Couric interviewed Palin well, but withholding footage was potentially unethical

When, as a journalist, you possess information that will have some impact on society, will effect people’s lives, or otherwise rises to some level of salient import, do you have an obligation to publish or broadcast that information immediately, or is it OK to hold it to serve the business needs of your newspaper or network?

I’m ruminating on this question in light of the past week’s dribbling of the Katie Couric interviews with Sarah Palin.

Couric interviewed Palin prior to Sept. 24. The first two segments can be viewed and read here. I didn’t think much about the two-part interview last week. After all, a TV news show has limited time. As much as I believe in web-first publishing, I could give a pass to CBS for holding the interviews for prime-time viewing first.

Then rumors began to circulate that there was more material not yet released. First, that Palin had not been able to name a Supreme Court case besides Roe vs. Wade. Then, yesterday, the video came out of Palin’s inability to name a single newspaper — not the Anchorage Daily News nor her hometown Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

Thus, we learned that CBS had withheld newsworthy quotes from the public.

Ethically, is that acceptable?

I doubt a single reader would disagree with these two assertions: That Palin’s answers to Couric were news, and that the answers could have an impact on both on the election and on public perceptions of Thursday night’s VP debate.

So let’s consider the consequences of how CBS handled these answers.

If CBS had released the full interview, either in broadcast or on the intertubes, on the first day the impact might have been:

  • The shock of all the stupidity coming out at at once could have even more quickly torpedo people’s opinions of Palin, McCain and the GOP; or,
  • It would have given both sides more time to dissect what it all means prior to the Thursday night debates, thereby giving voters more time to draw more nuanced conclusions (if that’s even possible in this case).

But the most important factor in a decision to hold the full interview or not is the impact it has on the politically important expectations game.

Experienced political observers know how it works: Lower expectations so that a candidate can rise to the occasion and look better than people believed he or she could. It’s a tried, true and infallible political tactic.

But in dribbling segments of the interview, CBS is able to incrementally lower the expectation that Palin is anything other than a dimwit who is neither engaged nor informed enough to serve as VP.

Loyal GOP partisans, of course, will believe that CBS has handled the interview as it has merely to more broadly and deeply embarrass the governor.

Experienced journalists know that it is unlikely that CBS executives have any political motivation whatsoever. The decision to incrementally release the interview has only one motivation: Ratings.

Which brings us back to the central question: Is it OK for a journalist or a news organization to make decisions about newsworthy events based on business concerns?

Again, clearly, the Palin interview is full of information people need to know.  Is it OK to withhold that information for any reason other than a journalisticly sound reason?

Let’s be clear: I’m not being inconsistent with things I’ve said in the past. The modern journalist cannot be completely divorced from concerns about ratings and readership, but that has more to do with story selection and presentation than what facts a reporter or editor chooses to release when.  My question is very narrow: When you know something to be true, what is your journalistic, ethical obligation to inform the public of that information?  Is it immediate, or can you hold it?

In a Twitter discussion about this topic today, Howard Weaver raised a challenging question about newspapers holding investigative packages for Sunday publication. In 140 chacters, what I think Howard was getting at, is it a business decision to hold for Sunday?

I guess it could be, but Sunday is also the day the most people take the most time with the printed word. If you have a significant issue that you want people to time with and think about, Sunday publication makes a lot of sense. It may be the ethically superior publication day for big-package stories (not so much on the web, though — newspaper.com site traffic plunges on weekends).  You’re also talking about a package that is designed to revolve around a coherent thesis.  The Palin interviews were chalk full of individual news nuggets. There was nothing investigative about it. It was good, probing questions by Katie Couric, but it produced news, not a deep and broad policy review.

Regular readers know, I believe in web-first publishing. I’ve always advocating web-first as an audience growth strategy, but it also has a journalistic component. Journalists should not withhold information from the public based on artificial deadlines.  When you know a fact that is newsworthy, you should tell people. To withhold the information is to rob readers and viewers of time to act on or ruminate over the news.

How journalism failed America at a most critical time

In the days prior today’s bailout vote, you could surf through Google news and find any number of stories that told us that the U.S. economy is in a crisis, and that spending $700 billion to bail out Wall Street bankers was unavoidable.

Or you could turn on the television and watch just about any news show and hear the same thing.

What you rarely found or heard was any serious questioning of whether the crisis was anywhere near the proportion George W. Bush said it was, or if the bailout was really necessary, or if the bailout would work, or if, maybe, the bailout might make things actually worse.

All of these are legitimate, skeptical questions that at a time when the nation’s attention was nearly focused solely on questions around the economy, the mass of mainstream media failed to cast a doubtful eye on anything government officials and elected representatives were telling them.

Oh, occasionally, Ron Paul got a little air time, but for the most part, if you wanted to find any commentary or reporting that was anything other than an Amen Chorus for Bush and Paulson, you had know where and how to look.

Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist David Cay Johnston put it this way:

Journalists, and specially Washington journalists, are generally behaving like lapdogs and generally only asking detail questions around the central premise. This should concern us all. This is the same kind of behavior that we saw during the run up to the War in Iraq, when there was no shortage of critical facts and skeptical sources, but only the usual stalwarts in journalism reported skeptically.

Johnston went on to note that when Tom Brokaw opened the previous Sunday’s Meet the Press with, “Our issues this Sunday: The American financial system in deep crisis.”  Not, “The president says,” but rather a bald statement of fact.

Why, at a time of great decision — just like the run up to the invasion in Iraq — when America needs more, not fewer, skeptical voices, did U.S. journalism lap up whatever gruel they were fed?

I blame Walter Lippmann.

In the 1920s, Lippmann sought to weed out of journalism some of the excesses of jingoist reporting that he witnessed during World War I.  He elevated objectivity to a professional moral code, that reporting and writing should be neutral. It was not the role of the reporter to interpret.  He should merely regurgitate the facts as observed or offered up by official sources.  Lippmann did not trust a singular human to exercise critical thinking about complex issues.

His objectivity code smacks of a certain elitism — that first, only official sources should be allowed to speak, and only specially trained professional journalists could be trusted to transmute their words and deeds to an easily led (or misled) public (“manufactured consent”).

While Lippmann’s formulation of objective journalism has not completely quashed advocacy journalism, or watchdog reporting, it has become the standard practice of the work-a-day reporter.

No where is it more insidious than inside the beltway.

Think back to the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Any number of White House and Pentagon officials could be found quoted — often anonymously — in the leading publications on the tactics, strategy, necessity and urgency of the war, but few contrarian voices were heard.  The arguments against the war were left to anti-war celebrities on television shout shows, lefty blogs and scattered protesters.  There was nothing like an expert calling bullshit on most administration assertions in mass media reporting.

Whether you supported the war or not, the complete lack of alternate voices in much of the reporting of America’s newspapers should cause you concern.

Many critics of the war before and since have referred to Bush’s push for invasion as “the rush to war.”

That phrase echoed through my mind much the past week as Bush and Congressional Democrats hastily set to work on a $700 billion bailout of New York’s financial institutions.  It is no stretch to call it a “rush to bailout.”

The original proposal was a three-page document; Democrats had doubts, so they (working with likeminded Republicans) tried to fashion more complete legislation, but did so through secret meetings (some) and not a single public hearing. No expert witnesses were called, and no outside voices who distrusted the “rush to bailout” were called to testify.

Yes, the press just lapped it up.  In fact, you risked being labeled a crank if you even questioned the necessity of the bailout.

It smelled — it smelled of politicians eagerly doing favors for some of their biggest donors, and for the elite press corps protecting their elite patrons.

Just as prior to the Iraq war, there were some lonely voices raising alternate view points. The McClatchy News Service did one story — but only one, that I can find — mildly doubtful of the Bush narrative.

“It’s more hype than real risk,” said James K. Galbraith, a University of Texas economist and son of the late economic historian John Kenneth Galbraith. “A nasty recession is possible, but the bailout will not cure that. So it’s mainly relevant to the financial industry.”

Unless you were either smart enough or engaged enough to seek out alternative versions of reality, you wouldn’t know that economists such as Galbraith had serious doubts about the extent of the crisis, or that some experts doubted a bailout was necessary, or that a bailout would work, or that the bailout rush was smart (yes, that is a WaPo link, bless their souls — one somewhat skeptical story), or that the bailout would profoundly change the role of government and private capital, or that the bailout might make matters worse.

You would think that a press corps that believed itself badly burned by Bush on Iraq would be a little more skeptical of the president now. It might demonstrate just how firmly entrenched Lippmann’s brand of official source journalism is in most reporters’ minds.

It should be asked, even, whether the dearth of skeptical reporting helped feed a sense of hysteria, even to the point of propelling today’s 777-point DOW drop?

And has the reporting so far helped Americans better understand how the current financial conditions might directly effect them? I’ve had friends, closer to retirement than I am, express fear about losing value in their 401(k)s without a hint of recognition that the bailout may actually have caused those assets to lose more money and result in a slower recovery.

It could be argued that the American people, who pressured representatives to reject the bailout, saw through the clamor and clouds, but if you spend time reading comments on newspaper web sites, angry constituents reacted more viscerally than logically.  If you support the reform, you should be concerned that the lack of depth in news coverage also failed to clearly communicate why the bailout was necessary and wise.

Lippmann may have done the republic and a journalism a service by offering an antidote to the excesses of yellow journalism, but maybe its time for editors to recognize that their reporters are smart enough (or should be) and readers perceptive enough to allow those gathering the facts and doing the writing to provide context and meaning to events and what officials claim. That may not be objective, but it will lead to a better informed, more responsive public.

An outline for taking ownership of your stories

Reporters who own their jobs with an entrepreneurial spirit and energy will also own each story they do. What does story ownership mean?

  • You generate your own story ideas.
  • You decide the angle, who to talk to, where to gather information and what you do with it.
  • As you gather information, you find and save any relevant links.
  • You decide what other assets the story needs — video? a map? a pdf? a database? a graphic? pictures? You then either create or get created those assets.
  • When you write the story, you include appropriate links (to names, locations, documents, previous stories, blogs and previous coverage).
  • You gather all of the assets, publish the story in draft form and let an editor know it’s ready (with the expectation that the story will be live on the web within 10 minutes).
  • When the story is published, you socially bookmark the story as appropriate; you send the link to bloggers you know who might be interested; you e-mail the link to sources or readers you know would be interested.
  • After the story is published, you follow and participate as appropriate in the online conversation, either via comments on the story or on other sites (blogs and forums).
  • You take everything you’ve learned and repurpose the story for print.
  • If the conversation brings to light any new significant information, you plan a new story and the process starts over.

Editors, are you writing this into your job descriptions?

Greensboro journalist completes get-wired program

When I posted about journalists setting their own 2008 MBOs, A couple of executive editors like the idea of the program and instituted something like it in their own newsrooms.  Today, John Robinson reports that his wallet is $100 lighter.

Among other things, designer Mel Umbarger created a copy desk wiki for a style book, schedules and more; created personal profiles on several social networking sites, learned Soundslides and Flash; blogged; and posted all sorts of content to the Web site.

Congratulations to Mel.  Good job.

The tale of two stories, one engaging, one not

Which of these stories would you rather read?

After Fleeing Psychiatric Unit, Ex-Officer Is Killed in a Gunfight With Police

Carrying two handguns and a Bible, a retired city police officer was killed in a gunfight early Tuesday on a residential street in Staten Island by former colleagues who returned his fire, the authorities said.

When the shooting ended, the officer, Jason Aiello, 36, was slumped at the wheel of a cousin’s truck on the street in front of his home in the Rosebank neighborhood, with his wife, Rachel, sitting next to him, officials said. His three young children were in another family car across the street.

Or:

Unhinged ex-sergeant holding bible and gun is slain by cops in front of family

Suspected of setting up his best friend for a mob hit, a retired NYPD sergeant armed with a gun and a Bible went berserk Tuesday before cops killed him in front of his wife and kids.

The death of Jason Aiello in a blizzard of two dozen bullets capped a dramatic chain of events that began with a “crazed” visit to FBI headquarters and ended with his escape from a Staten Island psych ward.

The 36-year-old father of three apparently suffered an epic mental meltdown in which he spouted Scripture, tried to abduct his pajama-clad kids and then fired on police, authorities said. He fired eight shots; cops fired 19.

Both stories are factual an unbiased. One is just much easier and engaging to read. The first is the New York Times, the second, the Daily News. While the Daily News posted a decline in the latest Fas-Fax, it had been a steady climber prior to that. The Times has been on a down hill slide for some time.

Not all of the readership loss of newspapers can be blamed on the Internet (especially considering that the declines started before there was a commercial Web). Isn’t it fair to ask that some of the problem might be the journalism itself?

Doug Fisher covers similar territory this morning.

Ventura reporter’s letter tells the story better than traditional print writing

The Ventura County Star‘s Scott Hadly is reporting from Iraq.  I haven’t been following his coverage, but I met none of it matches the intimacy and immediacy of this letter he wrote to a fellow reporter.

In one short letter, I got a better idea of what’s going on in Iraq from 1,000 New York Times stories.

This is how you write for the modern reader.  Journalists need to learn the lesson.

I’m not saying profanity is required, but if you’re writing about something like what Scott went through and some profanity doesn’t at least cross your mind, then you’re probably not putting enough of yourself into the story.

FWIW: I don’t know Scott. He joined the staff after I left Ventura.

Good News: Lots of people still like print; Bad: Online not getting the job done

There are three main points from the new report from the Readership Institute (via Romenesko):

  • Your newspaper is doing a better job at retaining readers than you might expect;
  • Your web site is doing a worse job at attracting readers than you might believe;
  • Young readers ain’t reading newspapers, and they’re not likely to start.

Mary Nesbitt writes:

Why aren’t they (print readership numbers) much worse, when the imminent demise of newspapers seems to be all we ever hear about? The short answer is that reading customers aren’t deserting newspapers at anything approaching the rate that advertising customers are. That is no consolation for newspaper company employees who are losing their jobs.

One word: Recession.

Come on people, the main issue facing newspapers right now is recession. Advertisers (to their own detriment) advertise less during a recession.

Yes, there is a ton of secular pressure on newspapers right now, especially in classifieds. We’ve lost billions of revenue to the Internet. But the problem there isn’t our lack of innovation, as some espouse. It’s actually something more basic than that: Sales.

We’ve been slow to motivate and migrate our classified sales staffs away from order takers to sales professionals. With greater competition, and disruptive competition, came the need for our staffs to actually sell. It’s not like they didn’t, and don’t, have value to to sell. Newspaper, even today, in their dominant local markets, are still the best classified buy around. But we haven’t done a very good job of telling our customers that. And to whatever degree our online products help, and they help a lot, we don’t do a very good job of telling our advertisers how much value we actually deliver.

The flip side of the good news about print readership is how poorly local newspaper web sites are performing and how poorly we’re doing with young readers.

These are trends that should have no immediate impact, but the long-term consequences are horrendous.

Which is why getting online right and doing it now, and being news organizations that can move comfortably between both (all?) worlds is essential.

Newspaper staffs can and should take comfort in the readership numbers for print, but if they go no further with their thinking than, “see, I told you this web stuff was bunk,” they they are threatening the very survival of the institutions they claim to love.

While maintaining our print products as vital center pieces of our communities is important, we must concentrate on developing online literacy, which means:

  • Learning how to develop content that is web centric (writing more conversationally, adding more related material (databases, PDFs, video, links, etc.);
  • Learning better how to present our material online for a culture that is more diverse in its interest, has more options and makes quicker mental jumps;
  • Ensuring that our online products are differentiated from print products — the publication cycle is different, the mentality is different, the presentation is different, the push/pull aspect is different;
  • Stop seeing online as a threat and embrace it as an opportunity — recession or not, print is not a growth medium; the growth opportunity, the chance to create new streams of revenue, and the opportunity to create great new journalistic products that serve present and future generations better is online;

There is so much we could be doing with our web sites that we’re not getting done. The online readership numbers should be really sobering to newsrooms across America — the strategy of repurposing newspaper journalism — no matter how great you think it is — just isn’t working.

Every time some curmudgeon complains about online news sites not making any money, I’ve had the same response I’ve had for years: That’s because we don’t have enough audience. It isn’t that online can’t make money — we make good money now, and deliver a great value to the advertisers who do buy our products now — it’s that we don’t have the loyal concentration of readership we need online to maximize the revenue opportunities that are there.

I believe as strongly as I ever have — going back to East County Online in 1995 — that local online community news sites can build audience and grow sustaining, high-dollar revenue. I still believe we can get there, but not if we don’t make the effort.

The fact that newspaper readership has remained relatively stable over recent years (the long-term trend isn’t hopeful), is good news — it buys us time to get online right. The caveat there, of course, is there are lots of disruptive competitors rising up to beat us to the punch. We don’t want to miss out because we’re too wedded to a print way of thinking. Let’s continue to push for differentiated online community news and information products.

UPDATE: Simon Owens expands the story by talking directly with Mary Nesbitt a little more.

Working the web into your work flow

It’s a nice virtuous thing that Meranda Watling is proud to work for a newspaper. But that’s not the reason I’m linking to her post. This is:

That story that broke at 4:30? It came in via an e-mail tip. I actually “broke” the news about 4:40 p.m. I had quickly confirmed the gist of it and wrote two paragraphs to post immediately. Because the editors were in the daily budget meeting, I had another reporter read over it, and then I had a copy editor post it asap so I could begin chasing the sources who were leaving their offices at or before 5 p.m. After I reached those sources, I wrote into the online version and updated. When my editor got back he swapped it out and posted it in the No. 1 spot online.

I went to my board meetings armed with notebook and pen — AND a laptop, Internet card and my Blackberry. I continued to report and write during the meetings. On my drive between the two meetings? I made calls on the A1 story.

When I got back to the newsroom around 8:45 p.m., I made a few more calls and banged out the A1 story and then two more about the meetings I’d covered. All before the 10:30 print deadline. I made cop calls, and half-way down the 10-county list we heard a shooting over the scanner. I went there and called in a Web update from the scene.

That is a sampling of what “newspaper” reporters are expected to do today, at least at my newspaper.

Now that’s a fine description of what today’s news reporter needs to do to help keep his or her community completely informed. Too often we hear, “but we don’t have time.”

Well, you only don’t have time if you don’t know how to weave the digital responsibilities in with your traditional duties. Reporting for online is A) more efficient than reporting for print; B) really doesn’t add that much extra time or work.

It can be done. Meranda just proved it.

When discussing OJR, we shouldn’t forget Layne and Welch

There continues to be lots of chatter about the closing of Online Journalism Review.

I used to work with Robert Niles at E.W. Scripps.  He’s a fine person and did an admirable job with OJR given the resources he was given.  So no slight intended here …

I’ve been an OJR reader long enough to remember what it was like under the stewardship of my friends Matt Welch and Ken Layne.  Now there’s an era of OJR that is bygone and worth lamenting. (Lots of history in this Google search link.)

Too bad Annenberg couldn’t stomach an online journalism review that was lively and provocative.

I just had to say that because in all the hoopla about OJR closing, the great work of Welch, Layne and the other writers of that era seem sadly to have been forgotten.  It’s an angle in Mark Glaser’s piece that seems to be missing.  If OJR is worth saving, it’s worth remembering what it was like in the Welch-Layne era and maybe trying to recapture that spirit.  Online journalism could use some free-spirited iconoclasts now more than ever.

I don’t think Niles was ever given the opportunity or the resources to continue on in the tradition of Layne and Welch, which makes it all the more vital to remember the golden era of OJR if there’s going to be any talk of bringing back.

Update on a journalist getting more wired and starting a good blog

I’m seriously behind in my gmail inbox … can’t sleep tonight for some reason, so thought I would try to widdle the pile down a bit …

Found an e-mail from John Solomon, who wrote to say he was inspired by the wired journalist MBO post, which led him to start a blog, In Case of Emergency Blog.

While John said he’s completed 7 of the 10 objectives, he said he was just wired enough prior to the post that he doesn’t qualify for the gift card.

But here’s the interesting thing — to me at least — there is a direct connection, I think, from this post of mine to this post of his.  Let’s just say, it’s nice to see the Department of Homeland Security have such a keen interest in blogs.

Owning your name in search, variations and nuances

Christopher Wink sends this e-mail:

What is the line with all of these online networking devices? I read with interest through my Google reader your post on increasing one’s searchability online , which was exactly why I started my Web site back in December. I have a Flickr account and Youtube and, as you know, LinkedIn and some others, use my actual name and use these products, all with links to my Web site, pushing all traffic to one place, so I can control what potential employers or others interested see and know about me.

But I never had a Facebook account or MySpace page. I dismissed them as slop and wastes of time. But I also know they can definitely direct traffic to my site. …But do I want these readers? …Do I sign up for Vimeo, and Twitter and a Tumblr – I understand their purposes, but don’t think they serve me – though, I’m sure, they all, in their own way, would bring traffic to my site. So, do I set these accounts up and let them sit – knowing I won’t really use them – just so I can have the opportunity to push to my site, or not? …Should I pick and choose, or truly optimize and control my name search?

In a slightly related topic that I would be interested to hear your thoughts and could provide good blog fodder – when it comes to Google name searches, any advice about name variations? Howard Owens is fairly straightforward, but my byline is Christopher Wink, plenty of people call me Chris Wink – which happens to be the name of a founder of the Blue Man Group, and a pesky competitor for name recognition. People with names like James, John and Jack, and certainly names beyond the Christian tradition change form with popular nicknames. That is pesky for branding.

Do you think it’s best to pick one name and run with it, or should I try to compete with Christopher and Chris Wink for example.

Just some thoughts. Discard or ignore any or all of them, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts and thought they might be good for your blog, too.

This is a good topic to cover because while I believe it’s an ironclad rule that every journalist should own his or her name — his identity, his brand —  in search, the are variations and nuances that I don’t think are as important, but maybe others do.

You could drive yourself crazy trying to join all of the thousands of social networking sites out there.  Just joining and creating a basic profile helps, but there’s also value that comes from participation and you lose some of that by over extending yourself.  There are only a handful of sites you need to join to get sufficient SEO juice, especially if you’re blogging, because that is naturally going to generate links to your site.

As for owning variations of your name — it’s fine if you can do it, but I think most editors are going to understand if you don’t own Chris when you go by Christopher, especially when there is a prominent person using the variation.  Anybody searching for you specifically, will probably default to the brand you’ve established for yourself.

One of the rules of branding is being consistent. If your brand is going to be Christopher Wink, you should always be Christopher Wink.  I’m always Howard Owens.  I’m never Howie Owens (though this post just gave me an idea — not a bad idea to own the domain name variations of your name if you can get them, and I was amazed to find nobody had ever registered howieowens.com, so I just did; I already own howard-owens.com).

Anybody have any thoughts? How deep do you have to dive?  And in the future, will you need to dive deeper to stay competitive?