Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
Financial reporting is crucial to a fair and functioning democracy, said Laurie Hays, senior executive editor for Beat Reporting at Bloomberg News at a talk Tuesday at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.
Janell Sims of the Shorenstein Center writes, “Highlighting several stories recently published by Bloomberg, Hays argued that the stories they publish illustrate their commitment to transparency and transformation in the economic sector.
“In 2011, Bloomberg reporters uncovered a story about secret loans from the Fed that gave billions of dollars to banks, all the while undisclosed to Congress. The story received a special citation at the 2012 Goldsmith Awards.
“The 2011 story Consider the Koch Brothers revealed that a unit of Koch Industries ‘paid bribes to win contracts’ in other countries, and ‘falsified data about emissions of benzyne, which is a known cause of cancer.’
“‘The world needs financial journalists to uncover wrongdoing before it becomes a crisis,’ she said. While it’s not always easy to foresee a catastrophe before it unfolds, Hays explained that at Bloomberg reporters work to flag crises ‘before they get out of control.’”
Read more here. You can also listen to the speech here.
Last week the Columbia Journalism Review published a brief story about how various industry publications wrote notably different news pieces based on one press release.
The stories centered around a lawsuit between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Hotfile, which is described in the piece as “a cyberlocker service that lets users upload files and creates a link for each one.”
Because the ruling in the case was not immediately available through normal public channels, news media were forced to report on the story with virtually no direct sourcing on the result of the trial. Here is where MPAA made the savvy move to issue a press release pronouncing the ruling was a victory for the industry. Ignoring the resulting bias from technology media, with a natural inclination to support Hotfile, and entertainment reporters, with a similar bent toward the MPAA, the predominant storyline was that the ruling was a clear victory for MPAA.
Issuing the release was a savvy move from the MPAA, not simply for being the only direct commentary on the case but because in litigation often the first word is the most important. Most legal documents, especially judgments, are long and complicated.
Most of all, rarely do rulings offer clear, definitive language that supports the notion of a resounding victory for one side over the other. That is not to say it does not ever happen, though. It is rare because the court must weigh the arguments of both sides, meaning that competent attorneys will make strong points for their clients.
As a result, subsequent media reports of a ruling often rely on how one side or the other is reading the ruling.
If the law supports one argument over the other, the tone and length of the victorious party will help reporters contextualize exactly what it means for the company and maybe the industry. In these situations it is important to stay in line with the organization’s broader legal strategy. If an appeal is likely, the victorious company will need to be confident and excited about the ruling, but careful not to go too far in their language. It is always important to remember that judges, regulators and the opposition read these statements carefully.
In the case of Hotfile, while a statement may not have been entirely appropriate given that ruling was not favorable, ignoring the media only served to do further harm to the company’s public image. In order to bring the tone of the coverage back toward a more middle ground, the company might have considered a single interview where the executive was able to emphasize that the ruling was not as clear cut as MPAA made it out to be.
Another tactic, if allowed by the attorneys, would be to arrange for reporters to speak with legal counsel on background to provide more context to the ruling and highlight key points that refute claims in MPAA’s release.
Losing a verdict at trial does not have to mean a total loss in the court of public opinion.
by Chris Roush
Steve Kandell of BuzzFeed profiles CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell, who is a lightning rod for criticism because of what he covers.
Kandell writes, “Darren Rovell, just shy of 400,000 followers strong, does not exist on Twitter alone — his return to ESPN after six years at CNBC includes filing reported stories regularly and shooting non-sports segments for ABC News — but it’s what he thinks about, and what people think about when they think about Darren Rovell. (Even his detractors would grant that he’s been instrumental in changing the nature of sports reporting.) He will regularly spend hours researching and crafting a single tweet; there are whole Tumblrs devoted to criticizing his online output. He compares what he does to VH1’s Pop-up Video, dropping salient, bite-sized business-related footnotes to events we’re watching as fans. The often angry reaction thereto speaks to the uneasy relationship between sports’ string-pullers and the fans they ostensibly serve, as well as to his own murky relationship to both. (His Twitter background, in case any of this is too subtle: stacks of cash.) He does not profess to be sticking up for the little guy, and yet he firmly considers what he does to be, above all, a public service.
“‘If people are going to dislike me for commodifying the sports experience, or the idea that I’ve taken the fun out of it, that’s ridiculous,’ he says. ‘If you’re a fan today and you don’t understand the business, then you’re a bad fan. You will lose at the watercooler every single time. What’s your owner’s capacity to spend? You don’t know the salary cap? Come on.’
“Rovell looks back down at his phone. ‘Hold on, it’s 7:14, this Vikings one is going to go out now, I want you to see this.’ He hits send and…winces. ‘It’s loading. Shit. I don’t know if I have a signal.’
“There is undeniable drama in the sight of almost-grown men, having prepared their whole lives for this very night, witnessing their natural abilities pinned to fluctuating price points, and Rovell is ready for these stories, in his own way.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Wall Street Journal managing editor Gerard Baker discussed a need for editors and reporters at The Journal to refocus their coverage in an age of new media in a speech Tuesday at New York University.
Amy Zhang of the Washington Square News reports, “Baker, who also serves as the managing editor of the The Wall Street Journal, said the increased pressure from consumers for real-time news paired with rapidly diminishing revenues means news organizations are getting ‘squeezed,’ for quality business journalism is becoming harder to sustain, and therefore more craved. These trends, he said, actually represent an opportunity and not a hurdle.
“‘The need of businesses, of investors, of consumers, of journalists, of governments, of everybody for … high quality information they can trust is greater than ever,’ Baker said. ‘Good business journalism can thrive in that environment.’
“To create ‘good business journalism,’ Baker said journalists must internalize five basic principles — truth, speed, independence, pursuit of accountability and creativity. Objectivity and facts are always most important, but Baker said one measure of success for The Journal is the number of articles it published each week before its competitors.
“Baker noted that in the aftermath of the financial crisis, governments started playing a larger role in the business world. The automatic inclination of journalists to perceive businesses as offenders and governments as virtuous regulators must change, he said.”
Read more here.
In this five-part series, we’ll look at some of the challenges that young business journalists face in today’s media landscape. A common theme running through all five installments is the recognition that avoiding errors is a journalist’s first responsibility. News moves faster, farther and wider than ever before, and given the ever-increasing volatility of markets, the effect of incorrect news reporting can have shattering consequences: not just on the share price or business prospects of the company being written about, but on the media organization that faces legal liability and the exorbitant cost of legal defense. The fourth installment is about how different policies and practices regarding reporters’ notes can have serious consequences.
After running libel training seminars for 12 years around the world, I am always mindful when the same questions come up, whether the reporter is in San Francisco, Sydney or Singapore. The question “how long should I keep my notes?” is probably at the top of the list. The answer isn’t simple, and will vary from newsroom to newsroom, but it’s useful to understand some of the legal doctrines that map out the landscape in order to come to some sort of policy decision.
The Value of String
Most good reporters have a little bit of “pack rat” in them, and I know many who value old interviews as string they can use later, especially when the notes come from an extensive interview with a hard-to-reach newsmaker. This is also good practice if you are covering the same beat for a long period of time, because if the newsmaker changes his or her public stance on an issue, you can query them about contrary statements they made earlier. In addition, many an editor made an obit sparkle by adding quotes from a reporter’s old interviews.
Getting It Right and Proving It
From a libel perspective, if you start out from the premise that you can’t publish what you can’t prove, then as a broad proposition, keeping notes (particularly of contentious quotes) can save the day. Not having notes to support that someone said something can be ruinous. In Murphy v. Boston Herald, Inc., two reporters worked on a story about Ernest Murphy, a state court judge who they implied was unfit for service and “soft” on crime. The lede of the story set the table pretty well:
“A wrist-slapping New Bedford Superior Court judge under fire for letting four accused rapists return to the streets in the past week has a pro-defendant stance and has heartlessly demeaned victims, according to records and sources.”
In particular, Murphy took great exception to an alleged exchange in chambers, where Murphy was reported to have said of a teenage rape victim, “She can’t go through life as a victim. She’s [fourteen]. She got raped. Tell her to get over it.”
Although this case is instructive on a lot of levels, for our purposes here it’s important to keep in mind that the reporter was not in the room when the “get over it” statement was allegedly made, and making things worse, everyone who was a possible source contradicted what the reporter had published. The reporter needed to prove that someone told him that the judge made the “get over it” remarks.
Here’s where the hammer drops: whether the source got cold feet or was instead misquoted, it turned out that within a few days of the judge demanding a retraction and threatening to sue, the reporter allegedly threw out his notes. The court slaughtered the publisher with this fact, holding that:
Perhaps most damaging…are the circumstances in which [the reporter] discarded the notebook in which he claims to have written the information as it was told to him…Although he testified that he usually discarded notes for articles “within a matter of days or [a] week” after publication, it is highly improbable that he would do so, as a routine matter, in this instance. When questioned, [the reporter] could not say when, or where, he discarded the notebook, just that it was sometime “after the story ran.” The jury were entitled to draw the negative inference that Wedge discarded his notebook in a deliberate effort to conceal what he knew were inaccuracies in his reporting.
Lincoln D. Bandlow is a media law specialist and partner in the Los Angeles office of Lathrop & Gage and advises and defends a wide variety of publishers, broadcasters and content creators. An experienced litigator, Bandlow is emphatic about the value of having quality notes with which to defend a case. The plaintiff’s lawyer has to do everything he can to create an issue of fact to avoid dismissal, Bandlow says, and “the lack of good, clear notes is a way that plaintiffs will try to raise suspicions about the reporter’s work ethic and honesty.”
While it’s true that having a stash of notes may become a juicy target for third-party subpoenas that treat reporters as research assistants, Bandlow reminds reporters that “getting the story right, and being able to prove that it is right is our first obligation” and that the risk of annoyance in being subpoenaed for old notes is far outweighed by the value of notes for confirming or disproving error.
So What’s the Rule?
There really isn’t one. The problem with a hard and fast rule newsroom rule, Bandlow points out, is that sooner or later, someone is going to make a mistake and break the rule. In that case, a plaintiff’s lawyer will have a field day, like in the Murphy case, and use that to discredit the reporter. David Schulz, a well-known media litigator and partner in Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schulz’ New York office, has been defending reporters and news organizations for more than 30 years. Like Bandlow, Schulz is also leery about newsrooms establishing a “company-wide” policy.
“If the newsroom has a policy, reporters have to stick to it,” Schulz says, echoing that any evidence of a reporter breaking internal rules may damage a reporter’s credibility in a libel case. “The journalism has to rule the day,” says Schulz, who has had to litigate at least one libel case where a reporter quoted a police officer making a statement that the policeman later denied. The reporter had discarded or lost his notes, and the defense had to get affidavits from other people who (fortunately) heard the statement being made. Although the press won the day in that case, Schulz recalls, “there’s no doubt the litigation was made more complicated and risky because of the lack of notes in the first place.”
Given the value of notes as string, but considering the danger of having a company-wide policy, the best approach is for each reporter to establish his or her own routine and stick to it. Reviewing and discarding unneeded notes yearly is a common individual policy, Bandlow says, because most reporters are told that the average libel statute of limitations is a year. “That’s not a bad guideline,” Bandlow says, but “reporters often forget that other causes of action that may arise from a story, like breach of confidentiality, which have much longer statutes of limitations, in some cases 4 or 6 years.” Recognizing modern tools for reporting, Bandlow suggests reporters doing phone interviews type their notes directly into their computer and have the publisher’s IT archive the files, and that paper notes can be scanned into PDF and similarly stored for a length of time set by each reporter.
Both Schulz and Bandlow are adamant about one rule every reporter should establish for themselves: once a story has been challenged for accuracy or the subject of a demand for correction, do not dispose of the notes. Instead, archive a copy, or better yet, send a copy to your media lawyer and wait for the “all clear” from him or her to trash the notes.
CHECKLIST FOR MAINTAINING NOTES
• Never share or show your notes to anyone outside of the newsroom unless told to do so by your newsroom lawyer. Distributing notes outside the newsroom may strip any confidential protection they have, and can be used by a libel plaintiff to show that what didn’t go into the story is evidence of knowing falsity or even negligence.
• Make your notes clear and consistent in style. Using headers like “Phone Interview, September 10, 2013 with Senator Smith” adds clarity and credibility.
• Do not add mental impressions or random thoughts to your notes, because plaintiffs’ lawyers might use those to show you had doubts about the story. Stick to who said what and who did what when.
• Set your own time frame for discarding old notes of no value and stick to it.
• Never, ever, discard notes after your story has been challenged, and wait for permission from your media counsel to destroy them.
Charles J. Glasser, Jr. spent the last 12 years as Global Media Counsel to Bloomberg News, responsible for litigation, ethical newsroom issues and pre-publication review, and was responsible for handling the work of more than 2,100 journalists on a 24-hour basis. Prior to joining Bloomberg, he represented a wide variety of news organizations including The New York Post, Readers’ Digest and NBC News. Prior to becoming an attorney, he was a journalist for 16 years. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook” and is currently a consultant on media law and corporate communications issues, and can be reached at email@example.com.
by Chris Roush
Mark B. Evans, the new editor at Inside Tucson Business, tells John Schuster of the Tucson Weekly that he’s having to take a crash course in business journalism.
Schuster writes, “‘I read and know business journalism, but I need a crash course on the bread and butter of business journalism and finding out what the readers of Inside Tucson Business want,’ Evans said. ‘Is their demand for business news currently being served by ITB? I think in part, but I think there are areas we can improve on, so I’ll talk to the business community and find out what they want from that publication.’
“Once he has the lay of the land, Evans hopes the next step is utilizing the publication to pursue business concerns in Tucson and Southern Arizona more in-depth.
“‘I don’t think it’s a very effective model for weekly newspapers in a metropolitan daily market to come out on Wednesday or Thursday with stories readers already read four days earlier in another publication or saw on TV already. You need to be giving readers information they didn’t know,’ said Evans, who prided himself on a more investigative reporting approach during his time as editor of the Northwest Explorer, before he joined the print version of the Tucson Citizen as an assistant city editor. ‘Trying to constantly dig up breaking news is difficult with a small staff, but taking stories that have already been covered and getting to the bottom of the story with some analysis and perspective can generate a lot of readership. And they’ll be impactful stories, stories of significance.’”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Will Oremus of Slate writes about a scoop regarding Amazon.com reported by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin that was later retracted with another story on her website without it stating that it was a correction to an earlier story.
Oremus writes, “The follow-up was not framed as a correction or retraction. It was framed as a fresh scoop. “The statement is the first time that Amazon has said it will not offer a phone this year, addressing long-running reports it has been working on one,” Efrati wrote. This post, too, made the rounds, and Lessin once again tweeted it with a tip to Techmeme. This time the tech-news board appears not to have linked to Lessin’s site, instead highlighting posts on the Verge and other tech sites that referenced Lessin’s self-debunking. Still, her site is the primary source.
“What’s interesting to me is not that Lessin and Efrati reported on rumors that turned out to be wrong. Every journalist, including me and my Slate colleagues, gets things wrong sometimes. And in an online-news landscape that is more competitive and faster-moving than ever, it stands to reason that we’d see both more false rumors published and quicker debunkings of those false rumors than we did in the old days.
“But as I read Lessin and Efrati’s unapologetic follow-up—no “regret the error” here—a question occurred to me: Do the writers of a piece like this in fact regret running with the rumor in the first place? Or might the whole thing turn out to be a net positive for them and their site? After all, a lot of people who might not have known the site existed are now aware of it as a possible source of hot industry gossip, if not necessarily bankable information.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Business journalist Francine McKenna wishes that more of her industry colleagues would attempt to verify claims of revenue and net income by private companies before printing them.
McKenna writes, “Maybe some journalists are intoxicated by access to the non-public numbers some would pay a lot to know for sure. Maybe it’s just too hard. Worst case scenario journalists can be used as cogs in the equity market pump and dump machine.
“Summary level revenue and profitability numbers for public companies, those listed on U.S. stock exchanges, are easily verified. Go to the SEC filings —10-K annual reports, 10-Q quarterly filings, 14A annual proxies, 8-K filings of other legally required to be reported events — to see if what an executive says matches what he or she told regulators and markets in the filed financial statements. Even earnings calls and earnings releases should match what’s eventually filed or executives must later must explain why not.
“Readers may think that online or in print, whether in a magazine or a newspaper, writers have to check the truthfulness of what politicians and business executives say before they print it. More and more they don’t. Intensely partisan rhetoric during the last election cycle led to complaints on both sides that major media allowed politicians and their operatives to make claims about each other in debates, in print and online that weren’t true. Lies took on a life of their own. ‘Unspilling the milk’ was almost impossible. A cottage industry of political fact-checkers —FactCheck.org, Politifact, and media-watching bloggers and journalists — scoured public statements and news and magazine articles for blatant, and not-so-blatant, examples of lies and fibs that slipped into campaign season reports.
“There’s no such service dedicated to checking non-public and pre-IPO financial puffery and blustering. The hype before the Facebook IPO is an example of unverified financial information gone wild. When the New York Times broke the story of Goldman Sachs’ investment in Facebook on January 2, 2011 it was obvious a certain segment of the investing population willingly ignored the lack of audited, verifiable, complete financial information when offered a ‘hot and exclusive’ opportunity. The media was more than willing to repeat unaudited, unverified, and often incomplete information in its stories, true or not. Reuters eventually reported that disclosures provided to Goldman Sachs’ chickens, I mean clients, intended to entice them to make a $1 million minimum investment, weren’t even audited results.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Bryant Ruiz Switzky, a senior staff reporter at the Washington Business Journal, where he covers banking, finance and corporate accountability, writes about what a company should do to get coverage by the business media.
Switzky writes, “If you’re trying to get on the good side of the business press, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Journalists are people, not impenetrable institutions.
Most publications list the reporter’s email address and/or phone number next to every story they write. But few readers actually call or write to us, probably because they think of us as an institution. We’re not. We’re just normal people, sitting in front of our computers, trying to find interesting things to write. We find our stories primarily by talking to people. If you want us to find your story, find the reporter who covers your industry in your area and call them up.
2. It is not news that your customers love you.
If you ask, most business reporters will say they’re looking for news. That means something that is happening or is going to happen that matters (or should matter) to business people in the publication’s coverage area. Think things like mergers, expansions, changes in company leadership — stuff you can’t manufacture if it isn’t already happening. It is NOT news that your company exists and that you “really care” about serving your customers.
3. Tell me something I don’t know.
Just because there’s no immediate hard news happening with your company doesn’t mean we don’t want to talk to you. If you want to get our attention, tell us about something surprising, interesting or troubling happening in your industry or at one of your competitors. We journalists are a curious lot. Pique our curiosity and you will be on our radar. When we need someone to comment about trends or big news in your industry, we’ll happily return the favor and reach out to you for comment. If we do reach out to you, call us back right away. We’re probably on deadline.”
Read more here.
I’m a big fan of business news in all forms, print, online, radio and television.
However, I have to admit that, for me, business news is just better in print. This is really fundamentally driven by the different business models of print and broadcast news that forces them to go after consumers in different ways. One thing that broadcast media does tend to do better is foster debate among experts and demonstrate intangible qualities of business leaders.
But this isn’t a lesson on business models in the media world.
The result is that at the end of the day this creates a different dynamic between PR professionals and the anchors, producers and bookers involved in creating business broadcast news. While there are slightly different dynamics with those three audiences, there are some general principles to keep in mind when working with broadcast journalists.
The first is that speed is paramount. This applies to any interaction with media, but is enhanced even further with broadcast. News stories are only a matter of minutes long, leaving little room to capture all the nuance of complicated issues.
When working with bookers, PR professionals should focus on understanding the segment being discussed and not necessarily balancing out the story with backgrounding, etc. It is important to understand if the segment is one-on-one, who the anchor/s will be, where it will be held, when the guest needs to be present, etc. The more the PR person knows about the segment the better they can prepare their guest to manage any issues.
Things change a bit when working with a producer, who has more editorial control over exactly how the segment will be positioned. Here PR professionals should work much in the same way they do with print reporters, offering background information, answering questions on background and generally helping to shape the story.
In the typically rare instance of working directly with the anchor, the PR professional should quickly deliver a top line message but also (if relevant) push the anchor to ask key questions of the competition.
Most of all, PR professionals must always keep in mind that broadcast journalists are going to be incredibly quick and must keep the most salient one to two key points top of mind. This is not necessarily the same key message for print, but the one message you would want to seen on the screen.
While my humble opinion puts print above broadcast, it is undeniable that broadcast news creates a dynamic that tests business executives in ways print simply cannot.
This is a critical dynamic that PR professionals have to carefully consider in all their interactions with broadcast journalists.