Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Good Speed of News

Coverage of the Chilean miners last week was a welcome reminder of the powerful role broadcast journalism can still play in our 24/7 news cycle. Who watching didn't get choked up as each miner stepped from the capsule after two and half months stranded underground? How could we not be moved by the sheer inspiration such a rescue provided in digital color?

Just weeks before, I'd felt again the virtual power of high tech journalism as word jumped across the Internet of the publisher's page-one editorial confronting the drug cartel in Juarez, Mexico. He had good reason to run the piece on the front page of his newspaper: he'd seen two of his own—a reporter and a photographer—killed trying to cover the thugs. The international press from his column brought much needed attention to the issue and place that has become one of today's most dangerous places for journalists.

Sometimes I loathe the immediacy and glut of news these days. But when I see these stories, I'm taken out of the smallness of my own scenario and reminded of a bigger story. I'm richer for it. That's the impact today's journalism can have. It can bring inspiration, attention, and hopefully, change.

Much like the Civil Rights Movement did in the U.S. in the 1960s. When courageous young men and women marched to end segregation, it was the relatively new medium called television that challenged the country. After all, one cannot sit comfortably in his living room when watching little girls hosed down by firemen, and attack dogs directed onto teenagers.

Such images, such stories, confirm for me that honest reporting is still the stuff of freedom.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Media and the Minister: Ode to 9/11

I lived in New York City nine years ago and saw for myself the smoke and ash of two burning buildings known as the Twin Towers. It was an awful day, one I still get shaky remembering. I even wrote about it because, well, I had to. It was my way of making sense of the tragedy, if there was such a thing as making sense. And as the story became a bigger story and then an historic one, it traveled throughout the world through a still young Internet news cycle, affecting everyone, it seemed, on the planet.

Since then, the news cycle has morphed into a monster, crushing us with more news than we know what to do with. And this past week, its influence on a once obscure Florida minister seems almost greater than the book on which he says his faith is based. From the media monster, he somehow came to believe that all Muslims were related to those who flew into the Towers, and that they needed a warning in the form of a torch to their holy book. As if burning sacred paper would fight terrorists.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Stories with Old Foundations: A Tribute to Professionals

At the start of a new academic year, journalism students across campuses—my own included—begin the hunt for stories. They dig into their communities and jump across ideas, hungry to report the latest trend or discovery or event. It's good work and good preparation for their lives, and careers, ahead.

But the new stories need old foundations. Truth as the primary pursuit for reporters has grounded the profession (for the most part) for nearly three centuries in this country. And such truth-finding and truth-telling is for one purpose only: citizens. Informing families and neighbors, business owners and teachers of the truths they need to know to govern their lives. The words, the stories, the sources, matter. The job itself is crucial.

Unfortunately, in our viral world, news organizations can have short memories when it comes to the industry's foundations. That's why we need professionals who will remind the next generation how the cornerstone of truth  builds both a story and a culture. Like Salem News reporter Steve Landwehr did a year ago in my class. He looked right at those young reporters and said, "Journalism is the best job in the world. You get to make a difference every day. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise!"

How'd he know that? Because he made a difference each day: with stories that uncovered government corruption or inspiring local heroes. We've lost Steve's byline; he died unexpectedly last month. But his commitment, like the foundations for journalism, never will. They ensure our truth telling for the future.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reading the Summer Skies

Oil spills. Supreme court hearing. Leaders falling. Goals (soccer, that is) stolen. It's been quite a summer already for the media. And I confess, it's hard not to want to run for cover . . . or to use the newspaper as an umbrella instead and quit reading altogether.

But we need to know, don't we?  If a ban on handguns is lifted, it'd be a good idea to know that, especially during the next road trip we take through the wild west. Or if sedentary lifestyles are fattening the culture and ruining our kid's health—in the summer no less—that information could shorten our grocery lists. Which might be a good thing in this economy anyway.

In other words, the news might be dark, and lightning sure enough will strike, igniting all sorts of information fires. But I reckon it's better to be armed with some sense of life beyond our own doorsteps than to, well, miss the glory and horror of a stormy sky. Reading the clouds—like reading the news—helps us know a little better how to navigate the day, how to care about the next step we take.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Week 4 Top 4: Discovering Anew the World Beyond

This week’s Top Four Good Stories present fascinating reporting on issues we might not have thought about before, topics we might never have noticed unless a reporter brought them to us. They’re the kind of stories that take us outside of ourselves to new ways of seeing, of discovering the light on the trees beyond the leaves in front of us. Enjoy:

1. For focusing on the intersection of justice and mercy, disaster and beauty, i.e., a crucial dispatch from the ruins of Haiti, “Rescuing Art from the Rubble of the Quake,” New York Times, May 11.

2. For an engaging reminder of the thrill of discovery, and of bearing witness to a story: “Whale Song: elegy for a leviathan,” Christian Science Monitor, May 12.

3. For finding news in nature and reporting it for urban dwellers as compelling and relevant: “Take a walk with a warbler,” Providence Journal, May 13.

4. For “exploring the connection of people of faith to the natural elements” in an engaging multi-media special report: “Elements of Ritual and Renewal: Air, Earth, Fire, Water,” Medill News Service and Religions News Service, May 12.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Partnering with—and for—the Next Generation

I've just completed the first semester launch of a new internship program, the Gordon College News Service, a partnership with student reporters and local news outlets. It's been genuinely inspiring working with young reporters, watching them grow, seeing them discover what they're capable of, reading (and re-reading) their stories for verification, clarity and value. They are, to me, another sign that journalism—and our culture for that matter—is hardly dead. 

These four aspiring writers have chutzpah, vision, integrity. I'm not sure who gained more from the other these past three months as we worked together on stories—them or me.  And I'm all the more delighted that others felt the same—our media partners (The Salem News, The Boston Globe, etc.) have published their stories, and in so doing have validated their efforts as young professionals who are making important contributions to the community.

In fact, their work and voices are worth introducing to you, so meet Alysa Obert as she reflects on being a journalist, and Amanda C. Thompson as she ponders things we have lost. Both college juniors (our other two reporters are graduating on Saturday) care deeply about language and good stories. Kudos to the next generation!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Week 3: Elbow Grease Creates Top 4 Good Stories

There was plenty to chew on this week with good stories that dug deep. Thank you to the reporters whose sheer tenacity produced stories that literally helped shed new light on important topics. Given the amount of vivid and varied details in this week's top four stories, each must have taken tons of time to report, verify, and confirm to get them right so we could draw our own conclusions. That in itself is worth appreciating, and taking some time to to read each slowly:

1. For a fascinating look behind the scenes of prize winning (literally) investigative reporting, "Covering 'Tainted Justice' and Winning a Pulitzer," NPR—Fresh Air, May 3

2. For reporting a different voice in a red hot debate, "Residents defend Arizona after immigration law," the L.A. Times, May 5

3. For surprisingly charming and dogged reporting/writing of the story behind one of my favorite New York emblems, the blue coffee cup: "Leslie Buck, Designer of Iconic Coffee Cup, Dies at 87", New York Times,  April 29

4. For hard hitting research, perspective, and context on a growing—pun intended—concern: "Beating Obesity" The Atlantic, May 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Week 2: Top 4 Good Stories

As promised, here are my top four Good Stories celebrating the Fourth Estate for this week. Good journalism IS happening and we are all the better for it. History's first draft . . . 

1. For a near perfect example of giving voice to the voiceless, and for sheer staying power (I woke up thinking about this story): "Here to Aid His Family, Left to Die on the Street" New York Times, Tuesday, April 27.

2. For shedding new light on a hot topic (but stretching my old-school brain): "Social media reshapes journalism"  the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, Saturday, April 24.

3. For great reporting from a variety of sources on a heart-felt issue (well done, Adelle!): "Legal skirmish colors National Day of Prayer"  Religion News Service, Friday, April 23. 

4. For compelling subject and inspiring story (would make a great film or book): “South Korean woman claims 14 peaks climbing record” BBC, Tuesday, April 27.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Other Side of Leadership

It's hardly news to say that ours is a culture fixated on celebrities and leaders. We elevate individuals into prominence and admire them for their leadership qualities or talents. In fact, we train our young people to aspire to such status. As a fellow journalist and educator recently wrote (and got me thinking about this), our colleges invest a lot of effort into preparing the world's next leaders. We sharpen their thinking skills so they can guide companies and hone their speaking skills so they can inspire communities. We expect them to aspire to positions of power so they can influence and shape culture. And if they're not prepared to lead by the time they graduate, no worries. There are oodles of books, videos and workshops on becoming an effective leader. As if leadership were the highest—and only—goal. Who can imagine a university advertising, "We train the next generation of followers"?!

Maybe we should.

Maybe we should teach listening instead of speaking skills. Reflection instead of strategic thinking. And for that matter, principles of following instead of leading. I'm not talking about doormat stuff here, or the mindless hoopla of mob scenes. No, I'm talking about thoughtful followers with character, integrity, patience. Those who don't feel compelled to lead a company or star in a movie, but who know—really know—their contributions are just as insignificant.

The thousands of graduates this spring entering the workplace might feel equipped to climb the ladder of success but I'm not sure they know how to hold it steadily in place so others can climb. Or want to. But we need good followers—smart, insightful and self aware citizens as much as we do leaders of the same ilk. We need those un-ambitious types who can watch the crowd swept up in the latest political movement and question its goals and language. Not because they want to take over or even join, but because questioning is the right thing to do.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

First Up: My Top Four Good Stories of the Week—April 22

It's been a busy week for journalists around the globe, but I found these four articles worthy of my inaugural "Good Story Prize" and worth a read. Like the light on this ship in the Long Island Sound, they help us see the issues a little clearer. (That might be a stretch, but I liked this photo my husband took.) They are out there . . .

     1. For old fashioned (local) inspiration:"City leaders thank 94-year-old Charlotte Blood" The Eagle Tribune, April 20, 2010 

     2. For solid reporting as a 'voice for the voiceless' on an underreported story: "Fighting in Congo Displaces 100,000 Civilians" Voice of America, April 20, 2010

3. For making potentially complicated (but certainly relevant) information accessible and interesting: "Scrapes on a Plane: A veteran pilot talks about what it's like to fly through volcanic ash" Newsweek, April 16, 2010

4. For using fun language to help shed light on an important topic: "Joe Biden, No. 1 Fan of Women's Sports" The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 20, 2010

Monday, April 19, 2010

This Just In: A New Prize for the Fourth Estate

Last week the 2010 Pulitzer Prizes were announced at Columbia University in NYC. There were few surprises from the major news organizations (i.e., The New York Times and The Washington Post) and thankfully some smaller papers were honored as well (i.e., Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Bristol Herald Courier). The range and scope of the stories/reporters recognized suggest to me that—despite what some might believe—there are plenty of people in journalism who still care about reporting. About coverage. About words and truth and sense-making.

Last week, I also attended a gathering of writers, not in NYC but in the mid-west. There, I heard from a few too many folks (more on that later) who seemed convinced that all mainstream journalists are biased liberals (whatever that means), out to get the rest of us. They think the media are the enemy and have deteriorated to one giant spitting machine. And admittedly, there probably are too many sensational stories in today's news for my liking. But boy, oh boy, that sure ain't the whole story. At least from where I've been sitting.

So this week, I've decided to begin my own prize. I'll call it, well, just what it is: the "Good Story" prize. Each fourth day of the week (that'd be Thursday) for the next four weeks, I'll give my Top Four Good Story Prizes, links and all, just to prove to the cranky "non-liberals" (whatever that means) that there still is some hope in what we're seeing in today's coverage. What qualifies? Good writing. Important coverage. Credible sources. You get the idea. Maybe my little experiment in four weekly prizes will help start a movement that reminds folks of this one simple truth: that we'd all be sunk without this great gift called the Fourth Estate. See you Thursday!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Too Much News Gets to be Too Much

It's a sad reflection on a writer to go a month without posting a single new sentence on her blog. It's not that there's been a dearth of ideas or issues for me to comment on. There have been too many: Like the professor-turned-alleged-murderer in Alabama who long ago left the Boston area but who's remained a constant story in local weeklies and dailies lately, as if her life among us connected us to the tragedy.

Or the other horrendous earthquake in Chile which happened only a month after Haiti's. Or the more recent news of the first woman in Academy history to win an Oscar for best director—of a war movie, no less. Or the unthinkable massacres between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, a story largely off the radar of most news outlets, its details so grim that they seem to get bumped instead for coverage of, say, a Utah senator's resignation over a sex 'scandal' that happened 25 years ago. Not to mention the story of another actor overdosing on prescription drugs, or that of a California straight-A high school senior murdered, the ubiqutious health care debate, or the cooking classes that have seen an increase in enrollment because of the recession. The landscape of news this past month has been strange indeed.

And to be honest, sometimes it's too much too take in. With so many stories—of terrible, inspiring or absurd news—so accessible to us each day, I confess that the glut leaves my thinking fragmented. These aren't new issues in humankind—it's just that we know about them now instantly, thanks (or not) to the Internet. And that can feel overwhelming, to the point of leaving a writer clueless of which story to respond to, her brain almost frozen like a statue.

But one recent story (I came across in the print version of my local paper) is finally worth noting, a model piece of reporting that simply and patiently told a story I needed to hear. It lifted me out of the paralyzing blur of the media to remind me of one simple truth: families still make room for their elderly members, quite literally by building new rooms on their houses. It had dignity, compelling writing, and mostly, staying power, the kind of story that makes you stop and actually reflect, the kind I think we all could use more of. It's worth a read for that reason alone—to stop and reflect—and I hope you will: In Peabody, In-Law Aparments Popular.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Wisdom of Buying a House . . . for Journalism

It's conventional wisdom (especially in this economy): you never buy a house on the first visit. In fact, it's smart to go back a second and third time, to look closely at each room, the shingles on the roof, the pipes in the basement. You ask questions, lots of them, about everything from the foundation and the structure to the neighborhood and the heating bills. You won't really know the place unless you look closely at each part, line up the details and decide if the whole picture is worth the investment.

The same can be true of journalism, for both those who report the stories and those who read them. Just as there are many parts of a house, so are there multiple sides of a story. To write one with only a few sources is the equivilant of signing a mortgage from the sidewalk without ever stepping foot in the place. And to read a story and believe it simply because it's in print (or online), well, is like buying a house from a photo simply because it looked nice.

Here's what I mean: A young journalist recently showed me an article in a local paper that troubled her. She was bothered initially not by the reporting but by the subject: a man she'd interviewed and respected had been arrested on charges of stealing. She couldn't believe he'd do such a thing but there it was in print. The details in the story, though, didn't add up; only one disgruntled source was quoted and information about his employment and character—which she knew first hand—wasn't mentioned. It was a sloppy piece of reporting, we decided, and a good opportunity to remember that every story has many 'rooms.'

In a culture crushed by instant news, and reporters competing for more breaks with less support, I worry that we're getting a lot more sidewalk glances, if you will, than we are wise investments. What we need—from both editors and readers—is patience. Patience to look. To ask. To dig. And then to look again, so we get as much of the information about each side of the place as possible. Because hurrying through a story will surely mean we've missed the details that matter. And that could lead to a crisis just as serious as the housing mess we're in now.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"The Supreme Court Calls for Increased Investigative Reporting"

It might as well have been the headline. As if the news of this past week wasn't already keeping journalists running at full speed (i.e., the Haitian earthquake, a Republican elected from Massachusetts, escalating joblessness, Roe v Wade anniversary, etc.), the Supreme Court made a stunning announcement that surely will demand more of reporters in the future. In a 5-4 decision, it repealed a decades-old law that banned the federal government from limiting corporate spending on campaigns.

As if the latest campaign ads weren't ugly enough, the ruling can be seen as a wide open door for big businesses to spend big bucks on attacks ads in order to get what—and who—they want. The 5 judges in favor said the decision enhanced the First Amendment, allowing 'companies and unions' the right to free speech; the 4 dissenters said such corporate money would muddy the waters of democracy.

In his 90-page opinion, dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, an 89-year old soft-spoken Republican and former antitrust lawyer from Chicago, wrote that, "The court's blinkered and aphoristic approach to the First Amendment may well promote corporate power at the cost of the individual and collective self-expression." His 5 colleagues, in other words, were wrong to treat corporate speech the same as that of human beings.

I'll say. What this means for journalism, of course, is that its role as a watchdog of already greedy powers will become all the more essential—and probably dangerous. If corporate America spends more of its advertising money to elect its officials of choice, reporters are going to have to scramble all the harder to make sure the public knows—really knows—what candidates stand for, who's backing them and why. Their investigating will become crucial linchpins to a democratic lifestyle; their work will be harder than ever, in part because it will have to compete against what will surely be louder, more mean-spirited and well-funded campaigns.

Which worries me. Considering the economic disarray of journalism today, how will we afford to pay reporters to do the one thing most necessary for a democracy: report? But with this new ruling, maybe the better question is, how can we afford not to? Because ultimately it will be the majority of citizens across the country—the 'human beings'—who will be the losers here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Clarity, People, Please!

Okay, I'm a wreck. Haiti has long been on my radar, especially after two attempts in the 1990s to travel there with service groups and both times denied access because of the political upheavals. I have followed its issues and overthrows ever since, and barraged workers from NGOs or mission agencies with questions. I have supported friends who've cared for people there. So when I went to find out more about the unbelievable devastation that's hit the already troubled island, I came instead across one too many stories not on the shattered country, but on Pat Robertson and some comments he's made about it.

This is not news. The news is the earthquake, the grieving families, the leveled homes, the enormous loss of lives and gifts and assets to an already impoverished people. Maybe editors or reporters themselves did not know how to process the sheer horror of the story so they looked instead to an off-the-cuff comment from a man with a lifetime of personal convictions and public expressions of them. Maybe he'd sell papers, they thought. So their coverage of Robertson spiraled to an absurdity as senseless as the one they claimed of him; in short, it was a whole lot of thoughtless reporting, more tired attempts to paint evangelicals as insensitive morons.

Really, who cares what a television host believes about such a tragedy? We need updates on the rescue efforts, not distractions. We need information about relief and families—much of which will be coming from workers in Christian agencies—not stereotypes. We need stories of what's happened and how we can help. Not little comments of why it happened at all.

SO at the risk of sounding, well, preachy, the media is in need of a renewed sense of purpose. Lately, many of its representatives seemed to have suffered from a memory lapse of their primary role in reporting the real news.  For journalism's success will never be found in economic terms, but only in useful service to its readers.  God help us. God help Haiti.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best Wishes for a Newer Year

A new year is news. Any paper, magazine, radio or television show worth its salt confirmed that this past week with its endless spotlight on 'new as news.' So are resolutions, which are code for hoping the coming year is not like the last. And then there are the lists. The top stories that changed and moved and shocked the world.

It's an odd but interesting tradition in journalism to pause (for a nano-second) at the year's major stories, in hopes, I guess, of gaining some fresh perspective we might have missed the first time around. Sort of like glancing at an abstract painting in a gallery where we notice the lines and colors, shapes and patterns, but we don't necessarily 'get' it. So we go back to it, lean in close to the canvas, put our hands on our hips and say, "Hmm, that's interesting."

There's no doubt the stories of this past year do require some more reflection: an African American leader birthed into office while hate crimes and racial threats escalated across the country. A moonwalking singing icon died but few concerns about prescription-drug addiction seemed to emerge. Town Hall shouting matches over how to care for sick people drowned out the treatable but still-killer illnesses of millions of families in developing countries, not to mention the children in this country who've never seen a doctor, all while celebrity affairs, political sex scandals and desperate grasps at fame distracted us from the bullets and famines, poverty and machetes of communities beyond our borders.

Of course, there were a few noble reporters who narrowed in on these otherwise absent stories. But maybe the better year-end list by the mainstream media should not be what stories were reported in 2009 but which weren't. And maybe the resolution for 2010 could be to pay more attention—all of us, reporter and reader alike—to those that really need to be told. That would be a resolution worth holding to.