When people hear about an egregious ethical breach at a newspaper, magazine or other media outlet, they usually wonder, "How did that get past an editor?"
Granted, sometimes the editor is asleep at the wheel. But occasionally, despite the editor's best efforts, a false, fictionalized or otherwise erroneous story is published because the reporter is very devious, even pathologically so.
Seven or eight years ago, when I was editor of the San Antonio Current, a freelancer pitched a story about graduation rates at a local public high school (another bedeviling education story, dammit). Supposedly the high school was overstating its numbers and far fewer kids were graduating than it had been publicly reporting.
First, a word about this freelancer (whose name I have also forgotten—I, of eternal sunshine of the spotless mind): She was ostensibly a Ph.D. candidate at a top university, an accomplishment that should have exposed her to the standards and rigors of academic integrity similar to those of journalism. With those bona fides, I should rest easy, yes? Lesson No. 1: Never rest, let alone rest easy.
I told her to investigate the rumor and debrief me. Weeks later I received a draft of the story, which at the time I thought I dutifully prosecuted: "How do you know this?" "What documentation do you have?" "What's your attribution for this statement?" "How many times did you call this person?" And on and on.
My instinct told me something was amiss, but she had an authoritative, reasonable answer to each question. Although she said the school had declined to comment and provide their own numbers, her data and supporting information had come from other sources inside the school with deep knowledge of the situation.
So, and my heart sinks as I write this because I know now where and why I erred, we published the story. As it turns out, we did get one thing right: The name of the school. The rest of it was bullshit: the data, the conclusions, etc. The school called me, rightfully outraged, and I told the officials I would look into their claims and, if true, try to unravel what happened. In my forensics on the story, I learned several deeply troubling facts—and I relate them here to the best of my memory:
Other than "The building's on fire," there are few statements that command my attention more than "I have an ethical question for you." At this point, I step away from my computer, exhale and yearn for the days of yore when editors were expected to keep full flasks in their desk. (Should those days return, fill mine with Macallan.)
Pull up a chair, whippersnappers, and I'll tell you an ethical horror story, or in airplane parlance, what is also known as a near-miss:
When I was the editor of the San Antonio Current, two freelance writers pitched an investigative story about Edison Schools, a for-profit company that is often hired to operate low-performing public schools. The byline was to be shared (Full disclosure: I cannot remember the authors' names, probably because I have blotted them out of my consciousness).
When I received the final draft, I began factchecking, and lo and behold, the FIRST 17 PARAGRAPHS OF THE STORY WERE PLAGIARIZED. Yep, lifted directly in order from a newsletter published by a California educational advocacy group. After my nausea subsided, I notified both writers, neither of whom accepted responsibility, that the story would not run—and why—and that they were d-e-a-d to me. The story did not get in the paper, but had I taken a shortcut that day and not spot-checked the piece, well, I don't want to think about it.
How do ethical breaches happen? Sometimes it's naivete or ignorance—I have another story exemplifying this that I'll save for a subsequent post. But other times the motivations are more pernicious: laziness, arrogance, carelessness and willful disregard for all that is good.
Fair warning: Between my gloomy morning ritual of reading the newspapers and blogs, and the Senate's repeal of the Racial Justice Act, I'm feeling forlorn and grouchy today. Plus, explaining the Indy's comments policy can get my dander up. But at the risk of sounding shrill and schoolmarmish, here goes:
Comments can be enlightening, smart and insightful. They can also be ignorant, punitive and hateful. In other words, they're a bitch to moderate.
People will say things on a website that they would never say to someone's face. I think that's cowardly, but it's a fact. We've mulled over whether to require commenters to provide their real name, thus abolishing anonymous posts, but then decided it would be nigh on impossible to verify the information.**
(If for some reason you choose not to register under your name, don't use the name of someone else. We have had commenters posing as other people. We banish those commenters and post a note stating why.)
That said, at the Indy, we have to balance our desire to host a genuine discussion about the issues with the risk that the trolls will turn the comments section into a cesspool of vitriol. And when the comments turn into a cesspool, it deters people from wading in with something meaningful to say.
Some basic rules: No ad hominem attacks (and that includes those aimed at the writer), name-calling, slander or libelous statements. What's a libelous statement? Asserting that someone has committed a crime if that person has not been convicted, for example. You cannot state as fact someone is a child molester if that person has not been convicted of child molesting. Don't even insinuate it.
Don't stray from the topic; comments must contribute to the greater dialogue about the story.
Tip: Reaaallllly loooonnnggg posts are a red flag to your fellow commenters. It says "crazy," not as in eccentric crazy, but as in tinfoil-hat crazy.
For rule-breakers, and you know who you are: We can delete your comment without explanation or notification. We can block your IP address. And when you send a comment from a new IP address, we can block that one. And the next one. Et cetera. We have elves who do this all day long; actually, we don't, but it's a budget item for next year. We can also close comments on a story.
Who decides if a commenter has violated a rule? We do. Denise Prickett, our web editor, usually makes the call, although she and I also consult with each other.
There have been instances in which commenters have alleged that we are violating the U.S. Constitution by restricting their speech. Civics 101: The Constitution states that government shall not abridge speech; we're not the government and thus aren't required to protect speech on our website.
We believe in free speech, but we're not the town square. Instead, think of indyweek.com as your friendly neighborhood watering hole. Come in for a drink and a chat. But if you get soused and ugly, our cyberbouncers will toss you out. It's our bar.
This week looms Black Friday, a bizarre ritual in which people inexplicably camp out all night in front of department stores like Walmart and get jacked up on 2-liter bottles of Coke with the very real possibility that, at opening, they could be cudgeled or clawed, bitten or beaten as they rush the shelves for the last box of LEGO Mindstorms.
Walmart: There’s a new one on Martin Luther King Parkway in Durham where a lush swath of trees used to be. But the fact that Walmart routinely gorges on tracts of green space is not the only reason I refuse to shop there. Nor is it the chain’s anti-union stance or dubious labor practices. Those are all excellent rationales for boycotting Walmart, but for me, it’s more personal. I was, in effect, held hostage at Walmart. And not by an angry Tickle Me Elmo fan, but by Walmart.
I often tell this true story to journalism classes as a way of demonstrating how a small assignment such as reporting on the price of school supplies can turn into combat.
Let's be candid: News journalists are crusty, cynical curmudgeons whose bedtime reading consists of grand jury indictments and toxic release inventory reports. We traffic in bad news; our currency is injustice. Conflict gets us out of bed in the morning. So do malice and malfeasance, lying and greed. This is why we're a hit at dinner parties.
Music, film and culture writers have slightly sunnier dispositions, but only because they get a lot of free stuff in the mail.
So, confronted with these daunting and admittedly dark scenarios, how do you—event organizer, concerned citizen, struggling restaurant owner, metal band from Missoula—get in the paper?
First, as I advised potential freelancers in last week's post: Read the paper. Is there a writer or editor who covers stories in the same vein as the one you would pitch? To find staff emails, go to the bottom of our website and click on "Contact." We can also connect you with a freelancer.
Secondly, and please don't take this personally: Being an advertiser doesn't give you a leg up on editorial coverage. Let me explain: You'll notice that some publications will run a "story" about, let's say, a wedding planner. And wow, on the same or adjacent page is an ad for the same wedding planner. What a coincidence! What are the chances!? Well, 100 percent if that publication practices what industry lingo calls "pay to play."
We don't do it. We thank you for your business, but our editorial code of ethics dictates that we cannot consider advertising in deciding what to cover. As an advertiser that should comfort you because the policy means our editorial coverage is truly independent and does not go to the highest bidder.
Three freelance writers stand before me, but I have only two résumés in my hand. The name I do not choose must pack his bags and return to writing in his personal journal.
"How do I write for the Indy?" It's the second-most common question I field. (The first being "How do I get my event in the calendar?")
First, your academic degree is meaningless to me, regardless of the number of letters after your name: B.A., B.S., M.A., M.S., Ph. D, J.D., Y.A.W.N.
That's not to say it's worthless, but your diploma alone doesn't indicate whether you can write. Ditto for your journalism degree. It bestows no greater advantage upon you; it is not necessarily a harbinger of success. (Hear that sound of teeth gnashing? It's the UNC J-school faculty.)
At a previous alt-weekly, I hired a Harvard graduate with a Rain Man-like math aptitude and a guy with only a GED whose work experience included a stint as a carpet cleaner. Both were prolific, tireless, talented writers and reporters who turned in compelling copy every single week.
Bottom line: Freelance and staff positions are not entry-level. To work at the Indy, you must be able to craft interesting, clear, accurate, well-reported stories—and make a deadline. If you're a photographer or illustrator, your work must also adhere to the same high standard for the respective medium.
Let's say you fit this criteria—and a lot of people do, especially with so many journalists out of work. Now it's time to pitch a story.
At 8:40 this morning, I was Voter No. 39 at Rogers-Herr Middle School and, with the exception of the poll workers, the only soul in the gymnasium. Early voting turnout for this year's Durham general election was double that of the October primary (5,039 to 2,298) but still pitiful considering there are 133,452 registered voters in Durham County.
The percentages were similarly low in Wake County, even though the turnout is twice that of 2009—and this is an election with municipal races in 11 towns and cities, plus the District 3 school board runoff. Will Orange County redeem democracy in the Triangle? Let's hope so.
We'll blog the election as the day and evening wears on, with results online tonight and in tomorrow's paper.
A year from now we'll elect a president, and God willing and the creek don't rise, it won't be Herman Cain. Pundits have criticized the women who haven't made public their allegations that he sexually harassed them. Even if they've been freed of their confidentiality agreements, I can understand why they would be reluctant to stand before the TV cameras and divulge the gory details of the incident.
I've been sexually harassed on the job twice, both times by superiors: once at a fast-food restaurant and another time at a record store. (This does not count the time when I was a cops reporter and a police officer told me—in very colorful language—that he wanted to sleep with me before I got married.)
"Light my faucet"
"The pun also rises"
Headline writing is an art—a lost art, thanks to Search Engine Optimization and the Internet—but those of us still living in the print world know that crafting a compelling "head" (or "hed," in journo shorthand) can be tougher than polishing 1,000 words of prose.
At the Indy, the section editors and I generally write the headlines, although occasionally a writer will come up with a pithy, punchy one.
"Light my faucet" introduced a story about the environmental dangers of fracking; and how could a story about the pun championships carry a headline other than "The pun also rises"?
We love puns, or I do, anyway—and pop culture references, even the slightly obscure. "We'll melt with you," which was written for a piece about climate change, refers to a song by Modern English. But it gets the point across even if you don't know the song.
The headline on the cover is often different from that on the inside because 1) on the front we have to grab readers' attention more quickly, and 2) there is less contextual information—other photos, boxes, charts to help the reader understand the article—than on the story page.
The web heads are recast for Search Engine Optimization, the enemy of all headline creativity. We have to put certain keywords in the headlines to increase the chances that readers will find the stories in their online searches—or be enticed by the word choice. This is why you see so many sensationalistic headlines online. (Hey Durhamites, wouldn't you click on a story titled, "Bill Bell's baby bump?")
That is also why online "Light my faucet" became "Despite the dangers of fracking, North Carolina lawmakers want to legalize it" and "The pun also rises" transformed into "The first Durham Pun Championship thrills—and disgusts—the crowd."
Sometimes I think of a headline and wish I had a story to go with it. Thus, at a different paper I wrote a food piece with the headline, "The age of asparagus." Because I could.
During the day, the scene at the 2-mile mark on the American Tobacco Trail is occasionally dicey, but rarely dangerous. I once had to sidestep a scrum between an angry man and woman to avoid a wayward punch, but in general, I just smile at the guys getting lit on Stack at 11 in the morning. I mentally note the colorful bikini underwear lying trailside as if it were an exotic leaf. It's the city. I expect a certain grit. No big deal.
Saturdays are usually my day to hit the trail, walking (briskly—I’m trying to preserve my knees) seven to 13 miles, depending on my level of hydration. Yet lately, I've backed off from the ATC, and not because of anything that has happened at Mile 2, which is near Fayetteville and Pilot streets. I question the overall safety of the ATC.
I'm troubled by the recent reports of a man exposing himself, again in the daytime, on the ATC—a weenie waver, as my mother calls such people. He's been spotted, in one case, wearing only a small hat, farther south, down by Woodcroft between Mile 5 and 6.
And in late September, I had to call the police from Mile Marker .25, at the bridge downtown. This was at 5:30 in the afternoon when a guy on a trick bike yells, "Goddamn bitch." I didn't answer. So he biked in front of me and continued to accost me, "Hey, Goddamn bitch, why didn’t you answer? Why are you getting all white on me?"
Silence. But I was thinking, "I didn't answer because my name's not Goddamn bitch."
So after an unpleasant exchange of words, I finally had to dial 9-1-1 because this guy just wasn't going to let it go.
Now I know it's impossible for police to surveil the entire trail; from downtown to Southpoint mall it's essentially a 6.5-mile linear park. And if you choose to travel the trail at night, then don't complain when you are relieved of your wallet. But Durham boasts of the ATC being among its crown jewels, and if people are to enjoy its beauty, then they need to have a basic sense of security, even by urban standards.
Should it have call boxes like Duke University has installed on the Al Buehler Trail—in case, for example, you should be robbed of your cell phone? Are beefed up police patrols enough? I urge the City Council and DPD to address the issue.
Now playing: The Kinks, Kinda Kinks
It's 6:30 a.m. and I feel like it's the first day of school. Lunch packed. Teeth brushed. Hair more or less combed, like that would do any good.
And here's the inaugural edition of For What It's Worth, the Indy editor's blog.
By nature, I'm a news reporter, not a columnist, which is why I've been tarrying about starting a blog. But I'm into it now and I imagine it to accurately reflect my personality: informal, conversational, irreverent and occasionally vulgar. You've been warned.
In FWIW, my goal is to demystify the Indy by explaining how the editorial department chooses stories, writes headlines, etc. I'll discuss how we approach ethical dilemmas and, of course, try to answer the ultimate question: How does someone get in the paper?
In doing this, I hope to elicit (civil) conversations between me and you, the reader—and among readers.
I'll also comment on the news of the day and, as a voracious reader and media consumer, try to turn you on to good reads, films and music.
So first, a few words about this week's cover story:
The article came about when writer/ photographer Anna Blackshaw, who is new to the Indy pages, pitched me a piece about the Sanitation Two. The plight of these men had been studiously noted in the mainstream media, and for the Indy, the piece had to be different. We needed to anchor an intensely researched story in public documents while answering the deeper questions of Who are these men? What motivates them?
Anna admirably achieved that, and as a result we have a story that relies heavily on public documents and shows that Clyde Clark and the Rev. Kerry Bigelow are more than activists and union guys: They're fully fleshed out men with hopes, dreams and disappointments. Just like the rest of us.
We did have an ethical question in the story in that the women complainants are named in the lawsuits but are given anonymity in town documents and at a town hearing. Should we name the women in the story or not? My first instinct was yes, to provide transparency that the Town of Chapel Hill did not; but after Anna and I talked further, we agreed not to because it was difficult from the documents to know what each woman said and did. It seemed that we would achieve no greater clarity for having named them. For the record, Anna tried to reach one of the women several times but received no response. We also vetted this story through a media lawyer.
We did leave their names in the lawsuit documents, which are available to download on the story (see Documents in the sidebar). We redacted all home addresses of the women and the Rev. Bigelow to protect their privacy. Roger Stancil's address is in the documents, but it is for Town Hall.
Another ethical question arose on indyweek.com today about City Council candidate Steve Schewel, who also owns the Indy. Teri Beckman asks how we will cover city council if Schewel is elected. My answer: We will cover city council in the same way we have covered it before, with the same scrutiny of elected officials' decisions and policies.
I can assure you the Indy's independence will not be compromised; the editorial staff demonstrated that independence by choosing not to endorse in the city council race.