Journalism basics, part 2

This is the second of my occasional series of journalism basics for online news folks. Today's lesson:


This is an old saw and one that I've heard credited to Chicago newsies. What it means is: Don't trust what people tell you, even people you believe to be trustworthy. People lie, people get things wrong, people repeat untrue information and present it as fact, and people flat out don't know what they're talking about. Check out what they tell you.

What should you check out? Everything from the simple (please, spell names correctly) to the complex (is that "widely cited study" really accurate? Do those budget figures add up? Did the city councilor really say what you heard he/she said?). You'd be surprised how often things turn out not to be what they seem.

One example: Back in the 1980s, stories began circulating in the news media that reported shocking numbers of children going missing every year in the U.S. Reports placed the number at 1.5 million and up with 50,000 kids said to be abducted annually.

People panicked. Photos of missing children began appearing on milk cartons with the caption, "Have you seen me?" The kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh became a national story and a TV movie.

Unfortunately, the numbers were wrong. Reporters Diana Griego and Louis Kilzer of the Denver Post looked into the story and found the numbers of missing and abducted kids were inflated. Very inflated (94 to 95 percent of the missing kids were later found).

Children's advocates had initially quoted the figures. Reporters then repeated the numbers without checking on their accuracy. Other reporters picked them up from those stories and repeated them again. Once the figures were cited in story after story they quickly became gospel and were re-reported as fact. And no one stopped to check them.

Finally, two reporters had the brains to ask a simple question: Is this correct? And it wasn't.

So, always question what you're told. Look for corroborating information. Check sources (and ask yourself if the source is truthful. Do they have an ax to grind?). Don't assume things to be correct. Make sure they are!

Next lesson: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."


On the Media on Seattle's news scene

NPR's On the Media looks this week at the Seattle news scene after the demise of the print P-I. If you've followed the story closely, there isn't much new in their report, but it's mostly well done and worth listening to.

On the Media gives us some of the usual suspects: Eli Sanders of the Stranger offers his usual half-informed analysis (the P-I is a shadow of its former self ... gee, ya think?). Scott Gutierrez of seattlepi.com explains what's different about the P-I now that it's online only (fewer people, more emphasis on breaking news). David Boardman of the Seattle Times encourages people who love newspapers to keep subscribing (but he misses the point that it's the lack of advertising, not subscribers, that is causing big problems for papers).

Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog offers the best analysis: The news blog she and her husband, Patrick, run is filling an important need (and they're covering stuff the dailies never did anyway), but what's missing are the journalists with the broader, city-wide view. She's encouraged that former P-I folks are willing to be "guns for hire" and offer their services to blogs like hers.

You can listen to the whole piece here:


Journalism basics (yes, they matter whether you print on paper or pixels)

I’ve been meaning for some months to write a post on a few basics of journalism that beat bloggers should know and which they ignore at their peril.

It’s easy to poke fun at older, mainstream journalists who, it may be thought, don’t understand the new online, digital world. But, those folks do know a few things, simple, practical tips that will make you a better journalist and might keep you from getting sued in the process.

Since I never seem to have time to write up the entire list as one post, I’ll be doing these one at a time, beginning with:


Hippocrates is credited with coining that statement in the 4th century B.C. He meant it for physicians but it’s equally appropriate for journalists.

When you’re out doing your journalistic thing, try not to do harm. By which I mean hurting innocent people or publishing something that causes innocent people to be hurt or bungling your reporting so that the bad guys not only get away with whatever bad stuff they’re doing but actually gain public sympathy in the process and then go on to do more bad stuff.

In other words: Don’t leave the situation worse than you found it. Be aware that what you publish has repercussions. Make sure that what you’re publishing is not only accurate but is germane and important to the story. Just because you find out something about a person doesn’t mean that you have to publish that information. Is it relevant to the story or merely titillating? Will it cause harm to a person physically or unfairly or unnecessarily harm their reputation? Does the story require that this information be made public? If not, then don't publish it.

Don’t hide behind the excuse of “I was just telling people what I learned.” Sometimes, we uncover information that we don’t publish, much as we might like to, because it simply isn’t relevant to the story. It's tempting to show off how smart we are by publishing everything we find out. Don't give in to that temptation.

That doesn’t mean you cover up or suppress unpleasant information, but it does mean that what you do publish should be important enough to be publicly exposed.


Maya Lin

"Storm King Wavefield," by Maya Lin

Maya Lin first gained fame with her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. She's gone on to do more memorials and fascinating art work, much of it based on natural features like hills and oceans.

I missed her show last year at the Henry Gallery here in Seattle. The NewsHour on PBS had a piece on one of the sculptures, made of thousands of boards stood on end to make a replica of a natural hill.

More intriguing is the New York Times' story about "Storm King Wavefield," an earthworks piece at the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York. The piece, seven rows of undulating hillocks, sits in a former gravel pit. The gentle hills mimick the surround landscape and also comment on the ancient seas that sculpted the site.

Lin's vision fascinates me. She makes us look at familiar things in new ways and finds art and sculpture in the natural world. Cool stuff.



I'm finding myself becoming addicted to AudioBoo, the new web service that lets you record and post three-minute audio clips from your cell phone. Listening to recent or popular Boos is like taking a little audio trip around the world. Some examples:

Alastairm at a recording session for strings in Dublin:

vickeegan gives a history talk on Walking With Shakespeare Shoreditch High Street:

harold hare goes on a mountain stroll in Australia, where it's a holiday today:

And my favorite, Stephen Fry taking a walk in Dublin:

Dennis Hopper and "Easy Rider" at 40

NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast an interview with Dennis Hopper yesterday (May 2) about the movie "Easy Rider" on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its release.

Hopper is a smart, interesting guy who's been in the movie business for years (one of his earliest roles was as the son of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in "Giant"). His reflections on "Easy Rider" are fun to hear (what were his and Peter Fonda's characters looking for in the movie? "I think we were looking to make a big score and retire to Florida").

My favorite take on "Easy Rider" is the UK TV ad above. I first saw it in Europe in 1999 and have laughed about it ever since. Thanks to some sophisticated special effects, Hopper plays opposite his character from the film.

He's selling the Ford Cougar. According to a "making-of" documentary, also on YouTube, Ford's marketing surveys found that Cougar owners were quiet on the outside but sort of rebels inside. Hence, Hopper's appearance in the ad and the use of "Easy Rider."

But things have changed, as the ad shows. At the end, the contemporary Hopper leaves the "Easy Rider" Hopper in his rear view mirror. His little laugh is just perfect.