Thursday, April 15, 2010

Competing Interests

Competition for subscriptions is fierce is the newspaper industry. Any advantage wrought from an inside source or an early story break can be the difference between a successful and failing publication. "Citizen Kane," "It Happened One Night" and "His Girl Friday" each romantically depict this struggle.

In this light, one of the largest pride-crushers can be found in a newspaper's citation of a competitor. Yet according to "Editorial Eye" by Jane Harrigan, a newspaper needs to ask "What will a citizen want to know." The sourcing is often less important.

One of the biggest rivalries in media displays the hesitance to cite a competitor that broken a story first: The Chicago Tribune vs. The Chicago Sun-Times.

In the March 11 The Chicago Tribune article "Funeral marks beginning of the Jimmy Deleo era" by John Kass, the hesitance to cite a competitor is evident. While The Chicago Sun-Times was the first newspaper to ask mob supporter Deleo the "hard" questions, The Chicago Tribune neglects to mention this until the end of the article.

"'What does that mean, 'mob-associated?'' said Deleo years ago, when the Sun-Times asked about political contributions," Kass wrote, slipping the fact in at the end of his article.

The Chicago Sun-Times is no less willing to swallow its pride. Throughout its archives, no sourcing is attributed to The Chicago Tribune. This is unrealistic as The Chicago Tribune broke multiple nationals story, including Gov. Blagojevich's corruption charges, that The Sun-Times followed up on.

A saving grace is the cooperation of the two, where reporting synergies arise. This arises in the Gov. Blagojevich coverage in the The Chicago Tribune article "Tribune, others ask to see case against Blagojevich" by Jeff Coen published on April 8.

"With Blagojevich's trial less than two months away, The Associated Press and The Chicago Sun-Times joined the Tribune in asking U.S. District Judge James Zagel to unseal the filing immediately," Coen wrote, illustrating the camaraderie that can arise from large scale stories.

While no editor wants to be outdone by her competitors, the serving the readers is the paramount job of a newspaper. If this means handing the reporting baton to a more able newspaper, that is a small price to pay.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Secrets, Secrets

People and USWeekly regularly publish rumors on celebrity gossip, political turmoil and entertainment happenings. While the rumors are often unfounded, they appease the target celebrity gossip-hungry audience. Rumors are not exclusive to celebrity gossip publications alone, however. Though utilized less often, publications as respected as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times use unverified facts under certain circumstances. A major editorial dilemma arises in the balance between the first to report or the best to report.

The New York Times channels many of its rumors through DealBook, a website interface which covers major business deals. Its use of rumors can be observed in the April 14 article, "China's Ag Bank Said to Choose Underwriters." The article drops important facts, without ever disclosing a concrete source.

"Sources with direct knowledge of the matter," "sources told Reuters," and "sources said," are all forms of rumor citing used by The New York Times' DealBook.

The Wall Street Journal also embraces rumors in its Overheard section. The segment is a daily article devoted solely to unfounded news. This business newspaper section is far more tabloid-esque in its reporting, as seen in the June 6 article, "Overheard."

According to the article, "EMC and NetApp may not be the only suitors for Data Domain. We overhear that at least one other major tech company is circling."

This rumor does not even pretend to have an anonymous source. Rather, it appears that The Wall Street Journal is merely speculating.

In a journalistically utopian world, anonymous sources and rumors would have no place in reporting. In reality, however, the are often the only way for a newspaper to break news. With The New York Times' DealBook and The Wall Street Journal representing two sides of the reporting rumors continuum, I believe that editors should error on the side of The New York Times.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Know Thineself

Photo source: China Digital Times

In a meta sense, one important way to look online editorial decisions is the coverage of itself. In the Google/China conflict, this specifically applies to the coverage of electronic media. While condemnation of China is near unanimous amongst online American news sources, the editorial tone each publication takes on the issue symbolizes the editor's and publication's journalistic ethics and style.

Using bottom-up analysis of the the dispute coverage, the "bottom" of the coverage lies within the issue's technicalities, as seen in PCWorld's May 30 article "Google Now Says Technical Glitch Not to Blame in China" by Nancy Gohring.

The article is very technical, with Gohring writing "gs_rfai started appearing in the URLs of Google searches globally as part of a search parameter, a string of characters that sends information about the query to Google so we can return the best result."

Her article lays out a full array of computer facts, leaving the audience to discern China's intent.

The Associated Press took a very different approach in Anita Chang's March 30 article, "Journalists in China say Yahoo accounts hacked." Rather than emphasize the coding issues surrounding the debacle, Chang followed the human angle.

"It was not clear where problems with the Yahoo e-mail accounts originated. All four people affected are professionally focused on China and related issues," Change wrote. "They said they had heard of other colleagues having similar problems, including one journalist who lost his Yahoo account entirely in January."

Chang continues by interviewing six people involved in the Chinese filter, digging deep in the human angle.

Surprisingly, The New York Times exhibited the least comprehensive and most egocentric coverage of the issue in David Barboza's "Access to Google Is Interrupted in China."

The article opens up condemning China, and does little reporting beyond speculation from there.

"The exact cause of the disruption was not fully clear, but it led to speculation that the site was being blocked by the country’s Internet censors," Barboza wrote, the relying on rumors to open the article.

What is more, the article cites no human or code source, as seen with The Associated Press and PCWorld, respectively. Rather, it recycles old coverage, press statements and assumptions. These editorial decisions detract from the article's integrity and a reader's willingness to look to The New York Times for quality international reporting.

Editors may make lazy decisions, assuming that the public is tired of the story. Yet this is a case of never leaving the newsroom. As seen with The Associated Pressand PCWorld, interesting and enlightening angles can be found in the most tired of stories.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Who Made Who?

Disclosure quickly defuses bias. Be it political affiliations, family connections, or social allegiances, a mere note at the beginning or end of an article can save a reporter's reputation. The Street's Jim Cramer, CNN's Susan Roesgen, and The New York Times' Francisco Toro each experienced public criticism for failing to disclose financial, political, and activist organization connections, respectively.

On a grander scale, publications take careful steps to avoid hiding allegiances. With few independent newspapers left publishing, many publications are subsets of massive corporate conglomerations with many side businesses. This inevitably leads to newspaper stories that cover actions of a business within the same corporation as the covering newspaper itself. The way in which the newspaper acknowledges this is an important editorial decision that varies.

Over self-exposure seems to be the status quo, as seen in Alex William's April 2, 2007, The New York Times article "Gay by Design, or a Lifestyle Choice?" Despite only a fleeting reference to source Ramone Johnson, Williams is very direct in his disclosure.

"Johnson is a gay journalist...for, which is owned by The New York Times Company," Williams wrote.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board takes a subtler approach, displayed in Ethan Smith's March 10 article "Ice Age $3000: Fox to Release First 3-D Blu-Ray Title." Congruent with other The Wall Street Journal articles, Smith seamlessly integrates the possible conflict of interest into the story.

"Fox, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp.," Smith wrote, using a phraseology exactly like that of other The Wall Street Journal reporters covering Fox.

A final and common disclosure technique occurs in Kate Snow's July 23, 2009, ABC News article "Did Erin Andrews' Sex Appeal Encourage Nude Peephole Video?" Snow waits until the very end of the story to make any reference to business allegiances, writing as a disclaimer, "ESPN is owned by Disney which also owns ABC News."

Concerning pure disclosure, The New York Times communicates the conflict of interest best. In terms of writing finesse, The Wall Street Journal shows that a well-integrated statement maintains flow, though the phrase's smooth delivery can lead to its being overlooked.

Editors would be well advised to weigh the continuum between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and find a style that best fits their reporting techniques.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Many Shades of Green

Coverage of a single story can vary greatly depending on an organization's editorial guidance. As seen with Coca-Cola's release of environmentally friendly bottles, two newspapers can approach the same topic with different questions, biases and focuses. In the coverage of Coca-Cola's green bottles, The Wall Street Journal and Recycling Today reported using two principles: the bottom line and the environment, respectively.

Surprisingly, the dissimilar publications make similar mistakes. One main editorial issue arose consistently: an overuse of Coca-Cola representatives.

This editorial missteps appears in Chris Herring's
The Wall Street Journal article, "Coke's New Bottle Is Part Plant." Herring's reporting is lazy and unfounded, using Coca-Cola's spokeswoman comments to fill a majority of the article. The entire first half of the article references the spokeswoman, who only acknowledges positive aspects of new bottle. Coca-Cola naysayers do not appear until the second half of the article.

Recycling Today, a publication driven by environmental ideals, makes a similar error to The Wall Street Journal. Recycling Today writer Dan Sandoval's article "The Real Thing" states that "in steps large and small...the company is helping boost recycling." That phrase parrots a recent Coca-Cola spokeswoman. This is a very interesting stance as environmental experts have criticized the move as a public relations stunt.

While it would be easy to accuse The Wall Street Journal of being a corporate trumpet, Recycling Today shows that the overuse of representative comments without verification is not a biased approached. Rather, it is lazy reporting.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Two Perspectives, One Story

One important aspect of the editorial process is the paradigm an editor applies to a story. Age, gender, and socio-economic status can affect the tone, structure and content of a story. One of the biggest paradigm gaps is between cultures, as seen with Al-Jazeera and the The Associated Press' coverage of Akio Toyoda's apology to members of the U.S. Congress.

One of the most striking differences between the two sources is the scope of the coverage. In the AP's Feb. 25 article "Lawmakers scorn Toyota chief's apology," no attention is given to the response from Japan or the international community. Alternatively, in the Al-Jazeera's Feb. 25 article "Toyota chief apologises for recall," global impact is the story's focus.

According to the Al-Jazeera article, "In Japan, meanwhile, politicians expressed growing worries that the impact of the recalls and the investigations into Toyota could have a lasting impact on Japan's image abroad and its ability to pull its economy out of recession."

The portrayal of Akio Toyoda also symbolizes the editorial mindset applied toward the stories. Al-Jazeera puts words such as "apologize," "promise" and "commitment" in the forefront of the article, painting an apologetic and honest Toyoda.

The AP sides with the legislator's sneering perception of Toyoda. According to the article, "Toyoda's testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee got off to an agreeable start. He promised to tell the truth and gave an opening statement in clear, if heavily accented, English."

This individual case study is not isolated, as seen with the San Diego's KGTV, Transworld News, and USA Today's condescension-laden articles when compared to the BBC and The Financial Times' forgiving coverage.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Big Soda Lobbying

Big Soda (the beverage industry) is becoming as legislatively active and socially polarizing as Big Tobacco, Big Automotive or Big Pharmaceuticals. Under fire for their use of high fructose corn syrup, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Dr Pepper Snapple are fighting legislators' sin-taxes proposals, regulation implementation, and consumer restriction.

The punishment on major beverage corporations followed Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, a nationwide effort to encourage healthy lifestyles through eating well and exercising. This included the removal of sugar drinks from public schools and the taxation of fructose syrup. "Let's Move," along with The New England Journal of Medicine article, "The Public Health and Economic Benefits of Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages" mobilized Big Soda to lash out, responding with $18 million in lobbying funds to squelch any regulation or tax.

Having seen the media's negative response to the financial industries weak
Haitian aid, logic suggests that a media maelstrom is coming against Big Soda. America has little tolerance for an industry that is fattening the American youth and paying lobbyist to keep its unhealthy operations strong. Yet besides The Huffington Post, few publications acknowledged Big Soda's lobbying efforts.

On the national level, the only major publication to deeply pursue the topic is The Los Angeles Times in Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger's Feb. 7 article, "Beverage industry douses tax on soft drinks." While the article does present opposing views of debate, Hamburger and Geiger quickly come out against Big Soda. Shoddy Big Soda lobbying science, however, may be to blame (rather than biased reporting).

The article draws a sinister tone of Big Soda, with Geiger and Hamburger writing, "That was before the industry unlimbered its guns."

Local coverage of the issue has been far less condemning, as seen in the Feb. 14 The News Record article, "Food Fight: U.S. wages new war on junk food" by Emily Lang.

"PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have pledged their support of Obama’s new initiative and promised a new front-of-container nutritional labeling system for their soft drinks by 2012," Lang writes, showing the positive aspects of Big Soda.

Lang goes as far as to quote the chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, a person that The Los Angeles Times would have had access to, yet did interrogate. Lang presents a solid analysis of the situation, making a bias slip only once, writing "[Big Soda]'s bottom line depends on the rampant unchecked consumption of their irrefutably unhealthy product."

A last angle of coverage to explore is that of the blogosphere, specifically The Huffington Post's Nov. 4 article, "As Soda Tax Bubble Up, Food Lobby Mobilizes" by Christine Spolar. This article is a byproduct of The Huffington Post's Investigative Fund, a non-profit organization that promotes investigative journalism.

Spolar makes a unique editorial decision by approaching this article from the legislator's perspective, writing, "Washington lobbyists have been enjoying a multi-million-dollar sugar rush from the food industry."

While Spolar does approach The Los Angeles Times article in its disdain for Big Soda, it does make excellent editorial sourcing decisions, including an an interview with Nelson Eusebio, the executive director of the National Supermarket Association. This is unique in that a supermarket representative is equally divided between selling any products and selling healthy products (the same debate that Big Soda is having with U.S. Congress).

Spolar filters the complex issues into one polarizing question, by quoting Eusebio as saying, "If we eliminate soda, would people stay away from fried food, hot dogs and all other junk out there?" This is editorial brilliancy.

With many more articles likely to chastise and defend Big Soda, one issue needs to be acknowledged: Are soda taxes truly intended to promote health or fight a massive budget deficit? Whether or not newspapers acknowledge this will be a test of journalistic integrity in every editor.