Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
The Wall Street Journal has won a ruling allowing it to fully report on the Rebekah Brooks phone-hacking trial without having to sign a document that it will abide by reporting restrictions imposed by the judge.
Lisa O’Carroll of The Guardian writes, “This ruling raises the prospect of the New York-based financial newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, reporting differently in the US and Asia in its print editions to its European edition, available in the UK, and the subsequent risk of this being picked up by the internet.
“The Wall Street Journal successfully challenged what it deemed an ‘illogical’ Crown Prosecution Service request to give written agreement to comply with reporting restrictions applying to UK media in exchange for access to prosecution material.
“The request has been made to all foreign media and those who have signed have been given access to CCTV footage, maps, financial statements, transcripts of police interviews with witnesses and defendants, photos of property seized and witness statements shown to the jury in the Old Bailey trial.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
The 23-year-old CEO of Snapchat criticized journalists on Twitter Monday morning, claiming that some details in a recent Forbes cover story about his startup were misreported, but Forbes responded hours later with a transcript from Spiegel’s interview with the story’s author, reporter J.J. Colao, essentially proving that Spiegel misled the publication during its reporting.
Kurt Wagner of Mashable writes, “The details in question were included in the story’s lead, and depicted an email exchange between Spiegel and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In the story, Zuckerberg emailed Spiegel in late 2012 asking for a meeting to discuss the new startup. Spiegel’s response: ‘I’m happy to meet … if you come to me.’
“At least that’s what Spiegel told Forbes.
“Few people can pull off a demand like that, especially when speaking with the multibillionaire CEO of the world’s largest social network. And it turns out Spiegel is not, actually, one of those people.
“After a Business Insider reporter called Spiegel ‘arrogant’ after reading the Forbes article, Spiegel responded on Twitter by publishing the actual email chain between him and Zuckerberg from November 2012. The emails confirmed that Spiegel did not, in fact, set the terms for the meeting as originally described by Forbes. Instead, Zuckerberg simply had plans to be in Los Angeles a few weeks later, and the meeting was established during his trip.
“At first, it looked as if Forbes goofed — until the publication released a transcript of its interview, in which Spiegel ‘fabricated a story full of swagger,’ according to Forbes editor Randall Lane.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Judy Ancel of LaborNotes.org writes about how labor leaders and the business media that cover them in Kansas City have met every month for breakfast since 1988.
Ancel writes,At first, getting union officers to attend an open forum with media was a tough sell. Most didn’t trust the media and hadn’t thought about how to use media to build union power. Their standard response when called by reporters was ‘No comment.’
“The media, of course, commonly called them ‘union bosses’ and only came around if there were conflict or scandal. ‘We were seen as the bad guys,’ said Herb Johnson, later secretary-treasurer of the Missouri AFL-CIO. Labor leaders thought media should report about peaceful negotiations that ended in a good contract, not just strikes.
“On the other side, the media accused labor leaders of being unresponsive and having unrealistic expectations, always wanting good news. They said labor often viewed balanced coverage as betrayal and couldn’t distinguish between the news and editorials, or understand the differing needs of print and electronic media.
“The Kansas City Star’s Diane Stafford said, ‘We used to call labor leaders and get the phone slammed down in our ears.’”
Read more here.
- See more at: http://labornotes.org/2013/12/unions-and-media-break-bread-and-stereotypes#sthash.xY7fZ0oh.dpuf
In the last installment of this 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. This segment recaps some of the common sense but commonly forgotten basics of media law.
Five things a journalist should always do
In wrapping up this series for UNC-Chapel Hill, I thought it might be useful for journalists both young and old to get a recap of some of the fundamental practices and pitfalls that expose a reporter or publishing organization to embarrassment, loss of credibility, or legal liability.
1. Always be paranoid about facts. Factual accuracy is the building block in the DNA of journalism. As a purely legal matter, falsity is the sine qua non of a defamation claim. While in non-U.S. jurisdictions and even under some rare American variations of privacy law, truth is not always an absolute defense, falsity remains an element universally required by a plaintiff to allege and prove in a libel case. Here is where the old maxim “show, don’t tell” reveals its value.
Understanding the difference between an allegation and a provable fact can keep you out of trouble. If an executive tells you that a former employee had embezzled money, absent documentary evidence such as a conviction, the most that you could say is that the executive “said” or “claimed” or “asserted” that the employee was a thief. Letting people’s words speak for themselves is the difference between reporting what has been said in a public controversy and adopting those allegations as self-evident truths. The former provides reporters with a libel defense, the latter may expose the reporter to legal liability. The more citation, the more attribution you show, the lower the likelihood of being accused of adopting a false and defamatory statement.
2. Always take demands for corrections or retractions seriously. The public perception of journalists has long strayed from the heroic time of Woodward and Bernstein, and there is a common meme that reporters are arrogant and detached from their readers.
Many states have retraction or correction laws that allow that in the event that the news organization makes a correction within a certain time period, the plaintiff is limited in the scope of damages if they may be able to obtain, if at all. These laws encourage editors to take an independent look at an alleged error and avoid liability if there is a reasonable question that the statement complained of is false and defamatory.
Remember that many libel suits proceed to trial because the statement at issue could be reasonably read by an ordinary reader to imply a defamatory fact about the subject.
It is also worth noting if your publication is subject to European or Asian jurisdiction that many nations have “right of reply” laws that give a story subject the right to publish a counterstatement. In many nations, even if your story does not contain an error, the failure to provide an opportunity to respond after publication is a separate cause of action for which you may be liable.
In practical terms, many libel suits can be avoided even when both sides disagree strongly about the accuracy of an underlying fact or what a statement means by utilizing updates with additional comment, or letters to the editor allowing the story subject an opportunity to tell their side of the story.
3. Always remember that small details count. If you write a hard-hitting piece about a company that is misbehaving, even if the thrust of the story is correct, their lawyers and public relations staff may beat you over the head with the small details that you got wrong. Spellings of names, places of birth, locations of offices or events, and other facts that may seem trivial can be stacked up by a plaintiff’s lawyer who wants to get you in front of a jury and tell them “this reporter couldn’t even spell my client’s name correctly; how are we supposed to believe the rest of his story?”
Famed television host Johnny Carson succeeded in winning a libel trial in a case where a tabloid paper reported on Carson’s marital troubles. Noteworthy for the purposes of this issue, the Court in Carson v. Allied News found so many errors (none of which out of context would be actionable, such as where the Carsons lived) but in totality, combined with bad sourcing, held that the “Defendants acted with reckless disregard of whether the inaccurate matters published were false or not. Plaintiffs have met their burden of proof and have demonstrated that defendants acted with actual malice.”
4. Always ask yourself if you are missing something. From the reporter’s perspective, the meaning of a story may be plain, but it is too easy to be accused of “falling in love with the headline” and giving a plaintiff’s lawyer an argument to say that any reasonable reporter would have found out a mitigating fact that changes the meaning of the story.
Take the following hypothetical: you are writing about a new publicly traded company and learn that the founding executive had been charged with fraud in the past, but this was not disclosed to the shareholders of the new company. (This is defamatory not only because it implies dishonesty, but also is a violation of SEC rules requiring such disclosures, which is in itself a defamatory allegation). The executive declines to comment.
After publication, the executive comes back with libel papers in hand, and shows you that he was acquitted of all charges. The failure to follow through and ask yourself if he or she was convicted – not just charged – could be seen as negligence (the failure to do that which a “reasonable and ordinary” reporter would’ve done), or even “actual malice” if his lawyer can show enough facts to allege that you recklessly disregarded or purposely avoided learning and publishing the truth.
While it is true that the mere “failure to investigate” does not under constitutional law prove that actual malice existed, if the executive’s acquittal could have been found just as easily as the reports of his arrest, many judges will allow this case to continue to discovery (depositions, production of your notes, etc.) and may become just enough of an issue of fact to require you to go through the expense, heartbreak, and risk of a trial.
5. Always do your best to obtain a comment. The failure to provide a meaningful opportunity to comment can be fatal in some libel cases. Taking the hypothetical above, if the reporter had failed to contact the executive and seek a comment, the executive could very easily convince a judge and jury that “had the reporter called me, I would’ve told him that I was acquitted on all charges.”
Any legal advice that tells you that an opportunity to comment is not required under the First Amendment is shortsighted, in my opinion, because there is no guarantee that your case would not be tried under the mere negligence standard, which instead of requiring “knowing falsity” on the reporter’s part simply asks a jury to find whether you did that which a “reasonable” reporter would do. At trial, journalism professors and retired editors often appear as plaintiff’s witnesses who are all too eager to call you lazy or your work sloppy.
For those of us who have to deal with breaking news, this is particularly challenging because there is an inherent tension between the desire to be first with a story and our journalistic obligations to be fair and accurate. There is no rule of thumb other than try to be in a position where you can honestly tell a judge that the public interest in the story was so strong and immediate that the public needed to know now despite the executive or company not yet returning a phone call. The more serious the allegation, the greater the opportunity to respond should be shown. Remember to try to document any attempts to contact the story subject with a fax or email that fairly describes the question that you put to the story subject.
In addition, for those of you who work on digital platforms, the power of the update cannot be underestimated. Many libel claims are nipped in the bud when the reporter, unable to reach the story subject in the first take is able to update with comment later in the day. This not only moves the story forward, and serves the reader with more information, but helps establish a record of good faith to which a judge would most likely find favorable.
Five things a journalist should never do.
1. Never throw away notes that relate to a story that is being complained of. The question about how long reporters should keep notes and outtakes can be discussed for days. That said, the disappearance of a reporter’s notes after a story subject has complained or made a libel threat creates a very hard-to-defeat impression that the reporter never took notes in the first place, or worse yet, invented them. For a chilling story about how badly this can go wrong, read Murphy v. Boston Herald, discussed in greater detail here.
When a story subject calls or writes to you alleging that there is an error, if it appears serious you should strongly consider sending a copy of your notes to your newsroom counsel. He or she can review the situation and determine when it is safe for you to delete them.
2. Never pay for or promise something in return for information. There are several cases in which a libel case it is alleged that a reporter conspired with or even bribed a source to say defamatory things about them. In McCoy v. Hearst, The San Francisco Chronicle’s Lowell Bergman met with a convicted felon for a story about prosecutorial misconduct. When the prosecutor sued, the felon claimed that Bergman had promised to provide legal help to him in return for talking to Bergman.
The lower court judge hammered the Chronicle, saying that it was far too easy for a jury to find that the reporter’s source would say anything to get free legal help, and his being a convicted felon only added to his lack of credibility. Although that case was finally won on appeal, it is a cold reminder that because our story is as good only as our source, we have to protect a source’s integrity by steering clear of any possible claim that his or her speaking to you was a quid pro quo.
3. Never crib defamatory allegations from other publications without some fact-checking of your own. The legal doctrine of “neutral reportage” has not been adopted universally. This doctrine allows journalists to repeat defamatory allegations that have been reported in other newspapers or broadcasts. The thrust of this defense is that “we are not saying that Mr. Jones is a thief, we are simply reporting that The Daily Bugle said that he was.” Many courts have rejected this defense.
In Goldwater v. Ginzburg, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona sued Fact Magazine for an article that called his psychological well-being into question. Although the magazine had done some independent research, a number of the sued-upon statements at issue were quotations from other news organizations. The judge refused to give the magazine a free pass for those statements, holding that:
“Reliance upon newspaper articles, books, and campaign literature, and upon accurate reprinting of another’s letter are only factors which, with other factors, are probative of whether the publisher of the cumulated material was motivated by actual malice when he caused the full material to be published.”
If a story is fast breaking and you are following another publication, any statement that “The Daily Bugle reported today that Mr. Jones is a thief” must at the very least be followed by an attempt to reach Jones and allow him an opportunity to dispute the report you are quoting. This is the bare minimum, and unless you independently have the provable facts that Jones is indeed a thief, in many circumstances courts are going to ask you where your independent verification efforts were.
4. Never disclose or discuss your editorial process with a complaining party. Reporters often get haranguing phone calls from tenacious public relations executives who want to second-guess your editorial decisions. Many will want to debate you about why their client was the story subject, or why you focused on one particular issue. Do not be drawn into debate about how and why you structured the story the way that you did.
Always be open to hearing about factual error, or to missing facts that may have changed the thrust of the story, but if you begin to disclose your editorial thought process you may be generating enough material for the story subject’s libel lawyers to argue that you had either a malicious intent against his client, or in the alternative that you purposely avoided what they will propose is the truth.
This is even more the case when it turns out that you may in fact have committed a factual error. The story should speak for itself about which documents and interviews are the basis of your reporting. Never answer questions about which documents you did or did not read, or any people you may have interviewed but did not appear in the story. These facts will almost certainly appear in a libel complaint.
5. Never forget your libel lawyer is there to help you be a better reporter and give you as much freedom as possible. The job of a libel lawyer is not to prevent things from being published. Good libel lawyers have to think like plaintiffs, and look for ways in which your story is going to be attacked and try to bulletproof those parts of your story.
When your lawyer grills you about how you know something, about where you obtained the document or raises questions of clarity, they are not trying to suppress your right to free expression: they are trying to protect you so that you can go on to win prizes, own a story, and keep out of trouble.
Lawyers work under a legally codified system that makes sacrosanct the conversations you and he or she have. While many states and the federal common law do not recognize a shield law, the privilege of attorney-client confidentiality goes far beyond any shield law. For this reason you must tell your libel lawyer everything about the issue at hand. Let them decide what is or isn’t relevant to your defenses, and let them decide about the evidentiary value of the document you are relying on or the credibility of the source if those issues come into play in a legal matter.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or via www.charlesglasser.com.
by Chris Roush
Reuters recently published part two of an investigative series on the high cost of the Pentagon’s bookkeeping. The series, by Reuters reporter Scot Paltrow, revealed that accounting issues at the Pentagon have led to widespread pay errors for America’s soldiers, a persistent inability to tally financial records and ledgers doctored with false entries.
Paltrow talks about how he reported the story:
Q. How did this story get started?
A. I was alerted to the topic some years ago by the then-head of the Government Accountability Office, when I interviewed him on another topic. Because of the staggering sums of money involved and the lack of accountability by the Defense Department, I was eager to follow up. When I joined Reuters Enterprise Desk, Mike Williams, the enterprise editor, was enthusiastic and urged me to pursue it. I think it’s fair to say that the topic turned out to merit the attention.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. Much of it involved identifying and tracking down individuals who had direct knowledge of what happened and how things worked – and who for various reasons would be able and willing to talk. This required finding recent retirees or those who had left the Defense Department for other jobs. We sent many detailed questions to spokespersons for the Pentagon and individual military services, and we were able to interview quite high-level officials in the Secretary of Defense’s office and the Army. Investigative reporting has a glamorous image, but the truth is that it largely involves tedious work. I lost count of how many public Government Accountability Office and Defense Department Inspector General’s reports I’ve read. I spent huge amounts of time simply trying to find phone numbers and e-mail addresses for individuals I needed to contact. I’ve been a journalist for quite a long time, and the internet of course has revolutionized everything, making reporting vastly easier. I well recall the pre-internet days when research required going to the public library and spending hours poring through microfilm and microfiche.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
A Marketwatch.com story last week about investing in the Twitter initial public offering originated from a poll that had run earlier in the week that allowed folks to leave an email address if they wanted to be contacted by a reporter.
It’s a reporting tactic that can be useful during a time when all journalists, and not just business journalists, are strapped for time when it comes to gathering information.
Jonnelle Marte is a reporter for MarketWatch covering health care and employment issues, and she was the writer for the story. She is also a main contributor to Tax Watch, MarketWatch’s blog on taxes. Previously, Marte covered fixed income and investing for the site and other personal finance topics for The Wall Street Journal.
Laura Mandaro is markets editor for MarketWatch, responsible for the site’s real-time markets copy and an editor of its blogs, and she oversaw the story. Mandardo previously was a feature editor and corporate reporter for the site. In her former life as a newsprint reporter, she worked at Investor’s Business Daily and American Banker.
Talking Biz News spoke by email with Mandaro about the story and about the reporting technique. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How did the idea come about to post the poll?
We’ve been using these polls on our Tell blog and Capitol Report blogs for a while to get readers’ views on a hot topic, particularly one where we’re spending extra effort on explaining what the event or subject means for a retail investor or consumer, or where we think there may be divergent views.
- What they thought about the televised food fight between Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman;
- Whether investors bought or sold stock because of the debt ceiling turmoil (drew over 4,800 responses);
- Who they thought MarketWatch’s CEO of the year should be;
- Their view on Edward Snowden;
- How long they expected the government shutdown to last.
Often our polls are multiple choice, using an in-house poll creator. Or, if we wanted to allow longer answers, we used Google Docs to create the poll. Then we published the interesting, though not scientific results, as part of our coverage.
We had never included a field that allowed readers to give us their contact information if they wanted. The Twitter poll was the first time.
What was the discussion like about asking readers for contact information?
For a while, we’ve been discussing how to bring an old newspaper feature – often called something like “Your Say” – into the digital era. Many of us worked at or grew up reading newspapers that would regularly include a column of readers’ quotes and their photos about a subject, which might be as local as a new proposed highway entrance or as global as the war in Iraq. These readers typically had agreed to share their views with the newspaper from time to time on any subject – in other words, they were a self-selected group of super-users.
We wanted to tap into MarketWatch’s own super-users. That is, the more engaged readers who would to take time to respond to polls. In particular, we were looking to give the personal, anecdotal side of investing stories that too often just quote professionals. MarketWatch mutual funds columnist Chuck Jaffe had a lot of good ideas on this.
Were you surprised at the volume of responses?
Yes, happily so!
How did you decide which readers to contact?
Jonnelle knew we wanted to frame the discussion around how people’s experience with Facebook stock may have impacted their expectations for Twitter, so she went through and categorized the responses into groups that she thought would have interesting responses.
People who had owned Facebook stock and said they didn’t want to own Twitter stock, people who didn’t own Facebook stock but wanted to own Twitter stock, and so on. Then Jonnelle emailed a bunch of those people to learn more about their individual experiences.
Was anything done to verify the people were who they said they were?
Jonnelle made sure the names given matched their email addresses and information on websites for companies they said they worked for.
What was the reaction from inside the newsroom?
We’re a very collaborative newsroom. When reporters and editors see something new, they reach out to the creator and ask how they can do it. Eventually the skill set spreads. For instance, telling a story with embedded tweets and other social media used to be a specialized skill. Now most reporters do this regularly. We share a lot of wikis and use join.me’s (and the plain-old telephone!) to share anything we think is cool.
Is this something that Marketwatch plans to do again?
What type of stories do you think this works best for?
Stories where we think our readers are not only interested in the subject, but likely to be engaged in the activity as well. Planning for retirement and buying a home are some obvious possibilities. But I’d also try this on a feature about bitcoin trading, for instance.
What type of stories will it not work well with?
Not sure we have a good answer for that. The biggest constraint, as ever, is time.
by Chris Roush
Reuters correspondent Claire Jim recently reported that Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC was scaling back production lines as cash flow worsened. Following the story, the stock rose as analysts credited the scoop as a key factor as investors predicted the cuts would lift cash flow.
Jim spoke about how the story was reported:
Q. How did you get this exclusive?
A. I was chatting with a source in the company about different matters when the source happened to mention HTC had shut some production sites to conserve cash and was thinking of selling them off. I then took those comments to other sources with good knowledge of the company as well as industry insiders to build up a fuller picture of what was going on. And to make sure I had the right details, I visited the plant to verify that some of the production lines had indeed been shut down.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?
A. A lot of the story was the result of what some call “old-fashioned” journalism: getting out and going to places and meeting people. It’s still valuable even in the days of instant information on the net.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting this story?
A. The hardest part was dealing with the company’s straight denial of what I had reported. Getting around that required ingenuity and a bit of creative thinking.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Brad Stone, the Bloomberg Businessweek reporter who recently published a book about Amazon.com, writes in response to a one-star review the book received from McKenzie Bezos, the wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Stone writes, “No matter how hard we strive for objectivity, writers are biased toward tension — those moments in which character is forged and revealed. I set out to tell the incredible story of how Amazon grew from three people in a garage to a company that employs 100,000 people around the world. It wasn’t an easy journey for the company, and for many Amazon employees, it wasn’t always enjoyable. It’s precisely that tension — between sacrifice and success — that makes Amazon and Bezos so compelling. Like any company, there were countless moments of dull harmony, and who knows how many hours of unremarkable meetings along the way. You could argue that many of those define Bezos and the company more than the strategic risks and moments of friction. MacKenzie Bezos does. I happen to disagree.
“Mrs. Bezos also suggests that there are a handful of factual errors in my account. As a journalist with a two-decade record of accuracy, that troubles me a great deal more. I spoke to more than 300 people for my book—among them current and former Amazon employees, rivals, partners, and customers. They gave generously of their time, memories, and documents to help me fill in the gaps in Amazon’s history that, as my sources pointed out, were sometimes left intentionally.
“Still, I’m not so high on my own authority to ignore the obvious: there are details of this story that only Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos can know. If they point to errors, I’ll gladly correct them. But I’d also proudly note that no one has taken issue with the major revelations in my book, such as Bezos’s Amazon.Love memo, the Cheetah and Gazelle negotiations with book publishers, the MilliRavi press release, the fight with Diapers.com and LoveFilm, and on and on.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Amazon.com says that the book written about the company and founder Jeff Bezos by Bloomberg Businessweek writer Brad Stone was not properly fact-checked, writes Jay Yarow of Business Insider.
Yarow writes, “Amazon spokesperson Craig Berman sent us this statement:
‘Over the course of the author’s reporting, Amazon facilitated meetings for him with more than half a dozen senior Amazon executives, during which he had every opportunity to inquire about or fact-check claims made by former employees. He chose not to. I met in person with him on at least three occasions and exchanged dozens of emails where he only checked a few specific quotes. He had every opportunity to thoroughly fact check and bring a more balanced viewpoint to his narrative, but he was very secretive about the book and simply chose not to.’
“Earlier today, Stone told us he was willing to update his book if new facts came to light. He also said that his story was based on hundreds of interviews with Amazon employees and executives, as a result he felt like he was in position to report on what Bezos was feeling at different moments in the history of the company.
“We called Stone for a comment on the newest Amazon statement and he told us, ’I exhaustively fact checked the work with my sources. Amazon declined to make Jeff Bezos available for fact checking.’”
by Chris Roush
Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette writes for Curbingcars.com on how to cover the transportation beat.
Riga writes, “Want to be a transport reporter? Here’s my road map to a fulfilling (and fun) beat.
“1) Make it practical. Help people get around, whatever their preferred mode. Major roadwork, transit interruptions, bike-path obstructions. I write ‘em up for the paper, online and/or Twitter and Facebook. I also write a weekly piece about traffic disruptions that affect drivers, transit users and cyclists.
“2) Make it interactive. You can’t be everywhere or know everything. Your readers are your eyes and ears, pointing out problems, asking questions and acting as a sounding board. I write a weekly Q&A column about getting around town – by car, transit, bike or on foot. Along with questions and answers, I feature reader comments (gathered via email and social media).
“3) Make it explanatory. Explaining is a big part of the job. People take highways and transit every day but don’t really know how things work. How do new buses and subway cars differ from old ones; how do traffic engineers design an intersection; how is a typical intersection dangerous for pedestrians.”
Read more here.