Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Kevin ‘KAL’ Kallaugher’s wall to fame

December 13, 2012


Editorial cartoonist Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher‘s work has appeared all over the world and in several different mediums, including real-time 3D. But it may never have had it not appeared on a British school’s old wallpaper first.

Or if the English were fonder of basketball. With playing and coaching in Brighton not as lucrative as in Boston

He even worked as a maintenance man tearing wallpaper off the walls of a local school—but not before illustrating the walls with cartoons. One of the teachers saw his drawings and put him in touch with an art director who, in turn, suggested he tried pitching his work to the newspapers and magazines up and down Fleet Street.

After a successful tryout, he was hired by The Economist, where he’s entering his 35th year. Not quite “Good Will Hunting” (Kallaugher graduated from Harvard). But, how about that?

KAL, also a longtime cartoonist for my employer, The Baltimore Sun, whom he started drawing for again this year, obviously had the talent, and someone probably would have seen it sooner or later. The point is, sharing, even indirectly, made it sooner. If you don’t know where to start, start with what’s in front of you. Tack it to a wall. Put it down on paper. Or, yes, draw it on wallpaper.


Spoiler alert: Users will win Knight’s mobile News Challenge

August 15, 2012


Think of it as the Race to the Top for news. This year, the Knight News Challenge is putting its money where its mouth is, leveraging its annual grants behind what it believes are journalism’s biggest opportunities.

By limiting entries to three areas — networks and data, now closed, and, opening Aug. 29, mobile — Knight is not only concentrating the $5 million in funding, as well as support, it directly awards, it is also focusing the attention of the hundreds drawn by the chance for a share of such a large prize, just like Race for the Top.

With apologies to Red Sanders, here, winning is not the only thing. Wikileaks, for all its impact, was a News Challenge runner-up in 2009.

And, with apologies to those still recovering from Olympic spoilers, spoiler alert, the real winner of 2012’s final Challenge round will be users.

Users win because mobile gets content creators, developers and designers to focus on them.

When screen space and bandwidth are at a premium, publishers cut out the editorial fat and silence the interactive bells and whistles.

When the platform travels with the user, publishers steer content to them rather than luring them to the content.

When, almost whoever you are, your friends, family and neighbors are likely fellow users, the generative benefits of community increase.

When traditional technological followers, who, due to their lack of infrastructure, leapfrog traditional technological leaders in the mobile revolution, a larger, more diverse population of users tests ideas sooner.

When publishers create for devices that are increasingly young users’ first, and sometimes only, exposure to the greater outside world, they gain insight into the expectations and behaviors these users will manifest when they become participatory consumers.

So, congratulations users. As a user of at least six CMSes who assists end-users when their gears start to grind, trust me, you’ve earned it.

Now that you know who wins, this time, aren’t you even more excited to watch the race? I know I am. I might even run in it.

Creative Commons photo by Ken Banks,

Not interested in news, you say? I have a follow-up question

April 28, 2012


How news orgs can repackage and rebrand their products and services to reach secondary audiences

Pop survey: How much do you enjoy maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D in your body?

Not at all? Come on, it’s good for you!

OK, try this one: How much do you enjoy spending time outside on a sunny day?

A lot? Me, too.

One more: How much do you enjoy a glass of ice cold milk?

A lot as well? Hey, we should hang out sometime.

When we do, we can drink milk on my stoop and laugh about how you actually do enjoy maintaining your vitamin D intake after all. And, if you’re not too busy, I’ll tell you how you probably enjoy news a lot more than you think, too.

A newly published study by a University of Texas at Austin professor and doctoral student (pdf), which made headlines last week for pegging young males interested in news as the demographic most likely to pay for news, asked respondents directly about their affinity for news, just like I asked you about vitamin D.

Here is authors Iris Chyi and Angela M. Lee‘s exact question:

In general, how much do you enjoy keeping up with the news?

They received the response you might guess: Not so much. Only 37 percent said they enjoyed it a lot.

Would the proportion have been higher had they said “following” or “consuming?” “Keeping up with” makes it sound like a chore. In any case, the proportion definitely would have been higher had they asked about the editorial equivalents of nice weather and thirst-quenching drinks.

Are you interested in news? Maybe not. Are you interested in whether the schools are any good? Are you interested in what’s open or closed during a disaster? Are you interested in what you’re friends are reading? Are you interested in where to find lunch? Are you interested in protecting your children? Probably so.

News organizations do a good job of providing such utility. Just good luck finding it. The examples linked to above are the exception. Focused, interactive and action-oriented, they package content for the audience and situation rather than packaging it for some arbitrary atomic unit of news. (Trying to find a new one is missing the point.)


Indirect reasons people consume news, such as easing boredom, satisfying the need to read and feeling socially connected, which Chyi and Lee mention, offer opportunities as well.

So, yes, if they want people to be interested in news, and perhaps pay for it, news organizations should make their content and services more accessible.

But, in marketing and in editorial presentation, they also must communicate that it is. This is what gets the subconsciously interested in news consciously interested in news, a crucial first step.

It sounds obvious, but, once people say they’re interested in news, Chyi and Lee found, they are considerably more likely to pay for it. Only age was a stronger predictor.

That brings us back to news organizations’ perfect paying customer: the young male interested in news. According to the authors’ survey, which weighted a 767-person online sample to represent the U.S. Internet population, he’s a minority of a minority of a minority: Most users are over 34 (66%), female (52%) and not interested in news (60%).

Given the demographics, news organizations should cater to him but shouldn’t bend over backward for him. Converting a small percentage of the age, gender and affinity majorities, through the repackaging and rebranding this post outlines, could be just as lucrative.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Daniel Dionne

Spot news, multimedia storytelling: From a too familiar scene, ‘something different’

March 17, 2012


A man is shot and killed on an East Baltimore street corner late on a Friday afternoon. From police, further information is not immediately available. That’s the story, the too familiar story. The brief, as sad as it is to say, nearly writes itself.

But not if you don’t let it. Not if, even at the end of your shift, at the end of your week, after having just returned from another scene, you go there. Not if you go there with an open mind — and a smartphone.

If you do, you might just get what reporter Justin Fenton offered to his Twitter followers as “something different, and, I’d offer, something more.

Staubs, wearing a black dress shirt and a black-and-red tie, says he once regularly traveled from West Virginia to Baltimore to score drugs. Six years ago, he says, he was saved by God and got clean. He now makes the same trek to spread the Gospel.

More with less: Mobile innovations from all 7 continents

January 22, 2012


More with less. Whether it refers to the daily wonder that we’re carrying in our pocket or purse several times the computing power that once required entire floors, or to the growing demands a fragmenting media landscape places on shrinking legacy brands, perhaps no other single phrase so succinctly captures the triumphs and trevails of the digital age.

With mobile, the adage describes the challenge and opportunity of doing what we did before, plus all kinds of fun, visually and locationally aware new stuff on a smaller screen and, depending on the hardware and network involved, varying degrees of limitations on data speed and usage, connectivity and battery life.

Like a good copy editor, the constraints force all involved to focus on what matters: More signal, less noise.

Like a good copy editor, the constraints force developers, designers and content producers to focus on what matters, often resulting in a better user experience: More signal, less noise.

If you want to know where innovation will arise, just look at the limits. From poor cellphone users in India, to the lack of Internet infrastructure in Kenya to a saturated app market in the United States, here are seven ways, from all seven continents, mobile practitioners are doing more with less.

ASIA: Missed call ecosystem (India)

Everybody makes them and gets them. But most people, in the West at least, probably have not thought about using them. In India, missed calls, the “poor man’s text message,” are used all the time, by people, by apps, even by infrastructure.

From GigaOM, here are a few things Indians are doing with free missed calls:

  • Friends, family or business associates might place a missed call to communicate a pre-determined message or, if the recipient is able and willing to pay for a text or call back (incoming calls and texts are free in India), to signal that they would like to communicate.
  • After receiving a missed call at a designated number, a system developed by a cloud telephony company and Bangalore-based partner will call users back with dynamic information, such as the current daily deal or real-time bus schedule.
  • By attaching a receiver and SIM card, to authenticate that the call is coming from an authorized number, to a switch, startup RealTech Systems created a device that lets farmers turn on and off irrigation systems remotely, saving them from miles-long walks.

AFRICA: Texting lions (Kenya)

In East Africa, the lions are disappearing, in part because herders poison them to protect the livestock they depend on to earn a living.

If herders knew where the lions were, the thinking goes, they could instead just move their animals away from danger. Once you collar the lions with GPS units, which must be easier said than done, tracking the animals is a straightforward enough task to accomplish over a wireless or satellite network. But what if you’re in a place without established Internet infrastructure, like East Africa?

Attaching a simple modem to the lions’ collars as well, as New York-based research company Ground Lab, with the help of nonprofits, has done in Kenya, makes it possible to send lions’ locations to a centralized computer via text message, a potential model for other machine-to-machine communication across the Internet of Things, according to this Atlantic Wire summary.

EUROPE : The French Mobile Revolution

They’re calling it the French Mobile Revolution. Revolution? Yes, and one that might just spread to other nations.

When you learn it’s giving customers unlimited voice, text messages and data for the equivalent of $25.50 a month, you may start to nod your head. When you learn how Internet service provider Free is doing it, you may start head-banging.

It’s doing it, coverage by GigaOM’s Mobilize blog and PC World explains, by networking five million customers’ set-top boxes. Within range of others customers’ boxes, nanocells for data, and, being phased in now, femtocells for voice and SMS, provide Wi-Fi-quality service. Out of range, traditional towers, a 3G network, which will throttle customers who consume more than 3 GB of data in a month, and roaming agreements with other providers, fill in the gaps.

While since Free Mobile’s launch earlier this month competitors have cut prices some, because their networks depend on large, costly cell sites and antennas that took years to build out, they can’t hope to compete with Free Mobile on price long-term. 

NORTH AMERICA: Rate everything! Ever-y-thing (United States)

It’s funny ’cause it’s true?

The people behind what many assumed to be a joke app are acting kinda serious, releasing a second native version, for Android in addition to iPhone, and an API.

You’ll get more laughs if you let the above video explain it, but, the app, Jotly, in short, lets users rate anything, then snap a photo of it, tag it and geolocate it.

Yesterday, for instance, I gave the Baltimore area’s first snowstorm of the season – pretty and easy to clean up, but icy and with minimal accumulation – a “C”.

Whether Jotly indeed started off as joke or the jokes completely on us, you can decide for yourself. Either way, even if it’s not the “Best. App. Ever.” as the Web versions of users’ posts proclaim, it’s brillant commentary on marketing hype, feature creep and over-sharing in a crowded mobile app marketplace.

In a way, Jotly is the “Seinfeld” of apps. It’s about nothing, and everything, it parodies itself, it’s as one reviewer put it
, “Dumb and awesome all at once.” In short, it’s so F- it’s an A+.

AUSTRALIA: Training mojos in indigenous communities

At the heart of any mobile content, or any interactive feature for that matter, is the story, not the technology. That mantra is the focus of a government-funded citizen journalism project in Australia, NT Mojos, which seeks to give indigenous residents living in remote areas the tools and training to produce and share videos about their lives.

It’s hoped that the project provides other Australians a less marginalized view of their neighbors, promotes education and literacy in the indigenous community, and establishes enough of a foundation and momentum to sustain itself after the initial outreach has ended.

After training, which, according to an article on MobileActive, focuses on journalism fundamentals including media law, newly minted mobile journalists report, shoot, edit and upload videos on whatever topics they see fit, all on an iPhone 4 and, typically, a 3G network.

The former broadcast journalist behind the model, Ivo Burum, has launched a version in China, is adapting it for schools and educates others how to implement it on his blog.  

SOUTH AMERICA: Learning, 160 characters at a time (Brazil)

From augmented reality then-and-now historical tours, to apps that measure air pollution, to self-adaptive virtual tutors, mobile phones are doing things for education that as recently as my high school days might have seemed like science fiction.

These more spectacular m-learning implementations, of course, use smartphones. The root of their power, however, is their interactivity, which even the simplest phones, through the versatile text message, deliver just as well.

In Brazil, where smartphone adoption lags behind North American and Western European markets, SMS subscription services prepare students for a national high school exam and teach them English, among other subjects, The Next Web highlights.

With their immediacy, intimacy, simplicity and brevity, text messages have the power to be a tremendously engaging teaching tool, even more so than many flashy apps.

ANTARCTICA: Here, in fashion and tech, trends are trivial

If you’re not a scientist, it’s one of the last refuges from our hyper-connected society, and even with a purpose, and the resources, staying plugged in in the Antarctic can be difficult.

But in a place where self-sufficiency is not just a virtue but a necessity, the accessibility, versatility and generativity of personal mobile devices are a space-saving, time-saving and potentially life-saving addition to researchers’ and adventurers’ toolbelts.

Accordingly, users follow pragmatism, not trends, when choosing a mobile operating system. Linux-based Maemo 5 was a “longtime favorite due to its compatibility and expandability with virtually everything,” a May post on The Noisecast blog says. But last spring, iOS moved into the lead, according to the post, which speculated about iPhone’s and iPad’s enterprise, academic and clinical potential.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user David Paul Ohmer

#NewNewTwitter, ProPublica responsive design and New York Times election app move mobile toward unified Web

December 9, 2011

There is no mobile Web and desktop Web. There is just the Web.

As our favorite content follows us to new and smaller screens, it’s a refrain you’re like to hear more and more from webdev pundits.

If you ask me, it’s semantics. Whether or not it’s technically accurate, given the differences between who tends to access (young, minorities) content on mobile devices versus desktops and laptops and what users can do (call, text, geolocate), can’t do (often, javascript and/or Flash) and like to do (make decisions, multi-task, kill time) once they get there, “mobile Web” is a useful term.

That out of the way, there were three developments this week in the mobile-news-social sphere indicative of the desktop Web and mobile Web merging closer together.

Come Fly with us (on mobile first)


The first, most recent, and certainly the one making the biggest splash, is #NewNewTwitter, playfully branded with the tagline “Fly.”

Not only are the design and functionality of Twitter’s desktop Web, mobile Web and mobile app versions becoming more synchronized, there’s also a cognizant effort by Twitter to get desktop-only users spending time on its mobile platforms.

This push became evident last spring when Twitter placed pretty direct messaging on’s log-out landing page: “You’ve signed out of Twitter. Now go mobile.”

Just as aggressive was rolling out #NewNewTwitter to and iPhone and Android apps first and letting those who download one of the apps get the revamp early on desktop as well. The smartphone prop at the beginning and end of the promotional video likewise encourages a cross-platform experience.

Responding to multi-platform challenges and opportunities


While the average user’s browser needed some time to catch up, responsive design, essentially using CSS media queries and HTML5 semantic elements to accommodate varying screen sizes, has been around for a while. That it’s suddenly getting so much attention (I’m thinking foremost of the launch) as a silver bullet for publishing to multiple platforms – it’s not, there are no silver bullets – has perplexed me.

One of the best of the new nonprofit journalism enterprises out there, ProPublica, explains the advantages of responsive design well in this post about its recent website redesign. Two of the biggest are that developing adaptive websites is less intensive than the user agent sniffing and native app alternatives and that, unlike apps, it connects content to the full, open Web. This has strong SEO, link economy and user experience benefits, but it also, ProPublica astutely points out, reduces the level of engagement required to get users using in the first place:

We think this explains a phenomenon we’ve noticed – that though we’ve had huge uptake of our mobile apps, we don’t see very much day-to-day usage compared to the number of people who come to our site on their smart phones. It’s our hypothesis that it’s because people have to remember to open up the app to see what’s new every day.

One native app, under Apple, but a Web version for all


The New York Times’ new Election 2012 app, available as a native app only for iPhone, is turning heads for its heavy and prominent aggregation. The Gray Lady also deserves a nod for publishing a Web app version at accessible on Android and BlackBerry smartphones and even more basic devices.

Perhaps this is a cost-saving measure. Or maybe they ran out of time to build out more native verisons – the Iowa caucuses are less than a month away. I’d offer, however, that for an app built around links, it would be foolish not to have a version on the open Web. A version users can search to. A version users can share (here’s the deets on my home state’s primary!). A version the aggregated (and others) can link back to.

John Robinson, an editor for all platforms

November 2, 2011

Contrary to published reports, Steve Jobs was not the last American who knew what the f he was doing. One of the last, for sure. But there are still a few others out there. One of them is John Robinson, an editor whose intuition


for audience serves his many audiences – readers and insiders, print and digital, blogosphere and Twitterverse, mass media and interpersonal – so well. 

Which is why I trust John knows what he’s doing by stepping down after 13 years as editor of the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record

While I worked (well) under John as a life desk intern, like so many, I got to know him working together online as we all scramble to figure out what’s next for this great profession of ours.

With a 24-hour news publication to edit, he took time to edit my website, and direct message me about a spelling error on its homepage. Embarrassingly, the mistake had been up for weeks. I’m sure others saw it. But John was the only one who said anything.

Despite my sloppiness, John publicly supported my application for my current job. Just as I was added to The Sun’s phone directory, John laughed with me over Twitter on how, coincidentally, I had just been removed from the News & Record’s – some seven years after my summer internship expired.

Another journalist who has a clue what he’s doing, Steve Buttry, as he tends to do, summed it up well.

This is an editor who had an impact in his community, his newsroom and the profession. I know him best from social media and his blog (we just met that one time last year), but I feel that I know him well. And I don’t know of an editor who better mixes strong values, good humor and curiosity.

On what’s next, in his resignation, John only shares what, really, should be next for anyone in the biz nowadays: “It’s time for me to contribute to this community in new ways.”

The Inverted Pyramid: Legacy Media’s Ultimate Legacy

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

It was invented in the age of the telegraph yet is as en vogue as ever in the age the iPhone. It’s perhaps legacy media’s ultimate legacy. I’m talking about the inverted pyramid.

The inverted pyramid is the structure virtually all breaking news stories, and many other hard news stories, follow: Important stuff up top, less important stuff at the bottom. The form means that readers who don’t make it to the end of the story — either because the telegraph line went dead, the typesetter ran out of space, the businessman’s lunch break ended or the Web surfer received an instant message — can still make sense of what they read and walk away with the main gist.

Journalism has a love-hate relationship with the inverted pyramid,” the Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan wrote in 2003:

Its supporters consider it a useful form, especially good for breaking news. The inverted pyramid, or at least its most substantial element “the summary lead,” is used widely and is one of the most recognizable shapes in communications today. You’ll find it on the front and inside pages of most newspapers, as well as in stories distributed worldwide by The Associated Press, Reuters, and other news services elsewhere on the Internet.

Critics of the inverted pyramid say it’s outdated, unnatural, boring, artless, and a factor in the declining readership that newspapers have been grappling with for decades.

The inverted pyramid, its critics say, is the anti-story. It tells the story backward and is at odds with the storytelling tradition that features a beginning, middle, and end. Rather than rewarding a reader with a satisfying conclusion, the pyramid loses steam and peters out, in a sense defying readers to stay awake, let alone read on.

Love it or hate it, the inverted pyramid itself is not going to peter out anytime soon. It’s tailor-made for the way people consume news online, where they really could exit a story at any moment.

  • People consume a lot of their online news at work, either on their lunch or coffee break or when they should be working. Either way, they’re more likely to be skimming rather than thoroughly reading.
  • It’s well documented that, even if they have the time for it, people dislike reading long articles on computer screens. It strains their eyes and, unless they use the AutoPager Firefox extension, they have to keep clicking to get to the next page.
  • There’s a whole “world of interactivity,” as a college professor discussing laptops in the classroom recently put it during a panel discussion, competing for audiences’ attention.
  • For people out and about on mobile devices, real life insists upon itself more so than if one’s curled up on the couch with a newspaper or in the computer chair browsing RSS feeds.

Since it is sticking around, there’s something else journalists should know about the inverted pyramid. Scanlan hinted at it when he cited critics’ complaint that it “is at odds with the storytelling tradition.” The inverted pyramid format, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult for the human mind to process.

The structure asks journalists to largely ignore the chronological, spacial and social relationships according to which our brains naturally organize information and instead organize information according to newsworthiness, something none of us is hardwired for. One researcher called it “one of the most unstable architectural forms the mind can conceive.”

The mind has a much easier time with narratives, as they mimic the way we naturally perceive and communicate about events.

While journalists should seek out more user-friendly story structures, often this is not realistic. No one’s going to start a story about a killer hurricane, “A little over a week ago, several thunderstorms converged off the cost of Africa.” While journalists might be boxed in — pyramided in? — for the text portion of their coverage, they still have options when it comes to which multimedia pieces they pair with this text.

A study published last year by four University of Missouri journalism scholars found that the cognitive stress audiences experienced when reading an inverted pyramid article carried over to accompanying video presentations. Users who had just read an inverted pyramid story, they found, remembered less about a video than users who saw the same video but had just read a narrative story.

Journalists would be wise, then, to pair with narrative pieces videos that contain a lot of information that’s not included in the corresponding article. Videos that are largely supplementary and repeat a lot of the information contained in the article, meanwhile, are probably OK to match with inverted pyramid pieces. If journalists must pair videos with a lot of new content with inverted pyramid stories, perhaps appending videos with a narrative caption might help minimize the damage.

Sit Back, Relax, Enjoy the News

May 10, 2010

How Active Users Let Others Be More Passive

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values. It is cross posted on the blog for my Citizen and Participatory News class, where it was published March 5.

Empty beach chair near clear blue ocean.

Forget for a second everything you’ve been told about the participatory news consumer. All that talk about the Web empowering people to lean forward. Minimize that window. And open this one: The Web’s also enabling people to lean back.

Not the most obvious conclusion to draw from a report subheadlined “How internet and cell phone users have turned news into a social experience.” I’ll explain. And I’ll explain how it might make news organizations’ jobs easier. (The report also, by the way, announced that the Web has overtaken newspapers as Americans’ No. 3 news source.)

Like countless Web research reports before it, Pew Internet’s “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” released March 1, reflects the power law distribution math popularized by authors Chris Anderson and Clay Shirky. Simply put, a subgroup of news consumers is doing most of the participatory heavy lifting spreading, curating and creating content. Yet, many more are benefiting from the “serendipitous discovery” of news these behaviors make possible.

For instance, three-quarters of online news consumers report receiving news links from peers through e-mail or social networks, according to the report, while about half take credit for forwarding them.

Considering Web users at large, “participators,” as Pew dubs netizens who create, pass along or transform content, form an even smaller minority. Thirty percent of Web users in Pew’s landline and mobile telephone survey say they’re accessing news-related content on social networks, while a little more than half that proportion say they’re creating content. A quarter of users had commented on stories or blogs, 11 percent had tagged content and 9 percent had created their own article or multimedia piece.

Being steered to information by others is part of the “foraging and opportunism” by which the report says modern audiences access their news. Indeed, an even 50 percent of Americans say they rely on others not just for interesting information but for news they “need to know.” Users also unwittingly steer themselves to news. Some 80 percent of online news consumers say they regularly stumble upon news while completing other online activities.

It’s never been easier for news just to fall into people’s laps. Sure, offline a friend might photocopy you a magazine piece or you might glimpse an interesting article in a newspaper a stranger left behind, but these instances are rarer, and considerably more delayed than online interactions. It used to be, if you wanted news, you had to go get it. The Web lets us go get it like never before, and that’s generally what people pay attention to, but it also enables those who want to to sit back and let it come to them.

In this environment, it would seem wise, then, for news outlets to take Malcom Gladwell’s advice and go about trying to influence the influencers. Knowing they can no longer be everything to everyone, this clarifies their mission. Even if influencers’ influence is less than anticipated, college-educated, in their mid-30s and earning earning $50,000 or more, as Pew’s survey describes them, by themselves they’re a smart market to pursue.

So, what do the participators want? According to Pew, they want more stories about science and technology, health and medicine, and state government and they want those stories presented interactively. Smart wish list. Science and technology are taking over our lives whether we pay attention or not. Health is slated to be one of this half-century’s biggest stories as the baby boomers age. And state government coverage needs rebuilding after legacy media cutbacks gutted capital press corps. Interactivity, meanwhile, is much less appreciated by the broader population. I would argue, however, that this is so because most users are basing their opinions on inferior interactive experiences. The participators have seen the real deal, and they want more.

Pew’s data are based on a random sample of 2,259 adult land line and mobile phone users surveyed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between Dec. 28 and Jan. 19. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points overall, with confidence falling to plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for the 1,675 respondents identifying themselves as consumers of online news.

Photo credit: / CC BY-NC 2.0

After Hostile Comments, One Source Says ‘No Comment’

May 10, 2010

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values.

The previous post mentioned how abusive comments can scare off other commenters. A recent blog post by a Washington Post reporter told of how they can scare off sources as well. This is no small matter. The institution of journalism is built on the premise that sources trust that what’s published about them represents them fairly. If this trust is lost, we all lose.

Post reporter Christian Davenport told how a few insensitive comments burned a bridge he had spent weeks building with a reluctant source. The source, a debt collector named Michael Sutherland, was one of the few in his industry to even consider speaking on the record for Davenport’s story about debt collection during the Great Recession. Patience and assurances that “he was committed to being fair and accurate” won Daveport access. Of course, no matter how committed Davenport was, the cumulative tone of the Post’s coverage was dependent on how well commenters shared his commitment. These two comments, which still appear under the original article, provide an indication of how they did:

griffmills wrote:
What scum….Scam-acne-face-Sutherland and all his little minions, scum….special place in Hell for them
2/14/2010 8:57:18 AM

billdinva2 wrote:
Debt collectors are the scum of the earth. They should be hung up by their private parts and shot. Hint: Ignore them. Don’t answer the phone. When they sue answer and bury them in discovery. The debt collection industry runs on default and goes after the weak.
2/14/2010 4:31:58 AM

When Davenport e-mailed Sutherland seeking feedback on the story, Sutherland replied that he was upset about the way he and his colleagues were portrayed in the comments. He swore off ever speaking to a reporter again. True to his word, he didn’t return Davenport’s e-mail seeking comment for the reporter’s blog post.

In his post, Davenport discusses the obligation journalists feel to protect sources from “an outfall that might result from agreeing to go on the record.” That’s now harder for them to do. More ominously, there’s the potential that the threat of harassing comments will discourage would-be sources from ever talking in the first place.