Tag Archives: Writing tips

Charles Glasser

This just in, and the rush to publish

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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 second installment is “This Just In” where we’ll look at the way law, the public interest and competitive pressure all inform news judgment about when a story is ready to publish.

There are few situations quite as stressful for an editor and his or her libel lawyer than the decision to publish a story we deem “immediate.” The great preponderance of corrections – and libel suits – involve errors made in good faith but were nonetheless the product of moving so quickly that an important fact was not checked out, a source’s credibility was not checked out, or the reporter and editors simply misunderstood the facts.

Navigating this and learning good news judgment is helped by understanding a few concepts in law that explain when the First Amendment does and doesn’t protect such errors. Non-journalists often wonder why there is any such protection at all. Surely, if a household appliance maker speeds up the production line to make more toasters quickly and as a result, the toasters short-circuit and electrocute customers, that company would face liability to the harm their defective product caused.

So why aren’t news organizations similarly liable when they speed up production and make a “defective” product that causes harm?

The answer comes in two parts: 1) Newspapers aren’t toasters; and 2) The First Amendment does not remove all possible liability, it simply raises the bar for liability to attach. News organizations that make mistakes can and do face liability, but when applicable, the First Amendment makes the plaintiff establish a higher degree of proof in order to recover damages.

Newspapers are not toasters

Legal treatises have long taught that under products liability law, strict liability is imposed on the theory that “[t]he costs of damaging events due to defectively dangerous products can best be borne by the enterprisers who make and sell these products.” (See, Prosser & Keeton on The Law of Torts, § 98, at 692-93 (W. Keeton ed. 5th ed. 1984). But publications are not products, they are ideas.

This was explained in one of my favorite cases that explains this important distinction. In Winter v. GP Putnam’s Sons, 938 F. 2d 1033 (9th Cir. 1991), the publisher produced a book about how to hunt for wild mushrooms. An editing error resulted in a poisonous mushroom being described as edible, and in reliance on the book, the plaintiffs ate the wrong mushrooms, almost died and required liver transplants to survive. There’s no libel or privacy issue here, so the plaintiffs brought a products liability case against the publisher. Just like the hypothetical defective toaster that electrocutes a customer where the maker should be held responsible, Putnam ought to have been held responsible for the defect in its publication, right? Not so fast.

The Winter court began by making the distinction between products and ideas:

“A book containing Shakespeare’s sonnets consists of two parts, the material and print therein, and the ideas and expression thereof. The first may be a product, but the second is not. The latter, were Shakespeare alive, would be governed by copyright laws; the laws of libel, to the extent consistent with the First Amendment; and the laws of misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, negligence, and mistake. These doctrines applicable to the second part are aimed at the delicate issues that arise with respect to intangibles such as ideas and expression. Products liability law is geared to the tangible world.” Id. at 1034. (Emphasis added).

So if the tangible pages and book jacket were made of toxic material that poisoned readers, products liability law might apply, but the courts have refused to apply products liability law to ideas contained on those pages. The Winter court concluded that “Guided by the First Amendment and the values embodied therein, we decline to extend liability under this theory to the ideas and expression contained in a book.” Id. at 1037.

Why are ideas and expressions protected?

The First Amendment provides a degree of protection for ideas and expressions. Understanding why is the key to developing better news judgment. In Ollman v. Evans, 750 F. 2d 970 (D.C.Cir. 1984) the court had to determine the viability of a libel case brought by a college professor accused by veteran columnist Rowland Evans of being a Marxist, unqualified to teach, and misusing his teaching position as a tool to indoctrinate students. Although much of this case turned on whether the columnist’s statements were assertion of fact or instead pure opinion, the court began by explaining that the application of the First Amendment is a matter of “striking the balance” between protection of free expression of ideas and the protection of an individual’s interest in his or her reputation:

It is a truism that the free flow of ideas and opinions is integral to our democratic system of government. Thomas Jefferson well expressed this principle in his first inaugural address when he said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” At the same time, an individual’s interest in his or her reputation is of the highest order. Its protection is an eloquent expression of the respect historically afforded the dignity of the individual in Anglo-American legal culture. A defamatory statement may destroy an individual’s livelihood, wreck his standing in the community, and seriously impair his sense of dignity and self-esteem.  Id. at 974.

Understanding that balance is essential to knowing when the time is right to publish a potentially defamatory story. Judge Robert Bork’s concurrence in Ollman also underscores that columnists (and by extension, reporters, editors, bloggers and the like) must recognize that it is service of the public interest that animates the First Amendment’s balancing act: “The American press is extraordinarily free and vigorous, as it should be. It should be, not because it is free of inaccuracy, oversimplification, and bias, but because the alternative to that freedom is worse than those failings.”

Put another way, Judge Bork’s concurrence asks us to consider what that alternative is, in other words, what value, what critical social good does a free press and accurate journalism bring to society, so much so that it is given a degree of license to err and still avoid liability?

It’s also critical for reporters and editors to understand that the First Amendment’s high bar is neither absolute, nor always entirely applicable. See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 US 323, 341 (1974) (“The need to avoid self-censorship by the news media is, however, not the only societal value at issue. If it were, this Court would have embraced long ago the view that publishers and broadcasters enjoy an unconditional and indefeasible immunity from liability for defamation.”)

In cases where the subject is a private figure, and the story is not about a matter of public concern, states may lower the bar to a “mere negligence” standard. That means in those cases that instead of just relying on a reporter’s good faith in making the error, the publication will have to prove that its staff did everything a “reasonable” journalist would have done in those circumstances. This ought to encourage journalists to look for the biggest impact not only to get more reads but to build in as much legal protection as possible.

Serving the public interest: Look for the impact

In Bloomberg News editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler’s magnum opus “The Bloomberg Way,” considerable emphasis is given to “What’s at Stake?” and it teaches that the impact or significance of an event is often just as important as explaining why something happened. Some editors, when presented with a story also call this the “So What?” approach, and rightly so. Finding and showing the “so what” in a story dovetails with the law nicely because as mentioned above, matters of public concern are afforded a degree of constitutional protection that purely private affairs may not enjoy. See Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 US 749 (1985)

The more people a story affects, the closer to altering public policy a story gets, the greater the public interest. In my media law classes at Bloomberg News I would consistently ask journalists to ask themselves, “Will the public be smarter, safer, healthier, wealthier or wiser for your having published this story?” If a story is well-reported, well-written and can answer those questions in the affirmative, the public interest will be apparent on its face and will reduce legal exposure.

Karen Testa, East regional editor for The Associated Press, grapples with this issue every day. The competitive pressure of the new media landscape adds complexity to the question of news judgment, says Testa, a 21-year veteran of the co-operative wire service.

“Our primary concern is accuracy first,” she says, but media organizations can lose sight of that when “everybody is tweeting something as a fact, or poorly-attributed websites take those tweets and rumors as fact and it sort of morphs into common knowledge… it’s often just an echo chamber. We still have to ask ‘How do we know what we know? ‘Is it first-hand information, is the source in a position to know?” Competitive pressure is a reality, notes Testa, but it’s no substitute for being as certain about the facts as possible. For that reason, Testa and her fellow AP editors avoid summarizing defamatory allegations from other news organizations that are based on confidential sources or “people familiar” because there’s no way to check them out.

“The impact of a story or the ripples of influence that a story subject may have is an important element that adds to a report,” says Testa, who also adds that while breaking this-just-in news is always going to run first (once verified as best as possible) “given the narrower resources that newsrooms have these days, if I have five stories on my desk, and we only have resources to move three of them, I’m going to ask which ones affect the most people.”

The question of the public interest informing when and how long to hold a story is not limited to wire-service style breaking news. Those working on feature-length or investigative reporting may have additional obstacles to publication on schedule. As a legal matter, while there should be no variance in the degree of protection afforded a story simply because of its format, as a practical and atmospheric matter, the longer the lead time a story has, the higher the expectation grows that a story will be accurate and fair.

Judges and juries are more forgiving of an error made in the heat of breaking news but are less forgiving when a plaintiff can argue that in the case of a weekly or monthly magazine or even a book, the reporter had more time – sometimes weeks or months – to check things out. What in the first instance looks like a good faith error starts to look more like slovenly work.

Playing it straight matters

Weighing the public interest against when to publish is a particular challenge for enterprise and investigative journalists. Amanda Bennett, the executive editor for Bloomberg News’ projects and investigations team often manages stories that have been months in the making. As a reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal and The (Portland) Oregonian, respectively, Bennett won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and again in 2001 for National Reporting and for Public Service. Given the long lead time that her team’s stories have and the often controversial nature of investigative reporting, Bennett refuses to let the convenience of a publication schedule affect her judgment of when a story is ready for publication. “You must approach the subject and allow them the chance to poke holes in what you think you learned,” says Bennett.

Emphasizing transparency and fairness, Bennett notes that younger reporters have a tendency to “hold their cards too close to the chest” by waiting too long on making the call for comment, fearing that the subject will either dish a watered-down version to the competition, start pressuring sources to recant, or launch some other pre-emptive attack on the story. “That’s the cost of doing it right,” Bennett says, and expecting honesty from her reporters, adds that reporters first approaching a story subject “should never obfuscate” what the thrust of the story is.

Unlike breaking news, Bennett notes, enterprise and investigative stories may be complicated by negotiations with the company or story subject. Deal-making is sometimes necessary, Bennett says. “Companies will often say ‘If you hold off from publishing, we’ll give you an hour with the CEO’, or they offer to provide access to documents.” In her experience, “making reasonable accommodations to include the subject’s point of view or allowing them to show you where you might be wrong is the ethical thing to do, and we are better off if this happens sooner, rather than later in the process.”  At the same time, reporters should never show anyone outside the newsroom a draft of a story as part of a deal, Bennett adds.

Checklist for public interest

• Ask yourself if your reader will be demonstrably smarter, safer, healthier, wiser, or able to make more informed decisions as a result of your article.

• Show the impact on lives that the facts about which you report will have. Don’t assume that readers see how a story affects them.

• Separate merely interesting or previously unknown tidbits from genuine information that the public ought to know. The former may not enjoy a high degree of legal protection while that latter almost always will.

• Don’t let yourself be accused of sandbagging a subject. If you have been working on a story for three weeks, it’s unfair to call them for comment or denial the night before publication.

• Be honest with the subject about what you are writing, but never ever show them notes or a draft.

• Use great caution in making deals with story subjects, and use “check quotes” or “quote approval” very sparingly. This almost always gives the subject an opportunity to re-write what they said. Confer with your editor or newsroom lawyer before making any such deal: it might be a binding contract.

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 charlesglasseresq@gmail.com or via www.charlesglasser.com.

 

Charles Glasser

Know your stuff: Developing expertise in your coverage

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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 first installment is “Know Your Stuff,” where we’ll look at the need for business journalists to examine the nuts-and-bolts of the specific industry or subject they are writing about.

There is an old truism in journalism that any good business reporter could cover a house fire, but not all general assignment reporters can cover a tax investigation or a Food and Drug Administration recall.

Why is that? The simplest answer is that a shooting, a house fire, or a bus crash are events of easily understood cause and effect, and the impact of that kind of reporting is universal. By contrast, the events that transpire in the business world are not often understood by reporters and if mistaken, may create legal liability.

Defamatory meaning vs. bad news

Libel cases arise when a person makes a statement that (generally defined) impugns the reputation of the person or company written about, accuses them of wrongdoing, shameful or unethical conduct, or in some cases professional incompetence.

Although that sounds wide-ranging, this should not dissuade reporters from chasing such stories, but it does place the responsibility on them and their editors to recognize when they are indeed making such an accusation and once recognized, be able to prove the truth of the statement through facts disclosed in the story itself.

Similarly, the law recognizes that reporters and editors need the flexibility to determine what is simply run-of-the-mill “bad news” for the company and acknowledges the press’ need for freedom to meet a deadline. See, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967) (Supreme Court discussing the necessity for rapid dissemination in weighing whether editors departed from applicable standard of culpability).

As usual, the extremes are easy to define. While an allegation that a company is under investigation for tax fraud is surely capable of defamatory meaning, a statement that a company lost 3 percent of its market cap is simply reporting the usual ups and downs of business. In the former example, one is worthy of scorn or opprobrium; in the latter, this is just what businesses go through every day.

The tricky part, of course, is being able to navigate through that great middle of the bell curve. For example, a reporter learns that a pharmaceutical company’s product is being recalled. That sounds bad and will surely have an effect on the share price. But is it defamatory? That depends on the context of the statement. Could it be reasonable to understand that saying that XYZ medication may not be safe and effective accuses the company of selling a bogus or even dangerous product? Absent more facts and reporting, many courts would not dismiss a libel case and would allow that question to be put before a jury.

Therein lies the challenge: serving the public interest of providing important (and possibly time-sensitive) news while still meeting the applicable legal requirements should the story be either incorrect, or carry an incorrect implication. That challenge is meet by developing the skill sets of specialized reporting.

Precision makes the difference

The skill that thoughtful reporters and careful editors employ in these situations is precision and a full understanding of the process and industry being reported upon. In this example, a reporter would be best advised to dig into what the recall really means. Here the law reminds us that what we leave out of an otherwise accurate story can create a defamatory implication.

In Tomblin v. WCHS-TV, unpublished, 4th Cir. 2001, available here, a television station accurately reported that a state agency was investigating allegations of sexual molestation at a local day care center. Unfortunately, the report failed to mention that the investigation was actually about what one child had done to another: nowhere was the day care center or its employees accused of molestation.

The plaintiff argued that this missing fact changed the meaning of the story, or in the alternative, carried a defamatory implication. The Court of Appeals agreed, saying that “a reasonable viewer could believe, falsely, that an adult at the daycare sexually abused a child, and thus the daycare center’s libel claim could proceed.” Id. The takeaway? What you leave out of a story can change its entire meaning, intentional or otherwise.

Let’s revisit the hypothetical about the drug recall. Like tax reporting, complex finance, accounting and aviation, the pharma beat is built on specialized knowledge and regulations. Reg Gale, deputy managing editor for U.S. health and science for Bloomberg News, is responsible for covering the pharmaceutical industry.

Gale often reminds reporters that words like “recall” have different meanings to industry specialists (and investors) than they might to ordinary readers. Ordinary readers would perceive a “recall” as a statement that the drug in question is dangerous, or may have caused dangerous side effects or harm, Gale says. In fact, “recalls are a regulatory process often loaded with language that is negotiated by the manufacturer and the FDA, and a ‘recall’ may be far less serious than one might think.”

For example, Gale explains, recalls can mean that the manufacturer has simply stopped making new shipments, has agreed to send warning advisories to physicians, or has restricted the recall to specific lot numbers or dates of origin. That’s a considerable difference than being “pulled off the shelves,” Gale says. Recalls do not necessarily mean that a product has been withdrawn from the market, and if misreported, the damage to a firm’s reputation (and sales) could bring serious legal liability.

According to Gale, in his experience less than 5 percent of recalls are unilaterally imposed by the FDA, and most recalls should – after fact-checking — be described as voluntary, or at the least, done in conjunction with the company and the FDA.

“It’s critical that reporters understand the technical language that the industry uses. The biggest mistake young reporters make is assuming they understand that language,” Gale says. “If you are not sure what something means, ask someone who does know.”

Don’t forget fundamentals

To be sure, while business reporters need to develop specialized knowledge to cover their beat well, Paul E. Steiger, former Wall Street Journal managing editor and current executive chairman of ProPublica, stresses the need for fundamental reporting skills. Newsrooms under Steiger’s leadership have garnered 18 Pulitzer Prizes, including two awarded to ProPublica in 2010 and 2011. “Data and documents are terrific, but they do not stand alone,” Steiger says. “Reporters need to get out there and talk to people about what those numbers mean. We should have reverence for outside voices explaining the facts that reporters gather.”

Emphasizing the use of good-old-fashioned reporting, Steiger tells an instructive story about what old-timers call “shoe leather” reporting. A tragic hotel fire had cost the lives of a publicly-traded company’s top leadership, and Steiger tells of assigning a reporter to find out what the future looked like for the company. When he saw the reporter siting at his desk, Steiger asked what he was doing. “Waiting for the flak to call me back,” replied the reporter. “Waiting for the flak to call you back?” Steiger recalls responding. “How do you know the flak wasn’t killed too? Get out there and start talking to people!”

The importance of making every effort to contact people – especially those accused of wrongdoing – “is absolutely crucial” as a fundamental skill, Steiger says, adding that there is no excuse to not make every practical effort to allow the story subject an opportunity to explain the facts and figures upon which a reporter is basing a story.

In my 12 years at Bloomberg, I helped developed the best practice of reporters building a paper trail of efforts to contact a story subject. In one instance, our reporter had gotten proof that a particular fund was being investigated for illegal insider trading. She had left messages for the fund’s manager, and got no response for two days. She finally called me, worried that she’d lose her exclusive and asked if we could publish.

Because the news in this case lacked immediacy, I suggested she write the fund manager a fax generally saying: “Dear Sir: I have been trying to contact you for three days about a possible SEC investigation of your firm, specifically the allegations [that such-and-such.] Your secretary has confirmed that you got these messages. We really want to provide you with the opportunity to tell us that we are wrong or in the alternative, that there is some explanation, but we cannot hold the story forever. If I don’t hear from you by tomorrow, we will not have the chance to include your side of the story.”

The letter went out, the deadline passed, and we published an accurate story. Nonetheless, a year later the fund sued for libel anyway. Although the plaintiff tried his best to meet his burden of showing that the story was inaccurate, I pointed out this letter to the judge and watched her become redder and redder in the face as she read it. She turned to the plaintiff’s table waving the letter at them and angrily said “Why are you wasting this court’s time?” She dismissed the case from the bench.

Lesson learned? Making every effort to contact those people you write about is not only a fundamental element of journalistic fairness but can also protect you from claims that you rushed a story to print and were unfair or irresponsible in pursuit of a story.

Developing expertise on your beat

The most dangerous thing a reporter can do is assume that he or she possesses specialized knowledge covering a complicated industry or company structure, and failing to get a reality check on his or her understanding of that structure. A few years back, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a fascinating story about Market America, a merchandising company the writer described as “a multi-level marketing company that exploits the get-rich-quick dreams of every red-blooded American” and had promised huge profits for participants.

Replete with great color, the story showed the top man’s 350,000-square-foot mansion, the 150-foot yacht, the celebrity fetes and all the other trappings of wild success. The story also included accurate quotes from some people who felt that the company did not live up to their promises. In fairness, the reporter also went back to the company with the would-be millionaires’ complaints, and included the company’s view that those people had not applied enough effort to succeed.

The writer also called the company structure “dizzyingly complex” noting bewilderment the way “money flows in so many directions.” That’s where the reporter got off track: In the initial version, he had used the short-cut phrase “pyramid scheme” to describe the way that the company and its distributors were paid. In fact, according to the Federal Trade Commission, “pyramid schemes” are illegal, and generate revenue for participants solely through the recruitment of other salespeople.

He failed to run his understanding of the payment structure past the company (or a forensic accountant), and as pointed out by angry PR executives (and their lawyers waiting in the wings) Market America specifically disallows distributors to sign up “pyramids” of other distributors. The reporter never came right out and asked company executives if it was a “pyramid scheme” and if not, why not. Though no lawsuit was filed, the assumption that the reporter made – that he truly understood the business model — resulted in a correction that took some of the shine off an otherwise great story.

Like Steiger, Gale also emphasizes “shoe leather” reporting skills as fundamental. He encourages reporters to attend industry-sponsored events where products or strategies are discussed and trying to attend presentations where the industry being covered is speaking to potential customers. On becoming an expert on your beat, Gale says “you can’t do it just from your desk.”

Gale also encourages reporters to read their competition faithfully, and look for the same expert names that keep appearing. The odds are that the more technical the beat is, the smaller the universe of experts. In addition, he suggests, become familiar with the technical literature of the beat, and mine those studies and reports for people who appear to really know what they are talking about.

Checklist for developing expertise

• Don’t assume that you understand a term of art or regulatory phrase. Ask someone who knows.

• Always make best efforts to present the story subject with your understanding of the structure or allegation of wrongdoing. At worst, you’ll get a “no comment” or denial, but you may just end up learning that you don’t fully understand the subject.

• You can’t own your beat from behind a desk or on email. Get out there.

• Read the industry literature, newsletters and trade journals. They not only provide a gold mine of resources for expert voices, but also leads on stories you might be able to bring to a wider audience.

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 currently a consultant on media law and corporate communications issues, and can be reached at charlesglasseresq@gmail.com

Best Business Writing 2013

Best Business Writing 2013 is now available

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An anthology Malcolm Gladwell has called “riveting and indispensable,” The Best Business Writing 2013 is a far-ranging survey of business’s dynamic relationship with politics, culture, and life.

This year’s selections include John Markoff (New York Times) on innovations in robot technology and the decline of the factory worker; Evgeny Morozov (New Republic) on the questionable value of the popular TED conference series and the idea industry behind it; Paul Kiel (ProPublica) on the ripple effects of the ongoing foreclosure crisis; and the infamous op-ed by Greg Smith, published in the New York Times, announcing his break with Goldman Sachs over its trading practices and corrupt corporate ethos.

Jessica Pressler (New York) delves into the personal and professional rivalry between Tory and Christopher Burch, former spouses now competing to dominate the fashion world. Peter Whoriskey (Washington Post) exposes the human cost of promoting pharmaceuticals off-label. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza (New York Times) investigate Apple’s unethical labor practices in China.

Max Abelson (Bloomberg) reports on Wall Street’s amusing reaction to the diminishing annual bonus. Mina Kimes (Fortune) recounts the grisly story of a company’s illegal testing—and misuse—of a medical device for profit, and Jeff Tietz (Rolling Stone) composes one of the most poignant and comprehensive portraits of the financial crisis’s dissolution of the American middle class.

To order, go here.

no-error-sign-md

Avoiding errors, and what to do when they happen

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The quick pace of social media and the Web have escalated the importance of getting a story right the first time and avoiding errors as a journalist, said Forbes managing editor for business news Dan Bigman in a conference call with Forbes contributors from New York Tuesday.

“Just correcting an error doesn’t necessarily correct the problem,” Bigman said. “If you fix the mistake later, it is already out in the wild and running amuck, with the quick nature of social media.”

Bigman and Forbes editorial counsel Kai Falkenberg outlined some key practices of good journalism to prevent mistakes from being made the first time around. While many of them are obvious, the topic serves as a good reminder on how to maintain credibility as a reporter and uphold the integrity of news organizations.

“There’s a mindset that people have a much higher tolerance for getting things wrong online, but that’s a misnomer,” Bigman said. “You have a real impact, good or bad, and sometimes real people get real lawyers and sue. But it’s more than self preservation.”

Bad Sources

Citing bad sources are one of the most common ways that a journalist will make an error in a story. Linking to or citing someone else is not the same thing as actually getting the story correct, Falkenberg and Bigman said in the presentation.

“If someone else is wrong and you repeat them, you just double down on their error,” Bigman said.

Avoiding incorrect sources can be done by reading multiple sources before rendering judgment, reading an entire story before linking to it and making sure that the source is current and hasn’t been corrected itself.

Bigman told a story of a business journalist who managed to tank a stock by writing about an old news story about the possibility of United Airlines filing for bankruptcy as if it were a breaking news event.

Additionally, some sources may have an agenda, and it is important to see where an organization that issues reports receives its funding.

You Didn’t Get the Other Side of the Story 

Journalists always need to ensure that they are getting the full and accurate version of every story. With sources and PR people having agendas, if a story is underreported, a journalist runs the risk of getting used and publishing an inaccurate story — even if they reported all the facts they received correctly.

Excuses like “but the company told me so” doesn’t serve as a legitimate excuse because at the end of the day, sources only want one thing. Knowing the source and trusting them is important, but a reporter shouldn’t be friends with them, Bigman said.

If a reporter cannot figure out the agenda of someone they are talking to for a story, they should step away or ask directly. Furthermore, Bigman frowns upon letting a source see a story before it is published, including quotes from the source.

“Ask specific questions to clarify a topic as opposed to sending them a chunk of what you’ve written, Bigman said. “If they’ve said something great, controversial, meaty and then you show it to them and they want to retract it, then where does that leave you?”

Not Skeptical Enough 

Dictation is not journalism, Bigman said during the conference call.

“A good source is not someone who is quotable,” Bigman said. “A good source is someone with accurate information.”

Maintaing a certain level of skepticism when speaking to all sources and researching all information is crucial, and keeping this guard will prevent embarrassing mistakes.

Rushing to Publish

General sloppiness when rushing to publish a story before competitors leads to a majority of mistakes that happen on a daily basis among reporters. Most errors are typo or numbers-related, Falkenberg said.

Bigman suggested to “measure twice, cut once” before publishing a story, meaning that a reporter should double check all numbers, read a story backwards, use spell check and get a second set of eyes to read a story.

“You can tank a stock if you get data points wrong while writing quickly,” Bigman said. “Be careful when writing about earnings of a big company, as it’s usually billions not millions.”

Writing Outside Your Area of Expertise 

When a journalist is assigned to a certain beat, they become an expert in that topic, of the people who matter in the industry and of the companies they cover. When a journalist strays outside his or her area of expertise to report a story, errors may often occur this way.

“Don’t get in the mindset of, ‘Well, this topic was getting traffic so I had to say something,’” Bigman said. “Write about what you know and don’t try to be smarter than you are.”

You Made a Mistake, Now What? 

Every news organization has its own way of handling factual and typographical errors, but Bigman and Falkenberg outlined some practices that are fairly standard across professional agencies.

For smaller typos, whether spelling or data points, the correction should be made in the body of the story, with an acknowledgement of the correction at the top or bottom of the story.

“In the correction, you just want to move forward and say what’s right,” Bigman said. “Just say that something was misstated in the previous story, don’t repeat the error.”

Falkenberg highlighted the importance of due diligence before making a correction so that the reporter doesn’t have to issue a more than one correction by getting it wrong a second time.

For more major errors, its imperative to contact an editor immediately and discuss with someone in higher authority about how to treat the error.

“We (Forbes) very rarely take down posts, and the act of taking down posts generates a lot of coverage itself and often gets magnified,” Falkenberg said. “It’s very hard to undo an error once it’s there.”

 

 

Solar

How to “cover” the solar industry

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Carter Lavin writes, tongue firmly in cheek, on Clean Technica about how business journalists should write about the solar industry.

Lavin writes, “The solar industry is convoluted and relatively esoteric, so when good business reporters write about the business, it’s not a surprise that they don’t get everything correct, but it is a shame. These articles all tend to point out and ignore the same facts — which is why they have all been wrong about the future of solar power. These articles are rarely factually inaccurate, but they often lack context, mislead with incorrect data usage, or do not account for many of the more powerful factors at play.

“In fact, these articles are so formulaic, common, and wrong that I decided to save everyone a lot of time and teach you how to make one. So here is how to write a hit piece on the solar industry.

  1. Start off with pointing out some of the industry’s success. Maybe you point to the rapidly growing employment in solar, the plummeting costs of systems, or solar’s widening geographic appeal.
  2. Transition (often with a weather pun) about dark days ahead, clouds on the horizon, or a storm’s a brewing.
  1. Politics!

DO: Say that the industry is reliant of government support and point out some federal government support the industry receives, like the solar investment tax credit. Then say that it looks like they will not get extended because of whatever the political issue de jure is. Past examples have been the recession, the debt ceiling, the election, and the fiscal “cliff.”

Read more here.

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Frankie Flack: Why quote approval is sometimes necessary

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Editor’s note: Here is the latest missive from Frankie Flack, our anonymous New York-based PR executive.

In July of last year Jeremy Peters of The New York Times penned a piece titled “Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back” that struck like a sudden earthquake in the journalism and public relations field.

Peters deftly put on paper the all-too-common recipe for making news in our modern era and major media organizations quickly changed their tastes. Specifically, Peters laid out how “quote approval,” the process in which PR can review quotes prior to publication, had become so pervasive it was just an accepted reality of doing business. The AP, New York Times, National Journal and others all put out statements clarifying the appropriate use of this practice.

As someone who frequently requests quote approval and knows many others who do the same, I can say firsthand the impact was immediate, but perhaps not dramatic. A few times I was told “I just can’t do that anymore,” and even more frequently I was asked “is it really necessary?”

Six months later I can say those concerns have largely passed.

There are undoubtedly many sides to this debate, but in my opinion quote approval is a necessary evil of business journalism. I am sure that this practice is overused and in some cases outright abused, but in many ways it offers critical benefits.

I want to be specific about business journalism here not only because it is what I know, but also because I believe quote approval is used differently versus other topics, especially politics. Most of all, business does not require media for survival while good press is the lifeblood of politics. This creates sharply different motivations for how sources view and try to use the press.

Quote approval is beneficial almost entirely because business, particularly finance, often requires a sophisticated understanding of complex topics. Furthermore, this language is almost intentionally confusing. Gillian Tett of The Financial Times has theorized, I believe correctly, that the complex language of finance is purposefully exclusionary. Using quote approval allows both the journalist and PR person to ensure that quotes are captured accurately.

Certainly reporters and editors who know the space can argue against this, but unfortunately the wall of financial language can even block the most experienced. In fact, just this week, an editor at a trade newsletter was working on a story and interviewed a client of mine about a technical trading product. It was clear she knew this space well, far better than me. However, during follow-up we found out a critical concept on how the product works was misunderstood.

Arguably more importantly, quote approval is a necessary evil now because it is the only way to get good sources to talk. There is no question, lawyers, bankers, fund managers and other key sources have become accustomed to the practice. Jack Shafer probably made this point best in his column for Reuters in which he looked at the mismatch of resources. Too many journalists chasing too few sources. As someone who has represented major players and marginal ones, I can say that the lesser known source does not enjoy the same privileges.

The reason this happens is mostly because these sources are generally wary of the press and feel more comfortable speaking openly if they feel like they have a safety net. For example, lawyers are trained to be precise with their language to an unmatched degree. The idea of words hitting paper without proper review would keep them up at night. Furthermore, as mentioned above, business does not require media coverage, so the incentives are skewed in any media/source relationship. To be blunt, good sources typically have far less to gain from a reporter then the reporter does from the source.

These are two key reasons why quote approval needs to exist in business journalism, but it does not provide blanket approval. I believe that quote approval exists for accuracy and should not be allowed when the core intent of the quote is altered after the fact.

PR people need to be able to manage their clients expectations both in setting ground-rules and when editing a quote. I often tell clients that they can check the quote for facts but are not allowed to wordsmith.

As mentioned above, the reason quote approval works in business journalism is largely for accuracy.

Journalists should also be clear about the rules and not be afraid to enforce them. Don’t give us the space to abuse the practice, because I guarantee the line will only continue to be pushed.

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Business journalism and plagiarism

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Kathy English, the ombudsman at the Toronto Star, writes about how the paper investigated allegations of plagiarism against one of its business reporters.

English writes, “Reporter Madhavi Acharya-Tom Yew apologized immediately for her ‘poor judgment’ in lifting words from the Globe. This was a significant mistake and managing editor Jane Davenport launched a review of the reporter’s work over the past year. That’s in line with best practices whenever plagiarism is found.

“Last week, she sent an email to the newsroom informing everyone of the overall findings of the review. She said: ‘Although it found some lapses, it shows an overall pattern of attention to attribution.’

“I’ve looked at those ‘lapses’ — a handful of stories that included similar wording, without attribution, to stories from the Star’s wire services, including The Canadian Press, Reuters and Bloomberg. In some cases, the reporter had included necessary attribution but it was dropped in the editing process.

“Of most concern to me were two examples of similar wording of background information and explanatory facts to stories from other news organizations: A July 5 Q&A article on Libor (the London Interbank Offered Rate) used two paragraphs of explanatory text from a BBC Q&A on Libor, unattributed. A July 15 article used phrasing from an FP article on Libor to describe background.

“We will be editing and appending notes to the online and archive versions of these articles to tell readers these stories included improper attribution.

“From the outset, Acharya-Tom Yew took responsibly for this lapse in standards. She fully acknowledges — and has learned from — her mistakes. She understands she must take far greater care in attributing any information she learns from other published sources. And she knows that using the same words of another writer, even to express background explanatory facts, is never acceptable.”

Read more here.

Bloomberg Businessweek

Journalists are suckers for good economics metaphors

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Journalists are suckers for good economics metaphors because economics like to use them to explain what is going on with the economy, said a prominent economics reporter on Saturday.

“I happen to believe it’s not just a rhetorical truck to use a metaphor,” said Peter Coy, economics editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, at the History of Economics Society at the meetings of the ASSA in San Diego. “I believe that economics works that way. We journalists are in good company when we use metaphors.”

Coy was part of a panel that discussed economics coverage.

Coy used the most-recent Businessweek cover story as an example of how metaphors are used in business journalism to illustrate an economic point.

The cover has the title “Babies” and a picture of Congress showing toddlers in all of the seats to illustrate the politics of the fiscal cliff deal. Coy said the cover was the idea of editor Josh Tyrangiel.

Inside, with Coy’s story, is a picture illustration that shows the Congress building dressed as a clown.

In Coy’s article, he explores the idea of economics, arguing that the “economy-as-family” metaphor as incorrect. He argues for a different metaphor, of an economy stuck in low gear that needs a mechanic.

He originally wrote that the economy was like a machine that was being underused. But he finetuned that description while working with Tyangiel on the article.

“Economists are suckers for a metaphor, and I don’t have a problem with that,” said Coy.

 

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Twitter’s Luckie talks strategy for journalists

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As a way to develop better social media engagement strategies, journalists should treat Twitter and other outlets as an extension of their interaction with people in their personal life rather than as a separate entity, said Mark Luckie, manager of journalism and news at Twitter in a conference call with Forbes writers from New York this week.

Luckie outlined ways for a journalist to optimize Twitter, and stressed the importance of having a personal voice as well as a professional one. In this way, a journalist is able to create an identity that people want to interact with and follow.

“People connect with people, not robots,” Luckie said. “You will get more eyeballs on your content if you share with people things about yourself. As a general rule, tweet 50 percent about your beat and 50 percent about things that just interest you.”

Journalist also need to determine who their main audience is and devise the way to best reach them and add authority to their tweets so that the audience will follow back.

Extension of Everyday Interactions

The first tip that Luckie provided Forbes’ writers was not to be “an egg,” which is a pictureless account on Twitter that is often associated with robots and spammers. Before following anyone on Twitter, Luckie said that completing a Twitter biography and providing a photograph provides legitimacy to accounts, stating where you work and what differentiates you from other users.

“Having a voice is different from having an opinion,” Luckie said. “Do you have a quirky personality? Are you authoritative? Happy? Communicate that voice through Twitter.”

Luckie told a story about a reporter from BBC reach out to a potential source on Twitter but had not completed her profile yet, and because of not having a completed identity, the source didn’t believe in her legitimacy as someone from the news network.

After creating your identity, immerse yourself in the conversation of Twitter by not just listening, but participating in the conversations and creating new conversations. By creating this dialogue, a journalist is best able to source, attract followers to his or her content and generate buzz of his or her own.

Raising your journalistic profile

“Think about what you want to do in your reporting and how Twitter can be the vehicle for this,” Luckie said during the conference call. “If you’re asking questions on Twitter, respond back to people as well so they know that you’re listening to them.”

It’s important to engage people in your tweets by including the Twitter handle of sources you’ve talked to or crediting an organization that you received information from for your story. This helps both to increase follower growth and boost engagement. Furthermore, people like being mentioned on Twitter and interaction is the key to gathering a following.

Below is an example:

Using hashtags in a post can increase engagement by almost two times for journalists and one-and-a-half times for news organizations. For business journalists, in particular, a good strategy to reach the investors, analysts and their core audience is to use a cashtag, which for Apple would be $AAPL.

Social media is becoming increasingly visual, Luckie said, and tweets that have media attached receive three to four times more engagement than posts without visual aids.

Luckie said that news organizations and journalists are currently underutilizing the power of visualization and noted that infographics do exceptionally well on Twitter as opposed to something like a long-form story. Many Twitter users don’t have the time to sit down to read an entire story, so communication through media works well and attracts followers.

Additionally, acting as a crowdsource for your followers can work well, Luckie said.

“I may not follow every political journalist, but if I follow one who retweets other political journalists a lot, then she acts as a news curator for me.”

Researching Topics through Twitter

Journalists should also use Twitter as a way to research stories in addition to attracting followers to their content.

Creating lists and searching for lists that other people have made can make it easier for journalists both to find people on Twitter and organize the people they follow into groups. For example, if a journalist is working on a story and he or she wants to organize all potential sources into one play, then a private list can be made specifically for that project, meaning that no one aside from the journalist will be able to see it.

Additionally, using Twitter search and the advanced filters can help a journalist narrow down to specifically what he or she is searching for, and provide information on what others are saying about a topic.

Advanced search, for example, can allow a journalist to see images that are being tweeted from specifically one zip code, which, for example, could have been informative to follow the election visually in different cities across the U.S.

Finally, Luckie helped illustrate the key differences for the uses of Facebook and Twitter. He acknowledged that longer form pieces are better left to Facebook, while Twitter is best for breaking news or quick tidbits.

“Facebook is for people you know and Twitter is for the people who you want to know.”

Tim Cook

Getting Apple’s CEO to talk

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Julie Moos of the Poynter Institute was able to get Bloomberg Businessweek editor in chief Josh Tyrangiel to answer some questions about its cover-story this week, which was an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Here is an excerpt:

Poynter: How did the interview come about?

Josh Tyrangiel: Businessweek has had a good relationship with Apple for years, and I’ve worked with Apple for a long time as well. We pitched them on a lengthy conversation many months ago, and two weeks ago they called and said Tim was ready to talk. Simple as that.

There’s a familiar, authentic tone to the questions and responses. Can you say anything about the relationship between you two? Have you interviewed him previously (and if so, how many times)?

Tyrangiel: We’ve met before, but never done a formal interview. I’d say that any sense you get of warmth or familiarity is a tribute to Tim Cook. It’s not easy to be interviewed, but he’s really quite free of affectation and very comfortable talking candidly about Apple.

The interview broke news in several different ways. How did you think about that as a goal?

Tyrangiel: Like most interviews, my goal was simply to have a good conversation. I aimed to touch on as many things as possible in the time at hand, and perhaps we sacrificed a bit of depth on some issues for breadth. But I think that was the right strategy.

Read more here.