From fracking to foreclosures, Wall Street to presidential pardons, health care to the stimulus package: ProPublica, the independent nonprofit news organization, is reviving—and remaking—investigative journalism in America.
News junkies can get their fix this evening when Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica, will speak on the topic "From Mainstream Media to a Non-Profit News Startup."
The former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Steiger oversees a team of 34 journalists, many of whom have won national awards, including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Steiger will speak tonight at Gerrard Hall on the UNC campus. The 6 p.m. lecture is free and open to the public.
Check back for the Indy's interview with Steiger and coverage of his lecture.
Objectivity (noun): “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”
Math problems are objective. The Yellow Pages are objective. Journalism is not objective.
At the Indy we sometimes hear from readers that a story is not objective. You’re right, it probably isn’t, because the Indy, in its 29 years of publishing, never has been and never has claimed to be.
Now we strive to be fair, to listen and analyze the viewpoints of all sides (not “both sides,” which implies there are only two viewpoints) of an issue. We use documents and interviews to try to ensure the stories are true and factual. (Red flag alert: Truth and facts, I once heard a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist explain, are not the same thing; if anything, facts, when manipulated, can obscure the truth.)
But the Indy’s philosophy is we must give readers more than an august recitation of the “facts.” We’ll leave that to the Associated Press—and that’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgment of that news organization’s philosophy.
We believe readers want meaning and context, not just information, to help form their own opinions about an issue. We trust that the Indy isn’t the only food in readers’ media diet, and that they can gather enough facts and viewpoints from many places to draw a reasonable, well-informed conclusion about an issue.
It’s not enough to tell readers what happened, but we need to tell them why and how— and that requires analysis. Will you get analysis from a left-leaning perspective? Yes, but we’ve always been transparent and unapologetic about that. In contrast, if I read a news story in the right-wing Carolina Journal, I know what I’m getting. I may disagree—well, I always disagree—but I’ll give the CJ points for not publishing under the guise of objectivity.
There was a dustup recently at The New York Times when the public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote a column asking if reporters should fact check their sources’ claims rather than just dutifully writing them down. A chorus of journalists and readers chimed in, and said, and I’m paraphrasing, Hell yes, they should—it’s what journalists do. (Brisbane later defended the column to Howard Kurtz on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” that reporters should do so, but that it is a “question of degree” because reporters risk appearing that they’re fighting with their sources in print.)
I would argue a little public scrum with a news source, if that person is fibbing, embellishing or dodging, is necessary. We wouldn’t want it to consume the whole story, but it would make the point that reporters are not glorified stenographers. We will write down (or record) what a source says. And then our job is to check it out to see where he or she may have stretched the “truth” like circus taffy. And then it is our job to tell the readers.
Readers will rarely get objectivity in news, despite what media outlets may claim. But readers do deserve transparency from sources and the news organizations themselves.
Now playing: Wilco A.M.
I received a voicemail this morning from a concerned reader regarding an ad in the back of the paper. The ad says that on average, escorts have sex with seven men in a day, while women in general have sex with seven men in a lifetime. (It being an ad and not a news story, there was no attribution for these figures.) The ad was offering hookups with "real, clean women." As opposed to unreal, clean women?
First, this ad is for a company that matches married people looking for sex with someone besides their spouse. The company slogan: "Life is short. Have an affair." (Want life to be shorter? Get caught.) But it's really none of my business how people run their marriages.
My point is—and please tell your family, friends, coworkers, pets—as editor, I have no control over our advertising clients. And it should be that way because I wouldn't want the advertising department controlling editorial content. I explained this in a previous blog post. This is known as the "editorial/ad wall" and no, Mr. Gorbachev, this wall won't be torn down.
I don't like some ads that run in the Indy. I'm sure there are stories that make our sales reps cringe. That's the newspaper business. People sometimes ask, "Why do you run these ads?" The answer: "It helps pay the bills." That's the unvarnished truth.
My suggestion to people who don't like ads of a sexual nature: Don't read them.
Last night I received an email from a reader upset because in the Indy's print edition this week, our cover story about the Iowa caucuses included a picture of Michael, a 28-year-old textile worker, in a string of photos of GOP candidates. From left to right: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum—and then there’s Michael.
The rugged-looking, bearded Michael is wearing a baseball cap turned backward—with some errant hair jutting from under it—and a shirt that reads, “I’m a stoner … and I vote.” Now Michael didn’t materialize out of nowhere, unless you consider Iowa nowhere, which I don’t, because I’m from central Indiana and that’s really nowhere.
Indy columnist Jonathan Weiler, who covered the caucuses for us, interviewed Michael for a story that appeared on our Triangulator blog. A friend of Jonathan’s shot the photo, which we used with permission. Michael attended a Ron Paul campaign event and told Jonathan that he supports Paul.
The reader wanted to know why we would place a photo of “an unkempt man” wearing such a T-shirt in juxtaposition to photos of Republican candidates in formal attire. He also asked why we ran the photo when the article didn’t mention the candidates’ positions on the War on Drugs. And the reader questioned why we picked a marijuana activist to photograph and if we were trying to say that Ron Paul supporters are “a bunch of idiot stoners high on grass and out of touch with the reality of how complex politics are in this day and age?”
Well, one man’s unkemptness is another man’s wedding attire. Michael’s a bit burly, but he looks clean to me. It’s not like I could smell him through the photo. And we don’t know that Michael is a marijuana activist. He may just have a sense of humor.
Speaking of humor, there’s no reason to be paranoid (although I’ve heard pot can make you that way, at least temporarily) about our decision to run this photo. I approved of running it in this manner because I thought it was irreverent and funny. It wasn’t an indictment or an endorsement of drug use, or commentary on our failed War on Drugs. (By using the word "failed" here, that is commentary.)
I liked the underlying message that by placing Michael’s photo next to the candidates’—all the pictures were the same size—that he, a young, blue-collar worker, is every bit as important as and equal to the politicians who pretend to have his best interest in mind. If anything, the question should be “Why are those gussied-up mannequins featured next to a real person?”
The photo was merely a small thumb in the big ol’ eye of the powerful. It was to add levity to a ridiculous political charade or, as Jonathan called it, “a depressing spectacle.” As an alternative newsweekly, we're expected to be cheeky. That's what alt-weeklies do.
Given the political climate, one can choose to laugh or cry. This week we chose to laugh.
A corner of the Indy office is emptier today. Our two interns, Maggie Smith and Jason Y. Lee, have left, their apprenticeship finished. There was something comforting about seeing them encamped nearby, laptops open, phones couched in the crook of their neck. We miss them already.
Indy interns are subjected to the same rigors and expectations as regular staffers—not fluffy routines of opening mail and making coffee. In return, they get a world of real-life experience, an impressive cache of clips and, if they're old enough, a bottle from the beer cart that occasionally makes the rounds late on a Friday afternoon.
I don't give interns unsolicited career advice, but if they ask, this is what I tell them:
1) Don't get too caught up in what your friends are doing. Set your own goals and expectations—and certainly don't sell yourself short—but don't allow peer pressure to dictate how you live.
2) Before becoming a journalist, take a series of shitty, low-wage jobs that will pay you just enough to cover your bills. Not only will this prepare you for a journalist's salary, but you will learn empathy and humility. The experience will make you a better journalist. Plus, you will never think any job is beneath you. I paid my dues as a school crossing guard, maid (got fired after one day), cake decorator, assistant manager at Subway, McDonald's cashier, musical instrument salesperson, newspaper delivery driver, donut delivery driver (not at the same time, but that would've been handy), record store clerk, video store clerk, nightclub booking agent, band manager, shelver in a college textbook warehouse and a telemarketer at a greeting card company—all between the ages of 21 and 29.
3) In addition to your low-wage job, live as The New York Times' David Carr calls it, a "fully textured life." That doesn't mean you should become a crackhead. But you should take at least one cross-country trip by car and visit a nation where indoor plumbing is not a given.
4) Read a lot of books.
5) Talk to people you don't know.
6) Fail at something, especially if you've come from a hard-charging, high-octane family that put a premium on achievement. You'll find that despite your shortcomings, you're still a decent, valuable person.
So, Jason and Maggie, good night and good luck.
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.