Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Protect Reporters Who Protect Sources

There are numerous state and federal laws that protect workers against revenge for complaining about their employers or government agencies. The laws prohibit employers or agencies from punishing those so-called "whistle-blowers".
The same philosophy applies to journalists, who often grant confidentiality to news sources. Confidential sources have helped kick out some important stories, from Watergate to Enron and from WorldCom to Firestone. Ensuring that these sources are protected will help audience get the truth, which sometimes may not be that satisfying.

Most of us still remember the most famous confidential source --- “Deep Throat” in the Washington Post report. And now it is clear that the “Deep Throat” is a former FBI deputy director, who revealed himself in 2005.

What if he was disclosed by reporters in 1972? What kind of danger would he face? To protect those confidential news sources, we need a shield law.

In general, a shield law aims to provide the classic protection of, "a reporter cannot be forced to reveal his or her source" law.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, 49 states (all but Wyoming) plus the District of Columbia have common-law, statutory or rule-based protections to shield journalists from compelled testimony. The state laws vary in degrees of protection and definition of a journalist, but they believe one thing: journalism would be less effective if there are no shield laws and thus freedom of the press suffers.

On March 31, 2009, the Free Flow of Information Act passed the House and now waits action in the Senate. Back in 2007, a similar bill passed the House but died in the Senate. Opponents contended that the measure could harm national security and hamper criminal investigations. But the House bill allows compelled testimony from journalists under circumstances involving terrorism, national security and imminent bodily harm and so on.

The First Amendment freedom of the press is one of the foundations of American society, and the confidential information about the world newsmen have found out influenced the society and even the history. A federal shield law will help the public have access to important information, and that is what really matters.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Investigative Reporting

When I was an undergraduate student back in China, my dream was to become an investigative reporter. Every time I watched the most famous investigative program on CCTV - "News Probe", I was impassioned by the excellent questions asked by the reporters and the meaningful silence on camera.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling, an investigative reporter, went to the Columbia J-School one month ago. He discussed the process of creating an investigative report for radio. Zwerdling's acclaimed investigative and documentary reports appear on all of NPR's major news shows.

Here is the audio of Zwerdling's speech

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Guard Cable

I read a story on LakeSun website, which said that there was only one death in the median of I – 70 in 2008 because of the newly built guard rails, while in 2006 there were 24 deaths. No face-to-face conflict is contained in the story, but in my opinion, anything about death is always a big story, at least to some individuals who might be you or me.

So I pitched the story idea to Randy. “Talk with drivers, talk with MODOT, get some video of the rails, then you are good!” said Randy.

I made a triangle trip that afternoon from Columbia to Jefferson City (MODOT) and then to Kingdom City (Petro Truck Stop). The first thing I concluded from that experience is “be proactive”. I made a phone call to MODOT, and then I was kicked from person A to person B to person C just like a soccer ball. When the last gentleman called me and was about to introduce me to another officer available to do an interview, I stopped him and asked, “Can I talk with you real quick?” “I am going to leave in half an hour at 3pm.” “I can arrive there in 20 minutes and finish the interview before 3pm. So can I come?” “If you can make it, then sure!”

Thanks to what I had done when I was waiting for the phone calls. I checked out all the gears and wrote down all the information on the blackboard. So when I put down the cell phone, I was good to go. I speeded a little bit and made it to what I had promised.

Doing stand-up for the story has a lot of fun too. Since it was about median guard cables, I wanted to do a stand-up right next to the cable. I had worries because I was not sure whether that was doable or even violating some highway rules. In order to do a better job, I stopped my car on the shoulder of the busy I-70 with the emergency flashers on, walked across the traffic lanes and went down to the median. You will never understand physically how fast the cars were on the highway if you were driving in a car. I stood in the median, feeling like I was going to be blown away by the passing-bys. I adjusted the camera and flipped the screen to record my stand-up. The noise of the cars was so loud that I hardly could hear myself! I bet all the drivers passing by must be confused about what the hell the girl was doing over there! I was not sure whether it was worthy or not until the tiger chair commented “Good stand-up!” when she did the video approval.

While I was doing my pkg and trying to make some progress, I heard the good news from Stacy that Scott and Sarah won some awards again. I checked out the winning story of “Mr. Treelighter” and was impressed by the crafted way they merged sound bites and the narration. And the memorable shots prove again how excellent and talented Scott is as a photographer.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Columbia business owner fired up

Last Friday was my first real reporting shift at KOMU. Nervous and excited like every B2er else. I found a bunch of story ideas from newspapers and internet. By a coincidence, nearly all of them are related to legislation and laws. Later, I was asked by Matt Jeffery that, “Don’t you know all the legislators are not in the office on Friday afternoon?” I really have no idea about that. But, lucky enough, before I talked through my story ideas with Randy, the assignment editor that day, he printed me an email he received that morning and passed it on me as a story idea.

It was a letter full of anger and strong words, with pictures and pdf files as evidence. It was written by Arnie Fagan, a business owner in the downtown Columbia. He complained about the director of the Columbia Special Business District Carrie…. He thought she didn’t do a good job as an ambassador or representative of them. So he called on the media and other owners in his shoe to compel Ms. Gartner to resign. The pictures he sent to us were taken by Fagan’s cell phone when he found Gartner wrongly parked her car on the street during office hours.

So, here is my first story. I felt like cheered up in the heart by such a controversial story as a journalist. Boring and lame stories are nightmares for ambitious reporters. I started contacting the owner Mr. Fagan and the other side of the story Ms. Gartner. As imagined, the lady was ill out of office that day, but I can talk with Ms. Wilkerson who is the chair of that group.

All the shooting and interview went pretty well until I got back and started writing. There were so many facts in my head that I didn’t know where to start with and what to include in my package. Whether to put the pictures Fagan sent to us as a graphic? Which sound bites from 20 minutes’ interview to use? In what order should I fabricate the confrontation? ... I spent at least one hour to figure it out and make it clear in my mind. But the final piece I made was still a little bit longer than I was expected to feed. That recalled me the classic saying, “I am sorry for writing this long, because I don’t have time.”

Here is my ultimate pkg link. Please check it out and let me know what you think about it. Thanks!


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Headlines and VO patrol

From this week's reading in the book "Advancing the story", I was told how critical a good headline is to invite readers, especially on the news web sites. Before using a good writing, good web extra to impress audience, we need to persuade them to click on our stories first.
Headline seems less important when we do stories for broadcast. Our audience doesn't pay that much of attention to the headline popping up as a super at the bottom of the screen, neither do I. For that media, good sound bites, good visuals, good writing and good structure are of most importance. But when it comes to Internet, we really need to decorate the headline to attract eyeballs.
In the book, the author says the best headline should be straightforward, using action verbs and indicating exactly what the story is about. Here are some examples I found:

Counties hike sales tax, feds hike tobacco tax (KOMO)
Valley smokers fume over tobacco tax hike (KBCI)
Tobacco Tax Increase Hits Smoke Shops Hard (KVEX)
New Tax Causes Tobacco Costs To Skyrocket (WFSB)
Tobacco users stockpile products before new tax (Cherokee Phoenix)
Tobacco Tax Puts People and Businesses Up In Smoke (KFSM)
New taxes on tobacco to burn big hole in consumers’ pockets (Youngstown Vindicator)

Which headline appears most eyecatching to you? As to me, I am going to click on the last two ones. Neither are they explicit about the content, nor are they lame.

Another group of headlines about dirt bikes and lead ban:

Lead rules unfairly target dirt bikes (GoErie)
Fears of lead in paint and batteries stall kids' dirt bike sales
Lead law eats at kid racers (Online Athens)
Lead ban goes overboard on small motorcycles, ATVs (Mid Columbia Tri City Herald)

The first one and the last one have almost the same meaning, but are put in different ways. They are both subjective, going against the lead law. But I prefer "goes overboard" to "unfairly". It is not so directing, but conveying the same load.

Part 2.
I have finished my two VO patrol shifts at KOMU, which went pretty smoothly. I arrived at the station at least one hour earlier to get geared up. The attempt paid off permitting me more time to write and edit, which is always good.

When I did the second story about zootoo.com's contest, I set up an interview with the two zootoo.com girls in a local restaurant. Along with them are staff from Central Missouri Humane Society and also a driver from Toyota, which raffle off a FJ Cruiser to benefit the shelter. And when I was setting up the camera, the driver forced me to make the Toyota Cruiser as the background. The lady from CMHS didn't say a word about that, just standing aside watching. I was so reluctant and tried to persuade him with my professional points and concerns. The confrontation ends up with my compromise and anger.

What should I do when I encounter this kind of situation next time? Does the interviewee have the right to choose a background, esp when it works as an advertisement?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Business and economic reporting

I have heard a thousand times that we journalism students had better have a minor major, which at best we are interested in. We need knowledge in some specialties to stand us out when the competition is fiercer and fiercer in the media world. And one guest speaker once gave us a suggestion: business and economy, the two fields that will never vanish, but prosper.

Every time I read the New York Times, I skip the business block, even though I know the information there is importantly connected to our daily life. But it is the stereotype that keeps me away from the stories: business and economic reporting must be filled with tons of boring figures, which make the stories confounding and not understandable. Also, in my previous opinion, business and economic reporting is all about GDP, rude oil price fluctuation and inflation. But after browsing the latest business block of the Time, I found the concept of business enlarged: the iPod or iPhone in your pocket, canned good and condoms, Youtube, Bollywood and its movie industry...All those hot topics can be included in business and economic reporting. Sounds more fun?

I read the story in the Time: What Sells in a Recession: Canned Goods and Condoms. I try to trace back how the reporter formed up this story idea when there were no hard facts in this story. We all know we are in the midst of a bad economy period and hear about layoffs almost everyday. But what else can we cover during this time besides the frustrating news? Watching and thinking about the world more carefully, we may come up with some curious ideas about trivial details in the life, like when we are wandering in a Wal-mart supercenter. But most of the time, we only focus on shopping. We ignore the possible story ideas only because we lack discovering eyes.

Business is everywhere, and business reporting can be interesting and inviting.

I like the words in the introduction of the Business and Economic reporting class in NYU: to be a great reporter, no matter what you [end up covering, you have to be able to follow the money.