Archive | January, 2012

How being a skeptic can save face

30 Jan

By: Gabriela Gonzalez

If you don’t fact check, you may publish something embarrassing.

Latina Magazine does this all the time. Though I love the magazine, I cringe when it writes that someone is Mexican, when the person is actually Colombian, or something like that. Sometimes it runs corrections. If it runs a correction, it simply edits it, and it doesn’t announce it.  If normal people know this kind of stuff, why can’t a magazine that specializes in Latino(a) people and culture get it right?

It turns out Latina isn’t the only one with correction and fact-checking issues. There was a study done in 2007 stating that “over half of all newspaper articles have some form of mistake in them.” Also, only 2 percent of them are actually corrected.

A paper liker Der Spiegel has 70 full-time fact checkers, while the New Yorker only has 16 fact checkers.

The Slate said in an article that newspapers should expand their area for corrections by 50 percent. For example, The New York Times is known for its constant and “ferocious” rate of misspelling of names.

The New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt estimates the paper misspells about 269 names a year.

For help in fact checking, there are websites dedicated to dispelling urban legends and letting you know whether people are dead or alive. There is even a website to find out whether someone is really a veteran. Others have a list of errors in books, quotes, etc.

Of course, websites are not always necessary to avoid serious mistakes. Sometimes, it is just a matter of taking the time to recalculate to make sure something adds up, or check the spelling with an official document.

When you look at lists or tips for avoiding mistakes, the key to avoiding many of the mistakes is simply, if you aren’t sure enough to put your life on it, don’t be lazy, and check it out. In fact, even if you would put your life on it, check it out. We are humans, and we make mistakes. It is crucial to catch the mistakes before they are diffused into the general public as truth, because once this happens, the cycle of error continues until someone is skeptical enough to check it.

Case Study: “Jimmy’s World”

30 Jan

By: Gabriela Gonzalez

“Jimmy’s World” may have seemed like a moving piece with Pulitzer Prize potential to Janet Cooke. But it quickly became much more than that.

The descriptive piece about the 8-year-old heroin addict put people in motion.

David A. Maraniss of the Washington Post wrote, “Upon publication, the Jimmy article prompted a strong and immediate response in the city. Mayor Marion Barry and Chief of Police Burtell Jefferson assigned a task force of police and social workers to locate the 8-year-old cited in the city and to obtain medical treatment for him. When the child could not be located, Barry and Jefferson voiced deep skepticism about the validity of the story. Barry said he believed “Jimmy” did not exist, or was a composite of several different youngsters.”

Not only did this happen, but later it was discovered that Janet Cooke didn’t graduate magna cum laude from Vassar College like she said. She also did not receive a master’s degree from University of Toledo in Ohio.

She was creative from the very beginning.

Reid MaCluggage said that a story does not need an advocate, but instead someone who will put it on the witness stand and tear it apart. In “Jimmy’s World,” by the time this was done, it was too late.

After I read the article, I was impressed by the descriptiveness of it all. At second glance, I came up with these questions:

1.      How did social services allow this child to stay at home when he obviously wasn’t hiding? Didn’t the school notice?


2.      There weren’t a great amount of credible sources linked to the family. The only ones who were “named” are the ones in the family, but no one else knows them or talks about them. The nameless fat woman doesn’t cut it. Who is the fat woman?


3.      Did any of the doctors ask about the boy and/or offer to treat him?


4.      How did the journalist find the family? How did Cooke gain such inside access (watching them “shoot up”)?


5.       Was law enforcement involved somehow?


Unfortunately, “Jimmy’s World” has not been the last case of fabrication, and it has not been the last piece that has had a lack of skeptical adversaries before publication. There was the “memoir” which quickly became popular called “A Million Little Pieces.” This was also an addict’s memoir.

Many of the things in the book ended up being embellished details and fictionalized accounts. Of course, this was discovered after it sat at The New York Times Bestseller List for nonfiction paperbacks thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement. She made this book part of her book club reading list. Ironically, when you walk into any bookstore you can still find the book in the biography section.

People are lazy and creative.  It is because of this that editors and journalists must be on their guard. Not just editors, but the public, too, because apparently we editors are missing some serious slip-ups. It is important to be skeptical. Try all of the facts.
If not, you may end up with “A Million Little Lies.”  

Blogs build communities

24 Jan

By: Gabriela Gonzalez

Blogs are fantastic tools. They are a constant flow of information and posts. They can vary from being Web logs about a commentator whose early mornings you love to read about, or they can be about wedding photography, where you see and share other’s happiest moments.

A blog is like a magazine. It specializes in an interest. It caters to an audience. But better than magazines, there are, as Jill Asher said, no rules. You can also add media like videos to enhance content.

Technorati calls it an online conversation. There is something about the thrill a blogger feels when they receive a comment. It is an open dialogue.

A blog is a window to free expression. My father once commented on my own blog, “Never stop writing, because as long as you are writing, you are free.”

NPR spiced things up with its Argo network. It was a $3 million dollar project. They took specialized reporters, almost like beat reporters, and had them keep blogs. The purpose of the network was to connect the 12 public radio member stations.

The websites received some impressive traffic. I like how Andrew Phelps called the network a support group. Reporters use each other and support each other’s work through the Argo blogs. He calls it a microcosm that serves as a platform.

Matt Thompson said the Argo blogs, as I know other blogs do, not only serve to connect advertisers with the blogger, but they also form a community revolving around the focus of the blog.

Widgets, sidebars and innovation all capture people’s interests. I can easily get distracted and play with a widget on WordPress for a lengthy amount of time. Things that connect you to others and promote your creations become fascinating very quickly.

There are always blurry ethical lines when it comes to blogging because as Dr. Walsh-Childers explained in her ethics class, many guidelines are still evolving because this is a relatively new field. There are always things, however, that will remain unnegociable.

Concepts like accuracy, fairness, respect of privacy, and respecting ownership of pieces such as photographs, will remain intact. There is no excuse for lying, sloppiness and stealing.

Something concerning is that NPR merges the concept of blogger and reporter. They hyphenate both into one word. If you are a reporter, your standards should remain the same in a blog. This includes objectivity. It is complicated because a lot of bloggers act as commentators. With commentary, the line of objective reporting is smudged.

I don’t think a blogger should be called a reporter unless he or she is completely affiliated with a news organization and he or she writes objectively. Aside from that, all others are bloggers and commentators who have a freedom of speech, but are not held to the same legal and content standard.

Blogging is a tremendous tool that closes the distance between the writer and the reader. It can reach demographics and people that aren’t traditionally reached with news media. No matter what the blog is used for, the most important thing it does for us is that it builds a community.

It forms a community and provides so that the members of that community can educate themselves and grow in knowledge as they discuss common topics and interests.

For news organizations such as NPR funding for bloggers is still being worked out. Fortunately, anyone can blog. If you like it enough, you won’t require a pay check to do it.

Case study: When an eagle eats a dog

24 Jan

By: Gabriela Gonzalez

In the discussion with peers, it was clear that we were all skeptical of the minimal sources used in the story, but still we accepted the story as fact. We were not skeptical enough to question the validity of the entire story. Different aspects, however, of the story bothered us because there were small things that contradict what we are taught in journalism.

1] Lack of Sources: The only identified source was Dennis Fleming. There is supposedly an account from “witnesses,” but the lack of identifiable sources makes the story less credible. There is credibility in numbers and names. This story lacks this support of evidence. The story says the witnesses said the pet was five feet away from the RV when it happened. Who are these witnesses? Anyone could make that up. Also, the reader doesn’t ever find out who the couple is. Ironically, the story revolves around the couple and their dog.

2] Ambiguity: In journalism, professors always tell you to get every detail. This would mean the names of everyone including the snatched dog. It would also include the name of the gas station as someone mentioned during the group discussion. Also, the story makes mention of a “Chihuahua-like dog.” What is that? The readers should be given an exact breed. Another detail that would be useful is why the couple went to Alaska.

Also noted, was a lack of clarity in the headline, “Eagle Snatches Dog While Owner Watches.” The headline makes it sound like the dog was snatched and the owner just watched. Perhaps a more appropriate headline would clarify and give the readers more of a feel for what actually happened.

Ambiguity leads to confusion, and it may deceive the reader or leave them unsatisfied. This could lead to a diminishing trust from the reader to the news organization. A factor that should always be present in journalism is accuracy.

3] Ethics and sensitivity toward the reader:  There is the quote, “It was the damnedest thing I ever saw,” which may be seen as insensitive to a reader. A parent may not like the use of “damnedest” in a paper that his child can pick up and read. Consideration for the variety of readers should be taken.

Also, the fact that while the woman was inconsolable, it says her husband came out of the motor home grinning and he was flailing his arms in the air yelling “Yeah! Yeah!” Even if the reader is not offended, the woman whose dog was snatched is probably not too happy. Ethically speaking, is this piece of information crucial to the story? Maybe it portrays the husband in a stereotypical way, so ethically it should not be included.

4] Skepticism is lacking: In journalism you are always told that if your mother tells you that she loves you, check it out. That sort of skepticism was lacking in this story. The story ended up being an urban legend. The writer chose to depend on one source. He or she put all of his or her trust in Dennis Fleming. Dennis Fleming turned out to be a creative man without an ounce of truth in the story he retold.

If more questions would have been asked in relation to solving the ambiguity and source problem, maybe the lie would’ve been revealed before actual publication.

5] Experts: Expert sources were necessary in this story to see if truly an eagle can snatch a dog. Wildlife Service could have answered this question. I asked the question of whether it was feasible for an eagle to eat a dog; not just lift it, but eat it, on Quora.

The only response I received was from Neil Russo saying, “A toy dog or a small puppy yes, but not any larger; especially the Golden Eagle, hawks, falcons and owls.”

He is a part of the general population who would believe this story. Fortunately, the story turned out to be untrue. An eagle cannot lift that much weight, even the one of a “Chihuahua-like dog.” According to the Bald Eagle Info website, eagles primarily eat fish and sometimes ducks and birds, but not dogs.

Experts add credibility to the story, and they can clarify misconceptions.

*Bald Eagle Info website:

Aggregation: Filtering or Stealing?

18 Jan

Aggregated by: Gabriela Gonzalez

In the average person’s mind, the word aggregation means to add. In journalism, the concept means rewriting a story with no additional reporting, according to Matthew Ingram. It can also mean taking parts of many articles and weaving them together with attribution for each respective excerpt or “lift.”

According to Poynter’s Kelly McBride, “the [aggregation] ethics [have been] evolving over the last two or three years, but they are not completely evolved.”

The Washington Post Managing Editor Raju Narisetti said, “When done right, aggregation can provide readers with a quick and easy way to keep up with news about topics that interest them.”

Huffington Post spokesman, Mario Ruiz, said, its goal is “to point to the best content available on the Web.”

Mallory Jean Tenore said aggregation fills gaps and filters.

When aggregating, it is important to attribute early so the reader notices the aggregation, said Josh Voorhees, editor of the Slatest.

It is also important to put the emphasis on the voices of the original sources, not the aggregator’s individual voice, said Dale Hrabi,’s editorial director.

All of these precautions and suggestions are useful in the face of aggregation’s evolving ethics because aggregation can easily become stealing said Bill Keller of the New York Times.

According to Matthew Ingram, the Miami Herald has an issue with the Huffington Post aggregating from its stories.

He continued saying that while the Huffington Post’s rewritten pieces repeat many of the basic facts that appear in the original articles, the writer always attributes the news to the Herald. For example:

“Not only was Cruz-Govin speeding, according to the Herald, he was a habitual texter. On the day of the accident, records show he sent 127 texts, the Herald reports.”

Ingram said the story the Huffington Post did was better than the Miami Herald’s story because it included more information and links.

A Herald reporter said in response, “Sure they link to our stories, but who’s going to click through after they’ve read the entire story on the Huffington Post?”

Kyle Munzenrieder said, “They might have a higher horse to sit on if the Herald didn’t aggregate so damn much itself.”

Munzenrieder said, that at least the Huffington Post links back when it aggregates. The Herald, however, aggregates as well but doesn’t bother linking to the source story.

The Herald, however, is not the only one complaining about the Huffington Post. Simon Dumenco, a media columnist, who wrote a piece about the Twitter Anthony Weiner scandal on the Ad Age website, said to the American Journalism Review that even though the Post linked twice, they summarized it so well, there was no incentive left for the person to click.

Frédéric Filloux called the Huffington Post “the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.”

Filloux said to those who have felt ripped-off by the Huffington Post, “That’s the internet, baby.”  He suggests to the publisher who doesn’t want his articles to be “stolen” that he should make it so that it is only accessible to those who pay for an application.

Filloux said the Huffington Post shouldn’t always be blamed, but it must be recognized as an innovator in the art of aggregation.

The question remains: How much is too much?