Friday, September 29, 2006

Media Ethics Survey Highlighted by "Ozarks Messenger"

Tony Messenger, editorial page editor for the Springfield News-Leader, mentioned the “You Are the Editor” survey for 2006 – put together by members of the Society of Professional Journalists in Southwest Missouri – in his blog.

Here is part of what he had to say:

What would you do? Here's your chance as a reader to take a test. David Burton of the University of Missouri extension has set up a survey with the help of the Society of Professional Journalists based on real-life situations faced by Springfield journalists. Take the survey here. David promises to share the results with me later for a blog update.

Why not join in and take the survey yourself. Results will be one week.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Community Building Through Community Journalism

When you find a newspaper that concentrates on local coverage, has a tone that is positive and supportive, and also strives to find solutions to community issues, you have found a newspaper that practices community journalism.

Community journalism is the belief that newspapers have an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it. In the small towns and cities of America, the local newspaper is one of the links that connects people to each other. It is one of the ways the community is maintained. It is part of the local discussion on issues that concern a community.

In a large city, the newspaper can only represent so many views at one time. Certain special projects or a diverse letters to the editor section can bring more voices into a paper, but the audience is still measured in the hundreds of thousands. True community journalism has been defined as the style of intensely local-first coverage provided by “small” newspapers.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors draws the line between large and small newspapers at the 50,000 circulation mark. That means there are about 1,533 "small" daily newspapers and 7,437 small weeklies in America. Southwest Missouri is dominated by small community newspapers, which throw their news and editorial weight behind providing local coverage. The finest community newspapers know they are key stakeholders in the forces that help build and grow their communities.

Accessibility is one of the most critical factors in determining whether a newspaper is practicing community journalism How physically accessible is the newsroom to its readers? Is there a security system in place to keep the public out? Are reporters protected and detached from and out of touch with readers? How easy or difficult is it for the public to get in touch with editors, reporters and photographers by phone? Are newsrooms ivory towers?

Often a community newspaper must rely on its own limited resources. A publisher at a larger newspaper has the resources of a large corporation behind him. If he faces unexpected disaster, those resources are at his disposal, at least to some extent. If some of his staff gets sick, there are people who can fill in. It may be hard, and require long hours, but the personnel is available. At many community papers, if the editor gets sick, there's no one to fill his shoes.

In the small communities I know, the publisher, editor and reporters are recognized on the street and members of the community can take them to task, or praise them, about something in the paper. The people at the newspaper belong to the same local organizations and churches as the rest of the community, their kids attend the community's schools and play softball in the community leagues. For the most part, the people at the newspaper fall into the same economic bracket as most of the community members. There is an accessibility and interactive quality that is lacking at larger papers.

Community journalism is a way of doing business, of reporting and of interacting with the citizens. Providing the news and information that helps hold a community together doesn't preclude telling the hard stories or voicing unpopular opinions.

Community journalism isn't synonymous with mediocrity. Community journalism means having newspapers concentrate on being a fair-minded participant in public life, with journalists as citizens, instead of reporters being detached. It means the local newspaper does more than describing what is going wrong; it imagines what "going right" would be like and how the proper community connections can be made. It also means the local newspaper goes beyond seeing people as merely consumers or readers to seeing them as actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems.

It's time that journalism educators and the newspaper industry recognized the significance of community journalism and encouraged continuing excellence.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

What Happens When Past Editorials Come Back to Life?

Everyone has an opinion but not everyone puts them in print for the world to read. That fact has caused grief for some newspaper editors and reporters who decide to switch careers and are then singled out by persons offended by a past editorial or news article written by the former editor or reporter.

It can be a touchy situation when you change from an being an editor, where you are paid to write thought provoking editorials that may raise the hair on people’s neck, to other types of jobs where you can be encouraged to keep your personal opinions to yourself.

That fact led me to do a study, about 2 years ago, among other current and past newspaper editors. The goal of the study was to determine what sort of impact past opinion columns and editorials have (or can have) on future work.

This case study is a combination of a couple of real situations past editors have had to confront.


Imagine the day when you are no longer a newspaper editor or journalist. You apply for (or even get) another job which works with and represents diverse audiences and opinions. What happens when a potential employer, or co-worker, discovers an editorial you wrote 12 years before?

Assume also that the topic of the editorial, and position taken by you, are not in keeping with the position of your new (or potentially new) employer or co-worker.

What is a former editor to do? You may have written hundreds, maybe thousands, of editorials during your tenure. What can you, as a former editor whose work is available for the public to see, do to protect your career? What are you ethically bound to do? When does this become a First Amendment issue? And finally, what about damage control to your reputation?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Should Others Read Letters to Editor Before Publication?

Here are the facts of a recent event that took place at a weekly newspaper in Missouri. These facts were presented as a “case study” to 40 community journalists from different areas of the United States. These journalists were asked to e-mail their responses to the discussion questions and eight of the responses are being shared here.


A taxpayer submits a letter to a weekly newspaper. The letter is critical of the financial decisions being made by the school district's board and administration. The letter is not an individual attack (no names are mentioned) but it does question wisdom of the school district's decisions.

The letter misses the deadline for the weekly publication (apparently) by just a few hours. A day or two later, the newspaper's editor calls the school board president, "to check the facts." That day, the board president visits the newspaper office to read the letter one week in advance of it being published. He is allowed to do so and the president may have even received a copy of the letter to take with him (different versions of the story exist on this point).

In the coming days, the board president works at "rallying the troops" to respond to the letter (which has not yet been published). The letter and its writer are both discussed at a board meeting and a community basketball game where the board president asks citizens to write letters in response to the "vicious attack," which has not even been published yet.

The school superintendent even writes his own response (and submits it the same day the weekly newspaper comes out). That letter takes a personal approach and actually begins as an attack on the writer: "John Doe just doesn't get it." Subsequent letters follow from the board president and teachers, all taking personal aim at the writer of the letter. Interestingly, the editor never contacts the person being attacked in those letters to verify any facts or statements being made before those letters are published.

Here are the primarily questions this case study raises:

1. What are the ethics involved with an editor contacting a governing board (and/or its leader) in advance of the publication of a letter to the editor?

2. What are the ethics involved with letting someone actually read (and perhaps even have a copy of) a letter in advance of publication?

3. What are the ethics involved with elected officials responding to letters to the editor by attacking the writer instead of the issues?

4. Do you have any advice for either the editor of the newspaper, or the writer of the letter?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Signing editorials?

A comment posted to this blog today deserves a response.

Here is the comment: "Can you tell me how a local newspaper can legally print their opinion with no author, and the public must identify themselves when submitting editorials?"

My response would be that newspapers can legally do about anything they want.

Seriously, it is not an issue of legality. There is no "legal" issue here.

Most newspapers make it a "policy" of their product to require names on letters to the editor. There are some exceptions and some rural papers that do sometimes print letters without names. But this is a newspaper/business policy (issue of fairness too). Has nothing to do with the law.

Many area papers print "columns" that have the name and picture of the editor or writer.

Many also run editorials without the name of the person who wrote it. For example, that is what the News-Leader does every day. The main editorial never has the writer identified. But, we do know who the editorial board is and the editorial is supposed to reflect the boards opinion.

The same assumption could be make in Anytown, USA.

The editorial may not have a name but it speaks for the entire newspaper (publisher, general manager, editor and reporters). Who actually typed out the letters to form words and sentences is really secondary. The editorial is supposed to speak for the entire newspaper.

What say you?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

News media and society -- discuss

Sensational. It’s a word often used to describe the current state of news coverage in America. But, it’s no compliment to journalists or the way they report the news. In fact, there is strong evidence to support the disquieting idea that many Americans do not trust the media. In 1985, more than 80 percent of newspaper readers thought their papers did a good job, but by the late 1990s less than half of Americans thought reporters were fair. The buck doesn’t stop with print media either.
Manipulative, even vicious reporting techniques have become commonplace in today’s television news coverage.

Stations compete vehemently with each other to capture ratings and often focus too intently on an issue or story if it’s considered a “hot button” with audiences. Some journalists have even been found to be downright deceptive.

Much of our public discourse is sparked by what the news reports about our lives. If people distrust the media, then it follows that the health of American democracy itself is at stake. While public concerns about journalism ethics date back to the late 1880s, there is currently a period of deep introspection under way about the state of news coverage. That’s why it’s pertinent that American citizens become involved in the dialogue and in the response taken to repair the distrust that currently exists between the public and the press.

Want to learn more about this discussion? Read the "News Media and Society" discussion guide HERE.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Freedom of Information Worskhop, Sept. 15

The Southwest Missouri Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is offering a workshop on how to file Freedom of Information requests Friday, Sept. 15 at Mille's Turn of the Century Café, 313 S. Jefferson Ave., in Springfield, Mo. Jonathan Groves, former News-Leader assistant managing editor and a journalism instructor at Drury University, will provide a step-by-step guide on how to file Freedom of Information requests to ensure reporters and news organizations obtain the specific details they need for stories. The program starts at noon. Lunch is order off the menu and prices range from $5 to $10. Questions? Call Michelle Rose at 837-1371 or e-mail

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Let's hear it for eMprint

Blogs, citizen journalism, online editions ... ah! All of these new outlets/methods for journalism are almost too much to keep track of these days. Everything is designed to help readers and newspapers connect. And the technological changes are designed to save costs while also reaching the new (and younger) tech readers.

We are in the middle of some pretty dramatic changes for print news. Could it be that 10 years from now the traditional printed product is history?

While you are mussing on that thought ... now comes along another option (actually, this option has been out there for a year or two). Developed at the Missouri School of Journalism's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, an eMprint version of a publication can upgrade the way news content is delivered online to readers. The product is eco-friendly, it can contain audio and video, can be done in full color, and it is designed specifically for the computer screen, not a broadsheet.

So far, the product is getting rave reviews from readers of the Columbia Missourian.

For more information, vist this website.

What do you think? Is this the wave of the future?

Citizen journalism revisited

Andrew Cline, a journalism instructor at Missouri State University, posted a comment to this blog last week regarding a post about citizen journalism and some local examples. I asked if "citizen journalism" was similar to what weekly newspapers have done for years (readers handing in stories) and whether or not citizen journalists can do a better job.

Andrew Cline's post bears repeating here:

It's not a matter of a better job. It's a matter of a *different* job. Citizen journalism isn't and shouldn't be about replacing the mainstream media or doing a better job at the professional game. It is about recognizing that diverse discourse communities are not always well-served by a news media that addresses a general public. A better way to understand this movement: citizen journalism will come to be an effective adjunct to the professional product. Pros and citizens will work together.

What is your thought?