While racism and threats to the physical safety of black students are the most important issues amid the unrest at the University of Missouri, a controversy around the rights and responsibilities of the media has lingered all week.
As you know, the chancellor of the University of Missouri and the president of the state system resigned amid growing protests over the administration’s slow and tone-deaf response to a series of racist incidents and what black students say is an unsafe and hostile atmosphere for them on campus.
Here’s a timeline of the growing tensions on campus at the Maneater, the student news outlet, and here’s a New York Times story about the two resignations. This Mic.com piece about hunger striker Jonathan Butler lays out the grievances against system president Tim Wolfe, who resigned Monday.
The media controversy arose from an incident Monday, when protesters, led by the group Concerned Student 1950—whose name references the year blacks were finally admitted to Mizzou—were celebrating the resignations on the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle on campus and vowing to continue to fight. “This is just a beginning in dismantling systems of oppression in higher education, specifically the UM system,” Marshall Allen of Concerned Student 1950 told CNN.
Tim Tai, a Mizzou student photojournalist who was on assignment for ESPN, got into a confrontation with protesters near the tent city they’d set up as a “no media safe space,” on the quad. The incident was captured on video by Mark Schierbecker, and that video went viral.
A few of the people in the video who tried to keep Tai and Schierbecker away from protesters were Mizzou staff or faculty. Some of them later apologized and may face discipline. But to me the most interesting aspect of the incident was the argument between Tai and the protesters, which in the days since has been taken up across the internet.
The protesters argue that Tai, and all media, should respect their desire to keep the media out of their “safe space.” Tai’s argument can be summed up by his comment at 1:45 of the video: “The First Amendment protects your right to be here, and mine.” He mentions at one point that there’s a state law specifically declaring the Carnahan quad a public space.
Tai, whose photos were published by ESPN.com, was lauded by many journalists around the country for keeping his cool while defending his rights as a journalist. On the other hand, the arguments made by Tai and those who supported him were widely denounced by others, who argued that whatever the rights of journalists, they have an obligation to treat subjects, particularly subjects who are in danger or pain or both, more respectfully. “I think we underestimate how deeply broken our (media) relationship is w/minority communities,” tweeted Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery.
Tai, I should note, said on several occasions that he was uncomfortable having become part of the story, and that his squabble with protesters was not nearly as important as the larger issues.
I’m a little perturbed at being part of the story, so maybe let’s focus some more reporting on systemic racism in higher ed institutions.
— Tim Tai (@nonorganical) November 10, 2015
It’s also worth noting that the protesters changed their approach to the media on Tuesday.
— Mark Kim (@MarkJKim_) November 10, 2015
Kyle Stokes, a public radio reporter in Seattle who went to Mizzou, wrote a blog post headlined Why We Were There that laid out the media argument—that the media is tasked with being on site to get the true story and tell it to the public, which demands to know it.
Honestly, we saw you gathered in a public place. Although people typically do want to speak to the media when they’re gathered in this way, we know you are under no obligation to do so. But in a public place, journalists are going to do what they are paid to do: ask the question and take the picture. And we cannot ever apologize for that.
My first reaction to this confrontation Monday was to side squarely with Tai. I found the actions of the protesters disturbing. I thought their argument that they had a right to exclude anyone from the quad because they’d declared it their space was absurd.
I also thought they were being undemocratic, that having won a victory, they were using their newfound power in a bullying way. In the closing seconds of the video, a mass of protesters walking in a close group push Tai out of the scene completely. “It’s our right to walk forward, isn’t it?” one woman says. “I believe it’s my right to walk forward.” I’ve known fourth-grade bullies who were more subtle than that.
I tweeted in support of a piece that argued much the same thing.
Good piece on the disturbing behavior of some protesters today. Simply put: This is violence. https://t.co/fv1Iw6Wq1F
— King Kaufman (@king_kaufman) November 10, 2015
And then something even more disturbing to me happened. That tweet got a few dozen likes and retweets, and everyone who liked it or retweeted it whose race was apparent to me was white. And it’s not like all my followers are white.
Meanwhile, I found myself arguing on Twitter with black journalists I respect. One, who doesn’t like it when other writers embed her tweets in their stories, wrote, “Look at it from their perspective. If subjected to obscene harassment for months bc of protesting, would I want 2 b bothered?” and argued that a good reporter should respect being told no, consider the motivations, and find other ways to get the story.
A good summation of the argument against those of Tai and Stokes is made by Melissa McEwen at the Shakesville blog in a post headlined Stop. Just. Stop.
But in this country, with our reflexive reverence for a policy of “free expression,” as if speech exists in a void, we’re more worried about the supposed “intolerance” expressed by marginalized people who draw boundaries in defense of their own safety, because a minor restriction on a privileged person’s unfettered right to engage in hate speech, or assert their “right” to access to marginalized people’s spaces and lives, is considered a more burdensome encroachment on freedom than the right of people at whom hate speech is directed to live a life free of rhetorical terror.
I’m not sure where I stand at this point. One thing I’m sure of is that I’ve had to rethink some of my assumptions. The writer whose tweets I didn’t embed above has argued that tweets by people who aren’t public figures should not be considered fair game for journalists to reproduce. This is not a new or unique idea. Here’s a story by Amanda Hess of Slate from last year about a controversy around the privacy of public, which is to say unprotected, tweets.
The idea that journalists should respect the “privacy” of tweets, which are published online and have been ruled public, is similar to the idea that journalists should respect the privacy of a space carved out by a group of people, even if that space is on public ground.
I have problems with both of those ideas. But I have a better understanding of them than I had a week ago, and, as you can see in these last few paragraphs, I’m more likely to respect the requests of those who subscribe to them than I used to be.
Social media is changing notions and definitions of what is public and what is private. Those definitions are also subject to change in what people my age tend to call the real world—as if social media weren’t part of the real world. We don’t all have to agree on the definitions. But a smart, ethical reporter has to understand that those disagreements are real, and worth considering.
Here’s a lot more good reading on some of the angles around this subject:
DEAR READER: On a historic day for MU, protest against media wasn’t most important, by Tom Warhover, Columbia Missourian
There’s a good reason protesters at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around: Students wanted to create a safe space from not only the racism they encounter on campus, but the insensitivity they encounter in the news media, by Terrell Jermaine Starr, Washington Post
The Mizzou Football Team May Be Just the Beginning: Don’t be surprised if more black athletes exert their political power for civil rights, by Jamelle Bouie, Slate
Mizzou Players Turned a Social Movement into a Business Decision—and Won, by Greg Couch, Bleacher Report
How a Journalist Covering the Mizzou Protests Became a Political Pawn: Conservatives have latched onto Tim Tai as a means of discrediting the protesters, by Charles P. Pierce, Esquire
Photo of the Columns at University of Missouri by Adam Procter/GNU Free Documentation License.
In the wake of ESPN shutting down Grantland last week, there was an enlightening exchange this week between Clay Travis of Fox Sports and Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Finocchio about the state of sports media.
Travis, who was a lawyer before becoming a sportswriter, blogger and radio host, writes in his piece, On Grantland and Sports Media, that most of the analysis of Grantland’s demise has missed an important point: “the site was losing money.” He points out that the reported $6 million in annual revenue Grantland produced was less than sports-talk radio stations WJOX in Birmingham or 104.5 The Zone in Nashville, which, Travis writes, are both profitable.
When two single sports talk stations in mid-size markets produce more revenue and profit than a site like Grantland, located on the front page of ESPN.com, there are larger issues at play than Bill Simmons and editorial differences and lost jobs for the writers. Put simply, Grantland failed because it lost money and ESPN decided that the benefit Grantland brought to its brand wasn’t worth the cost it extracted.
Travis then launches on a sort of history of disruption in sports media, finally offering 10 “thoughts” for people hoping to make a living in the industry. The first of them is “Writers have to understand the business of writing.” He compares sportswriters to the scouts in the movie “Moneyball”:
Just like those baseball scouts for the Oakland A’s, most sportswriters are operating with an antiquated notion of what their job is, and they have no concept how to use the tools around them to make them better at their job.
At one point in the piece, Travis had mentioned Bleacher Report and SB Nation, calling them technology companies that treat writers like commodities and don’t pay them much. Finocchio, one of four friends who founded B/R, wrote him an email arguing that Bleacher Report is “very much a content company, not a product company, not a technology company.” Travis asked for and got permission to publish Finocchio’s note.
Finocchio goes on to talk about his view of the sports media landscape, focusing on how changes on the distribution end—from Google News driving traffic to Facebook doing so, for example—have affected content strategy.
Distribution disruption has now settled, and we’re swinging toward a period where the publishers with the most valuable content/brands are going to separate themselves from the pack. Cable is crumbling and distribution is getting more and more fragmented with no clear end in sight. Many traditional TV brands (like their newspaper brethren) ten years ago, are going to die, and they’re being replaced by the digital native brands that create the most valuable content. The talent (whether writers, video, audio, mixed media, other) are going to kick ass if they can actually deliver the goods. But lots of people are good. You have to be great (at something, anything).
Both pieces are long, and both are worth reading. They’re written by two men who have been successful in the rapidly changing media landscape. In both of their stories, the losers are the people who didn’t understand what was happening around them.
Two interesting journalism stories have popped up in these final stages of the baseball postseason.
First, and more fun, when the New York Mets beat the Chicago Cubs in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series last week, the New York Times created an early-20th century sports page and populated it with Dan Barry’s delightful game story, written in the language of 1908. That’s the last year the Cubs won the World Series, as you may have heard.
Poynter.org’s James Warren wrote about the story behind the story, interviewing Barry about the work that went into writing the epic gamer, which stretched to 2,200 words. Impressive length for a deadline piece, even if it weren’t written in the language of a century ago. Times sports editor Jason Stallman suggested the more formal byline D. Francis Barry, which, Barry says, “evoked the whole New York Times thing.”
I liked a little tidbit Barry passed along in passing. Talking about sportswriters can still write interesting game stories today, he says, “if you stipulate that you know the Patriots beat the Jets yesterday, you can tell them that here’s what it was like on the ground and in the locker room. And you can still go to Ralph Branca’s locker like [New York Post columnist] Murray Kempton did, rather than to Bobby Thomson’s.”
I’ve read Red Smith’s classic column from that day, but I’ve never read, or heard of, Kempton’s piece, which is a great example of a reporter getting out of the pack. And I couldn’t find it online. I’d love to read it. Have you ever seen it?
More seriously, Fox wrestled with a serious journalistic question during the broadcast of Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night. As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post writes, the network had to figure out what to do with the information that Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Edinson Volquez’s father had died earlier in the day. That information was circulating on social media, but it wasn’t clear whether Volquez knew.
“If they delivered [the news] to viewers,” Kilgore writes, Fox producers “believed there existed a nontrivial chance they would also inform a man on live television of his father’s death.” Fox color analyst Harold Reynolds pointed out that the clubhouse TVs would be carrying the Fox broadcast, Kilgore writes, so Volquez would likely hear about it if Fox reported the news.
Kilgore quotes Fox reporter Ken Rosenthal liberally as he recounts the conversation and thought process behind the decision not to report the story—even though it was all over Twitter—until Volquez left the game and the Royals let Fox know he’d been informed of his father’s death.
Rosenthal says his instinct is always to go with the story, but in this case he and Fox asked an important question, which Andrew Seaman, Ethics Committee Chair of the Society of Professional Journalists, spells out in Kilgore’s piece: “What is the importance of this information to the public?” Seaman points out that “the world necessarily doesn’t stop turning because [fans] didn’t find out that this person passed away.”
“It’s a good journalistic conversation,” Rosenthal tells Kilgore. “It was hard. It was really hard. I felt good about it the whole time. I am sure we did the right thing. It was the humane thing to do. It’s not like reporting on a trade. This is a person’s life.”
There’s an interesting state-of-the-media conflict going on in Jackson, Miss.
In response to the Jackson State football program closing practices and not making players and assistant coaches available to the media for three weeks,
the Clarion-Ledger, a Gannett newspaper in Jackson, announced that it would “cease day-to-day beat coverage of Jackson State athletics until the situation can be resolved.”
In a statement published by the newspaper as an update to the story linked above, the university defended the right of coaches to decide to close practice, and said it had closed off media access to players and assistant coaches so the team could focus on adjusting to a coaching change. Head coach Harold Jackson was fired Oct. 6 and replaced by interim coach Derrick McCall, the only person in the program who has spoken to the media in recent weeks.
It’s unusual for this kind of conflict to blow up into a public announcement of the kind the Clarion-Ledger made. Disagreements over access are usually hashed out behind the scenes.
It’s also unusual for a football program that’s not a major power and the subject of intense media interest to restrict access. Jackson State is an FCS school—that stands for Football Championship Subdivision, and used to be known as Division I-AA—with a 1-5 record. They’ve drawn 24,457 fans to their two home games so far. Teams like that rarely try to dictate terms to the media. They’re usually happy with any coverage they get.
On the other hand, this column by Billy Watkins of the Clarion-Ledger illustrates why the newspaper takes access so seriously. Watkins laments the old days of unrestricted access to players and coaches, and writes that the people who lose out in the current atmosphere of limited availability are the fans of the team.
Watkins argues that Jackson State cutting off access completely makes a beat writer’s hard job all but impossible. He says he agrees with his paper’s decision to pull coverage, even though he wasn’t part of that decision.
Someone’s going to blink here, probably pretty soon, and it’ll probably be the university. A football program trying to put people in the stands wouldn’t seem to benefit much from alienating one of the biggest media outlets in town. But in the meantime, it’s an interesting test of where we are.
“Just how much is a paper’s coverage worth to a team,” asks Andrew Bucholtz on Awful Announcing, “and how much is covering the local team worth to a paper? We may soon find out.”
Bleacher Report has maintained a blacklist of clichés to avoid since 2012. The Quality Control team, using a combination of analytics and human judgment, has revised and expanded the list. These are the words and phrases that editors will zap from copy every time.
They’ll be on it like …
All right, we won’t do that thing of using a bunch of clichés in this blog post about clichés.
The numbers tell us that B/R writers have stopped using certain blacklisted items, like “when push comes to shove.” We’d like to think it’s because of writers diligently checking the list and absorbing its lessons. But we’re realists.
Still, the blacklist does an important job. Any B/R writer who knows it and avoids the words and phrases on it will not only save editors some work, they’ll write better copy. Any writer who becomes conscious of clichés and avoids them becomes a better writer.
Here’s is the new, expanded blacklist of 30 clichés for Bleacher Report writers to avoid:
Easier said than done
Time will tell
Back to the drawing board
On the same page
It is what it is
At the end of the day
To the next level
Without further ado
Drink the Kool-Aid
Jump on the bandwagon
Mail it in
One game at a time
Do or die
Back against the wall
Live and learn
First and foremost
Are you ready for some X
Tis the season
With [EVENT] in the books
Come back to haunt them
Throw under the bus
Tale of two halves
Taking his talents to
All is said and done
Any given Sunday
Right before our eyes
Send/sending a message
Will be interesting to see
Left in the tank
Yogi Berra said you could learn a lot by watching. You can also learn a lot by listening and reading.
Roy Peter Clark collected Eight language lessons from Yogi Berra at Poynter.org, and yes, those lessons come from some of Yogi’s malopropisms, which, Clark points out, often have a “stab of truth behind them.”
Sometimes the utterances of Berra, who died this week at 90, were just a little silly. “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded” is my favorite one of those. That’s more of an example of verbal sloppiness than folk wisdom. Berra obviously meant “Nobody I know goes there anymore.” But Clark digging into Yogi’s wit and wisdom shows how fruitful, and just plain interesting, it can be to examine someone’s words closely. An example:
“I’m as red as a sheet.” Yogi said this after he flubbed his movie line in a Cary Grant/Doris Day movie “That Touch of Mink.” Lesson: It always helps to tweak the predictable. Who would remember this if he said, “I’m red as a beet” or “white as a sheet.” So did the blood rush to his face or rush from his face? In essence, Yogi doubles-down on his embarrassment, reminding us that a mash-up need not be a mix-up.
That reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, which I heard as a kind of Yogi-ism years ago, though not from Yogi Berra. A customer at a shipping counter where I worked, a gregarious Irishman, meant to tell me that whatever choice I was offering him didn’t matter. Either was good.
“Ah, six o’ one, 12 o’ the other,” he said. Not only do I remember that phrase from a meaningless retail encounter decades ago, but I’ve used it myself ever since in place of the banal “Six of one, half a dozen of the other.” I love a nice tweaked cliché, don’t you?
Public domain photo via Wikipedia.
Michael Dunlap, who founded Hoops Habit and is senior content director at Fansided, asked a bunch of NBA writers for their best advice for aspiring sportswriters. You’ll probably learn as much by reading their answers as you’ll learn in a month in a college sportswriting class, so consider it a money and time saver.
If you’re in college, take statistics instead.
Zach Lowe of Grantland, Jody Genessy of Deseret News and Sam Amico of Fox Sports all say to read and write a lot, which is also common advice around here. They and others, including Sekou Smith of NBA.com and Fran Fraschilla of ESPN, talk about interviewing, breaking into the business, getting noticed, covering a team and quite a few other things.
The most important nugget, I think, comes from Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated. “I think the most important question to ask is: What’s my competitive advantage?” he says. What can I do better than everyone else (or almost everyone else)?”
Noah Davis opens his piece about freelance writing at the Awl, headlined “If You Don’t Click on This Story, I Don’t Get Paid,” on an optimistic note.
“I have interviewed more than twenty writers, editors, media people, and journalism professors about the state of being a freelance writer in 2015,” he writes. “The general consensus is that it’s the best time since the very early days of the web to make money by writing online, and a marked improvement from even two years ago.”
The optimism doesn’t last, as Davis writes that the situation won’t last either:
The question is, how long will the relative good times of getting paid to write on the web last? Even venture dollars are exhaustible. While a few sites will probably survive, the existing (and future) business models can’t support all the ones that are currently vying for writers and eyeballs. “The people who make money off the internet are Facebook, Google, and Twitter and their billionaire executives,” David Samuels, a contributing editor at Harper’s and frequent contributor to the New Yorker, said.
Davis, whose similar story two years ago was headlined “I Was Paid $12.50 An Hour To Write This Story,” isn’t exactly accurate with his headline this time around. He reveals his negotiation with Awl co-editor Matt Buchanan: He asked for $350, and Buchanan countered with $250 plus $1 for every 1,000 page views, which Davis agreed to. “You have to bet on yourself,” he writes. “No one else will.”
He writes that he’ll update the story in a month with the totals.
The piece is worth the read for some wise words about how to survive as a freelancer, including advice that it’s sometimes better to take the quick assignment for a little money over the huge, time-consuming piece that brings in more money—but not enough more.
Writer Jonathan Stray begins by talking about software agents that can monitor huge piles of information, such as open data created by modern cities or even countries. A bot can comb through crime reports for unusual trends that are worth coverage, but that a human reporter might not notice. Bots can spot patterns in market data that might reveal insider trading, Stray writes.
But there are also smaller, simpler bots that any journalist can use with no training, such as Google Alerts. Who hasn’t used that?
“We can expect to see much more sophisticated bots make their way into journalism in the next few years,” Stray writes:
This kind of artificial intelligence technology will be developed first for fields such as law, finance, and intelligence where there are large business opportunities. But consider what it could do for journalists. Imagine telling a newsroom AI to watch campaign finance disclosures, SEC filings, and media reports for suspicious business deals that could signal undue political influence. The goal is a system powerful enough to scrutinize every available open data feed, understand what each data point means in context by comparing it to databases of background knowledge and current events, and alert reporters when something looks fishy or interesting.
This kind of data mining is mostly used in sports for trivia, such as when Elias Sports Bureau or Stats LLC reveals that a certain pattern of events that just happened hadn’t happened since 19-dicketty-two. What are some more substantial ways we can put the bots to work for us?
This week’s SI Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch is worth a listen if you’re interested in how one of the biggest sports broadcasts in the U.S. comes together.
The guest is “NBC Sunday Night Football” coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli, who describes his role, in “football vernacular,” as being the head coach, with director Drew Esocoff as the quarterback. Gaudelli says he has about a dozen assistant “coaches” who are in charge of various things, such as graphics, editing or social media.
During the week, we set out a plan in all those areas in how we’re going to cover the game. And then when the game begins, my main job is to talk with Al and Cris and Michelle, and direct the editorial view of the game, while Drew is in there, like the quarterback, executing every play, every second of the game.
Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, the booth announcers, are also sort of like quarterbacks, Gaudelli says, because “it’s a real dance between who’s leading the telecast.” For the most part, he says, the announcers take the lead, but they and Gaudelli will discuss options during the commercials, with sideline reporter Michelle Tafoya sometimes chiming in. The football metaphor isn’t perfect.
Deitsch mentions at the end of the podcast that he found Gaudelli’s description of his week most interesting, as did I. Gaudelli patiently walks us through the week, day by day, describing the team’s preparation for the Sunday night game.
Also interesting: Gaudelli’s take on what went wrong when Dennis Miller was in the booth. Gaudelli didn’t hire Miller, but he has ideas about how it would go if he could try that gambit a second time, and speculates about the odds of an oddball hire like that happening again.