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Long Shadows of Small Ghosts: How we talk to sources

I had recently read the book “Long Shadows Of Small Ghosts” by author Laura Tillman.  The book chronicles Tillman’s journey in reporting on a triple murder in Brownesville Texas.  About 10 years ago, John Rubio and his wife killed their three children in their home.  Believing that the children were possessed, the couple carried out a gruesome murder that shocked the community. Contributing factors to the murder may have been: consistent drug abuse, stresses of poverty (common in Brownesville), and mental health issues stemming from experiences in the past as well as possible birth defects caused by parental drug use.

Initially, Tillman was sent to report on what would happen to the building.  While semi-beat up, the building itself was standing and was in comparable condition to many of the buildings in the neighborhood surrounding.  Many people wanted it torn down, potentially us ing the building as a scapegoat or rather a resolution.  Regardless, there has yet to be entire closure on the death of three children.

The author, Tillman, in reporting eventually got in mail correspondence with the father/husband in prison (the wife refused to talk).  The author refused to buy him gifts as to avoid the potential that he saw her as a way out and a friend.  Eventually the author visits the murderer on death row.  The author refuses to smile, believing that Rubio would view this smile as friendship.  She does, however, buy snacks and drinks for him, as on death row there is a vending machine in the meeting room and every convict is eating food their visitors supplied. Tillman spoke, and I asked, what is the difference between a smile and a treat, and how does one draw the line? Does it ever get easier?  She believed not giving the treat were cruel since every other visitor

My question to the class is: the “no gifts” policy very important to a journalist?  What if cruelty comes into question, regarding norms of the surrounding environment (every other inmate is eating).  How do you interact with the power dynamic of you as a journalist being free, and the inmate waiting to get killed with nearly no rights?

Reporting on Mental Illness

Earlier in the year, Sinéad O’Connor was reported missing in, Chicago, the town she currently resides in. Billboard and Pitchfork were the three outlets I was following the story on at the time, both getting a lot of information from TMZ (sadly). In Billboard’s coverage, they acknowledged her listing as missing and suicidal after not returning from her bike ride. They then went into the context of why she was labeled this way with her recent history of emotional struggles including the cutting of ties with her family after an apparent overdose.

A month later, she went missing again. This time the story (originally from TMZ once again) was that she called her family and told them she was going to jump off a bridge in Chicago. She was found and then the next stories to roll out cited her calling the claims “bullshit” in a Facebook post.

All three of these outlets handled the situation in different ways. TMZ went for the throat I’ll say, as they always do. They brought up every instance of her being unwell that they could, and in their final update of the original situation, included that she was taken to a hospital. The second time around they released police scanner audio alongside a perturbed picture of the singer. The headline read “Sinéad O’Connor: suicide watch on Chicago Bridges,” already sensationalizing it. They even ended it with a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of her previous disappearance saying “she’s been struggling with depression lately.”

Billboard handled it quite sympathetically in comparison, but as previously said they included a lot of the very personal context of her mental health into the story.

Pitchfork, left many of these details out. They simply reported the facts and motions of the story, updating frequently and striking old information. They didn’t include any context for the behavior, but have in the past reported on her illness and off key actions which she is usually very open about.

It’s troublesome because these three ways of reporting it do have some good and bad in them. TMZ was bad by disclosing unnecessary things such as her going to the hospital. It can be argued that no one needs to know that, just simply that she’s safe. They were harsh in other ways as well, but that detail is important because it is a detail. Some might feel that it is important to include that she was getting treatment immediately after the incident.

Billboard, didn’t include the harsher details, but the context helps the reader know that she has been showing a lot of erratic behavior and this isn’t just a freak story. In doing so, it brings up a lot of dark information from the singer’s past, that while she is open about these things, may not be necessary when it could simply be said that she has been seeing treatment for her illness.

Pitchfork avoided any offensive or touchy subjects in their reporting which is definitely respectful of O’Connor, but also respectful to those that are adamant about confidentiality when it comes to mental health. Once again though, she puts much of this information out in the open so it isn’t confidential to begin with. For some, maybe this would really help them to get the picture that this isn’t a simple case of a depressed person and that she is having a serious struggle. But, that’s also not sure to be true and might bring misleading conclusions if this is all unnecessary and untrue as she claims.

Personally, I would take a much different approach that kind of combines all three. The base would Pitchfork’s reporting which was respectfully sparse, but Billboard included a paragraph laying out the stress of her mis-diagnosis and the state of her PTSD which includes suicidal tendencies. It’s quite personal, but it’s not to the level of listing out her actions, and it gets straight to what needs to be said about this. I would also probably include the hospital bit, because it shows that the issue was serious enough for her to be taken to a hospital despite her Facebook post afterwards. It would have the conversation left open on terms of what really happened, but it wouldn’t have so much embarrassing information stacked against her suggesting that she is totally out of control.

Is that right though? In reporting on mental illness in general, it’s always best to be respectful, but would it be more respectful to list out whatever they are comfortable with being open about in order to tell their story?

Ethics Being Tested in Sports Coverage

Recently, I was covering a high school girls’ soccer game for my Sports Journalism class since I have been covering Belchertown High School all semester. Coming into the game the team was undefeated, but they came out not looking so good.

By the end of it all they had lost their first game of the season 3-2. It was a frustrating game and there was some very biased calls by the referees to the dismay of most parents. There was, however, a bright side.

The bright side was that one player contributed to the entire offense and scored the two goals for Belchertown. She played excellent soccer and was one of the people who most agreed with the idea that there were a few biased calls.

I now faced the ethical question of if I should talk to her or not — even though she played so well. Another ethical question that I faced was I didn’t know if I should ask the coach about the calls in the game or not.

I decided to go through with both of them. The player gave me short answers, seeing as she was very frustrated after suffering her first loss of the season and I ended up asking the coach about it as well and I never really got a clear answer out of him about what he thought about about the calls in the game.

It was a tough decision when trying to figure out if I should talk to them both and ask the questions I did. I’m glad I made the decision that I did, it gave me some insight into the coaches heads as well as the players heads, even though I didn’t use either of their quotes.

Experiencing Digial Media Ethics First Hand

Recently, I got a slap on the wrist.

I am currently a blogger for a start-up company that does hair and make-up services in women’s homes. My role in the company is to produce beauty-related content that is going to drive people to the website and thus, be intrest them in the services.

This past weekend I did just that, but not in the way I was hoping…

On Facebook, I am part of a private group of bloggers who discuss beauty-topics, promote their blogs, and anything else prevalent within the beauty world. For occasional inspiration I post a topic or video and ask the blogger’s opinions.

To my fault, I used some of the bloggers’ comments in one of my articles without their knowledge. To avoid plagarism, I quoted each blogger’s Facebook comment along with their name and personal blog. Bad idea.

I received a good amount of negative feedback saying I should have asked their permission beforehand. They were right. I immediately apologized and deleted the article from the website. Thankfully, they were all very forgiving and understanding.

Let me just say, I felt terrible (and still do as I write this post). Asking permission to use someone’s quote is Journalism 101. So, how could I not have thought about doing something so crucial?

As I continue to contemplate the negligence of my actions, one thing comes to mind. In our readings this week, we looked at Digital Media Ethics and all of the shifting dynamics around ethics in the current age of social media. As the article points out, we are experiences a “Revolution in Ethics.” Easy access to the internet and social media is giving anyone and everyone a voice, whether or not they are professional journalists.

When interviewing someone one-on-one, I am fully aware of the importance of getting full consent. In my mind, however, I figured posting something on Facebook is public knowledge (even though the group is private). Although I should have, I did not consider the ethical courtesy of alerting the bloggers their information would be used in a digitally public sphere outside of the Facebook group. I assumed by posting their opinions on the internet, this is something they should have known.

Ethics of journalism have shifted indeed. Out of the many things this experience taught me, one is that just because social media gives everyone a voice, not eveyone necessarily wants their voice heard.

“Safe space,” and a journalist’s role within it

An important question has been arising time and time again recently about the topic of “safe spaces,” and a journalists actions when they come across a space being called one. This question, or series of questions, I had to ask myself a couple weeks ago on the UMass Amherst campus. While working as a photo editor for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, I was asked to photograph a vigil for police violence going on on one of the lawns. The Daily Collegian had been personally invited to cover the event by its organizers, through email.

I got to the Metawampe Lawn early, along with another Collegian photographer and an Amherst Wire photographer, and began taking photos of the crowd. The first photo I took was of a woman burning sage around her peers. As I was taking the photo, she looked up, noticed me, and walked right over asking to delete the photo. After explaining who I was, who I worked for and what the photograph was being used for, she still insisted on the deletion of the photo. This became the first of many ethical decisions I had to make that night. The gathering was taking place at a public university, on public land, and was a public event, and so I had no legal reason to need to delete the photo, and yet ethically it did not seem worth it to argue in order to keep a non-defining photograph, and so I deleted it and moved on.

The rest of the event was going rather smoothly, with people enthusiastically giving their names and being receptive to what I was there to do. There was a section of the program where audience members were invited to take the mic and speak, and that is where quick decisions had to be made on my and the other photographer’s parts. One woman holding a sign took the microphone and began speaking about how there were white photographers at the vigil taking everyone’s photos, and how that was not okay. She related her story of how a photographer took her photo earlier, and did not ask for permission before taking it. There were some cheers from the crowd, and then the attention turned to the Amherst Wire photographer, who just so happened to be standing at the front of the crowd, facing the people, taking overall photos. I was towards the front but more off to the side, and the other Collegian photographer was in the middle of the crowd. Members of the crowd began yelling at the Wire photographer, telling him to stop taking pictures and to leave the lawn immediately, with some people yelling “Leave!,” “Don’t take our picture!,” and “Bye!” One woman even went so far as to ask the question of why white people were even there at the gathering, since it was affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. The gathering was then referred to as a “safe space.”

This exchange of words and shouts instantly raised ethical flags in the minds of me and my fellow photographers at the vigil. Do we leave? Do we stay? Do we continue to shoot or put down the cameras? Do we ask for permission before taking the photos? How do you do that with a larger crowd shot? How do you represent a crowd where most people are receptive, but others angry? Ultimately what all three of us appeared to decide to do was stay put where we were for about 10-15 minutes, but to not continue to take photos. Even though we had the right to photograph, the consequences of continuing to do so seemed to outweigh the benefits. I felt that even though I had “the right” to continue photographing, that does not mean it is the most ethical choice.

Upon returning to the office, we noticed an email from one of the people we had photographed, requesting that the photo of her and her friends that they had previously given us permission to use not be published. We then started a conversation with our editor in chief, in order to decide how to proceed. We started by deciding that we would not use the photos of people who had requested us not to, as well as photos of white gatherers. We decided this because with so many emotions and a strong message from the event, we did not think it was ethical to have white people be the faces of the gathering, even though there were many in attendance. We then decided to not use any large group shots, since there were many people within the crowd who did not wish to be photographed. After putting those photos aside, it left us with about two viable photos depicting the hands of people holding candles, and depicting a woman who had given me her name and permission in the moment. Our next question was whether we should use a photo at all at that point, since any photo could potentially receive backlash. Upon reflection and discussion, we decided to not publish any photos with our story on the vigil. For the online version, we just used a photo of the ILC, a building next to the lawn where the vigil took place. It was originally going to be the front-page photo for the next day’s paper, but we decided that the photo would not be worth the possible backlash or ethical dilemmas.

The main questions facing us as journalists, photographers, and people were whether or not to delete photos, to stay or not after a small group of people make it clear you are not welcome, to continue shooting or not, whether to use photographs that we were previously given permission and names to use and then asked not to, and whether to publish any photos of such an event in general, and if so which ones. Another overall question was how to cover marginalized groups that you are not a part of. This dilemma is extremely similar to the clash between a student journalist and protesters at the University of Missouri in 2015. As an article from The Washington Post mentioned, “Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.” The question now becomes, what is “fair,” or “ethical?” And who is allowed to cover it? There is definitely still discussion to be had in the journalism world, and a need for a better dialogue between journalists and these groups that feel threatened by the media.

What would you have done in our situation? What is a journalist’s role within these “safe spaces,” and how do we navigate them?

Louis Theroux’s objectivity: is it journalism?


We’re taught that it’s impolite to talk about politics the first time we meet someone. 

Louis Theroux, on the other hand, goes ahead and asks those questions. Theroux is a British documentary filmmaker and broadcaster. He’s best known for his BBC series “Weird Weekends,” which examines American subcultures. He has interviewed Neo-Nazis and members of the Westboro Baptist Church. I pulled up a couple Theroux videos after our talks on objectivity (warning: much of the interviews contain homophobia, racism, sexism, etc.) Throughout these interviews, he remains cool, relaxed and, most of all, neutral. 

Take a look: 

Here, he interviews a top drug dealer of Philadelphia. He asks detail orientated questions, and more often than not, his subject voluntarily reveals the answer we were waiting for. One of his friends points to the silver chain a second time and says that it cost 100,000 dollars, after the drug dealer insists that he makes a humble living through real estate and selling cars. It might be the camera or Theroux’s neutrality and monotonous aura that make the group uneasy and giggly. Either way, Theroux’s questions pull out the truth.

Theroux may have started his career as a journalist, but I think it’s important to reflect why he isn’t one. If you go back to the drug dealer interview, Theroux is wearing a police vest. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was explained earlier in the episode not included in this Youtube video. But either way, he’s posing to be somebody he is not.

I’m not sure if he explains his position to his subjects before or after the taping or which ethical guidelines documentary filmmakers subject themselves to, but it’s clear that Theroux isn’t intending to be a journalist even though he’s conducting an interview.

Which brings me to my series of questions: does Theroux teach us how to conduct proper interviews? Can we learn something from him? Why else isn’t(/is) Theroux a journalist?

In Jay Rosen’s analysis of objectivity, he stresses on transparency. As does Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The New Ethics of Journalism.” At times, Theroux does fess up and say that he disagrees with his subject – at least when he’s asked —  which you can see in the Neo-Nazi interview. But how would the interview be different if he outright came out with his biases?

Is it possible to interview someone you morally disagree with after expressing your biases like that?

N.S.A Arrest take two

The U.S government is just continuing to shoot themselves in the foot as just yesterday they now do not know if Harold T. Martin III is the one who had leaked top secret documents such as: intercepted communications between Europe and Japan and the computer code for the N.S.A’s hacking tools. 

The reason he had been arrested, according to reports is that Martin had been secretly taking home huge amounts of classified material since 1999. He was arrested this past August; however, since his arrest police have claimed that they  have not been able to find any sort of connection. What’s interesting to me and brings some questions is how did the police just assume that this guy had been leaking any sort of information if they don’t have any sort of evidence? I don’t know, what do you guy’s think?

It just goes to show that the government will got at no cost to hide any sort of information that they do not want the public to know about. Going as far as to arrest a guy that they cannot even find any sort of connection to the leaking’s.

Do you guys think that the government at this point is just going to far? Not like they haven’t already.

The unfortunate part though in all of this is no matter what Martin does he will still go to prison. According to reports he did have unauthorized classified material in an unsafe place and because of it he may face jail time up to 11 years. What the government is more pressed on is the leaking of the techniques used to break into foreign computers and networks-as well as intercepted communications as stated above.

Another interesting part when reading this article was how the journalists used a lot of anonymous sources. I understand that journalists must protect their sources and it is our number one rule of thumb; however I think it just doesn’t make the story as credible just because it used so many anonymous sources. It would have made the story more interesting if the sources were identified. It definitely would have made the story more personable if we knew who these people were. That is just my opinion, what are your guys’ thoughts?