New York Daily News baseball writer Andy Martino wrote an interesting blog post this week about getting too close to his subject. The headline is a bit long, so I’ll give it its own paragraph:
Martino writes about the position battle at first base for the Mets over the last few years between Ike Davis and Lucas Duda. Davis, he writes, is a charming, thoughtful, funny guy. Everyone says so, including Duda, who is more reserved and not comfortable with the media.
Martino writes that he’d thought over the last few years that the Mets should have settled on Davis over Duda, who he thought, based on personal interactions, lacked the confidence necessary to succeed in the big leagues. As it turns out, it looks like Martino was wrong. The Mets gave up on the struggling Davis, shipping him to Pittsburgh, and Duda has settled in to have a fine year as the Mets’ regular first baseman. Martino writes:
We arrive now at the sticky area of reporting. I’ll turn it inward, without presuming to speak for colleagues and competitors. On a subconscious level, did I convince myself that Davis was a better choice because he was a better quote, a friendlier guy, one for whom I came to feel genuine affection as a person? …
There are many levels of ethics, in this sensitive business of writing about real people. On an obvious level, we should not produce agenda-driven work, where we write positively or negatively about people based on what they can do for us, quid-pro-quo. Duh.
But there is a more subtle crime that can be difficult to avoid: Accidentally interpreting the information we gather through the lens of what we want to happen. Davis was interesting to talk to, sympathetic and likeable; did that up-close knowledge render me incapable of drawing an objective conclusion, and presenting it to readers? And to overstate Duda’s problems, which he seems to have since overcome?
Well, yeah. Reporting is still the best way do the job, but it must include an additional step: Pause, step back, be aware of what you are feeling. And question it, more than I did while working this particular story.
It’s a remarkable bit of candor for a professional writer, and a solid lesson for the rest of us.
Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark offered a rebuttal Tuesday to those—including this blogger—who have cheered the robot takeover of game stories. That is, those of us who like the idea that algorithm-generated text can do the grunt work of describing what happened on the field in what order, leaving human writers with time to write stories that are more original, less formulaic.
The usual argument against machine writing is that bosses will use it as an excuse to lay off writers and pocket the resulting profits. This is of course a possibility but I don’t think anyone will succeed by doing that. I should note that as I write this, Sports on Earth has just laid off most of its writing and editing staff, according to multiple reports. There’s no reason to believe SoE will be replacing them with algorithms—or that it’s likely to become a big success now.
But Clark is arguing a different point. He wants to keep human gamers for the sake of the reader. “Killing the game story would be a shame,” reads the headline on his Poynter.org post:
You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.
But guess what, the game story lives. Proof positive comes from Steven Goff, the soccer writer for the Washington Post. His game story, which played on page one, has the benefit of describing one of the most shocking matches in World Cup history, the demolition of the home team Brazil 7-1 on July 8 by the stereotypically methodical Germans, who would go on to win it all.
Clark cites Red Smith’s famous lede describing Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” home run that won the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, a lede that began, “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it.” He then credits Goff for leading his story in a similarly unconventional manner.
I would argue that Smith was not writing a game story. He was a columnist, not a beat writer, and, while his famous story had some game details, it was not a classic gamer. Similarly, Goff could afford to start his story, as Clark notes, “with two long paragraphs that almost ignore the details of the game” because he knew that any reader who cared about those details would already have learned them by the time the story was published.
So we may be talking semantics here. Goff’s piece is a game story, in the sense that it was the piece in the Washington Post that day that described the game, but it was as much a column, a collection of observations and opinion mixed in with quotes and description, as Red Smith’s piece from 1951. Clark acknowledges this:
The great flamboyant food critic, Alan Richman, was once a sports writer, and he and I once tangled in a playful debate as to whether the game story was more news or criticism. I argued news. He argued criticism.
Over the years, I find myself drifting towards his side. I know enough about soccer to understand in real time how badly the Brazilians were playing. What I needed from Steven Goff was an explanation and a validation of that perspective.
So Clark is arguing here not for the preservation of the standard Associated Press gamer—lede, context, important secondary detail, reverse chronological “running,” and the whole thing written through after a few minutes with quotes interspersed. He wants to save the more literate, literary, nuanced writing like Goff’s World Cup story, Smith’s Thomson column and many unforgettable pieces in between and since.
I think we can all agree with that. The question is probably more like: How much game coverage do we need humans to do? For one of the biggest sporting events in the world over a four-year period, sure, let’s have a fabulous writer like Goff write about the game, though he doesn’t necessarily need to bother with too many “details of the game” if they don’t fit what he wants to say.
But do we need that for a Tuesday night NBA game in Milwaukee, a Real Salt Lake-Portland Timbers tilt, a late-season Cubs-Phillies rainout makeup? I’d rather have writers with Goff’s talent doing more than recapping who scored at what minute.
What do you think?
In this week’s version of the newsletter I sent out to all Bleacher Report writers every Monday, I mentioned that three consecutive posts on this blog last week dealt with verification, attribution and plagiarism issues.
B/R Featured Columnist Ray Glier, a veteran Atlanta journalist, responded with a story from his days working for the New York Times. With Glier’s permission, I’m going to reproduce that reply, because it’s a good one—the other side of what I kept saying last week: If only they had used proper attribution and verification techniques!
Glier has also written for USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. Here’s what he wrote me:
Here is one I learned from a veteran editor at The New York Times.
On Oct. 1, 2006, the Los Angeles Times published a story that said Houston Astros pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens were named in a federal affidavit as steroid users.
The L.A. Times never saw the affidavit without the redacted names. It used sources.
Eighteen months later, the paper was embarrassed because when the affidavit was released, Clemens and Pettitte were not mentioned. There was a retraction—of course—plus a scolding from a judge and Clemens’ attorney.
Here is the teaching point.
Bob Goetz was an editor in Sports at The New York Times when I did some work for The Times out of Atlanta. I had to do some follow-up on Clemens and Pettitte.
Goetz said the New York Times would NOT refer to the Los Angeles Times story and the oft-use phrase “according to a story in …”
“What if the L.A. Times is wrong and we repeat what they claim in our own story,” Goetz said. “We have reported an inaccuracy.”
This is why you hope people smarter than you edit your stories.
The L.A. Times was wrong. It is why original reporting is so important. Evidently, the Times never saw the affidavit. Be careful.
These are the most dreaded words in our business. At least I think so. They come from an L.A. Times spokesperson: “We regret our report was inaccurate and (we) will run a correction.”
Understand, the L.A. Times had veteran journalists who were talented and careful and wise. Still, people can make mistakes.
I want to break news. It is what we do. Just be careful about “off the record,” and “sources.”
If the New York Times, or any other paper, had written “According to a story in the L.A. Times …” they would have owed the players a retraction. Plenty of papers used the story.
In the top half, Glass talks about gear he uses and the setup of his workplace. It starts to get interesting for me when writer Andy Orin asks, “What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack?”
I’ve got nothing. Reading other people’s answers to this question on your website today made me realize I live my life like an ape. I eat the same breakfast and lunch everyday, both at my desk. I employ no time-saving tricks at all.
Though come to think of it, I guess my biggest life hack—and this is the very first time I’ve attempted to use the phrase “life hack” in a sentence—is that my wife and I decided to live just a few blocks from where I work.
On the one hand, I always hope questions like that will clue me in to some secret that will transform my existence and free up hours in my day. On the other, that never happens. The only “time-saving shortcut/life hack” I ever hear anyone talking about is some variation of “Well, I hired an assistant …” So I find it comforting when some productive person admits they’ve got nothing on this front.
I live like an ape too, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.
Anyway, after some more gadget talk, Orin asks, “What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?” Glass then goes into a long explanation of his working method, which should prove useful to anyone doing original reporting.
I don’t think I’m better than everyone else at anything, but I am very quick at organizing a big mass of interview tape into a structure. I learned my technique from a great print editor named Paul Tough, who was at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s, and worked with our show a lot in the early years. It’s so basic I worry it doesn’t bear going into here, but just in case it’s handy to another writer or editor, here we go:
We’re not going to go. I’m ending the quote there because I don’t want to dilute what Glass says. It’s a complex but understandable method for synthesizing information and putting it into a structure he can work with to tell a story.
It won’t always work, especially if your deadline is expressed in terms of minutes rather than days. But I bet it’s a good framework even in abbreviated form. Check it out.
Yesterday was exciting for baseball fans because of all the trades that went down prior to the non-waiver trading deadline. It was also exciting if you like to see major media figures getting bamboozled by fake Twitter accounts.
Deadspin writer Barry Petchesky was like a Plutarch of major media figures getting bamboozled by fake Twitter accounts Thursday. First he chronicled Jim Bowden getting fooled by a fake Joel Sherman tweet that had Marlon Byrd going from the Phillies to the Yankees. Then he told the tale of ESPN’s on-air talkers talking up a Ben Zobrist deal that had been tweeted by a fake Bob Nightengale account.
Bowden, a former general manager who now works for ESPN and SiriusXM radio, somehow didn’t notice, or didn’t care, that the account supposedly belonging to the New York Post’s Sherman only had a handful of followers, or that the last letter of Sherman’s first name was a capital I, not a lower-case L. Byrd hadn’t been traded to the Yanks, and no one was reporting that he had except that fake account, so it was pretty obvious where Bowden got his information when he tweeted, without attribution, “Yankees acquire Marlon Byrd.”
Bowden, Petchesky writes, then went on a kind of Twitter odyssey, variously deleting, altering, reinstating and redeleting different Twitter accounts.
A little later, on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” deadline special, host Jon Sciambi reported that the Rays had traded Zobrist to the Pirates, which hadn’t happened. Petchesky speculates that a producer handed Sciambi the report. If true, Sciambi can’t be faulted. He was on the air and had to trust the info he was getting, though like Bowden, he also didn’t credit his source, instead acting as though his information simply existed, with no origin.
The tweet was supposedly from USA Today baseball writer Nightengale, but whoever spotted it clearly didn’t notice the account name, @Daily_Tunez, which doesn’t sound like Nightengale, or the following tweet, which was a profane “gotcha.”
None of this happens if people verify and attribute everything.
It’s easy to spoof a Twitter account: You can use any photo you want in the avatar, and any name you want in the Name field. See what I mean?
— King Kaufman (@king_kaufman) August 1, 2014
But it’s also not that difficult to spot a spoof. You have to pay attention. You have to make the effort. But a few seconds can keep you from getting bamboozled—and becoming part of Barry Petchesky’s opus.
Events in the U.S. media in the past week make this a good time for a reminder: Copying from Wikipedia is just like copying from anything or anybody else. The source doesn’t matter—a news story, Wikipedia, a press release, a crowdsourced site like Yahoo Answers. If you didn’t write it yourself, you need to attribute it.
Otherwise, it’s plagiarism, and Bleacher Report’s policy on plagiarism is unambiguous: Zero tolerance.
At the end of last week Buzzfeed fired political writer Benny Johnson when it was first discovered that he had parroted Wikipedia in a post, then Buzzfeed’s investigation “found 41 instances of sentences of phrases copied word for word from other sites,” according to editor Ben Smith’s letter to readers.
Then this week FishbowlNY, citing a “tipster,” showed how New York Times writer Carol Vogel’s lede on a story about an exhibition of Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s paintings was lifted nearly word for word from Wikipedia.
At least one prominent writer doesn’t think what happened at BuzzFeed is such a big deal. Gene Weingarten at The Washington Post wrote this week that when material is simply boilerplate and being used for quizzes and listicles, it hardly matters. “To be guilty of theft,” he writes, “one must steal something of some intrinsic value.” He goes on to say that he hates real plagiarism, and draws the distinction clearly.
It’s pretty simple, at BuzzFeed or at The New York Times: Write your own stuff; when you can’t or won’t, make sure you attribute and link.
I don’t take Weingarten’s point at all. His argument that material taken from Wikipedia lacks “intrinsic value” is ridiculous. If it has no intrinsic value, then why did you steal it and use it?
At any rate, the reminder: If the words aren’t yours, attribute them.
Want to hear a scary story? This one makes “Friday the 13th” look like a sweet fairy tale.
That is, if your primal fear is … trusting Wikipedia.
In “I accidentally started a Wikipedia hoax” on The Daily Dot, EJ Dickson confesses that as a college sophomore in 2009, she and a friend named Evan had made up something and added it to a Wikipedia article.
As he recalled when I called him later that evening, “we were stoned out of our minds” and had just come from the McDonald’s drive-thru to get chicken selects when we decided to edit Wikipedia pages for various semi-obscure children’s book authors.
Here’s the scary part: The thing they’d made up? Five years later, it was …
The made-up thing was that the children’s character Amelia Bedelia was “based on a maid in Cameroon, where the author had spent some time during her formative years. Her vast collection of hats, notorious for their extensive plumage, inspired Parish to write an assortment of tales based on her experiences in North.”
Even the typo, the missing word “Africa,” survived for half a decade.
It was total bullshit: We knew nothing about Amelia Bedelia or the author of the series, Peggy Parish, let alone that she’d been a maid in Cameroon or collected many hats. It was the kind of ridiculous, vaguely humorous prank stoned college students pull, without any expectation that anyone would ever take it seriously.
But it was taken seriously, repeated many times over the years in the media, including, incredibly, by Peggy Parish’s nephew, Herman Parish, who had taken over from his aunt as the author of the Amelia Bedelia books.
Isn’t this what people fear about Wikipedia? Some prankster adds some jokey “fact,” and then someone repeats it, and someone else repeats it, and eventually someone respectable repeats it, like a relative of the person in question or a writer for a respected news organization, and then those plausible repetitions get repeated and the thing becomes a fact for real.
Dickson refers to Joseph Goebbels saying that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes true and concludes that the old Nazi may have been a sociopath but there was something to that idea after all. I found myself reminded of the famous quote from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, even after the “fact” has been live on Wikipedia for years. “Given the tone of the writing,” Dickson asks, “and the fact that Evan and I didn’t even cite a source, why would no one see any red flags?” She asks a Wikipedia editor, who doesn’t know but offers theories about how if the subject is obscure and not one of interest to the internet-savvy, and the falsehood not too outrageous, the lie can slip through the cracks.
But if you know your stuff about attribution and verification, you’ll see that red flag and be stopped by it. Whether it’s Wikipedia or that respectable news organization, if there’s no attribution, you keep digging till you find the origin of the fact. If you can’t find that origin, if you find yourself running in circles from reference to reference without finding a source, you shouldn’t use the fact, or you should be clear that you’re not sure about its provenance.
So: Feeling safe now? Reassured? Happy? You got a good scare and now you’re ready to get on with your life?
Here’s the part where the hand reaches up from the grave:
In this case, the current author of the books, the nephew of the woman who was the subject of the false “fact,” had taken to repeating the falsehood. It’s completely reasonable to assume that Herman Parish knew what he was talking about when he talked about his own aunt, that he hadn’t internalized a lie added to Wikipedia as a prank.
Sometimes, you can’t win. The horror …
The Baseball Hall of Fame honored Roger Angell this weekend with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, its writing honor. Angell is the first writer so honored who was never a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Never a beat writer, Angell wrote long, literary essays about the national pastime for the New Yorker beginning in 1962. It was a side gig. His real job was as the New Yorker’s fiction editor.
Like many baseball fans with a taste for great writing, I discovered Angell via his books, collections of his New Yorker work. I believe the 1982 collection “Late Innings” was the most recent at the time I first heard of him. Angell is widely seen as the greatest baseball writer of all time. I’m not sure I agree. As much as I love his work, I’d have a hard time putting him above Red Smith in his prime, in the 1940s and ’50s.
But Angell beats Smith in not having had a prime to pass out of. He’s as good today as he was a half century ago. Read his recent essay, This Old Man, which is not about baseball but about being 93 years old.
The Cards, the best defensive team in the National League, were stinko, with three infield errors, two of them by shortstop Pete Kozma. The pattern of the game became clear when the veteran Cardinal starter Adam Wainwright could only smile wanly after allowing a feeble pop by Stephen Drew to drop like a thrombosed dove at his feet, to begin the Sox’ second. One never knows, do one, as Fats Waller said.
Here are two good pieces about Angell on the occasion of his Spink award: Richard Sandomir’s in the New York Times and Tom Verducci’s in Sports Illustrated. Sandomir wrote short after Angell’s Cooperstown event Saturday, Verducci wrote long in advance of it. And Verducci’s piece reads almost like Angell could have written it.
Ken Doctor, who writes about the journalism business, or, as he calls it, “Newsonomics,” for Nieman Lab and others, looked into the hot “movement” in journalism in a post headlined “The newsonomics of how and why.” By how and why, Doctor means explanatory journalism.
That’s the buzzword, or buzz phrase, I guess, of the moment in the biz. FiveThirtyEight, Vox, The Upshot, Q.E.D. and, the news hook here, the Washington Post’s new Storyline are all part of an explosion of “explainer” sites that have launched amid much fanfare in the last year.
This isn’t unusual in high-level analysis of trends in journalism: Doctor doesn’t mention sports media. Also not unusual: He could have.
Try this: Make a list with two simple columns. On the left, write Who, What, When, and Where. On the right column, write How and Why. Then, go to any news site — local, national, or global — or even to a print newspaper and see which questions the stories you see answer.
At most news sites, the hashmarks will fill up quickly in the left column — slowly, if at all, in the right one. That’s the column for explanatory journalism — the new craze of the past year, but built on ideas as old as good journalism itself.
What’s up with this craze? Doctor asks David Leonhardt, the Pulitzer-winning founder of The Upshot, at the New York Times.
One big reason, he said, is the explosion of easily available data. Another: the more conversational tone of the Internet.
Does it sound like they could be talking about Bleacher Report, or any of the other sports sites that rely less on those first four W’s that drove old-school sports reporting—centering on gamers—and more on analysis and opinion and that fifth W, why? Sports is pretty big on data—wins, losses, individual and team stats, salaries. And a more conversational tone than can be found in traditional news stories has been common in sportswriting for decades.
Leonhardt points out that explaining, trying to fill in the how and why, is hardly new, and offers the names of some writers who have been doing that sort of thing for a long time without anybody calling it explanatory journalism. Doctor lists them:
The New Yorker’s Jim Surowiecki, The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel, The Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein, and Felix Salmon, formerly of Reuters and now at Fusion. It’s no accident those are mainly business writers; that’s Leonhardt’s own background. The complexity of business and economics demands better connecting of the dots. But so does so much of the rest of the news. (The Upshot, for instance, has already excelled at covering health care—and the World Cup.)
A lot of sportswriting is business writing. Think of free agency, trade deadlines, salary caps, transfer windows, stadium debates, franchises moving or threatening to do so. And a lot of the best sports analysis does what Doctor writes the best explanatory journalism does:
When most readers say they expect journalists to tell them what’s happening — whether that’s the latest outrages reported out of Kharkiv or city council in Kalamazoo — they mean connect the dots. No, they don’t want opinion — they want to know how the facts fit together to make an understandable whole.
Not just opinions, but connecting the dots. How and why. Two simple questions that today’s media world is revolving around.
Five years ago, I wrote that the “Future of Journalism is endless panel discussions about the Future of Journalism.” I’m not yet convinced I was wrong, but I still enjoyed this short video on Politico in which chief White House correspondent Mike Allen talks to Don Baer and Alan Murray about a study they’ve done about … well, you know.
Politico doesn’t make clear what this study concludes, but it sounds like Murray and Baer found the same things that most people who study the Future of Journalism and How People Consume News find. Video is important. Brands are important. Mobile is important. People tend to trust media outlets whose coverage aligns with their own political views.
Here are some of their more interesting comments in the heavily edited conversation:
Baer: Here’s the thing about brands and trust. Unlike in decades past, it’s a much more fickle thing. You can lose it very quickly and it’s much harder to earn. In an age of social media, you would think that would make it that much harder for people, individual voices and brands to stand out. If anything, they stand out more.
Murray: I think the vast majority of journalists and news organizations still think of themselves as producers of content. We create great content and then somebody out there will use it. I think you’ve got to turn that upside-down and say, “What service am I providing you, the reader.” It’s a very different way to think about the business than journalists are accustomed to.
Murray: One of the things I find fascinating about the social media world is that data, facts, get shared. We’re creatures of the written word. We love the written word. We think that’s a great way to convey information, and it is a great way to convey information. But the digital world gives you an opportunity to engage people in so much more interesting and deeper ways, and actually create a better-informed public.