The moral dilemma of today’s news | The tech-media divide | The problem with writing “poverty porn”

The moral dilemma of today’s news: Journalism today is in an impossibly difficult position, says Tom Rachman in the Atlantic. “The job of a news reporter today is to declare what you can’t yet know to people convinced that they already do,” says Rachman. Should journalists just provide the truth about what’s happening in the world, or is it up to them to fix it? America has been left with an is-ought problem, says Rachman: facts don’t fall into the same category as moral statements of what they ought to be, but the two are often conflated. There is no single type of source that can provide neutral facts: authority figures, civilians, and online voices all come with their own biases. Furthermore, the landscape of trust itself is constantly changing — trust in the news and in authority shift based on what’s going on in the world. In order for news to have value, journalists must provide neutral facts to an audience who is likely to be defensive rather than open minded. 

The tech-media divide: A widening rift is splitting Silicon Valley and the media, writes Benjamin Wallace in New York Magazine. The tech industry has been changing from “cute and quirky toy-maker to dystopian nightmare factory” for decades, writes Wallace. Reporters have begun to take a more critical view of the industry, writing exposés on Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 election and fraud in the startup Theranos. Tech executives like Elon Musk are outspoken about their distaste for the media, and tech is beginning to recite its own narrative to combat critical reporting. The fight between tech and media is partially performative, according to Wallace, as both sides benefit from the Twitter wars and snipey comments from the other. However, it’s a precarious relationship that the two have, and keeping them in dialogue is in everyone’s best interest, says Wallace. 

The problem with writing “poverty porn”: Journalists tend to tell stories of the extremes, and in doing so miss out on a lot of the stuff in the middle, says Ko Bragg in CJR. Reporters who reach out to nonprofits and other organizations working directly with people dealing with crises like evictions or the repercussions of immigration policy tend to request a certain type of story: those who are suffering the most. While these stories do exist, there’s a certain lack of empathy that comes from cherry picking a story in this way. Instead of doing this, it’s up to the reporters to build real relationships with sources rather than relying on organizations to give them their most desperate people, says Bragg.

Personal expression in journalism | The girl stunt reporter | Amazon’s content moderation responsibilities

Personal expression in journalism: Journalism isn’t supposed to be personal. Or, at least, that’s been the practice for a very long time, writes Barbara Allen in Poynter. However, the line between journalist and activist needs to be re-evaluated, as it’s impossible and unnecessary to totally remove the personality from reporting. George Floyd’s death, for example, led to a wave of emotion and “secondary trauma” among journalists, says Allen. So, why hide it? Emotional reporting isn’t necessarily problematic, but many are hesitant to accept too much personal expression from reporters due to today’s extreme political polarization. However, sometimes personality can really emphasize the importance of an issue, and it’s up to the stories to tell the tale, not the politics, says Allen. 

The girl stunt reporter: In the late 19th century, women were entering the field of journalism as “stunt reporters,” immersing themselves in the stories that they were trying to cover, says Katy Waldman in a New Yorker analysis of author Kim Todd’s “Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s ‘Girl Stunt Reporters.’” The end of the 1800s brought about a slew of women, such such as Nellie Bly, working to expose inhumane conditions in factories, psychiatric hospitals, and other previously unreported places. At the time, their role in reporting confronted the very fabric of the role of women in the era. It’s important to remember their contributions to the field of journalism and acknowledge the work that they once dedicated. There is a significant legacy of the girl stunt reporter that shouldn’t be forgotten, as “she was writing a story that her public didn’t yet know how to read,” says Waldman. 

Amazon’s content moderation responsibilities: Amazon might want to pay a little more attention to what’s on their bestselling book lists, because some make no sense in their categories, writes Benedict Evans in his weekly tech newsletter. This issue brings to mind the question that social media sites have had to address recently: what is the role of online social and retail companies in content moderation? Of the top-selling books in the “Children’s Vaccination & Immunization” category, most are either anti-vaccination or are fictional novels. Given this example, it’s clear that the process by which the books are broken down and categorized is grossly oversimplified, argues Evans. Is the way in which Amazon processes data facilitating the spread of misinformation, or is it merely a tool that the site has no social responsibility to address so long as business is good? Like other sites that have had to deal with censorship and content moderation, there’s no clear answer, says Evans.

The phrase “op-ed” is retiring | Using systems thinking in reporting | People want ‘solutions journalism’

The phrase “op-ed” is retiring: NYT opinion editor Kathleen Kingsbury is retiring the long-used term “op-ed” from the New York Times. Short for “opposite editorial,” the phrase “op-ed” is outdated and confusing, writes Sarah Scire in Nieman Lab. Instead, outside opinions will be referred to as “guest essays.” This change is part of an effort to address the spread of disinformation by clearly differentiating between opinion writing and news content. Writers hope that it will also increase trust from readers. “In an era of distrust in the media and confusion over what journalism is, I believe institutions — even ones with a lot of esteemed traditions — better serve their audiences with direct, clear language,” says Kingsbury. 

Using systems thinking in reporting: Oakland-based newspaper El Tímpano is covering the local overcrowded housing conditions in an unconventional way, according to Madeleine Bair in Medium. Using the calculated approach of systems thinking, reporters are making an effort to analyze all factors contributing to the housing crisis. Reporters are looking at economic, public health, and other public policy factors as well as the more intimate experiences of those living in unhealthy housing conditions. By mapping out the structures that contribute to this particular crisis, journalists are able to report a more complete story of the housing conditions. Perhaps this type of thinking can be used as a lesson for covering other crises that stem from systemic issues and affect a web of people, not just a select group of individuals. 

People want ‘solutions journalism’: Audiences respond positively to what is known as “solutions journalism” according to a new study done, reports Solutions Journalism in the Whole Story. Reporting that includes potential solutions to issues rather than just presenting the problem was rated significantly higher than problem-based reporting across a range of metrics, the authors said. Questions asked to the audience included topics like the quality of storytelling, the depth of information, and the ability to capture what matters in a story. Overall, the audience had incredibly positive reactions to solutions-based stories, so maybe journalists need to start looking at what they write by more completely addressing issues and solutions, rather than just the former. 

Escalating trauma for journalists | More on the downfall of Caliphate | Reporting on homeless deaths

Escalating trauma for journalists: The past year has been eventful, to say the least, and it’s taking a psychological toll on journalists, writes Sarah Scire in Nieman Lab. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, an organization that focuses on educating journalists on the impacts of trauma, has expanded its outreach in the past year as journalists grapple with the consequences of reporting on an unrelenting string of impactful events including the pandemic, mass shootings, racial injustice, and countless others. Though the Dart Center can’t hold in-person events, they have had success in their online conversations and have found a “surprising degree of intimacy” in addressing the stress of reporting in an especially difficult global moment, says Scire. 

More on the downfall of Caliphate: In the fall of 2020, the popular New York Times podcast “Caliphate” was debunked after investigation showed that Shehroze Chaudhry, the interviewee that the podcast had been centered around, had never actually been involved with the Islamic state, says James Harkin in Harper’s Magazine. This incident reveals the dangers of internet reporting, writes Harkin. Podcast host Rukmini Callimachi had relied heavily in her terror reporting on jihadist social media, but failed to distinguish between ISIS sympathizers and militants and made other errors in judgement. According to Harkin, the New York Times itself did not use enough scrutiny before publishing the podcast, a mistake that has been repeated throughout Western news organizations in reporting on terror. “Strong journalism requires on-the-ground expertise and skepticism as much as great characters and slick narratives,” writes Harkin. 

Reporting on homeless deaths: There’s been a gap in reporting on homelessness and the deaths of those experiencing homelessness, says Hannah Coogans in Global Investigative Journalism Network. In 2017, UK reporter Maeve McClenaghan found that there was no data on the number of people who die each year while homeless. McClenaghan, along with over a thousand other reporters, then worked on the Dying Homeless Project, investigating homeless deaths in the UK over the course of 18 months. The reports on the deaths focused on both numbers and individual stories, making sure to memorialize the deceased rather than just use them as data, says Coogans. McClenaghan recommends that others continue with this kind of practice: when there is a gap in knowledge or data, it should be seen as an opportunity to research and follow-up, not as a discouragement from reporting.