Ground Zero and a mosque – a divided nation

August 22nd, 2010

Every once in a while a news story comes along that further widens the schism between right and left in America.

The mosque near Ground Zero is one of those stories.

The two sides are so blind to each others’ perspective that they can’t even agree on the terms to use.

The Associated Press last week issued a memo to staff members with guidelines on the appropriate terminology when describing the mosque’s location.

It shouldn’t be called “the Ground Zero mosque,” AP noted, because it’s not actually located at Ground Zero. The site is two blocks from the former World Trade Center, in a busy retail neighborhood.

Opponents, however, chastised the AP for shying away from that language. It certainly is “The Ground Zero Mosque” in their eyes, because it’s a heinous attempt to poke a stick in Americ’as eye by putting a mosque anywhere near the location of 3,000 deaths caused by Muslim extremists.

It reminds me of the early days of the abortion debate. One side didn’t want to be called anti-abortion – they preferred “pro-life.” The other side didn’t want to be called pro-abortion – they preferred “pro-choice.”

Journalists just wanted to use the language that was the most clear and descriptive – whatever communicates best. But both sides complained the media were biased because they didn’t use their preferred term. It took years for this debate to sort itself out.

When dealing with a hotly controversial subject, fair and unbiased is in the eye of the beholder. There is no way a journalist can stay in the middle – in the eyes of the protagonists.

Use “mosque near Ground Zero” and you’re supporting one side. Use “Ground Zero mosque” and you’re on the other side.

It’s no wonder that surveys continue to show falling public confidence in journalism – whether in newspapers, magazines, TV, radio or the Internet.

Any journalist who succeeds in finding a middle ground while reporting on a subject like the Manhattan mosque (how’s that for a compromise?) is likely to alienate both sides.

For the record, I think the AP did the right thing. They gave the subject the serious thought it deserved and instructed their reporters to use the terminology that is most clear and accurate.

It’s not the Ground Zero mosque – that implies the mosque is part of the 16 acres of Ground Zero property that is currently being rebuilt into offices, homes, parks and a museum.

It’s a mosque near Ground Zero, or more precisely, two blocks from Ground Zero.

Also for the record: I think both sides are right in large part.

The group planning the mosque has every right to build it where they choose, as long as it meets local zoning laws – which it does. I’ve walked that neighborhood and there are numerous churches, temples, synagogues, etc. Remember, we have religious freedom in America. It’s one of our most honored traditions.

At the same time, I think it’s insensitive of the Muslim group to ignore the outcry and insist on sticking with their plans. They could help the cause of Muslims in America by voluntarily deciding to move further from Ground Zero.

America is pretty good at religious tolerance. Despite some hiccups during our history, we generally get along with our neighbors, regardless of their religious beliefs. We don’t have civil wars based on religion, like those troubling much of the world.

But Americans are human, with all the frailities that come with the package. It’s easy to get people riled up by playing on religious faith and the natural human fear of the unknown.

The real villains in this episode are those in politics and the media who are trying to inflame the fires of religious intolerance for political gain.

Together, Muslims and Christians account for a little more than half the people on Earth, with about 2 billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims. Neither group is going away; we have to learn to live together.

Responsible politicans and media will find ways to bridge the differences, not inflame them.

News flash – journalism jobs coming back?

August 12th, 2010

For the last five years, I’ve watched the steady loss of news jobs with an uneasy confidence that the decline was temporary.

Common sense told me that news isn’t less popular – all the research shows that people want reliable, well-written coverage of the news more than ever. And in the increasingly complicated world, it seemed logical that quality journalism would be valued even more, not less.

The problem, of course, was that the business model that has sustained journalism jobs for a century was falling apart.

Now, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel – two news organizations with very different backgrounds have announced hiring sprees.

Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, announced that it’s hiring 34 new journalists for its newsroom and digital teams. For a traditional news organization, that’s an impressive commitment to the future of news gathering.

Earlier this year, AOL, the former online giant which now is struggling to find its way, announced that it will hire hundreds of journalists, editors and videographers in the next year, as part of its commitment to creating original news content.

Of course, those are just two bright spots in an otherwise struggling industry. It has been difficult to tell over the last few years how much of the news industry’s struggles had to do with the recession and how much with the Internet. As the economic recovery stalls, it’s still hard to tell.

Everyone agrees that the news industry is in transition, and that digital delivery of news is key to the future.

But will “legacy” news organizations – the newspapers, radio stations, magazines and TV stations we’ve trusted for generations – survive the transition?

Or will they be replaced by start-up Internet companies or digital giants like Yahoo and Google? 

Are the Newsday and AOL stories an abberation or a trend?

All good questions without answers at this point.

NY Times plagiarism case tip of iceberg

March 8th, 2010

Plagiarism in the age of the Internet is a much tougher challenge for journalists.

The rules used to be simple and clear – don’t steal content from another source and put it in your story.

It wasn’t easy to get confused. News releases came printed on paper, your notes were scribbled in a notebook and other reports and documents were on paper, too.

When a reporter sat down to compose a story, all those pieces of paper were spread out on a desk. The writing process involved choosing the right words to best tell the story, pulling from all those sources.

It almost took a conscious effort to copy word-for-word. Plagiarism couldn’t be an accident.

The digital world has dramatically changed the writing process, as dramatized by the New York Times’ most recent plagiarism scandal.
Clark Hoyt, The Times’ public editor, explained what happened to reporter Zachery Kouwe in a clear and readable blog post.

I feel sorry for Kouwe – if it’s possible to feel sorry for another Times reporter tarnishing the industry with his indiscretions.

Frankly, I think what happened to Kouwe happens a lot these days in both traditional newsrooms and on new media blogs and Web sites.

It’s so easy to cut and paste from multiple sources. You don’t clip an article out of a competing newspaper – you copy and paste it from the Web site. You don’t get printed press releases – they’re e-mailed to you. You can cut and paste any part of the information you want and paste it in a digital file.

You take many of your own notes over the phone,  typing them into digital files as you go. And you sometimes do e-mail interviews, where the answers are sent to you electronically.

Eventually, after a few hours of gathering information, you may end up with a huge computer file including thousands of words of information from multiple sources.

The writing process now involves lots of cutting and pasting, reorganizing the material. Sure, you use your own words, but the temptation to cut corners by pasting words and phrases – even whole paragraphs, is always there.

While plagiarism is never excusable, it’s easy to see how a reporter could lose track of what paragraphs were his/her own notes or writing, and what came from press releases, government reports, competing news sources, etc.

That’s the excuse given by  Kouwe – he simply lost track of what words he had written and what came from elsewhere. He inadvertently included paragraphs from the competing Wall Street Journal in his blog posts.

It’s likely he learned his lesson. He lost his job in the process.

It’s a good lesson for all news reporters.

As easy as it is to cut and paste into one large file, be sure to use some system – any system, as long as it works – to keep every fact, every quote, every observation carefully identified. One way would be to discipline yourself to keep information from each source in a separate computer file.

I remember, in the old days, I would occasionally tear out pages from notebooks to help in organizing a story. A couple times I lost track of who said something as a result, and couldn’t use the quotes in my story.

And that dramatizes the second big change in journalism during the digital age. In those days – I learned the news business in the 1970s – accuracy and fairness were keystone principles. If you weren’t sure, you left it out. Period.

The rush to get news on the Internet first has changed the rules. Young reporters like Kouwe grew up in an era when first was more important than accurate. And the tendency toward more opinion and analysis on blogs has eroded the tireless discipline of fact-checking.  

Even traditional news organizations regularly report rumors. Just because someone else reported it – even an unheard of blog – makes it newsworthy.

I may be wrong, or just old-fashioned, but I think that’s a mistake. As we move forward into the digital age, I think the tide will at some point turn toward the most credible news sources.

And that means getting it right, first.

Tea Parties present interesting conundrums

February 24th, 2010

I’ve been watching the Tea Party movement with a mixture of admiration and alarm.
By my nature, I like both mavericks and small-government advocates.
Anyone who tilts at windmills gets a second glance from me. Throwing tea into the harbor seems like at least a distant cousin.
Anyone who favors smaller government gains some credibility, too.
So, naturally, I’ve followed the Tea Party movement with interest. I’m getting more and more disappointed, however, as time goes by.
I like groups that challenge the status quo, that find interesting new ways to solve old problems; new solutions to troubling challenges.
The opposite of that is ideologues – whether on the left, right or middle – people who pick a single approach to the world and try to shoot down anyone who disagrees.
That’s simply not the way to make the best choices – whether at the local or national level.
I’ve been curious, as I watched the Tea Parties, how they would reconcile the conflict between the desire for smaller government and lower taxes, and the big budget defense spending for two wars.
The strongest support for the war on terror comes from the right, but the two geographic wars and one global war are the biggest drivers of the absurd deficit we’re creating.
From some of the rhetoric coming from some Tea Parties, it looks like many partiers may be coming down on the side of the anti-war protesters. Now there are strange bedfellows.
It’s also interesting to watch how the Tea Party movement deals with federal efforts to restore jobs.
Scott Brown, the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, is being roundly booed by partiers for supporting the Obama jobs bill. Brown voted for jobs in his state, even though it does mean more federal borrowing.
I share the nervousness of many on the right that we’ve ballooned the federal deficit far higher than common sense can support.
But I also buy the argument that without job growth, we’re not going to get the economy back to where it needs to be to begin attacking the deficit.
I’m beginning to come around to the opinion that the Tea Party movement is good for America, because it has reminded us that big government isn’t the solution to everything – actually, not to many things.
But it’s also becoming more clear that Tea Partiers, by blindly following a single ideology, are going to marginalize their movement before it really has an impact.
When are poeple going to figure out that Democrats have good and bad ideas, that Republicans have good and bad ideas, and the same goes for Libertarians, Greenies and everyone else.
Of course, the media deserves some of the blame, for casting every issue in partisan terms.
Oh, well.

Fun watching Evening News cover storm online

February 9th, 2010

I’ve been enjoying watching The Evening News cover the snowstorm live on its Web site, on the reporters’ blog and on MonroeTalks – simultaneously.

This is the future of journalism, and it’s good that The  Evening News staff is experimenting with methods of getting news to a live online audience.

Reporter Danielle Portteus, with help from reporter Paula Wethington, is posting every few minutes on the blog Behind the Headlines. The posts range from serious news updates to photos of her dog playing in the snow.

Meanwhile, Danielle and Doug Donnelly, city editor, also are posting regularly on on the topic, Monitoring the Storm. And, of course, there is a story and photograph on the home page.

All this is live during the first few hours of the storm.

Snow falls on a male cardinal at my birdfeeder

Chances are they have a larger than usual audience because of the storm. And if they continue to do well, chance’s are it will increase their audience share after the storm is long gone.

This is one of the great strengths of the Internet – the ability to provide information real time. And it incorporates another great strength of the Web – the ability to blend information provided by users with information from professional journalists.

The first post on MonroeTalks announcing that MCCC had closed at 12:30 came from a reader. That’s because the college’s emergency alert system sent a message to every student and staff member’s cell phone. They were able to relay the information to MonroeTalks more quickly than the MEN’s staff could receive it.

That’s not a bad thing – it’s good. It’s taking advantage of both user and professional sources to get more information.

Conversely, when users reported traffic problems on U.S. 23 and I-75, the newspaper quickly gave details on what actually was happening.

By the way, I was inspired by Danielle’s dog photos. So I posted one of my pets – a cardinal at the birdfeeder.

A tale of two Dan Shaws

February 5th, 2010

There was a new byline in the Monroe Evening News this week.

Danny Shaw, a student at Monroe County Community College, wrote his first story for the Evening News. There will be more over the coming weeks; Danny is getting class credit at the college for an internship with the newspaper.

By now, you get the irony. My name, of course, is Dan Shaw, too. Luckily, the fact that Danny uses the more informal version of the name helps us avoid some confusion.

You can imagine my surprise last spring when I saw a Daniel Shaw on the student list for my Intro to Journalism class. I assumed it was a mistake – that they put the instructor on the student list.

But when I took roll the first time, there he was, in the flesh.

You can also imagine my relief when he turned out to be a good student. He’s smart, dedicated to journalism and has the kind of personality that will help him succeed as a reporter – polite and friendly but persistent.

During the three years I was managing editor of The Evening News, my name only appeared in the paper occasionally – usually the  byline above a column on the editorial page when I felt compelled to explain something we were doing.

So not many readers of the newspaper will be confused when they see Danny’s byline.  He’ll quickly establish his own reputation and I’m sure he’ll do well.

By the way, we’re not related. When Danny’s byline first appeared in The Agora, the student newspaper at MCCC, several people asked  whether he was my son.

My father grew up in  Minnesota, and moved to Oregon, where I was raised. The only Shaws I know that I’m related to live in those states, along with Colorado and Washington, where my brother and his son live, and New York and South Carolina, where my sons live.

Danny isn’t the first Dan Shaw I’ve run into. It’s not that unusual of a name. Just for the fun of it, I searched for Dan Shaw. It said there were two in Monroe  County, and 17 in Southeast Michigan.

In high school, I played basketball against a Dan Shaw. I remember when the teams were announced, looking down the court at the “other” Dan Shaw, wondering how he dared to use my name.

Since he was 6’4″ and an all-league player (I was 5’7″ and all-nothing), he probably had more of a right to question my use of the name.

At any rate, if you run into Danny Shaw, treat him nicely. He’s a fine young journalist. But don’t confuse him with me.

It’s easy to tell the difference. He’s Danny. I’m Dan.

I can’t add much on Haiti, but I can do something

January 20th, 2010

I’m torn by the devastation in Haiti.

All the images of desperation, the anguished cries for help, the total destruction – it’s numbing to the  mind and the senses.

Never in my recollection has their been an event so totally heart-wrenching. It makes Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami seem small in comparison. While the tsunami killed something like 230,000 people, the deaths were spread over a wide area. As many as that may have died just in a few square miles of Port-au-Prince.

There has been widespread criticism of the speed of relief efforts. But as it becomes more clear how overwhelming the obstacles are, it also seems to be clear that the best efforts would have struggled.

Probably because of Katrina and the controversy created by the bureaucratic stumbles during the relief effort in 2005, journalists started asking whether the relief was arriving too slowly on the first day after the Haiti quake. That  line of questioning has been a regular part of the news story from the beginning.

I understand why. At some point, those questions will be relevant and finding the answers will be important.  But it seems absurd to be focusing on what went wrong at this point, rather than what can be done.  

And what can be done? For most of us here in the U.S., about all we can do is send money to whatever relief agency seems to make the most sense – the Red Cross, the Bush-Clinton fund, UNICEF, etc.

At Monroe County Community College, professors JoEllen Locher and Alex Babycz and administator Brian Lay all have ties with Haiti and have been encouraging the college community to participate in the relief efforts. They’ve also provided reports from friends and relatives in Haiti – making the media images seem more personal, more real.

Haiti was a mess before the earthquake. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope that as the crushed infrastructure is rebuilt, the international relief effort can also raise the quality of life in Haiti.

I don’t know. I don’t have any solutions, and I don’t know what could have been done better.  But at least I can add a few of my dollars to the effort, along with my hopes and prayers.

Ups and downs of journalism in 2010

January 13th, 2010

I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster, and I’m exhausted.

I’ve spent the last few days sorting through all the Web sites, blog posts, e-mails, newspaper columns (both print and digital) that I’ve collected for the last two years on the subject of online journalism.

Since I began thinking about teaching journalism at Monroe County Community College about two years ago, I’ve been tucking away every  “how to” reference I’ve found on the digital new world of journalism.

I knew that eventually I would be teaching online journalism – how to write stories, shoot and edit audio and video, produce multi-media, blog, twitter and friend on the Internet.

Now, at the beginning of my third semester teaching at MCCC, it’s happening. The new class, which I’ve been developing for more than a year, starts Monday.

Most of the curriculum is set. Now I’m going through my files, checking out all those tips and hints and suggestions that I’ve squirreled away over the months.

Included are long, thoughtful blog posts predicting the imminent death of newspapers. There also are long, thoughtful blog posts predicting the long life of newspaper companies as they carefully manage the transition from print to digital.

There are cool new Web sites that make the work of journalists easier by providing wonderful new tools.

And there are frightening new Web sites that just steal news from wherever they can find it,  giving Internet users a reason to avoid real news sites.

As I’ve sifted through, moving some things into the save pile, some into the “use in class” pile and some into the round file (figuratively; it’s usually just a delete key), my emotions have been through a wringer.

 Bottom line: I’m still happy to be a journalist and excited about the future. Newspapers have a tough row to hoe, no doubt about it. But journalism, in some form, is going to survive and thrive.

And there are so many great new tools for telling stories, it’s like being a kid sneaking around under the Christmas tree. I just have to figure out which ones to open and share with students.

Wilson book and the CIA bombing …

January 6th, 2010

News reports of a bomb killing seven CIA agents in Afghanistan touched me more closely because I just finished reading Valerie Wilson’s book on her career with the CIA.

About half of Wilson’s book, “Fair Game,” was about how the Bush administration outed her because it was embarassed by her husband’s criticism of the invasion of Iraq, and about half was a fairly detailed description of her career as a covert CIA agent.

It was my first glimpse behind the scenes at the workings of the CIA – if you don’t count spy movies. Because the book is a personal, first-person memoir, it puts a face, an individual personality, a human soul, on the otherwise mysterious, faceless silhouette of a secret agent.

You don’t expect CIA spies to be the girl next door. But that’s what Valerie Wilson was to her family’s neighbors in a Philadelphia suburb. A smart girl who did well in school, excelled at Penn State, then took a job in Washington that required a lot of travel. None of them knew that those years spent overseas were as a spy whose main job was recruiting double agents.

So when I read about the bombing in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA employees and contractors – including a woman who had headed the nearby CIA base and was a long-time counter-terrorism officer – my thoughts immediately went to Wilson.

The woman who died may have been someone  much like her – I suppose it could have been her, if her husband hadn’t challenged the Bush administration over its claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

But Joe Wilson, a former longtime State Department employee who briefly was U.S. ambassador to Iraq under the first President Bush, knew that President G.W. Bush had lied about claims that Iraq was seeking uranium for a nuclear weapon from Niger.

Wilson had been sent to Niger by the CIA to check on the rumor, and reported that it was false. Despite knowing about Wilson’s report, Bush (or his speech writers; it’s unclear what the president actually knew) included the claim in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

When Wilson challenged the administration, he became public enemy No. 1, and was the subject of a withering public relations attack by Republicans. Part of that attack was leaking to the press that Wilson’s wife was a CIA agent – apparently so they could claim that his trip to Niger was just a junket proposed by his wife.

Although it took a few years – she didn’t finally resign from the CIA until 2006 – the leak and resulting publicity ended Valerie Wilson’s career with the CIA. So there was no chance she would be in Afghanistan working as a covert agent this week.

But the seven people who died were probably much like her – folks with families and friends back home who knew them as bright and motivated young people destined for success at whatever they tried. People who chose a career of secret government service partly to fight for the cause of freedom, but probably also for the excitment and adventure.

In her book, Valerie Wilson went into some detail discussing why she chose to apply to the CIA. She came from a military family. Serving her country was in her blood. But she also had the kind of personality that craved challenges.

And the CIA was a challenge: being accepted into the agency; surviving the exhausting physical and mental  training; winning a coveted spot as a field agent; and then being chosen as a super-secret, non-official agent.

The agents who died probably will not be identified, for obvious reasons. Other lives could be endangered if their roles in the CIA are revealed. So it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to read the kind of touching stories about the lives of the heros who sacrificed their lives for our freedom that we read after military deaths.

But thanks to Wilson’s book, I have a pretty good idea what kind of people our country lost in that bombing. And they deserve – even if it’s anonymous – our thanks for their sacrifice.

Tiger Woods and the media

January 4th, 2010

I haven’t weighed in on media coverage of Tiger Woods because my mouth has been hanging open with amazement.

Of course, no one should  be surprised by the entertainment media’s capacity for invasive and voyeuristic  journalism.

I call it journalism, even though it causes a distinct wince, because most people consider the celebrity-based coverage of pop stars and athletes that dominates the news to indeed be journalism.

Unfortunately, most folks don’t distinguish between serious coverage of relevent news, which relies on verification of truth before print/airing/posting, and the anything goes if it titillates style of entertainment coverage that now seems to dominate the news.

What left my jaw hanging was that it wasn’t just supermarket tabloids jostling for attention as each new Tiger affair was announced. Many traditional media outlets that once had standards joined the fray.

It’s no wonder the credibility rating of journalists has been plummeting for years.

I saw somewhere that the number of alleged affairs has topped 80. Even semi-legitimate news organizations have reported up to a dozen. Each time a new woman comes forth to claim a liaison with Tiger Woods, there are magazines, Web sites, TV shows, newspapers, blogs galore willing to print the claim, even when it’s probably-most likely-almost certainly phony.

As soon as one blog/tabloid/cable TV show – no matter how questionable its practices – reports a new “sexual liaison,” all the others, even legitimate, serious news organizations, feel compelled to repeat the “published report.” As if something  being published makes it true.

At this point, I’m pretty certain that Tiger Woods had an affair. Maybe more than one.

And, like every other human being on the planet, I’m disappointed in Tiger Woods. 

But I’m much more disappointed in the news media overall, and particularly in the serious news organizations that threw journalistic standards out the window while reporting every new scurrilous claim.

Shame on Tiger. But Tiger messing up only hurts one man and his family.

When news media fall over themselves to report untruths, halftruths and alleged truths, the damage to all journalists is much more troubling.