This week another outrageous media scandal happened in Russian, which made me think about something we talked about in class earlier this semester.
Global Voices has the story. In short, Aleksandr Plushev, a radio host for Echo of Moscow, one of the leading — and most objective, albeit controversial — Russian news radio stations, was fired for posting an inappropriate tweet about the death of the son of Sergey Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff.
(Of course, there’s much more context to it, such as: a) Ivanov’s son had a notorious reputation and allegedly get away with a hit-and-run that resulted in the death of a woman; b) Echo of Moscow’s editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov personally knows Vladimir Putin, and many people think that the Russian president guaranteed a certain degree of freedom to the station.)
Was this tweet really inappropriate? In my opinion, yes. How evil Ivanov and his son might be, it’s irresponsible for a journalist to imply that a person’s death was a “proof of God’s existence or cosmic justice”.
But here comes the difference between Russia and America. The journalist wasn’t fired by his editor-in-chief. In fact, it was Mikhail Lesin, head of Gazprom-Media, the main shareholder of Echo of Moscow, who made the decision without even noticing the editor-in-chief. Which, of course, is completely outrageous and also illegal. And many people believe that this situation is just a pretext to get Venediktov, who refused to agree with Lesin’s decision, fired, too.
This is a good example of the importance of editorial independence, I guess. Yes, it is obvious that, when it comes to journalists being on Twitter, the border between a private opinion and a professional one is blurred, and pretty much anything that a reporter tweets publicly can be inflammatory for his organization. But it’s up to this organization, and not its owners or government officials, to decide whether a reporter crossed the line and whether he should be punished for that.
Unfortunately, I was able to attend only two out of six master classes. Not my fault, though. Just schedule conflicts. I mean, whose idea was it to hold the lectures by James Ball from the Guardian and Mark Robinson from Wired at the same time?! It was cruel.
Anyway, one of the classes I managed to attend was given by two editors of Kyiv Post, a Ukranian English-language newspaper. Obviously, they talked about covering the dramatic events that have been happening in their country for the last year.
You can probably understand why I was interested. But I won’t get into the whole argument Maidan, Crimea and the war in Lugansk and Donetsk right now — this is too complicated and, admittedly, sometimes even painful.
I’d like to concentrate on one particular aspect of the master class here. I even asked the Kyiv Post’s editors a question about it. When Katya Gorchinskaya, the deputy editor of the newspaper, was talking about the importance of retaining objectivity even when one side of the conflict seems to be pure good and other pure evil, I asked if their reporters actually went to Maidan to express their views as citizens.
She said no. And that got me thinking about my own experience in that kind of situation, which was completely opposite.
As you may or may not know, in the winter of 2011-2012 we had our own Maidan in Moscow — well, kind of: it was far less violent, which is good, and ultimately unsuccessful, which is bad. From December 2011 until May 2012 there were a lot of massive protest demonstrations against election frauds and the Russian government in general, but, since the opposition didn’t win (honestly speaking, they never really tried), eventually things got even worse, leading to the ultraconservative revival we can see now in Russia.
Anyway, Russian liberal media played an important part in this so-called revolution. Many journalists participated in the demonstrations themselves — as citizens, not reporters. It just felt natural; for the first time in our lives my generation, it seemed, had a chance to speak up and make a difference, and why should journalists stay away in such extraordinary circumstances? We didn’t even have any discussions about it. Now I wish we did.
Moreover: right before the first massive protest demonstration that happened December 10, 2011, we decided to publish on our magazine’s website several op-eds in which our reporters and editors explained why they are going to participate in the protest. I contributed to this story, too. Now I regret it.
All these questions have been bothering me ever since, and they won’t go away, and I’m not sure they have any right answers. Did we do the right thing? Shouldn’t we have retained our principles even when we thought there could be a revolution, and we can contribute to its cause? And didn’t this revolution fail, at least in part, because journalists abandoned their principles, thus in a way mirroring the actions of the government who abandoned its commitment to listen to the voice of Russian citizens?
I don’t know, but I kind of feel ashamed that I started asking myself these questions only afterwards, when it was already too late.
To be honest, I am not sure if anybody reads this (to be brutally honest, I am pretty sure that nobody does). Still, somehow I though that I should post something actually useful here — and another round of my musings on some random issue is hardly likely to be characterized as “helpful” by anybody, I guess.
Since this is a blog by a journalist about journalism for (probably) journalists, I decided to post here a bunch of links to some great stories that I’ve read this week. And since I’ve already used the word “great” once, I’ll try to restrain myself from using it from now forth, but keep in mind that each of these articles could be perfectly described with that word.
A thoughtful journalistic analysis of what’s been happening in Sudan during the last decades and what part international humanitarian organizations played in creating the mess that the country is in now. It turns out, a big part. It turns out, as much as humanitarians honestly want to help people, the collateral damage of their actions can be devastating. It also turns out that the UN’s behaviour in situations for which the organization was initially created can seem suspiciously useless and ignorant — but we knew that much already. And yes, you would be amazed by the importance of George Clooney for the recent history of Sudan.
A story of an American couple that for the last 60 years has been trying to preserve Afghanistan’s cultural past and transform its horrific present. Mostly in vain — but at least they tried, and they did it gloriously. And it’s also a beautiful love story — both in terms of love between a man and a woman and love between a man and a country. And it’s also a spectacular insight into the dramatic history of Afghanistan in the 20th century. And they also have a soundtrack!
A profile of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl and human rights activist who has just received the Nobel peace prize (thus becoming its youngest recipient ever). This story was written in April 2013, soon after Yousafzai was attacked and shot three times by a member of a Taliban-affiliated islamist group. And it’s not only a comprehensive story that tells us how it happened that a 14-year-old girl became one of the most prominent activists for female education in the world. Journalism itself and possible implications of reporters’ decisions are also discussed here — and you can’t help but thinking what you would do if you had to make the same choice as reporters mentioned in the profile.
Well, this is weird — but, at the same time, awesome. Basically, Zak Smith is a successful contemporary artist (and a good one, judging from the illustrations in the story, at least), who is at the same time an alt-porn actor and a fan of Dungeons and Dragons tabletop game, which he plays regularly with his fellow porn stars, one of whom has a rare Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (and she’s still a porn actress). I mean, don’t you want to know more after reading this sentence? I’m sure you do. And Veselka has a lot more — and even if “The Best Monster” is still a story about life’s curiosities, it’s a compelling one.
How do drones change our life — and our perception of reality? To some extent, it appears. Wallace-Wells examines the evergrowing world of drones (I haven’t even known there were SO many) and tells a lot of great stories of their inventors, owners and users. It looks like a personal drone will soon be something as common as a cell phone — and one can only wonder what happens next.
How early comic books were connected with the fight for women’s rights in America? Lepore explore this intriguing connection by telling an incredible life story of William Marston, a psychologist and, so to speak, a feminist who created the idea of Wonder Woman, the first female superhero. Toward the end of the story it becomes clear that the fight for women’s rights is still far from over, and we still need Wonder Woman.
Not a proper story, but a short blog post — and a very entertaining one. What if we try to imagine that a newspaper is not an old, but a new technology? That’s what people behind a project called Neuze did — and got some amazing results: it turns out even in a digital era a newspaper still has a lot of advantages comparing to news website — especially if you can provide it with some good and contemporary marketing. It’s all a joke, of course, but a telling one.
To be honest, I didn’t expect much from the readings that we were assigned to examine. I mean, the natural gas boom in Texas? Why do I care? It certainly didn’t sound as an interesting subject. Then it turned out that these were arguably two most amazing pieces of journalism that I’ve read at least in the last week. So much for low expectations.
We were asked to analyze how the stories are framed — and compare those framings. For I don’t want my post to be as long as any of these stories, I decided to split my observations in several parts and analyze each component of a story separately. And here we go.
The most vivid example of the difference between these two pieces is probably their headlines. They are also good illustrations of points of view that were chosen by reporters.
The title of Bryan Mealer’s story — “Y’all Smell That? That’s The Smell of Money” — is not just a quote, it is a quote from a journalist himself (in particular from the presentation he made at school in his youth when his family was prospering from the Texas oil boom). And to some extent that headline conveys the spirit of the story, which is told deliberately from a personal point of view. Mealer, who was born and raised in Texas and had a firsthand experience of a similar economic burst in the region in his childhood, turns reporting on the natural gas boom into his own adventure. The whole story is literally framed by Mealer’s reflections of his own experiences and aspirations — and he explicitly states that we look at what’s happening in Texas through his eyes by using a lot of I’s, me’s and relating to his own past and present.
The title of the CPI’s story — “Big Oil. Bad Air” — also perfectly sets the frame for it. “Bad” is a strong word, and even from the headline we can see that these guys are going to look into environmental downside of the gas boom. I guess, one could call this headline even judgemental. “Bid Oil. Bad Air” is a piece of an old-school (I mean it in a good way) investigative journalism which purpose is to make power accountable. The journalists try to present the facts using lots of data and evidence. Basically, they say: this is the truth that someone’s is trying to cover up — and our job is to reveal it with our reporting.
The best way to compare the writing style of two pieces is just to juxtapose some words that are used by reporters.
Mealer’s story: Bonanza. Glorious reinvention. Revelation. Festooned. Faster than the hand of God. Heck (as an exclamation that indicates author’s excitement).
CPI’s story: Bacchanal. Pungent odors. Littered. Hell-bent rush. Leave to fend for themselves. Prepared statement (by a corporation whose representatives declined to be interviewed by journalists).
I think, these words speak for themselves. You can rightly guess about the attitude that reporters have towards their subject just by looking at them.
It is also worth noting, however, that, as different as these pieces are, they bear a strong resemblance in terms of structure. Both Mealer and the authors of the CPI’s piece certainly know one of the most important rules of reporting: always present both sides of the story, always have a second opinion. And they do present a second side — but only towards the end of a story, when a reader (presumably) already has an opinion on what it’s about. The downsides of the gas boom aren’t mentioned in Mealer’s story until its 21st page (out of 24). Ordinary people who actually benefited from it appear only in the last scene of the CPI’s story.
Here, I think, an illustration works best, too.
On the left: one of the photographs used by the Texas Monthly. Again, even without reading a story one could probably deduce something from it: it’s a guy who achieved something and he’s proud of his success. What’s even more important, probably, is that he hasn’t achieved too much and isn’t too proud; there’re no pictures of the corporate CEOs who enjoy a luxurious lifestyle thanks to the gas boom in the story. Most of the portraits presented in Mealer’s story convey such a feeling: here’s some ordinary people who are blessed by this economic miracle. And even landscapes are epic, colourful and monumental: this is an area the gas boom has sparked a new life in.
On the right: a photograph used in the CPI’s story. These people are obviously portrayed as victims. They are unhappy, and there’s someone to blame for their unhappiness. Moreover, the story persists in showing pictures of a woman with her inhaler, as if it wants us to feel her pain. Same could be said about other pictures in this story: beautiful fields and forests and ranches that are defaced by burning flares and gas wells.
The CPI’s story is also interestingly framed in terms of design (which is really good, by the way, especially for an investigative piece like this). For example, these big in-your-face pull quotes that sometimes appear next to the story definitely contribute to its overall tone. The way the quote from a State Rep. Harvey Hildebran — “I believe if you’re anti-oil and gas, you’re anti-Texas” — is presented makes it even more presumptuous. And devilish animated flames from the flares don’t help you to fall in love with the gas boom.
As for the Texas Monthly piece, here we can see a really compromising use of advertising. Somewhere halfway through the story you’re starting to notice ads that try to sell you basically the same picture of growth, wealth and success that a reporter describes — and it certainly doesn’t make his words more credible.
I read the CPI’s piece first, and I was definitely prejudiced toward Mealer’s story. And my bias was growing bigger as I moved through the report with all its depictions of the gas boom’s “bonanza” and attempts to present South Texas as the land of opportunities.
However, at the end of the day, I enjoyed Mealer’s piece more. As strange as it is, it even seemed more objective to me — when Mealer finally starts to talk about the downsides of the boom, it gives the story a kind of sore feeling that stays there until the end. At first “Y’all Smell That?” seems an unchallenged ode to the gas boom, but than — well, I wouldn’t say that the story turns upside down, but it certainly becomes much more ambiguous, deep and meaningful.
As for the CPI’s story, it is more definitive and inconclusive at the same time . On one hand, reporters explicitly put the blame on corporations and government institutions, claim that they’re responsible for environmental implications of the boom and support their claim with both data and stories from witnesses. On the other, sometimes this support is too vague (for example, they rely on the opinions of unnamed “scientists” and “experts”, which is, I believe, something that a reporter should never do), and the story overall seems to be too finger-pointing — at times it resembles more an attorney’s speech than a news story.
That said, both of the stories are great, and even though Mealer’s piece appeals more to me in terms of writing style and structure, the CPI’s piece is no less — probably more — impressive and important, because it really helps to make power accountable and start a debate on the matter that can affect the lives on many people.
At first glance, that lead seems good. It tells you the news — briefly and straight to the point. It has some context — not too much, but enough to explain why this story is important (the airport being “strategically important” and “a continuing source of friction”; the fighting being important because of a cease-fire agreement). It is correct, accurate and objective — it states the fact and doesn’t take sides. Basically, there’s just the right amount of information here to make you want to know more.
However, closer to the end of the story it turns out that it’s NOT only about the fighting around Donetsk airport. At some point it suddenly starts telling us about what happened in Kharkiv where a statue of Lenin was toppled yesterday. So, basically, the story is not about one particular episode in the Ukrainian conflict, but about everything that happened in Ukraine during the last 24 years. Well, you couldn’t expect that from the headline or the lead.
That said, maybe that’s the problem with the story itself, not with the lead.
I think this is good. Well, the story itself is breath-taking enough to catch your eye and to get you to read the whole thing. Still, this lead really helps to make it happen.
To be honest, I was expecting a some kind of anecdote when I clicked on the headline — like a story of some woman who joined Isis, but apparently reporters didn’t have enough evidence to picture one. They had some names (they are mentioned in captions that go along with photographs), but not proper stories. And I have to say that the lead does its job even without an anecdote. It tells us what the story is about, it gives some details that are really impressive and catching (for example, these girls’ very young age or the fact that they are recruited via social media.)
I’m sorry to say this, but I didn’t like that one too much. I think there are several problems with this lead.
First: the first paragraph (which in this case equals the first sentence). I can see what a reporter meant to do here — basically, to come up with a general statement that then would be illustrated with some examples. However, this statement is just too broad. “Gardening can mean different things to different people” — well, you could say that about anything. “Marriage can mean different things to different people.” “Being stuck in traffic can mean different things to different people”. “Doughnuts can mean different things to different people”. Etc. From a reader’s point of view, this sentence is pretty discouraging, I think; it doesn’t attract you to the story.
Second: I couldn’t understand from the headline and the lead what the story was actually about. Well, it’s about gardening, I got that much. But what gardening? And why is it so important that the story is on the Missourian’s front page? The explanation comes in the fifth paragraph (it’s about community gardening and volunteers who work there and make it an important experience for the citizens), and for this story this is too late. It could be all right, if it was preceded by some catchy anecdote, but it isn’t.
This is amazing: John Oliver’s speech about Miss America pageant that he delivered in his weekly Last Week Tonight show yesterday on HBO.
Apart from being utterly hilarious on their own, these 15 minutes once again challenge our notion of who journalists are — and who we can call a journalist. I mean, would I describe John Oliver with that term before seeing this video? Probably not. Well, that’s maybe partly because I only stumble upon fragments of his show on YouTube once in a while — and, therefore, I definitely have no expertise in defining mr. Oliver’s profession. But somehow I believe Wikipedia (well, English wikipedia at least). And the word “journalist” is mentioned only once in the Wikipedia article about Oliver — turns out he played the character of an “oleaginous journalist” in some at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2001. Oh, the irony.
Otherwise, Wikipedia calls Oliver a comedian, a political satirist and an actor. Which he essentially is — and I think we can still fairly call him a comedian even when he speaks about politicians’ actions, making them look ludicrous and unacceptable at the same time.
With this video, however, it’s different. Yes, there is a bunch of jokes about innate sexism of this kind of pageants and, specifically, Donald Trump. But the most striking part here is the actual reporting work that Oliver and his team did. They decided to check if the information that the contest provided $45 millions of dollars in scholarships to women annually (that information is spread by the Miss America organizers) was true. They managed to prove that it wasn’t by looking into the organization’s tax records. Moreover, they pulled tax forms from almost every state-level Miss America competition in the country and showed that the information about the total amount of scholarships was, to put it mildly, deliberately misleading. Moreover, Oliver acknowledged the fact that even though Miss America pays a lot less money to women than it pretends to, the organization still has the right to say that it is the largest provider of scholarships for women, because it in fact is (other scholarships being even less generous) — and made another, even more important point out of this argument.
Now, considering that we’re in the United States, and not in Russia, I assume that Miss America will have to respond somehow to this investigation. At the very least they wouldn’t be able anymore to assert that they give this immense amount of money in scholarships. At best, Oliver’s speech might spark a discussion about the fact that the biggest provider of scholarships for women in America requires those women to be unmarried and not pregnant to be eligible to a scholarship.
It has been said many times that nowadays everyone can be a reporter. Well, John Oliver is not everyone, of course. But I was still impressed to see such a good journalist work from a comedy show. Applause.
Here’s another story that illustrates the power — and the mischievousness — of social media. A girl from Netherlands told her friends and her parents that she was going on vacation to South-Eastern Asia. In fact, she never left her house in Amsterdam — and spent several weeks posting fake statuses, check-ins and pictures on her Facebook. She even faked her Skype calls by decorating her room with Asian umbrellas. This was a part of her graduation project aiming to illustrate the double nature of social media.
Well, I wouldn’t call this experiment entirely correct. Basically, it’s not about social media, it’s about trust. When someone close to us tells us that he or she is going to a trip, we’re not likely to assume that he (or she) is lying and this is all a part of some kind of research. Naturally, her parents believed her — why shouldn’t they have? Besides, it would be even easier to do such a trick in a pre-digital era, when you could tell that you’re calling someone from Australia, and they wouldn’t have any means to prove otherwise.
Still, somehow this resonated in my mind with another falsified story I stumbled upon this week. Gawker has it: some guy called Alex Jones (I’ve never heard of him before, but from what I know now I assume he’s not very professional) published a post on his website about a sex toy lesson given to 6th graders in a school in Jacksonville. Many American right-wing websites jumped on it and expressed their outrage. It soon turned out, though, that the story was completely fabricated — and the images actually came from an event that was held 2 years ago in Brock University in Canada. The aim of the event was to teach safe sex practices to gay students; and, of course, the attendance was completely voluntary, and all the people in the audience were grown-ups. Now I don’t know why this Alex Jones decided to make that up, but I definitely do know that if some of those websites that were so shocked by this story had thought of checking if it was true, they wouldn’t look so ridiculous and unreliable.
My point here? Pure and simple: always perform an accuracy check. More often than not it’s not a technical procedure, but something that distinguish a journalist from a non-journalist.