if not all, of that story.

Herndon agrees that political coverage, especially in elections, could benefit from more focus on the people who aren’t in the public eye to better understand the political climate as a whole, rather than just the piecemeal understanding that comes from being a part of a campaign.

“[Reporters should] reflect the kind of diversity of the electorate,” Herndon said. “It has been a real priority for not just dealing with the kind of same constituencies that we’re used to, but making sure that the breadth of, in this primary, the Democratic voters that are electing our representatives. That includes black voters, Latino voters, old and young and kind of the nuance between them.”

This point of view reflects the ever-changing political discourse around voting, voter turnout and issues like voter suppression. Without information from the community, it is difficult to say with any certainty what is actually happening at the ground-level. On top of this, readers are no longer getting their information in the same way they did 20 years ago; and those pathways are constantly shifting and merging.

“I think you have to be comfortable with change,” Herndon said. “I think you have to understand the ways in which people get their information has changed. And you have to understand that voters aren’t necessarily coming from things from the same lens in which you are.”

In the end, Herndon’s coverage is about making sure that he is talking to people on the ground, understanding where they’re coming from and where they’re going, fully immersing himself in a community and reflecting how their getting their information and how they’re using it.

“I should know kind of the different media ecosystems in which Democratic voters are [getting information],” Herndon said. “I should know the regional differences between the communities and try to reflect that. That’s just how the job should be done.”

For Herndon, however, this doesn’t mean fundamentally changing our reporting, just the tools journalists use to cover politics.

“I think that the same tenets of the profession hold true,” Herndon said. “It’s just the tools that you’d have to use to be able to execute [good journalism] change.”

 

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Audience and Community: journalists must focus on the latter

By Sahi Padmanabhan

Something that my high school journalism teacher always said has stuck with me to this day: journalism is about creating an informed community.

When I first started, that meant informing the students at the school about dances and events, football wins and tennis losses. It didn’t mean much to me because I didn’t put much stock into the idea of “community” at a high school of nearly 3,000 students. I barely knew 50% of my class.

By the time I was a senior in high school, however, the tone of my teacher’s message changed. The Naperville Sun had been bought out by Tribune Publishing in a huge deal that included many suburban newspapers formerly owned by the Sun-Times.

The turnover was rough; people in my town weren’t sure where to get their news anymore. My journalism teacher encouraged us to chase this opportunity and try and fill in the gap. Even without a strong newspaper, the people in Naperville still needed news, and our high school newspaper had the chance to give it to them.

In the end, our small staff of 20 high school students wasn’t able to meet that need, but that experience of striving for more and trying to give our community what they desperately needed always stuck with me. It lingered in the back of my head. It was a regret, something I wished we pulled off.

It wasn’t until later, when I got a chance to talk to Terry Parris, Jr., Engagement Editor at The City, that I realized what we had been doing wrong. We wanted to write for the community, but we never stopped to ask what they wanted to read.

As journalists, we often talk about our audience. Who is our audience? Will they be interested in this story? How can we make them interested in this story? Parris, however, offered a reframe of this idea: the audience will always be there. They are the people who read the paper every day and have the time and privilege to be able to afford that. They aren’t going anywhere.

However, the stories should be about communities. They can be something as small as a 300-word brief on a fallen street sign to long investigations of housing insecurity in a specific neighborhood. These stories are meant to enlighten the community, to help them understand what is going on around them and make informed decisions. To be able to do this, reporters have to actually talk to the community.

The City is helping set the tone for how community engagement, especially in local journalism, will have to function moving forward. Partnering with the Brooklyn Public Library, they have a program called Open Newsroom, where they encourage community members to engage with reporters and let them know what they want to read.

In our own city, City Bureau is striving for the same things through their Public Newsroom events. These events are meant to build trust between the newsroom and the community and help shape the way they report on issues that community members and stakeholders say are important.

Being able to tell the difference between audience and community is important. Focusing too heavily on the audience has ended up privileging those who have the means and access to read the newspaper every day and buy a subscription. These people are often wealthier, white and have the time to spend on reading the paper.

According to a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, only 64% of adults who consume local news in the Chicago area said that local news was in touch with the community. Only 17% said they had spoken with a local journalist.

This reflects a necessary way for local news to grow in the Chicago area, according to another study by Pew. The issue with the changing media landscape is not video and multimedia, or the transition to digital media. Most Americans are fine with digital media to get their news, and will remain engaged with it. However, what they desire is a strong community connection.

If I could go back to high school and redo that senior year when I was on our managing staff, I would have done things differently. I would have invited the community in and asked them what they wanted to read. I would have created a discursive process that would allow journalists and community stakeholders to discuss what people need to know more about. I would have focused on the stories that would make the greatest impact for the people reading, rather than just the stories I was interested in.

It’s too late now for me to go back to that high school newspaper. All I can do is carry these lessons forward.

Under Appreciation of Visual Journalism in Newsrooms

By Jonathan Aguilar

Journalism suffers when visuals are not taken seriously, or they are seen as secondary to written reporting. The Chicago Sun-Times a major publication in the third largest media market laid off their entire photojournalism staff in 2013, and their visual journalism has suffered ever since. The staff that they laid off included over 20 photographers and a Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist. After these layoffs occurred reporters were tasked with not only conducting interviews on the scene but were also told to shoot photos for their stories. This led to a decrease in quality of photographs produced by the Sun-Times. If a major publication felt that photojournalists were so unimportant to their work, then there must be a misunderstanding of what these journalists actually do.

In newsrooms across the country photojournalism is seen as a service instead of a type of reporting. While talking to a visual journalist from a major Chicago publication she opened up about how even at top media outlets they are seen as a service desk. She has to try every day to ensure that her team is treated as journalists and not just as accessory pieces to written reporting. Professional visual journalists are struggling to get the type of respect they deserve as storytellers.

Even at smaller publication visual journalists are still seen as secondary to reporters. In certain newsrooms, there are systems in place that allow reporters or editors to fill out a request form for a visual element to be created for an article. In the system, the reporter is supposed to describe what a story is about so that a photojournalist can go out and shoot whatever the story is. But often times the form is overlooked and visual journalist are left scrambling trying to figure out what angle they should focus on for their photo. If visual journalists are given the opportunity to create unique photos, then they will be able to add more depth to stories. It will also help media outlets get away from superficial images that so often plague newspapers. The problem is that in smaller publications where young journalists go to learn they are not being taught about the importance of photographs and the value they add to articles. By not teaching young journalists the value of good visuals they end up not having a deep appreciation for the power that strong visuals can bring.

As important as photographs and other visuals are to journalism, they are not focused on that heavily in journalism school. At DePaul, there is one professor who teaches photojournalism. While Robin Hoecker is an amazing professor who has elevated the visual journalism students at DePaul she should not have to be doing so alone. In a school that is putting out such great work in many different facets of journalism the importance of visuals needs to be emphasized. As great as written reporting can be standing on its own combing it with good visuals will make a piece unbelievably stronger.

In age where everyone is constantly scrolling through their phones something needs to catch a reader’s attention. By allowing visual journalist to tell stories through photos and not using them as accessories for other journalist’s articles it will lead to more well-rounded reporting and more intriguing articles.

For whatever reason, visual journalists were seen as expendable and many papers have lost great photo teams because of that fact. But now media outlets like the Chicago Sun-Times after suffering for so long with terrible visuals are starting to hire photojournalists once again. This shows that journalism and visuals go hand in hand.

Is there room for ethical consumption of Tik Tok under journalism?

By Mackenzie Murtaugh

When the Washington Post joined the video-sharing app Tik Tok last fall, many journalists, including myself, were confused. The 142-year-old established newspaper found an interesting, progressive niche that no other paper, at least for their caliber, thought of. The videos can be comical, informative and cringey — the triple-shot concoction that makes Tik Tok so addictive. The content of the videos usually intend to put a funny spin on the latest news, but the most bewildering, if not amazing, videos feature different WP journalists and editors trying to bridge the gap between their Tik Tok audience, most of which have probably never picked up a newspaper, and the news-making process. This content is the most cringe-inducing to journalists because of the desperation of increasing interest in the work exuding off of them. Or maybe I’m just cynical?

The account’s face, Dave Jorgensen, was hired as a member of the paper’s new creative video team, with his title being the head of the “Department of Satire.” According to an article from The Atlantic, Jorgensen found out about the app and immediately pitched it to his editors. Now, the account has 370,600 followers as of Feb. 6, and over 19 million likes. The only two accounts it follows are two fake accounts, one under the name “nytimes” and the other “ashtonkutcher.” This fact did make me laugh out loud because I know that Jorgensen or someone on his team thought “you know what would be funny?” And it worked. I did laugh.

Somehow, Jorgensen and his team have infiltrated this niche-comedy app and made a pretty good name for themselves amongst the app’s majority 16-to-24-year-old demographic, according to statistics from December 2019. The question on my mind is: is it ethical? Is it just marketing? Obviously, yes. It’s a great marketing strategy. From those same statistics, only four percent of the United States’ social media marketers use the app. WP is ahead of the curve because, soon, most media outlets and public figures will attempt to replicate what the paper is doing. I doubt they will be as successful.

Jorgensen is a funny, probably talented journalist, but his job has now evolved into social media marketing manager. At the moment, he still produces content for the paper’s video team, but let’s be honest — now everyone knows him as the Tik Tok guy. Now, I understand that Tik Tok is not the platform for hard-hitting, breaking news (though with its reliance on virality, that might actually work one day), the WP account serves the simple purpose of entertaining young people. This demographic is obsessed with fast, bite-sized bits of content, and WP is serving them up a perfect dish.

The account’s content has made a huge change since its inception. It used to give little glimpses into newsroom life, reporting how-tos and self-aware funny clips. Now, Jorgensen and his team have realized their unique position on this app. They don’t have to report on mass shootings or family annihilators — they can get lost in making a 20-second clip about a popular dog and receive more clicks than the hard news. This is a sad reality of the news today.

It has and will always be difficult to reach the younger generation for news outlets. The old-school producers probably don’t understand why Jorgensen’s Tik Tok makes headlines or gets clicks. Maybe, young people are easily amused? No, that isn’t true in the slightest. Hillary Clinton failed to bridge the gap between her generation and the young ones now — “Pokemon Go to the polls” still haunts me. Jorgensen must spend hours on the app and analyze what trends consumers want to perfectly cultivate his content. It’s hard to say if I’m impressed or saddened by this. I think I feel both simultaneously. I’m very impressed from a marketing standpoint, but that’s just the problem. Instead of creating groundbreaking videos, Jorgensen and his team spend their days making fun of themselves on an app. The only respect I can give to them is that they have expertly bridged the gap between the media and the younger generation. I just hoped it would have been through different multimedia tools than a viral-video app.

Okay, fine. I am cynical.

The Best Stories Find the Journalist, and Journalism Found Me

By Nikki Roberts

I have learned many important lessons during my undergraduate journalism career at DePaul. One of these lessons is that sometimes a reporter finds a story, but the best stories often seek out the reporter. In my five years working in student media, I’ve found this to be true because not only have great stories found me, but journalism as a field found me when I had no direction.

As a high school junior in Aurora, Illinois, my only ambition was to work at my three part-time jobs so I could move out of my parents’ house and to Chicago the moment I turned 18 — or once I graduated high school. I knew the importance of obtaining a high school diploma, but it was never a primary goal for me; whenever I had the money saved, I would leave the suburbs.

I had no plan or direction for my life after high school graduation (yes, I graduated, and with a decent GPA to boot). I was in honors and AP classes because school work and test taking are skills that I never had to practice or study for in order to master, but I spent more time roaming the halls and confined to the dean’s office than I did in class on the days I actually made it to school.

However, my lack of ambition did not mean I was an apathetic teen with a lack of interests. In fact, the opposite was true. I was a music obsessed bookworm — I read every rock ‘n’ roll biography at my local library by the time I was 14 — who never stopped writing. I would write several times a week in a journal, I dabbled in non-fiction personal essays and I internally celebrated every time an English teacher assigned a composition assignment instead of a multiple-choice exam.

At the end of my junior year, a friend who was on staff at our school paper, The Stampede, recommended I apply for a position in the school’s only journalism class. I wrote a sample article about the differences between medicinal and recreational marijuana since I had heard many students express contradicting views on the upcoming medicinal legalization bill, and the story ran in the last issue of my junior year. After seeing my name in print, I was shocked to realize I was actually excited for school to begin in the fall.

My only regret about high school journalism is that I didn’t apply earlier. Our class functioned as a newsroom with periodic, news-focused assignments. As an online writer, I was guaranteed a voice on the paper’s website, Metea Media, while also having the freedom to contribute to the print edition of the paper whenever I had an idea for a feature story. Most importantly to my success in school, “newspaper” — as the journalism kids called it — was the last class of the day, which kept me from cutting out of school early. This isn’t to say I didn’t skip morning classes or sneak out of the school mid-day only to return in time for newspaper, but joining the school paper gave me a duty to be involved and informed about my school.

I may have ditched class and fallen asleep during AP tests, but I flew through my ACT exam with perfect marks in the reading and English sections. My mother begged me to apply to at least a few colleges so, without doing any research, I cast my line out to three Illinois schools — Northern Illinois University, Loyola University and DePaul University — and reeled in three acceptance letters that each included the respective university’s largest merit scholarships.

I was a wild teenager, but I wasn’t stupid. Few of my close friends were going away to universities in the fall, and those who were continuing their college education planned to attend our local community college, College of DuPage. I decided to enroll at DePaul University and declared myself an English major, since I wanted to write but couldn’t see myself as a reporter.

A month before I graduated, The Stampede staff swept the NSPA Pacemaker Awards and my Meta Media team accepted four online awards. After the ceremony, I attended a keynote speech given by Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. She spoke passionately about covering police shootings of young black men and the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. I sat in the back of the room beside my journalism teacher but, at the conclusion of her speech, I was in her face with a notepad and a pen, eager to learn how I could be involved in exposing systematic injustice through my writing.

When I moved to Chicago a few months later to begin my academic career at DePaul, I reached out to Ihejirika and regularly asked her for advice, a phone call or coffee. When our schedules never lined up, I accepted that I would have to remain in digital conversation with her via Twitter and email, and the next three years of my undergraduate experience flew by.

If I have learned anything as a student journalist, it is that everyone in the field knows each other and what might seem like a causal connection will always lead to deeper connections or a shared network of colleagues.

Last fall, I attended the “Power 25,” a gathering of Chicago’s 25 most powerful women in media and their colleagues at the Union League Club. When I saw Ihejirika walk in, I knew I had to re-introduce myself, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Would she remember me? Was it worth noting that I was the eager freshman who had harassed her by email three years ago?

Quite out of character for me, I approached her timidly and began, “Hi, Maudlyne, I’m Nikki Roberts. I doubt you’d remember me, but I heard you speak three years ago and…”

“Oh, my God! You’re the senior from Metea Valley who was going to DePaul! Of course, I remember you!”

I’ve had many small victories that have helped me beat imposter syndrome and feel like an equal among my intelligent journalism peers at DePaul, but there is nothing quite like having a highly respected reporter remember you from when you were a completely unexperienced high school student. I am not one to place much of a belief in fate, but it is hard to convince myself I don’t belong in this field when journalism found me, and continues to find me, in the smallest, unexpected ways.

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Post

February 6, 2020

 

The Best Stories Find the Journalist, and Journalism Found Me

By Nikki Roberts

 

I have learned many important lessons during my undergraduate journalism career at DePaul. One of these lessons is that sometimes a reporter finds a story, but the best stories often seek out the reporter. In my five years working in student media, I’ve found this to be true because not only have great stories found me, but journalism as a field found me when I had no direction.

 

As a high school junior in Aurora, Illinois, my only ambition was to work at my three part-time jobs so I could move out of my parents’ house and to Chicago the moment I turned 18 — or once I graduated high school. I knew the importance of obtaining a high school diploma, but it was never a primary goal for me; whenever I had the money saved, I would leave the suburbs.

 

I had no plan or direction for my life after high school graduation (yes, I graduated, and with a decent GPA to boot). I was in honors and AP classes because school work and test taking are skills that I never had to practice or study for in order to master, but I spent more time roaming the halls and confined to the dean’s office than I did in class on the days I actually made it to school.

 

However, my lack of ambition did not mean I was an apathetic teen with a lack of interests. In fact, the opposite was true. I was a music obsessed bookworm — I read every rock ‘n’ roll biography at my local library by the time I was 14 — who never stopped writing. I would write several times a week in a journal, I dabbled in non-fiction personal essays and I internally celebrated every time an English teacher assigned a composition assignment instead of a multiple-choice exam.

 

At the end of my junior year, a friend who was on staff at our school paper, The Stampede, recommended I apply for a position in the school’s only journalism class. I wrote a sample article about the differences between medicinal and recreational marijuana since I had heard many students express contradicting views on the upcoming medicinal legalization bill, and the story ran in the last issue of my junior year. After seeing my name in print, I was shocked to realize I was actually excited for school to begin in the fall.

 

My only regret about high school journalism is that I didn’t apply earlier. Our class functioned as a newsroom with periodic, news-focused assignments. As an online writer, I was guaranteed a voice on the paper’s website, Metea Media, while also having the freedom to contribute to the print edition of the paper whenever I had an idea for a feature story. Most importantly to my success in school, “newspaper” — as the journalism kids called it — was the last class of the day, which kept me from cutting out of school early. This isn’t to say I didn’t skip morning classes or sneak out of the school mid-day only to return in time for newspaper, but joining the school paper gave me a duty to be involved and informed about my school.

 

I may have ditched class and fallen asleep during AP tests, but I flew through my ACT exam with perfect marks in the reading and English sections. My mother begged me to apply to at least a few colleges so, without doing any research, I cast my line out to three Illinois schools — Northern Illinois University, Loyola University and DePaul University — and reeled in three acceptance letters that each included the respective university’s largest merit scholarships.

 

I was a wild teenager, but I wasn’t stupid. Few of my close friends were going away to universities in the fall, and those who were continuing their college education planned to attend our local community college, College of DuPage. I decided to enroll at DePaul University and declared myself an English major, since I wanted to write but couldn’t see myself as a reporter.

 

A month before I graduated, The Stampede staff swept the NSPA Pacemaker Awards and my Meta Media team accepted four online awards. After the ceremony, I attended a keynote speech given by Sun-Times reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika. She spoke passionately about covering police shootings of young black men and the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida. I sat in the back of the room beside my journalism teacher but, at the conclusion of her speech, I was in her face with a notepad and a pen, eager to learn how I could be involved in exposing systematic injustice through my writing.

 

When I moved to Chicago a few months later to begin my academic career at DePaul, I reached out to Ihejirika and regularly asked her for advice, a phone call or coffee. When our schedules never lined up, I accepted that I would have to remain in digital conversation with her via Twitter and email, and the next three years of my undergraduate experience flew by.

 

If I have learned anything as a student journalist, it is that everyone in the field knows each other and what might seem like a causal connection will always lead to deeper connections or a shared network of colleagues.

 

Last fall, I attended the “Power 25,” a gathering of Chicago’s 25 most powerful women in media and their colleagues at the Union League Club. When I saw Ihejirika walk in, I knew I had to re-introduce myself, but I wasn’t sure what to say. Would she remember me? Was it worth noting that I was the eager freshman who had harassed her by email three years ago?

 

Quite out of character for me, I approached her timidly and began, “Hi, Maudlyne, I’m Nikki Roberts. I doubt you’d remember me, but I heard you speak three years ago and…”

 

“Oh, my God! You’re the senior from Metea Valley who was going to DePaul! Of course, I remember you!”

 

I’ve had many small victories that have helped me beat imposter syndrome and feel like an equal among my intelligent journalism peers at DePaul, but there is nothing quite like having a highly respected reporter remember you from when you were a completely unexperienced high school student. I am not one to place much of a belief in fate, but it is hard to convince myself I don’t belong in this field when journalism found me, and continues to find me, in the smallest, unexpected ways.

 

 

 

 

 

Spin Wars – How a partisan media landscape is biasing Americans and exacerbating political divide in the U.S.

By Michael Abraham

Picture this. You’re flipping TV channels at night, trying to catch up on the events of the day. You land on a channel with two talking heads, discussing the previously ongoing impeachment proceedings of President Trump. When the commercial break arrives, you flip to the next channel and find two more – perhaps whiter, more chromosomally diverse – talking heads discussing the same topic. It takes you a moment, though, to realize that the topics are the same because this news station is framing the same stories in completely opposing ways.

Your palms grow clammy. The hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. With every goosebump the realization becomes clearer. You have entered the Twilight Zone.

Or, on the other hand, you might have just flipped from CNN or MSNBC to Fox News.

News organizations have had partisan leanings since the chisel met the tablet. That’s nothing new. However, with the introduction of cable news in the 1980’s and the accompanying 24-hour news cycle, networks were forced to fill more time than incoming national news provided. The result paved the way for programming based on political commentary and analysis both of which are significantly more susceptible to bias than traditional news reporting.

Thus, we find ourselves today in a media landscape that is virtually split down party lines. Ask anyone not living under a rock and they’ll tell you, in a variety of ways: Fox News is for conservatives and MSNBC or CNN, liberals. Add arguably the most polarizing president in American history into the mix and it seems that these networks are sprinting in opposite directions at times.

Data from Real Clear Politics suggests that, while outlets are generally talking about the same topics, their takes are quite different. Further, it shows “that there are very real systematic differences in the coverage we see across the media landscape and that there has been a genuine fracturing of the media since Donald Trump’s election. At the same time, that divide is still small, meaning that rather than entirely disjointed pictures, news outlets present different takes on the same shared universe of stories.”

This didn’t start with Trump, though. The schism began with the cable news network founders. Take media mogul Rupert Murdoch, for example. Murdoch sat at the helm of Fox Corporation for many years. Politico reported that during his leadership, then Fox parent company News Corp, contributed millions of dollars to GOP-aligned groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Governors Association.

If that wasn’t enough to make consumers and competitors question the network’s objectivity, Murdoch was also very outspoken in his support for Republican politicians and criticism of Democrats. In 2012, he came out in support of Mitt Romney, saying, “Of course I want him to win, save us from socialism, etc.” Several years later, in 2015, he tweeted: “Ben and Candy Carson terrific. What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?”

Even today, with Murdoch having passed control on to his son, conflicts of interest exist. How about the fact that former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan sits on Fox Corporation’s Board of Directors?

A similar narrative can be told about Murdoch’s main rival, CNN founder Ted Turner, who was often outspoken about his support for Democratic initiatives and candidates. Although these figures have moved on, the culture they created survives and perhaps even grows. Current CNN chief Jeff Zucker reportedly previously hosted private events for both Obama and, more recently, Kamala Harris. He also hasn’t been secretive about his own political beliefs.

It is generally accepted that an organization’s culture trickles down from its leadership. As a young journalist, I find it odd that, while journalism preaches the importance of objectivity, ethics and avoiding conflicts of interest, the organizations that employ journalists throw caution to the wind regarding the same set of standards. If Pete Rose can’t bet on baseball, why can news executives be in bed with parties and candidates? There is an increasingly fine line drawn between what is and isn’t a conflict of interest for the media and it is becoming grayer by the day.

Accomplished journalist Katy Tur mentions in her book “Unbelievable: My Front Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History,” that she doesn’t even vote so as to remain an unattached observer. Many high-profile journalists, even when their affiliations are obvious, avoid officially declaring a political party in order to maintain the illusion of a balanced opinion.

Nevertheless, each network’s TV line-ups, themselves, emphasize how partisan bias might exist and how echo chambers are created as a result. For example, Fox News features a nightly primetime program called “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” They describe the show as an “hour of spirited debate and powerful reporting.” Rather than focusing on the hard news, Fox allows Carlson to insert his own subjective views on the topics of the day. His opinions become conflated with actual facts and the entire primetime viewing audience is left to find the truth.

The same can be said for CNN’s “Cuomo Prime Time” or MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews”. Because ratings drive success in television, the most popular personalities are able to put their own, sometimes hyperbolic, spin on the news. Therefore, the news that many Americans consume isn’t necessarily news at all; but, instead, the news as viewed through Tucker Carlson – or another show host’s – lenses. Have you ever tried on someone else’s glasses? Sometimes they distort the way you see things.

This has a significant effect on the way each networks’ audience views the state of the country. Months ago, as Newsweek pointed out, NBC and Wall Street Journal poll data found that 73% of Fox News viewers approve of Trump’s presidency. On the other hand, CNN and MSNBC viewers responded with approval ratings of 34% and 30% respectively.

Viewers consume the content generated by their parties’ unofficial news sources and continue to seek out information that aligns with the beliefs they’ve been fed. Repeat this process on a nightly basis and viewers become fat with their own confirmation bias. All the while, network executives continue the spin with one watchful eye on the ratings and the other on the party-supporting opinion buffet.

Or maybe we’re in the Twilight Zone.

What we owe our audience

As the line between news and opinion blurs, journalists must clarify

By: Lacey Latch

The 24-hour news cycle has completely transformed the journalism industry since its widespread implementation in the 1980s. Three decades later, nonstop cable news has become commonplace and so too has its programming and the personalities that lead it. At the same time though, this process has eroded the divide between news and opinion that was once separated by specifically marked newspaper sections or had very little presence on television altogether. Now, Americans are bombarded with more news-related content than ever before, but their ability to sift through that content has come into question.

“The causes of America’s deepening political divide are many and much disputed, but the differences between an opinion show and a news show might be difficult for people to discern,” Paul Farhi of the Washington Post wrote in 2017. “The reason: Programs such as [Sean] Hannity’s and others on cable news are often a mix of many things — news, commentary, analysis and pure, unadulterated opinion.”

In the fall of 2018, the American Press Institute released a report analyzing a survey of American citizens about their news consumption and this exact question: Can people tell the difference between news and opinion? It turns out that for the most part, the answer is no. Their surveys found that “just over half of Americans say it’s easy to distinguish news from opinion in news media in general.”

This statistic is certainly alarming in its own right but the implications of this reality are far-reaching. With a President who routinely dismisses the press as creators of “fake news,” the American public is already more inclined to question what they’re reading and seeing. That is only compounded by the fact that when they turn on “the news,” there really is no saying what they’ll get in terms of punditry, analysis or hard reporting and there is rarely any label indicating which of those categories the program falls into.

The consumer is of course to some extent responsible for their own media literacy but journalism as an industry also plays a critical role in the formation of that literacy. In another survey the American Press Institute found that “Fully half of the U.S. public is unfamiliar with the term ‘op-ed,’ and nearly three in 10 said they were unfamiliar with the difference between an editorial and news story (27 percent) or a reporter and columnist (28 percent).”

This clearly indicates that there is a disconnect between journalists and the population we are supposed to be serving, one that directly impacts the efficacy and trust placed in our work. It also further erodes the public’s trust in journalism as a whole. Commentators who offer opinions but are presented as reporters reporting fact only support the perception that journalists are inherently biased.

Notably, an overwhelming majority of journalists surveyed about this issue correctly believe that “most people misunderstand the difference between news and opinion content.” But despite the fact that journalists might be aware of the problem, fixing it has become something of a nonstarter in the industry.

While touring newsrooms in New York City in December, I asked DePaul graduate and MSNBC producer Kat McCullough if the network feels it is responsible for making the distinction between news and commentary clear for viewers. While she acknowledged this issue is something the industry needs to reckon with, MSNBC, like so many of their counterparts, has yet to determine the best way to start that process.

Journalists exist to serve and inform the American public. However, that mission can’t be accomplished if readers and viewers don’t know how to interpret what is being presented to them and journalists are responsible for making that easier. By labeling content and defining what those labels mean, journalists will be better suited to do their job because they will be reporting on and for a more media literate audience. Overall, if reporters and the public develop a better understanding of each other, both parties will benefit indefinitely.

 

 

 

 

 

Making sure journalism reaches an audience is as important as creating that journalism

By Bianca Cseke

Your tweets can get you fired if you’re a journalist.

That’s more or less the warning most reporters receive at least once while in journalism school and when they begin working in a newsroom.

It certainly became reality for Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez in January after basketball player Kobe Bryant’s death, when she tweeted a link to a story about sexual assault allegations against him. The paper’s editor, Marty Baron, sent her an email citing her “real lack of judgment in tweeting this.” Sonmez was briefly suspended from work before editors reversed their decision, but her post is still under investigation to determine if it violated the paper’s social media policies.

News organizations have a myriad of expectations for their reporters regarding social media, especially Twitter, and much of it can seem contradictory and impossible to follow. Be engaging and show your personality, but don’t post anything you wouldn’t want published in the paper itself. Avoid showing a bias, to the point of “aggressively managing” friends’ and followers’ comments on your posts, Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism says.

It can be hard to realize that being a journalist means giving up some of the rights and privileges others have, like posting political opinions online, but it is no different than traditional guidelines about not participating in protests or putting political candidates’ signage up.

In fact, not only is it the same principle, but it could be even more important given how so many people get their news nowadays: through social media. If journalists are to be considered reputable, fair sources, their online presence should reflect that.

Beyond the inability to have a separate, personal life online, some journalists have pushed back at the notion that Twitter helps journalists and journalism itself. In early 2019, New York Times opinion columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote that “Twitter is ruining American journalism,” saying that the platform prizes image over substance and ruins journalism’s image. He calls it “the epicenter of a nonstop information war,” “an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.”

As serious an issue as online disinformation may be, pessimism about the interconnectedness of journalism and social media ignores the fact that it helps news organizations reach a wider audience – and often much faster – than if they simply put their content on their websites and expect the public to find that content on its own. It succumbs to a mindset in which news organizations are the gatekeepers to information and readers will simply accept this, regularly checking to see what those few individuals have to say. That’s not how readers in the digital age behave and that mindset also does not bring important information readers may not even know they want or need to them.

It is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve, City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis writes. It is also vital to bring journalistic value to the public conversation. With so much of the public on social media, discussing current affairs – sometimes seriously, sometimes not – it would be misguided for journalists not to participate on these platforms to engage with their communities.

That’s not to say journalists should base all of their reporting on what people say they want or only consider perspectives found on a single platform. A Columbia Journalism Review study found that making the use of Twitter a routine part of news production influences news judgment. Spending more time on the platform makes tweets feel equally newsworthy as information found outside of social media. While communities can provide useful insight into what to cover, others can take advantage of the platform to spin their message. Journalists can feed into that cycle of reporting on officials’ tweets and treating all of them as newsworthy. It explains why nearly every time President Donald Trump tweets, reporters write stories about what was tweeted out, even if it is unclear what his administration plans to do.

Journalists should exercise the same caution online as they do in more traditional reporting, like verifying information and people’s identities, as well as carefully considering what audiences want to see published versus what they need to see because the information is so important for a well-functioning community.

And as much as some journalists will complain about having to utilize social media to promote themselves and their work, and as much as they resent not being able to have a completely private life separate from their work online, it is journalism’s duty to make sure important information worth reporting about in the first place reaches the communities it impacts.

 

Investigating Gender Gaps and Using Facts to Create Social Change

By Meredith Melland

Reporter Jodi Kantor’s stories often ripple from the pages of The New York Times and transform into massive waves that break gender barriers, bring nuance on politics and culture to the surface and inspire change that continues to reverberate through the United States’ social fabric.

Her reporting on the difficulties facing low-wage lactating workers in 2006 prompted two women to design mobile lactation suites that have been brought to businesses around the world. Starbucks changed their scheduling policies when she reported on the chain’s irregular hours, even before she reported the biggest story of her career.

Kantor and fellow Times investigative reporter Megan Twohey revealed three decades of sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 — prompting the Weinstein Corporation to fire him and catalyzing thousands of women to share stories of sexual abuse or harassment using Tarana Burke’s Twitter hashtag, “#MeToo.”

As she sat with Twohey in the basement of Chicago’s Vic Theatre before an event for She Said — their book on the reporting process and effects of the Weinstein investigation — and signed books as they were slid to her in a fluid assembly line, Kantor described how she uses gender as a lens for investigative reporting.

“I think covering politics in general is part of what made me want to use gender as an investigative topic,” Kantor said.

When she covered the 2008 presidential campaign and election, Kantor was struck by how the heated discussion on Hilary Clinton’s potential candidacy was permeated with sexism, partisanship and personal feelings.

“I just remember thinking with this, what the gender debate in the U.S. needs is more facts and it needs especially more airing of hidden and secret facts,” she said.

After reporting on the 2012 election and writing a book about the Obamas, Kantor directly pursued stories on gender inequities. She reported on the gender opportunity gap of 1994 Stanford graduates and attempts to change the male-oriented culture of Harvard Business School, which sparked nationwide discussion of college rules on admission and treatment.

By the time she embarked on the Weinstein story with Twohey, she was an open secrets veteran. Still, some moments in the months of intense reporting affected Kantor emotionally, especially when Ashley Judd agreed to be the first survivor to go on the record in what felt like a “massive leap of faith.”

“I still wanted to sound professional, and I remember in that moment searching for something to say to her, and sort of the best I could muster was ‘this means the world to me as a journalist,’” Kantor said.

Kantor said that she and Twohey preferred to keep the focus on their sources’ feelings and pain to understand their stories and effectively do their jobs.

“If you were diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t necessarily want to be speaking to a doctor who was weeping in the room with you,” Kantor said.

Though the investigation required the reporters to conduct several meticulous interviews with women divulging personal stories, Kantor stressed that they still had to establish clear journalist-source relationships.

“This reporting definitely requires the ability to talk to people who may have been deeply traumatized, who are recalling their worst memories as they speak to you, but that only makes it all the more important to be professional and to be collected,” Kantor said.

With such a dark subject, working with a partner helped her process information while maintaining appropriate distance from the sources.

“That’s part of why the partnership between Megan and I became so important to both of us, because that was the place where we could take our own feelings about this work,” Kantor said.

The Weinstein story and the duo’s subsequent investigations have continued to impact the country and culture, but not every Kantor article has created widespread social reform. In 2016, she developed a series with reporter Catrin Einhorn on Canadian citizens who adopted Syrian refugees.

“It’s one of the most extraordinary humanitarian efforts I’ve ever seen because it was an example of individuals doing something that governments couldn’t or wouldn’t do,” Kantor said.

She thought the story was a model of a solution for a desperate and difficult-to-solve crisis.

“I hope it opened people’s eyes,” Kantor said.

Though it was widely read, it hasn’t produced visible action. Kantor remarked that the role of a journalist is to inform the public and hope they read and listen.

“You’ll never know who’s read your story and what it’s inspired them to do or change,” she said.

Kantor, like many people in the journalism world, felt overwhelmed by the number of possible investigations and large-scale stories when Trump took office.

“How in the world am I ever going to be equal to this moment? How can I do a story that actually matters?” Kantor said she asked herself then. ”Because I’ve got this precious seat at The New York Times at a time when journalism is under siege, and what am I going to use this for?”

Her advice is to new reporters entering the field during this time is simple — take the most substantive reporting job you can get, keep producing work and try out different media.

“You want to be in a place that will give you interesting opportunities and good advice,” Kantor said.

By using tried-and-true investigative tactics, determining how to best use her voice in different cultural moments and looking through the lens of gender inequality, Jodi Kantor has produced work with lasting impact. She hopes that through reading the book or one of her stories, people will be inspired to investigate and inform the world around them.