On that hard-to-find line between the personal/professional for journalists

This is a sad story. But you should read it and the original blog post, and then share your reaction (here, on my blog) to it. It relates directly to what we’ve been talking about.

It was posted on Medium.

I was fired from my journalism job ten days into Trump

Credit: MaxPixel/creative commons

On Monday I was fired from my job as a journalist at Marketplace, where I have worked as a news reporter since May 2016.

I was fired for publishing a post on my personal blog about being a transgender journalist exploring what it means to do truthful, ethical journalism with a moral compass in this very complex time. It questioned the meaning of neutrality in the face of an administration that’s aggressively promoting fiction. Please read it.

For context, I loved my job at Marketplace. I reported on marginalized communities and tried to illuminate economic issues through human stories. I believe in the mission of media that serves the public, and I believe in truth and fairness in reporting; I have been passionate and dogged in those pursuits, as is every reporter and editor at Marketplace and NPR. (NPR is, by the way, a separate organization — my employer was not NPR but American Public Media — APM.)

For further context, I am (was) the only out transgender reporter at Marketplace or, that I know of, at any national radio outlet. I started working in public radio four years ago through a fellowship created to foster diversity in public media. I have had a very successful career and done a lot of interesting work, including recent stories about the criminalization of disability, federal regulation, the growth of the private prison industry, Donald Trump’s Twitter habits, lamination, and shady lending practices in post-Recession Detroit. I have reported daily stories for the Marketplace Morning Report, often writing two different stories before 9 a.m. which air to millions of people. I am known for being meticulous, accurate, and always on deadline.

I also believe that media needs to change to make space for the diverse voices it purports to desire within its ranks. It is for those reasons that I decided to go public with this story — not out of any desire to disparage my incredible and intelligent colleagues or to tear down the extremely difficult work they do every day. Your local public radio station is likely one of the last bastions of trustworthy reporting in your community. Please support it, especially in its efforts to expand, diversify and experiment.

What happened: Now for the background. Firing stories are always kind of boring and process-oriented. Luckily mine happened pretty quickly so it won’t take up too much of your time. On Wednesday, January 25, after a long day of doing daily news for the Marketplace Morning Report and watching President Trump roll out executive orders, I put up this blog post, reflections on what it is to try to report fairly in a “post-fact” environment. I wanted to hear what other journalists might think about it, and start a conversation about how media organizations need to adapt when freedom of information and the press are under attack.

I thought my experiences navigating this as a trans person might bring some interesting perspective. I also thought, falsely as it turned out, that the prominence of my job at Marketplace would prevent me from becoming a target for expressing such thoughts, and perhaps allow others at smaller organizations or in less powerful positions to express their own misgivings about how to report on this moment. I thought if other journalists disagreed, we could have a vibrant discussion about why, and that it might reach others who were feeling isolated or afraid to speak out.

A couple hours after it was published, I got a call from the managing editor and executive producer at Marketplace. They said my post was in violation of Marketplace’s ethics code, and that I would be suspended from air and should not come into work for the rest of the week.

They specified a few reasons it violated the policy: Marketplace, they said, believes in objectivity and neutrality (though neither word actually appears in its code). And they were concerned about the section of my piece that asserted that we shouldn’t care, as journalists, if we are labeled “politically correct” or even “liberal” for reporting the facts. (I still maintain that we shouldn’t care, and for the record, I am not a liberal.) They said they wished I had brought the post to them first.

After suspending me, they told me to take the post down, and asked me not to speak to my colleagues about it. I asked them what they were worried about: had there been blowback, or consequences to Marketplace related to my publishing this piece? They said it was about the policy, not any particular feedback they’d gotten. But I didn’t and don’t believe I violated our ethics code (see my letter to them below for more on that). I expressed to them that I was very surprised: I had no idea that a personal post raising questions about the role of journalists today would be so controversial. And I’d specifically been asked by Marketplace to maintain a personal blog as part of building my “personal brand.”

The next morning, I took the post down. I also communicated that I wanted some time to think about our conversation. When I did remove it, I was not reinstated.

On Friday, still suspended, I woke up feeling like I was disappearing. My job is a huge privilege. At the same time, I have made a lot of personal compromises to get to do the work that I do: given up a previous life as a youth organizer and opinion writer, set aside personal convictions that matter a lot to me, and put up with a lot of daily disrespect as a trans person(albeit a very privileged one) working in an industry that doesn’t really have space for me. I routinely go out in the field in situations where I can’t feel safe using a public restroom; I approach strangers for interviews in small towns and big cities; I experience small but daily humiliations related to my gender identity. I’m also fearless. Allowing myself to be intimidated into retracting a thoughtful blog post about ethics felt like one too many compromises, small though it may seem. I sent my superiors a very heartfelt message (copied below) and let them know I’d be putting the post back up at the end of the day.

They didn’t respond. I wasn’t given a chance to debate the issues I raised, to hear exactly what they might change about the post, or to discuss why I didn’t think I should be punished.

On Monday morning, the VP of Marketplace fired me. I was terminated effective immediately, with my benefits ending in two days and an offer of two weeks’ pay.

The VP said she believed I’d shown what kind of journalism I want to do — I think the assumption was that I want to do advocacy journalism — and that it is not the kind of journalism Marketplace does. Again, here is the original piece. Here is Marketplace’s code of ethics. She said that we cannot be both activists and journalists at the same. I respectfully disagreed with that binary. I never suggested that we should become advocates rather than doing our jobs as journalists, nor do I believe we should take stances on policy issues in our stories. However, I believe journalism itself is under attack, and in order to defend it, we need to know what we stand for and perhaps even consider activism as journalists on behalf of fairness, inclusivity, and free speech. All told, I suspect that the move to get rid of me was more about fear of the perception of what I said than what I actually said.

Why I’m telling you: I know I’m not the only one having doubts about our role as journalists. I hope I can contribute to a meaningful conversation about how media organizations need to change to adapt to the times, putting ethics and morality into historical context — history shows these things change as politics shift. I have been told a few times that this is a simple choice between “journalism” and “activism.” I believe my original piece makes clear why I find that binary to be false. (Also, I’m trans. I’ve spent my life fighting binaries just to survive!)

I hope people understand my messages here: that we cannot have token diversity without making actual space for the realities of being a marginalized or oppressed person doing journalism; that we cannot look to the same old tools to defend truth in reporting; that we must work harder and do more to truly represent the communities we report on and on behalf of in order to build trust and remain relevant. I have always believed these things, but didn’t expect that these beliefs would be put so harshly to the test, so soon after Donald Trump came into power.

I wish everyone in public media luck in navigating what is truly a new world. I did not expect nor desire to be fired from my job as such an apparently direct result of the fear produced by these intimidating and fast-moving political changes. I can see at least one silver lining: for those of us who are used to fighting for our dignity, perhaps it will be marginally less difficult to identify the tools we need in this moment, pick them up, and wield them against authoritarianism and tyranny.

Here is my last communication with Marketplace before I was fired:

Dear [managing editor and executive producer],

I have been reflecting very deeply on our conversation, and on my suspension from being on air at Marketplace. I’ve also revisited the contents of the blog post I wrote, as well as Marketplace’s ethics policy.

I have come to a few conclusions.

One is that I don’t agree that my post was in clear violation of Marketplace’s ethics policies. I believe there is a lot of ambiguity there, and I routinely see colleagues of mine say things on social media that could be interpreted as disagreeing with or opposing the current administration. I also wonder if anyone else has been suspended summarily for violation of Marketplace’s ethics policy and if my colleagues are aware of where the line is. The policy asks that we not post anything we wouldn’t say on air or on Marketplace’s digital properties. I believe that I would and should be allowed to raise the questions my piece raised on Marketplace’s air or on our digital publications. In fact, I would welcome the invitation.

Another is that I cannot maintain my own integrity, both in my identity and in my personal views, and comply with your request to keep the post down. My integrity and courage are my most important assets as a journalist, and I don’t believe we can do our jobs well in this moment without rigorously maintaining both.

For that reason, I’ve decided to put the post back up tonight. I’ve copied the text of it below, as a reminder to you of what it said. I think it is also self-explanatory on the question of why I think voices and views like this are important to air at this historical moment. I wish any of us had a handle on where our country, the media and the free press are headed. My posting invited open discussion. I’d love to participate in that together.

On that note, I would encourage Marketplace, or perhaps another employee of Marketplace with different views, to publicly rebut my points. I would love to see that conversation carried on transparently and in public, and I believe it would contribute to building the public trust in our organization as a voice of reason and truth, and as an organization with the courage to stand up for its employees when we are ourselves targets of oppressive policies.

Marketplace has encouraged me to build my personal brand on Twitter and on Medium. I believe my voice has an important place in the public conversation. I also want to be clear that I am not, and have never, advocated that I or we should report stories in a way that doesn’t fairly consider the arguments or what is at stake. Nor have I proposed that we should take a stance on political parties or specific policies in our stories. But I am absolutely sure that now is the time to question where our moral center is, which arguments will be given credence in the public sphere, and how our personal experiences and identities influence our coverage. That is what my post on Medium said, and I stand by it.

Finally, I continue to be aghast at the punitive nature of how I have been treated. I was suspended from air, from my job that I love and do well, even before being given the chance to discuss the policies you say I violated. When I agreed to remove the post, I was not immediately reinstated. I am shocked that on the same day our president was cracking down on the dissemination of scientific fact, advocating waterboarding and announcing a policy of aggressive targeting of marginalized communities, Marketplace decided to treat me, its only transgender employee, as the existential threat to what we stand for. Yesterday, the first day of my suspension, Donald Trump’s senior advisor Steve Bannon described the media as the “opposition party.” Trump says he is in a “running war” with the media. I would hope the organization’s concern in this moment would have focused on its employees’ physical and psychological well-being in the face of such statements, doing the extremely difficult jobs we do here.

I am well aware that, as a transgender person, I would not be where I am had I not stood up for myself, for my core values and beliefs. Without courage and an extreme distaste for cowardice, I don’t think I could have become a journalist or even survived the process of coming out as transgender. I came out over a decade before trans people had any of the legal protections and media attention some of us do now. I was brought into public media four years ago as a person with the potential to be an agent of change. Perhaps what needs changing is not my actions, but Marketplace’s policies.

I look forward to talking this afternoon.

Best,

Lewis Wallace

View story at Medium.com

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You really have to learn to search smart

In class today, I talked about the friendly stalking you’re about to do of your social media partner and I referred to this Mashable graphic that is so buried on my blog you’d never find it.

Check it out, and learn how to search more efficiently. It’s about saving yourself time and stress.

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NY Times asks, ‘How vital are women?’

Please read this story before class this morning, if you can find five minutes.  We should talk about it.

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From the weekend: doing crowd estimates

No matter what beat you’re on this semester, you’re likely to be asked this question by an editor after you’ve covered an event: How many people were there?

If you don’t have an answer, you’ll have to make phone calls and rely on other people’s estimates. That’s not an ideal situation because organizers sometimes exaggerate how many people attended an event because it makes a cause or festival or sport look more popular than it actually is. The National Park Service used to do crowd estimates until their estimates because so controversial, they got sued.

Here’s how to do a crowd estimate at an event where there’s seating:

  1. Arrive early enough to count the numbers of rows, and the number of seats in a row, in the auditorium or room.
  2. Ask organizers how many tickets have been sold, if the event required a ticket (often, organizers won’t tell you because — see above).
  3. If the room/auditorium isn’t full, do the best you can to count the seated people and then scan the space for people who are standing in the back of the room.
  4. If the room/auditorium is full, multiply the rows by the columns + scan for standing people, others seated in the aisles (sometimes happens).
  5. If there are no seats in the venue, say on the dance floor at the Blue Note, get a higher vantage point (a balcony is good) and turn the area where people are crowded into a visual grid. That is, attempt to divide the space below you as if you were looking at squares of graph paper. Count the people in one imaginary square and then multiply it by the number of squares you are able to see. Then count the other spaces and estimate the total.

The word ESTIMATE is crucial here because when that’s all you can do, you should be transparent with the reader. The controversy this past weekend with the inauguration versus Women’s March crowd counts was that people were on the move a lot. But no one could reasonably argue in the side-by-side comparisons of the crowds on the Mall that there weren’t far more people assembled for the March.

And so the “alternative truth” about the inauguration crowd was, in fact, just a lie. It’s not just okay to say that; it’s important to be plain about it.

The Washington Post offered this great piece on the history and science of crowd estimates that I hope you’ll read for more guidance. Also, if you follow me on Twitter at #aboutreporting (you’re supposed to do that), I tweeted links to some other valuable pieces on this subject.

P.S. I just posted the lecture schedule, if you want to download it for reference.

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Welcome, spring semester reporters!

Take a second to really internalize this: You just joined the staff of the Columbia Missourian as a reporter. From today until May 12, you are the community’s eyes and ears and news “translator” — someone who can help others understand what’s happening. When news breaks, we hope you’ll see it, record it with your smart phone and a notebook, and share it. When you think you’re onto a deeper, more complex story, we hope you’ll get to work on it (and ask for all the help you need because that’s what we’re here for).

If you don’t know anything about this place you live, better fix that. If you’re not a consumer of other local news sources, better add that to your to-do list.

Here’s what most reporting students say about the experience of working for the Missourian: It’s difficult, but it’s fun. You will learn so much, it might blow your mind.

But there are three ways it can go wrong — three things you might be tempted to do that will make it hard for you to succeed:

  • Make the mistake of thinking that because there are no grades for much of what you must do this semester, you don’t have to do them. You might think, there are no tests in lecture so you don’t have to listen (bad idea — lecture is where we unpack what you’re learning and work on specific skills). You might think you don’t have to complete all those tasks on the reporter’s checklist. But you do. And you should.
  • Make the mistake of thinking you don’t have to show up in the newsroom, which scares you, that you can just show up for your GA shifts and beat meetings. Doesn’t work that way. The students who do the best throw themselves into the experience and spend time in the newsroom, getting to know people, how things work and picking up stories that need a reporter. They come to the daily 11 a.m. meeting and participate. Totally engaged students don’t just do better, they have more fun.
  • Make the mistake of thinking you can spend the first two or three weeks of the semester “working up the nerve” to do reporting. This may be the very worst of all the possible errors you might be tempted to make because it will instantly set you back and add stress to your life by forcing you to play catch up later in the semester, when you realize you really do care about doing well and learning as much as you can.

Keep up a steady effort from the start, ask questions, volunteer for assignments and this reporting thing will be totally manageable. Also, get enough sleep, stop bingeing on Netflix, get exercise, eat right… all those things will help, too.

Be like these guys. Note their steady and happy effort.

corgis

That could be you on the left and your new, best reporting buddy on your right.

Good luck. Let’s have a blast.

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Thanks, Marty Baron; we needed this.

I’ve been a little bummed, lately, about the state of journalism.

The fake news problem. The social media “bubble”/confirmation bias challenge. The news literacy crisis. The business model/$$$ problem.

I have been threatening to buy a food truck and rumble off into the sunset. (The idea is crepes, sweet and savory. I even had a name in mind: “Crepe Escape.”)

And then my BFF, who has been worried about me lately, sent me the link to this Vanity Fair piece that contains the full text of Washington Post managing editor Marty Baron’s speech upon accepting the Hitchens Prize this week. (You may be familiar with him from the film “Spotlight” — you know, Liev Schreiber?)

I want to share it with you because it says everything I think you need to know, going forward, as a journalist. Or as a person who respects the work of journalists and understands how important this work is to democracy.

Here’s part of what Baron said:

Values are what matter most. And this is a good time to talk about them. A good time to reaffirm what we as journalists stand for.

This is a time we are compelled to fight for free expression and a free press—rights granted us under the Constitution, yes, but also the very qualities that have long set us apart from other nations.

We will have a new president soon. He was elected after waging an outright assault on the press. Animosity toward the media was a centerpiece of his campaign. He described the press as “disgusting,” “scum,” “lowlifes.” He called journalists the “lowest form of humanity.” That apparently wasn’t enough. So he called us “the lowest form of life.” In the final weeks of the campaign he labeled us “the enemies.”

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Donald Trump said he wanted to “open up” libel laws. And he proposed to harass unfriendly media outlets by suing them, driving up their legal expenses with a goal of weakening them financially.

With respect to The Washington Post, he ordered our press credentials revoked during the campaign, barring us from routine press access to him and his events, because our coverage didn’t meet with his approval. Even before we were subjected to his months-long blacklist, Donald Trump falsely alleged that our owner, Jeff Bezos, was orchestrating that coverage. And he openly hinted that, if he became president, he would retaliate.

Jeff Bezos himself addressed this perfectly at one point—on several occasions actually.

“We want a society,” he said, “where any of us, any individual in this country, any institution in this country, if they choose to, can scrutinize, examine, and criticize an elected official, especially a candidate for the highest office in the most powerful country on earth. . . .

“We have fundamental laws and . . . we have Constitutional rights in this country to free speech. But that’s not the whole reason that it works here. We also have cultural norms that support that, where you don’t have to be afraid of retaliation. And those cultural norms are at least as important as the Constitution.”

Getting elected didn’t change anything. After his election—in the midst of protests against him—Donald Trump resorted to Twitter to accuse the media of inciting violence when, of course, there had been no incitement whatsoever by anyone.

The other night, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour eloquently explained the gravity of such deliberately false accusations emanating from a future head of state. She was speaking when she was honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Postcard from the world,” she said, “This is how it goes with authoritarians like Sisi, Erdoğan, Putin, the Ayatollahs, Duterte, et al . . . First the media is accused of inciting, then sympathizing, then associating—until they suddenly find themselves accused of being full-fledged terrorists and subversives. Then they end up in handcuffs, in cages, in kangaroo courts, in prison—and then who knows?”

When the press is under attack, we cannot always count on our nation’s institutions to safeguard our freedoms—not even the courts.

At times throughout our history, they have shamefully failed to do so—whether it was the Sedition Act of 1798 under President John Adams, harshly repressive Sedition and Espionage Acts under Woodrow Wilson in the context of World War I, or the McCarthy Era that still serves to remind us of what comes of a dishonest and reckless search for enemies.

The ultimate defense of press freedom lies in our daily work.

Many journalists wonder with considerable weariness what it is going to be like for us during the next four—perhaps eight—years. Will we be incessantly harassed and vilified? Will the new administration seize on opportunities to try intimidating us? Will we face obstruction at every turn?

If so, what do we do?

The answer, I believe, is pretty simple. Just do our job. Do it as it’s supposed to be done.

Every day as I walk into our newsroom, I confront a wall that articulates a set of principles that were established in 1933 by a new owner for The Post, Eugene Meyer, whose family went on to publish The Post for 80 years.

The principles begin like this: “The first mission of a newspaper is to tell the truth as nearly as the truth may be ascertained.”

The public expects that of us. If we fail to pursue the truth and to tell it unflinchingly—because we’re fearful that we’ll be unpopular, or because powerful interests (including the White House and the Congress) will assail us, or because we worry about financial repercussions to advertising or subscriptions—the public will not forgive us.

Nor, in my view, should they.

After the release of the movie Spotlight, I was often asked how we at The Boston Globe were willing to take on the most powerful institution in New England and among the most powerful in the world, the Catholic Church.

The question really mystifies me—especially when it comes from journalists or those who hope to enter the profession. Because holding the most powerful to account is what we are supposed to do.

If we do not do that, then what exactly is the purpose of journalism?

God forbid we take on the weaker institutions, the weaker individuals, while letting the strongest ones off the hook only because they can forcefully fight back.

A day before I started work at The Boston Globe in the summer of 2001, I read something startling. It was a column by The Globe’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Eileen McNamara. She wrote about the case of John Geoghan. He was a priest. Geoghan had been accused of abusing as many as 80 children. It was shocking. So I read closely.

The column detailed how the attorney for the survivors—those victimized by the priest—had asserted that the cardinal himself, Cardinal Bernard Law, knew about this priest’s repeated abuse and yet continued to reassign him from one parish to the next—notifying no one, not the parish priest and certainly not the parishioners, that a priest known to have committed sexual assaults would serve in ministry at their church.

Those were the allegations of the plaintiffs’ attorney. But the attorneys for the Church called those allegations baseless and irresponsible.

And then Eileen ended her column by saying the truth might never be known because the internal Church documents that could reveal the truth were under court seal.

When there are allegations of grave wrongdoing, we can’t settle for the truth never being known.

We needed to know, and that is what propelled me—and my colleagues at The Boston Globe—to launch our investigation and to file a court motion to unseal those internal documents that would tell us what the Church was so determined to keep secret.

The first question we sought to answer, of course, was whether the Cardinal himself knew of this priest’s abuse and yet reassigned him to other parishes despite consistently strong evidence of serial abuse of children. The answer to that question proved to be an unequivocal yes.

We also wanted to know if there were other abusers like this priest? Beyond that, did the Church knowingly place abusers into parishes where their history of abuse was kept secret—and where they abused again? Was concealing abuse and reassigning priests the Church’s actual policy and practice? The answer to all those questions turned out to be an unequivocal yes.

The result of excavating the truth was a public good. Children were made more safe.

Well after our first story was published in January 2002, I received a letter from Father Thomas P. Doyle, who had waged a long and lonely battle within the Church on behalf of abuse victims. He wrote this: “This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for you and the Globe staff. As one who has been deeply involved in fighting for justice for the victims and survivors for many years, I thank you with every part of my being.

“I assure you,” he wrote, “that what you and the Globe have done for the victims, the Church and society cannot be adequately measured. It is momentous and its good effects will reverberate for decades.”

There is a lesson in Father Doyle’s letter: The truth is not meant to be hidden. It is not meant to be suppressed. It is not meant to be ignored. It is not meant to be disguised. It is not meant to be manipulated. It is not meant to be falsified. Otherwise, wrongdoing will persist.

I kept Father Doyle’s letter on my desk in Boston until the day, four years ago, that I left to join The Washington Post. It served as a reminder of what brought me to journalism and what kept me in it. And as a reminder of the work we as journalists must always do.


Yes and yes and yes.

 

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Why we’re watching “Citizen Four”

I noticed some of you were pretty fidgety and bored as we watched the first part of “Citizen Four” yesterday.

Sorry, not sorry.

I am testing an assumption: that you care about the future of the democracy. Edward Snowden’s revelations shocked some people into the realization that the democracy faced a new threat from within because the government had constructed a system of mass citizen surveillance in the aftermath of 9/11, one that could be used in a nefarious way to infringe people’s freedom.

Lots of people didn’t care, according to polling. A really smart friend of mine who is an endowed chair in a very esoteric subject at a major university said at the time that he didn’t see what the big deal was. “I’m not doing anything wrong. So why does it matter?”

I found that deeply troubling.

I don’t know what your reaction was to finding out about the NSA surveillance program. Mine was, wow, this sounds scary but it’s really complicated and I wish I understood it better. I vowed to sit down and read as much as I could about it.

I wasn’t alone, as it turned out. Lots of Americans just didn’t get it. And it took me a while to understand the terrifying implications for journalists. (I have since installed encryption software on my gmail account, in case I need it.)

And then I saw this absolutely amazing (and funny) “Last Week Tonight” segment on the government surveillance program and felt that I had been thoroughly schooled. What John Oliver demonstrates in this piece, somewhat vulgarly, is a very important thing for journalists to understand.

Watch the whole thing. It’s only 30 minutes, and it will prepare you for our conversation on Thursday after we watch the end of the film.

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What happens when…

In our morning newsroom meeting today, I expressed my deepest fear about the future for the news media, whose value has been steadily devalued by more changes than I care to enumerate in this post. We know that the majority of Americans — when asked a certain question in a certain way — will say they don’t trust the news media to tell the truth. We also know that within communities, there’s much greater trust in local news sources but that the toxic attitude toward journalists in general can and does trickle down.

We talked in class about this: how every interaction with a person can influence that person’s attitude toward journalists. I’ve seen it happen again and again.

The news media made some mistakes throughout this presidential campaign. But there was also a lot of really good journalism. I consumed as much of it as I could, trying to understand what was happening. My orientation is toward more information, not less.

And yet, I know that lots of people don’t have this orientation. They do not embrace complexity. Facts and information aren’t their highest priority. They want to feel better about themselves in a world that doesn’t make sense to them, anymore. A world that has left them behind. Facts and information wouldn’t necessarily provide that comfort.

Here’s a little piece that Jack Shafer wrote for Politico this week. You won’t like this piece if you’re a Trump supporter, but he makes several important points. Here’s one of them:

Journalism at its best can provide only a set of traffic advisories. It is not and it can’t be an autopilot for life’s trip. Voters are free to read or ignore the press corps’ findings and even … absorb and agree with those reports and then cast ballots that contradict what’s been reported and what they believe.

And yet, as many political scientists agree, a well-informed citizenry is crucial to the healthy functioning of a democracy.

Factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them… (Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996): 3, 5).

Where does that leave us as journalists? Here’s my conclusion: We must demonstrate every day the importance of facts and reliable information. First thing you can do? BUY some good journalism. Spend at least as much on it as you do on fancy coffee. Support news media organizations that do a good job by paying for their hard work. And tell all your friends why you did it. If we don’t value journalism, how can we expect others to do the same?

Call bullsh** when you see it. You can play the role of media literacy educator for your friends and family. Friends don’t let friends read/watch garbage. Help them find the good stuff.

Be sure your open mind is open and that you’ve made a real effort to get outside your own thought bubble. Beware your own confirmation biases, which are only strengthened by social media.

Finally, when people around you start bashing “the media,” ask them to whom they’re referring. Try to unpack it and look at what’s there. With kindness and compassion, share your own experience of doing journalism and what you know about its role in helping connect communities, exposing wrongdoing and bearing witness to events few can or are willing to see. Use a personal example, if you can.

You have a role in this, and I hope you won’t back down.

 

 

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A question of sourcing: Fair? Unfair?

Did you see the Washington Post’s story about the Pennsylvania woman who is a big Trump supporter?

Read it. Comment below. I want to know what you think.

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One you’ve never heard of: Perry Jones, 19, killed by the police

Every time a black person gets killed by a cop in America, I think about Perry Jones.

He was 19 years old and apparently homeless when he climbed onto the roof of a barbecue shack in Columbus, Georgia, shimmied down the chimney and hacked some meat out of a freezer with a cleaver. When he climbed up and out onto the roof of the restaurant, it was surrounded by cops — nine, by one officer’s count. 

A sergeant who was an excellent shot and had recently won a sharpshooting competition took a bead on Perry Jones and killed him as he stood up there on the roof — no more than eight feet from the ground. 

The next day, it was my job as the morning police reporter for the Columbus Ledger to write about what had happened. All these years later, I still remember feeling shocked when the police department’s internal affairs department quickly declared the shooting justified. I’m not sure Perry Jones had even been buried.

The NAACP was also shocked. How, the organization asked at a news conference, could the police have possibly determined in such a short time that the shooting was justified? The organization demanded an inquest into the young man’s death.

The coroner, a guy named Don Kilgore (can’t make this stuff up), agreed to perform an inquest if the family agreed.

Perry’s family? I had been able to find only two people with any connection to him: a grandmother, who lived in a shotgun shack with no phone or indoor plumbing south of town, and a sister who lived on the other side of the border in rural Alabama. I could see the sadness in the grandmother’s eyes, foggy from cataracts, as we talked a little about him. I had never encountered such a deep sense of powerlessness in a human being.

The sister was hard to reach. I remember calling a funeral home and the young man who answered the phone offering to run down the road to her house to get her because she didn’t have a phone, either. When she got on the line, she was still breathless from the walk and confused by my call. I explained I was just trying to find out about Perry, her brother, whose life had seemed to leave barely an imprint. She hadn’t seen him in a while. She was angry and confused by what had happened. He wasn’t the kind of person who would ever hurt anyone.

In the days after his death, I asked the police chief to explain to me why the sergeant had killed Perry, who was unarmed except, maybe, for the meat cleaver he still had in his hand. There was no video of what happened. No smart phone cameras. No body cameras. Just a story about a guy on a roof with a cleaver.

“Well, you know, Katherine,” the police chief said to me. “He could have jumped off that roof and hurt someone with that cleaver.”

Nine cops with guns. One 19-year-old with a cleaver. What about asking him to drop the weapon? Had anyone tried that?

The police chief gave me one of those looks I had seen many times since I’d moved to the Deep South from Chicago. It said, girl, you’re not from around here, are you?

Then the day arrived. The coroner announced a news conference where we media types expected to hear something about an inquest into the death of Perry Jones. All of the city’s reporters seemed to be there, and the TV crews were especially apparent that day as they set up their lights and cameras and did their stand-ups. 

“The family of Perry Jones,” the coroner said, “does not want an inquest.”

And that was that. The TV crews started packing up their gear to leave. 

Something didn’t seem right.

“Wait,” I said, raising my hand. “What family?”

The coroner looked irritated. He moved some papers around on the table where he sat at the front of the room. “His family.” 

“Yes,” I persisted. “But who exactly do you mean?”

The other reporters were looking at me in confusion. I thought about the road between Perry’s sister and a telephone. I thought about the grandmother, living in near-darkness with seemingly no connection to the world and no understanding of what had happened to her grandson.

The coroner blew up at me, ended the news conference and we filed out of the room. Back in the newsroom, I called the funeral home in Alabama and asked the young man who answered the phone if he would please, just one more time, run down the road and get Perry’s sister. Several long minutes later, she came onto the line.

I asked her if she’d told the coroner that she did not want an inquest into her brother’s death.

There was a brief silence on the line, then she said: “Inquest? What’s an inquest?”

One more phone call — this one, to the coroner. “You didn’t ask them, did you?” I asked. This was not a journalistic approach. It was pure outrage that came from the deepening realization that public officials could and would tell outright lies to the public through the media. I told the coroner I would be calling him out in a newspaper story the next morning. He promised me that if I did, I would never have access to him or the police again. He kept his promise.

Watching the videos these past few years of young black men and women being killed by police, I have thought a lot about Perry Jones. He died more than 30 years ago in a medium-sized southern city that had in no way reckoned with racism. I can’t help but do the math. There have been a multitude of unseen, unheralded deaths, pre-cameras, pre-social media, pre-public outrage.

I’m putting Perry Jones’ name down right here, right now. He was 19. He was stealing meat from a freezer.

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