Tag Archives: Writing tips
by Chris Roush
Business journalists need to be able to decipher complicated data and be able to explain what that data means through the use of personal examples, a senior Marketwatch columnist said Wednesday night.
“Data driven reporting is quantitative and unemotional,” said Chuck Jaffe, who primarily writes about mutual funds. “Bringing it home gets the story out of data and into people. It doesn’t take long to find people who are affected.”
Jaffe was the keynote speaker Wednesday at the McGraw Hill Financial Data Awards Dinner in New York. The event was held by the International Center for Journalists, which offered an online financial data course this past fall. Journalists who took the course and wrote stories with data were honored at the dinner.
Jaffe said he still keeps a list of consumers who have contacted him about specific topics, and he relies on that list for examples when he is writing. He noted that a woman called him Wednesday to discuss gold who will likely end up in a future column.
“The more something [I write} is personal to someone, the more engaged they are,” said Jaffe, who recently used Reddit to find Bitcoin traders and shared those contacts with other Marketwatch journalists.
It’s often hard for business journalists to find the data that they need to tell a story, and when they do the data often does not tell the story that the journalist thought it would tell, said Jaffe.
“When the numbers come back, and they’re not what you thought, you have to ask, why not?” said Jaffe. And if the company or agency generating the numbers doesn’t know why the numbers are what they are, the reporter should dig deeper.
“Too many reporters are stopped by the word no,” said Jaffe. “The great thing about being a columnist is that I don’t have to be nice to the people I deal with.”
Jaffe provide other advice to the journalists at the dinner, including:
- Scams and frauds are often repeating themselves. Reporters should look for those. “There’s nothing new in scam world,” said Jaffe.
- Writing about investors who like or dislike a stock should dig deeper and explain the methodology for how that investor reached that conclusion.
- Don’t forget what’s important in life, added Jaffe. Money managers who complain to him that he’s ignoring an angle in a column often don’t understand what’s important to consumers.
Jaffe worked as a business journalist at the St. Petersburg Times, Allentown Morning Call and Boston Globe before joining Marketwatch. He is a past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
by Chris Roush
Lisa Kassenaar is a veteran reporter and editor for Bloomberg News and the driving force behind the Bloomberg News Women’s Project, an initiative to ensure women are better represented in the news.
Bloomberg In Depth recently spoke with Lisa to discuss the origins of the project and the extent of her involvement.
Here is an excerpt:
Q: Where did this idea come from? How did the Bloomberg News Women’s Project come to be?
LK: In 2010, Bloomberg News began a project to infuse all of our journalism with more women – as sources and voices, and as newsmakers in business, markets, politics and government. We know that women haven’t been running things – just 4 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are female – but we also know that women are half the people, and an underreported influence on the evolving global economic story.
Q: How did you get involved?
LK: I was a senior writer at Bloomberg Markets and had been covering Wall Street firms during the financial crisis. As that period waned, we talked about how few women had been part of the story. Editor-in-chief Matt Winkler asked me to figure out how to address it, and we started by deciding that we should not create a “women’s team.” We wanted all of our reporters and editors to see the world a little differently and to find and report on women from the perspective of their own beats.
Read more here.
by Liz Hester
Monty Hagler is president and chief executive officer of RLF Communications in Greensboro, N.C. Hagler has worked on both the agency and the corporate side of communications for Trone, Capstrat and First Union, now Wells Fargo.
In an email interview with Talking Biz News, Hagler discusses forming a strategy for dealing with a crisis as well as long-term communications planning. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: What are some of the factors you consider when advising a client on how to respond to a crisis?
Monty Hagler: The first objective is to determine the nature of the issue and the audiences that it impacts. Crises come in many forms, including reputational, organizational, natural disaster or external, which is beyond an organization’s control. We advise clients to assemble a cross-functional team of senior executives, quickly review and discuss the information that is available, determine what additional information needs to be gleaned and prioritize the audiences that need to be brought up to speed. The key is to move quickly and communicate proactively when possible, without creating more problems or areas for question.
TBN: What is the most important consideration when putting together a strategic plan?
MH: A strategic plan must always work backwards from the desired end result. We frequently ask clients to define what success looks like in a year, in three years, in five years. If clients can articulate a clear vision for what success in any given arena will look like (and we frequently participate in this exercise to help get everyone on the same page), then a strategic communications plan will flow from the vision. It’s also an important exercise for determining the resources that should go into accomplishing objectives.
TBN: What’s the first step in releasing or responding to bad news?
MH: The first step is to make sure you truly understand what the bad news is and what caused it. Organizations frequently respond to bad news when they only have part of the story, and that makes the situation more complicated. It’s also important to understand exactly how the news is going to impact the organization and where communication efforts need to take top priority.
TBN: Are there times when not telling your side of the story is advantageous?
MH: Absolutely. We frequently see situations where clients will not be able to influence or mitigate the first wave of negative stories on an issue. This can be for a variety of reasons, but generally because the news media has formulated a point of view and is focused on telling the story from that perspective.
Our advice is to provide a brief statement addressing the issue, let the story come out and then assess if the story will continue to gain traction if we do not provide more fuel for the media fire. In many cases, the issue dies after one news cycle. In that case, the organization can then focus on communicating directly with key audiences that need to know the full picture, but without generating additional negative stories.
TBN: What’s your advice for those interested in working in crisis communications?
MH: Read, read, read. Get a subscription to The Wall Street Journal (I have a digital subscription but still prefer to read the print edition that’s waiting for me every morning in the office) and follow how companies are handling a vast array of issues. Read the article to identify all of the different stakeholders that are involved and visualize how you would handle communications if you were in charge. The key is to follow that crisis and its impact on the company through to the end — not just when it is a front-page story.
by Liz Hester
Margot Carmichael Lester founded The Word Factory in 1993 and spends her time focusing on providing quality content for her clients.
She began her journalism career as the high school correspondent for the Chapel Hill Weekly, edited by the famous Jim Shumaker. She’s covered business for a number of outlets including the Los Angeles Business Journal, Playboy and several airline magazines. She also creates content and writing coaching for clients like Staples, Baxter Healthcare and Tufts University Medical Center. Check out her blog.
She spoke with Talking Biz News about what it takes to make a living in content and how she’s built her successful business. What follows is an edited transcript.
Talking Biz News: The Word Factory turns 21 this year. Congratulations. How did you build a successful content business?
Margot Carmichael Lester: When I started, we called it copy and AOL was the gee-whiz technology of the day. There wasn’t anything called a “content shop,” so I’d be lying if I said I planned it this way. But from the start I knew — as someone who had worked with freelancers and contractors in my previous life — that customer service was critical. I operationalize that through:
- Quality. Clients appreciate that the content we file is clean and on time. I hate to call it a competitive advantage, but it is. In my first journalism class, we got dinged for typos and misspellings — and were using non-correcting typewriters! — so I learned early on to pay attention to small things like that. Anything you can do to make your client’s life easier makes you valuable.
- Reliability. Shockingly, I also get kudos for turning in content on time and giving clients early warning if there are delays or challenges. I think people who’ve worked in daily or weekly deadline situations are much better at this than people who haven’t, by the way. We know the downside risk of not getting content in on time and the upside value of keeping editors/clients informed.
- Speed. I’m also fast. I’ve always been an operations geek, designing processes to create more high-quality content in less time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was applying principles from Lean, Agile, Scrum and Kanban — all those manufacturing process — to content. So the content supply chain we create is more efficient and effective for everyone — us and the client. Being transparent about the process and the progress creates buy-in and trust, and keeps us all on track.
There are a lot of really great writers out there. So all things being equal, ability- and talent-wise, customer service is a key differentiator. To be successful in a highly competitive environment, it helps if you provide service, not just text.
TBN: Is that the key to client management?
MCL: Quality, reliability and speed are definitely critical to keeping clients. But the final component is managing expectations, not just about deadlines, but also about the meat and potatoes of the project itself. I invest a lot of energy working with clients to articulate purpose, target audience, desired results and other details before we do any actual writing. We use quantitative points like word count and style guides, as well as quantitative items like models (“we want an article that sounds like this one”) and audience profiles to nail down as much of the project as possible. The clients and I agree what we’re doing and why, and then my team and I figure out how to do it.
That clarity and focus dramatically reduces the risk of pursuing the wrong angle or creeping away from the purpose. It’s different — most clients don’t pursue projects this way—but these extra cycles at the beginning actually reduce cycles later on because there’s less revision and retooling. We also do a lot of rapid iterations, creating minimally viable products like pre-writes, drafts, etc., that give the writing team and the client team plenty of opportunities to check off the project before a huge investment in time and resources has been made.
TBN: Sounds a little like how editors and reporters work together.
MCL: Exactly. Editors decide on the overall coverage plan, and reporters and photogs and designers make it happen. The groups collaborate to revise the content and then publish it quickly. That’s why I’ve been saying for years that all of us old ink-stained wretches — I actually remember a functioning Linotype machine at my first writing gig in high school — are extremely well prepared for the always-on world of constant content. We know how to plan on the fly — daily newspaper or evening news show, right? — make solid assignments, do the reporting, write and revise, and produce quality quickly. We can’t afford to pursue the wrong angle or say, two minutes before deadline, “oops”. This isn’t rocket science. This isn’t new. It’s simply applying what we know from efficient newsrooms to a new environment.
TBN: How do you incorporate good journalism in writing for companies?
MCL: The tension between good journalism and corporate writing is always there. Although I’ll say that with so many former journalists taking corporate gigs, there are some bright spots in the landscape. To be fair, though, it’s not that corporate folks don’t value good journalism. Many of them weren’t trained in it, or are stymied by corporate style and legal/regulatory requirements. Still, I try to fight the good fight for basic journalistic standards, including AP Style and no marketing-speak. But at some point, corporate style, executive preferences and “the client’s always right” get in the way.
You can stand on principle, but you can’t buy groceries with principle. I’m not going to fight a client over a serial comma or what to capitalize. But I’ll go a little harder when the writing’s not clear, it doesn’t address the audience in the right way, or it’s incorrect. Unless they’re asking you to lie or something morally or ethically questionable, chances are it’s worth letting go. If you want to work, you have to learn to choose your battles.
by Chris Roush
The editors at Columbia Journalism Review are in the process of putting together the third book in its Best Business Writing series with Columbia University Press, and while they read a lot of business journalism (and I do mean a lot of business journalism), they can’t read everything.
Ryan Chittum writes, “What are the most memorable and vivid pieces you’ve seen in the last year or so? What stories made you wish you’d written them or made you see something in a whole new light?
“We define business writing pretty broadly. Best Business Writing 2013, for instance, included a Rolling Stone piece on the hidden-in-plain-sight woes of the middle class, a wonky blog post by Steve Randy Waldman on inequality, productivity, and employment, a takedown of the TED phenomenon by Evgeny Morozov, and a Wired piece on how Corning engineered and produced glass for the iPhone.
“And, of course, we had your more traditional Fortune, Wall Street Journal, and Businessweek fare.
“We have a soft spot for muckraking stories, but we also love a good corporate focus, profile, or column.
“Drop me an email if anything comes to mind, and don’t hesitate to nominate your own work.”
by Chris Roush
John Crowley, digital editor The Wall Street Journal, shared his tips for immersive storytelling at a recent digital journalism conference.
Abigail Edge of journalism.co.uk writes, “He also noted that although WSJ London does not have the same resources as the outlet’s New York office, you do not need ‘a cast of thousands’ to produce engaging immersive content.
“Just six people worked on the Golden Dawn project. And it was a great success, with a bounce rate of just 14 per cent compared to 72 per cent for a typical WSJ article.
“For The Wall Street Journal, it was also a way to cover the rise of Golden Dawn, which had won 7 per cent per cent of the popular vote in Greece and taken 20 seats in the Greek government.
“‘We would not have had this information without Marcus drilling down and working with Jovi to visualise this data in this way,’ explained Crowley.
“He also highlighted The Crossing interactive, which used video and audio slideshows to tell the story of a African migrant who had risked his life to travel by boat from Eritrea to Lampedusa in the Italian Pelagie Islands.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Dan Primack of Fortune.com writes about the semantics of “no comment” from a company CEO who may or may not be involved in negotiating a merger or acquisition.
Primack writes, “I don’t begrudge anyone their opinion (including about me), but I do feel that there may be a fundamental misunderstanding about what ‘no comment’ usually means to reporters.
“My argument was largely that Marco, assuming he didn’t want to confirm the report, should have simply said ‘no comment’ (assuming he picked up the phone in the first place). That way he neither violates NDA nor lies. But some of you argued that a CEO’s ‘no comment’ is de facto confirmation. A non-denial, as it were.
“For those who feel this way, please know that you are mistaken. ‘No comment’ is exactly that, no comment. Neither confirmation nor denial. In fact, it’s only real use to a reporter is that it lets us know our inquiry was received. Any reporter who bases stories on his or her hunch as to the deeper meaning of ‘no comment’ will soon be out of a job for printing all sorts of inaccurate stuff.
“A few readers also emailed to sympathize with Marco, with one asking ‘what else could he do to kill the story?’
“The answer here is ‘probably nothing.’ Once a reporter calls a CEO about something like this, it means the leak has already occurred. And the reporter likely trusts the original source(s). Perhaps you can bribe the reporter with a ‘better’ story if they hold the scoop, but that’s only if you actually have something of superior value.”
Read more here.
Jane Sasseen’s investigative business and economic stories have been featured in publications such as BusinessWeek and Yahoo News.
At her newest job, she’ll help journalists write their own long-form business pieces.
Sasseen became the executive director of the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Center for Business Journalism at City University of New York three weeks ago. The Center, financed by a $3 million grant from the Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Family Foundation, will commission long-form stories from experienced reporters, filling a void in business journalism education across the country, Sasseen said.
“There are a fair number of media foundations that give grants for longer projects that geared towards investigative reporting in agriculture, social justice and health care,” Sasseen said, “but there aren’t very many that are devoted to business and economics and better understanding the economy, which is our goal.”
In addition to overseeing the McGraw Center, Sasseen will review and select reporting projects to receive funding.
Long-form business journalism is important because people need in-depth stories to understand increasingly complex business and economics topics, Sasseen said.
“There is an enormous amount of good journalism that is day-to-day,” Sasseen said, “but it’s important for freelance journalists or journalists at publications to have the time and resources to create a longer, in-depth story.”
The goal of the McGraw Center is to support business journalism by funding these long-form stories that many business news organizations cannot afford to create on their own, Sasseen said. The Center will pay its fellows a stipend for three to six months of work, and the finished story will be featured on the school’s website or published with a partner news outlet.
“At the end [when a story is finished], we’d like to be able to go to a publication and say, ‘We’ve got a completed project for you’,” Sasseen said, “‘we’ve got a completed, ready-to-go story for you if you’re interested.’”
The McGraw Center will also award scholarships to students enrolled in the business and economics reporting concentration at CUNY’s journalism school. In addition, the Center will give stipends to students who take summer internships at business news publications.
The McGraw Center is currently creating a website and application form for journalists to submit their stories. Those interested in applying do not have to attend CUNY’s graduate program. Though the application is not ready, Sasseen said she is always interested in hearing great project ideas.
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 email@example.com or via www.charlesglasser.com.
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.