Sep 052017

by Deborah Potter

After almost 20 years of serving as a resource for journalists and journalism teachers, NewsLab’s structure will soon be changing to ensure that its mission of improving journalism will continue. NewsLab will become part of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi on Oct. 2, 2017.

Launched in 1998 with a grant from the Park Foundation and support from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, NewsLab’s funding ran out more than a decade ago. Since then, I have maintained it as an online training center, funding it out of my pocket. Over the years, thousands of journalists, educators and students worldwide have benefited from NewsLab’s resources on reporting, producing, ethics, photojournalism and many other topics.

All current NewsLab resources will remain online at a new stand-alone site, hosted by the University. New material, including research projects and creative work, will be added by the Meek School.

I’m personally delighted that NewsLab has found a university home. One of NewsLab’s early goals was to serve as a bridge between television newsrooms and educators to help working journalists discover and apply the lessons of academic research. So in a way, NewsLab is going back to its roots.

The Meek School of Journalism and New Media offers two undergraduate degree programs: Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Bachelor of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications. Faculty in the school often work at the intersection of technology and content creation.  Sustaining NewsLab will allow the school to share more widely the work of its faculty and students and to contribute to important conversations about media, communication and technology around the world.

“Under Deborah Potter’s leadership, NewsLab developed a reputation for supporting quality journalism across digital platforms,” said Dr. Will Norton, dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. “As part of our school, the site will build on that foundation and expand its mission to include a broader range of communication fields in keeping with the focus of our school.”

For more information on the launch or to inquire about contributing to the new site, contact Dr. Debora Wenger at drwenger@olemiss.edu.

That’s the official announcement. Watch for a new look on this site in early October.

What’s next for me? I’ll keep right on teaching. I’ll continue to hold workshops for journalists around the country and around the world. Later this month, I’ll see some of you at the Maine Association of Broadcasters conference in Augusta. In October, I’m off to train journalists in Nepal. And next spring I’ll be a visiting professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. I may collaborate with the Meek School’s NewsLab on future journalism projects.

The textbook I co-authored with Deb Wenger, “Advancing the Story,” will be out in a fourth edition next year. Both of us will continue to write about broadcast and digital news on the book’s companion site, Advancing the Story, as well as its Facebook page. And I may collaborate with the Meek School on future projects.

My twitter feed, @TVNewsLab, will get a new handle, so anyone following me now will keep getting my posts. I’ll turn over the NewsLab Facebook page to the Meek School. And I’ll keep getting email sent to NewsLab for at least a while, as I transition to dpotternews at gmail dot com.

I can’t wait to see what the NewsLab of the future will do to help journalists at all levels and in all media do better work. And in the current climate of polarization, mistrust and aggression toward journalists, that’s more important than ever.

So thanks for 20 great years, NewsLab, and here’s to many more.

Sep 042017

Now that the floodwaters are receding in Houston and the rest of South Texas, many journalists are focusing on new dangers faced by survivors. One of the hardest to quantify is toxic pollution from oil refineries and chemical plants.

Reporting on risk is always tricky. How do you help your audience understand the dangers they might face without causing undue fear? We asked that question of experts some 15 years ago in connection with reporting on terrorism. Their answers are equally useful today in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Recognize the emotions. Scientists who study risk say it’s important to understand how people perceive risk. “We are more afraid of risks that kill us in really awful ways than risks that lead to deaths that are more peaceful,” says David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in a column on MSNBC.com. “We are also more afraid of risks that kill a lot of us, all at once in one place, than risks that kill us here and there, over time.” Journalists need to address the psychology of risk in their reporting. How?

  • Describe what people can do to reduce their risk of exposure.
  • Review measures that experts do not recommend for most people, and tell why.
  • Explain what government and medical authorities are doing to reduce the risk.
  • Report on the frequent disconnect between facts and fears to give people perspective.

Examine the risk. People need information that will help them assess they risk they could face in their daily lives. Provide the facts that will help them put risk in context.

  • Tell what you can about the likelihood of exposure in your community.
  • Describe how many people this affects, out of how large a population, and how they are affected.
  • Be clear about where a substance has been found, and how much was found.

Compare risks. Comparing risks can help viewers decide just how threatening a situation is for them. But be careful. Martha Walter, Michael Kamrin and Delores Katz, who wrote a handbook for journalists on risk reporting, say some comparisons are more useful than others. “The most useful risk comparisons compare similar risks, compare risks with alternatives, or compare risks with benefits,” they write.

  • Compare the risk of death from one agent to the risk of different agents, not to other diseases.
  • Don’t compare involuntary risk (risk of toxic exposure) to voluntary, avoidable risk (risk of smoking).

Consider what is unknown. Avoid the appearance of certainty where none exists. As Science News correspondent Ivars Peterson told the science journalism center at the University of Missouri, “Readers may be better served by hearing more of the process and uncertainty of science and math.”

  • Clarify whether you are reporting exact numbers or estimates, and the confidence level of those estimates.
  • Tell what you don’t or can’t know as well as what you do.

Stay tuned for news

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Aug 152017

Changes are coming to NewsLab. I can’t tell you anything now–sorry to sound so coy–but I wanted to give loyal readers a heads-up that an announcement will be coming right after Labor Day.

For now, I can assure you that NewsLab’s content isn’t going away. After spending the last 20 years building this resource for journalists, journalism educators and students, I’m committed to keeping it available to anyone who finds it useful. And you just never know when a post will turn out to be useful.

This week, for example, we’re getting a lot of traffic on a post from 2012 offering tips on taking good notes. Why? It was cited in the Chronicle of Higher Education by a J-school prof at the University of Kansas who banned her students from taking notes on their laptops. She told them they’d remember more if they took notes by hand, and she’s found research that backs her up.

We’ve also seen more hits than usual on our 2014 tips for covering the crime and justice beat, with a noticeable spike on July 21. What was in the news that day? O.J. Simpson had been granted parole.

So keep consulting the tip sheets but don’t feel you need to start printing them out. I’ll tell you more as soon as I can.


Tips for MMJs

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Jul 172017

If you’re working as an MMJ in your first job and think you won’t do it in your second, think again, says Heidi Wigdahl. She’s been in the business seven years, starting in market 153 at KTTZ in Rochester, Minnesota, and she’s still shooting her own stories in her third job at KARE-TV in Minneapolis.

Her top tip for MMJs is a simple one: Embrace it.

“I’ve learned you need to love photography and editing,” Wigdahl says. “You need to work on it. You could be the best reporter in the world and if your photography and editing is terrible your story is not going to resonate with viewers.”

Get better by looking at good work, she advises, but be selective. Don’t watch award-winning NPPA stories from two-person teams and say, “I can’t do this.” Look at the NPPA solo video contest winners and learn what to aspire to.

Wigdahl has lots of good, practical advice for beginning MMJs.

Get there early. “I like to gauge what I’m doing, ask what’s going to happen, and figure out logistics. I do a lot of one stop shopping stories, and it’s hard to move the story forward when you are stuck in the same setting.” Arriving early paid off in this story. Wigdahl was able to get set-up shots outside and inside the school, and to put a wireless lav on the story subject.

Shoot and move. “I start interviews wide, then move to a medium shot, then tight,” Wigdahl says. “Then I move the angle of the shot. As soon as you have a great bite, change the angle.” If you want to get creative with your interview framing, save it until the end when you’re sure you have enough. And before you start and interview, make sure you like the shot. Wigdahl once stopped an interview to move a chair in the background because it was driving her crazy.

Get lots of tight shots. To make editing simpler, shoot about 70% of your shots tight. Consider how you will change the scene and how you will sequence the story, and capture shots that will do the job.

Put your mic close. “Look at the surroundings and think, what sound can I use to make viewers feel they were here?” Wigdahl has put her wireless mic in a ditch to capture the sound of flowers rustling in the wind. She says she always wears headphones to be sure she’s capturing what she thinks she is.

Make sure you’re recording. “I double punched all the time when I was starting out,” Wigdahl says. Look at the counter to see if it’s moving and don’t leave any shoot without checking what’s on your camera. Wigdahl checks the thumbnails of the clips she’s recorded to make sure it’s really all there.

Write in your head.  Always be thinking of an opening and closing shot and the lines that could go with them.

Log everything. Even though she’s shot all the video she’ll use in a story, Wigdahl still logs her interviews and nat sound. “If I don’t log, my writing into SOTs is so generic,” she says. “It saves time because you don’t have to go back and listen,” she says, and it’s a huge help when she writes her web story.

Be brave. Wigdahl says she used to worry about whether moving her camera or microphone at an event would be seen as disruptive. But she realized that if she didn’t get the shot or the audio she needed, the audience wouldn’t get the full story. “Go ahead and put your mic on the podium if you’re not getting good sound,” she advises. Do it respectfully, between speakers, but do it.

To improve her craft as an MMJ, Wigdahl says she focuses on one thing at a time–capturing moments, for example, or getting great natural sound. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the elements you need. Focus for a day, a week or a month until it becomes a habit. Then you can move on.”


Photo courtesy of David Peterlinz

TV news seeks to bolster trust

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Jul 112017

We all know what’s happened to trust in the news media.  It sank to a new low in 2016, according to Gallup, with just 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in what they see in the news media. What’s to be done?

First of all, don’t panic. This didn’t happen overnight. “Well before our current president took office there was a problem with trust in the media,” says Ellen Crooke, vice president of news at TEGNA.

Secondly, take heart. People are skeptical of the media in general but they have much more trust in the media they personally rely on for news, according to research by the American Press Institute.  And the news medium they trust most hasn’t changed: local television. “Viewers believe — and enjoy watching — local news anchors and reporters on television,” according to research from Coda.

That good news doesn’t mean local TV newsrooms can sit back and relax. Far from it. Retaining trust is just as much work as regaining it.

One effort to bolster trust between local audiences and TV newsrooms got underway at TEGNA stations during the May ratings period. “Verify” is a regular feature that fact-checks what viewers are seeing and hearing elsewhere. The ownership group offered training on fact-checking and put together a guide for stations, but each news director got to decide whether to join in. All of them did, and Verify segments now air in all 38 of TEGNA’s markets.

“We ask viewers to tell us if there’s something they wonder is real or fake,” Crooke says. “We’re fact-checking, daily, what people are seeing on social media, hearing from politicians, or a photograph Uncle Joe has shared.”

A lot of what’s posted under the Verify banner might be categorized as a hoax or “urban legend.” Do mosquitos really bite some people more than others? (Yes.)  Is Delta really offering free flights on Facebook? (No.) Jacksonville, Florida, station WTLV was the first to debunk a viral Facebook story that a baby had been born with an IUD in its hand.

Those kinds of stories have long been fodder for the independent site Snopes, which has been fact-checking rumors since 1994. But Crooke believes Verify will help to restore trust in the news media because it’s produced by local journalists with community connections.

Instead of just complaining about fake news we are doing something about it. We’re doing our jobs better and not just by saying that, but by doing something. When we verify what your mayor says, that’s where trust is going to come back to journalism.

Denver’s KUSA checked statistics cited by the mayor in his state of the city speech and found several had been taken out of context. Atlanta’s WXIA looked into a report showing the number of rapes in the city had almost doubled in one year. Turned out the police department had changed what crimes counted as rape. In Austin, Texas, KVUE forced Forbes to revise a list of “best cities for young professionals” by checking the magazine’s math. It didn’t add up.

One hallmark of these reports is transparency. “We show our sources up front to help people trust us more,” Crooke says. “Real people don’t trust us that much. They want to see where we’re getting our stuff from. They want to know how we are balanced, how we’re checking ourselves.”

In its first six weeks online, Verify logged more than 4 million unique visitors and almost 6 million page views across all TEGNA stations. Crooke says that’s a clear indication that the audience wants more.

One feature is just a start, of course, in the effort to regain the public’s trust. Crooke says tough investigative stories that help communities find solutions to problems are another way of reaching the goal.

Are you involved in or aware of other initiatives by local TV stations that are expressly designed to restore trust? This trust toolkit by Josh Stearns offers lots of options. Let us know if you’re trying any, or if you’re doing something else. Doing nothing, I would argue, is not really an option.




Remember the audience

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Jun 132017

Mick Cote, Canadian PressWhen you produce a story, are you thinking of how people are going to consume it? Mick Côté, digital news editor at The Canadian Press, says that in most newsrooms the answer is typically, “No.” And that’s a shame.

“We’re so drawn to our own stuff we forget to take a step back and ask, ‘Is it realistic to think that people are going to read it?'” Not considering the audience means that we often write stories that are too long, Côté says, especially for mobile. His rule of thumb for mobile stories? Cap them at 500 words.

If your CMS doesn’t give you the option of seeing what your story will look like on a mobile screen, Côté recommends a super simple hack. Break your text into three columns. You should be able to tell at a glance whether your paragraphs are too long.

Journalists who don’t think of the audience may discount some social networks because they don’t find them interesting. Reddit, for example, is great place to share stories and get information, Côté says. When he worked at the Montreal Gazette, “Whenever a story got picked up on Reddit it was bound to be the most read story of the day, beyond anything on Facebook. People on Reddit are super active and really pay attention to the content.”

But Côté warns that Reddit will shut you down if you post from a news organization account. “It’s about building relationships as individuals and sharing stories,” he says. “We’re not above the community we serve. We need to be part of the community.”

Another way of remembering the reader is to be transparent with your audience about the work you do. People are big fans of “behind the scenes” accounts, Côté says, so keeping a log of the steps you take to get a story and sharing that chronicle will make the news process clearer. It could also help rebuild the public’s trust in the news media. Can’t hurt, anyway.

As an example, Côté cites a Washington Post story explaining how the newspaper verified that Turkish security personnel were involved in attacking protesters in Washington, DC, during Turkish President Erdogan’s visit to the United States. Using still frames from video shot by the Voice of America, the Post identified one specific attacker as having been in the president’s security detail.

One more piece of “audience friendly” advice has to do with video. Think about whether a video clip is really the best way to share a “moment.” Maybe turning it into a GIF that viewers can watch over and over would be more useful. When the CBC obtained security footage of a man being run over by a deer, they embedded the video in the web version of their radio story. When Mashable picked up the story, they produced a GIF of the crucial moment.


Which version do you think got more views?

Storytelling now — and back then

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May 232017

Sometimes I think the process of journalism has changed so much since I started it’s almost unrecognizable. (Scroll down for some early career memories.) But then I consider how much hasn’t changed. Good writing is still good writing, and will be forever. It’s still a craft you can learn, you can always get better at it, and I still love teaching it.

That was just one of the topics I discussed recently with Michael O’Connell, host of the podcast It’s All Journalism, as we looked at NewsLab’s 20-year history, at how storytelling has changed, and what journalists need to know about podcasting. Enjoy, and please forgive the raspy voice–I had a cold that day.

We spent a lot of that conversation looking at today’s journalism challenges, but looking back can be fun, too. Things were so different when I started in journalism you’d almost think it was a different century. Which, of course, it was. How different?

  • Manual typewriters. You do know what a typewriter is, right?  You put paper in the roller and hope the ribbon has enough ink… oh, never mind. (Yes, electric typewriters existed, but most newsrooms didn’t use them—way too expensive.  It was LOUD in newsrooms then).
  • Film, not video. Footage got lost in the “soup” or ruined—coming out blue or green–at least once a week. The processor was in a dank space off the newsroom that reeked of chemicals. One of my first jobs was cleaning film with freon, a moderately toxic liquid that left my hands white. I don’t want to think about what I was inhaling. We did have videotape in master control—reels of it two inches wide.  To edit, you sliced out a chunk and taped it back together.  It wasn’t pretty or precise.  Digital was a long way off.
  • Cart machines. At KYW in Philadelphia, we rolled audio into our radio newscasts using carts, loops of tape in a plastic case with a cue tone that signaled when to stop. Individual carts ran :30, :40, :60 seconds or longer. When a reporter called in from the field, one of the first questions from master control was, “Will it fit a on a :40?”
  • Wire machines. They were loud too, and the multi-ply paper we used was full of nasty chemicals. (Are you noticing a theme here?) When I joined CBS News in 1978, the desk assistants would deliver big rolls of copy to me. If I wasn’t careful it would unroll all over the room. I’d spend the first 20 minutes of each shift ripping the wire copy into story-length chunks using a wooden ruler.
  • Smoking. It wasn’t just allowed in newsrooms, it was almost expected. At CBS, I sat across from Dallas Townsend, who went through 3 packs of Lucky Strikes a day.  No filter.  After more than 30 years at CBS News he ended up being taken off the air when his voice fell apart.  Most broadcast journalists I know now don’t smoke.  It’s a job killer.
  • Dictation. We didn’t have computers or modems, so we called in our scripts for transcription. Sometimes it took so long I thought they had stonecutters in New York engraving the script on a tablet.  I got my first “computer” in 1982—a Tandy TRS80, widely known as the TRASH-80, for good reason.  It came with a built-in modem: a whopping 300 baud.  And I loved it.
  • We didn’t have fax machines. Press releases came in the mail.  We didn’t have FedEx, either.  We didn’t even have beepers in the early days, much less mobile phones.  Believe it or not, we had to carry change for pay phones.  Of course, a phone call only cost a dime, but you couldn’t be sure you could find a phone when you needed it.

That was then. I’m glad it’s the past. I love the technology we have today.  Cell phones, email, tablets, computers, wireless access, and powerful database software, the bottomless research library known as the internet. They’ve simplified our work, and saved us a ton of time.   They’ve expanded our reach, as journalists, and given news consumers more choices than anyone could have imagined. And of course they’ve turned that old A.J. Liebling saying about freedom of the press on its head.  Freedom of the press may be guaranteed only to those who own one, but the web has made it possible for everyone to own one.

What’s the significance of that? I’ll just suggest one thing. If everyone can be a publisher, then everyone has a stake in protecting the First Amendment. Pass it on.

Tips on using drones for news

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May 022017

with Deb Halpern Wenger

Drones have already proved their worth in national and international news coverage, adding fresh perspective to reports on natural disasters and environmental issues. Now, drones are being used more widely by local news organizations, and DJI‘s Jon Resnick says it’s a no-brainer to get in the game.

“[Drones] let us tell stories more effectively, more economically, and more quickly, Resnick says. “And everyone benefits from that, the audience and the news entity, and we create a whole new way of looking at our world.”

Resnick spent almost 20 years as a news producer and editor, most recently with the Associated Press. He says his eyes were opened to the potential of drones after his experience with Hurricane Sandy. “I had all my people perfectly positioned in New Jersey, prearranged for aircraft to get aerials afterward,” Resnick says. “All of a sudden all of those airplanes and helicopters, they either were broken to pieces, didn’t have access to fuel or their pilot was trying to save their own house. So it took me hours and hours to get aerials.”

A few months later, a DJI Phantom drone was featured at the Consumer Electronics Show. “I said, ‘Holy cow, I could put one of those in every reporter’s car.’ It costs like $1,000. That was nothing in our business. What if every reporter had one of these? [A reporter] would have popped the drone up, gotten to a hundred feet and had incredible aerials of the devastation within a half hour he would have had it fed back to the mother ship and it would have gone out all over the world and at a fraction of the cost of what aerials cost.”

Resnick expects tremendous growth in the use of drones by local TV stations, especially in medium and small markets, where a lot of airspace is unrestricted. “All of a sudden your storytelling is dramatically improved because you have access to capabilities that you just could not afford before,” he says. “Whether you talk about cranes or jibs or dollies and tracking, all of these all of a sudden are in your hands now, and you can do it in minutes as opposed to hauling in tons of equipment, having extra personnel.”

If you want to use a drone to shoot news video as a professional, you need a special pilot’s license known as a Part 107. Thanks to a partnership involving the Poynter Institutethe Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, National Press Photographers Association and the drone manufacturer DJI, journalists can learn how to pass the test at a three-day drone journalism camp being offered across the United States.

Resnick urges newsrooms to adopt clear guidelines and operating procedures for drones, and to explain what they’re doing and why to public safety and elected officials in their communities. The editor of the Virginian-Pilot, for example, wrote a column to introduce the paper’s new drone photographer.

Newsrooms and journalism educators are already using drones for newsgathering.  At the University of Mississippi, instructor Ji Hoon Heo is a certified drone pilot.  He’s helping students develop story ideas that lend themselves to the use of drones.  Heo has developed three essentials for using drones for news.

Planning is key. Heo now requires reporters to have a shot description or a storyboard of the shots they think they will need for their stories.  He created a video to demonstrate the different types of shots they might consider.

Use the team approach. Heo says it helps to have a drone operator, an observer and a journalist.  The drone operator has the technical know-how, the observer makes sure that the drone is safe, and that allows the journalist to focus on covering the story.  (If three people are out of the question, Heo says it can be done with the two.)

Shoot more than you think you’ll need.  The young journalists Heo works with typically stop recording too early.  Every shot should be at least 10 seconds long and more is better.

Whether it’s a hard news piece about a protest or a feature about the prettiest college campus, Heo focuses on using drone footage when there’s a reason for it, rather than using it as a gimmick. Resnick agrees. “The last thing I want are stories that use drones to be stories about using drones.”

Using .GIFs for news

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Apr 242017

You can’t help but notice when short video loops or animations pop up in your social media channels. They’re designed to draw your attention, and they do.

GIFs (images in graphics interchange format) have been around for 30 years but most newsrooms don’t use them. Maybe that’s because so many GIFs are just plain silly or convey an attitude that makes newsrooms uncomfortable. Fair enough. But why reject an entire format just because you don’t like what other people do with it?

A GIF allows you to isolate a key piece of video and set it up to play over and over on social media. You can showcase a short segment that viewers might want to see again, and add context to it in a tweet, with a link to more background. For example, when British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the White House, President Donald Trump took her by the hand and social media lit up.

Why not share a GIF of the video in addition to still photos? GIFs are surprisingly easy to make with free online tools.

Giphy creates GIFs from online video including Vine and YouTube. You can give credit to the original source in a tag, and share the video to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social sites. You can also download what you create and embed your video on the web. Giphy keeps an online library of GIFs made with its app. Plus, Facebook just announced a partnership with Giphy, so you can now add animations to photos and live video on Facebook.

Free Gifmaker uses much same process. It also has a built in effects generator to create animations from still photos you upload.

Public Radio International uses GIFs as what Steven Davy, multimedia editor for the PRI program The World, calls “conversation starters.” He talked to RJI Futures Lab about the process and the thinking behind it.

Britain’s Channel 4 experimented with bite-size GIFs for about a year, featuring them on an independent Tumblr page. The goal of the “4 News Wall for condensed news” was to attract a younger audience–the target was 16- to 34-year-olds . It doesn’t seem to have worked as designed, however. The page is still online but it’s gone inactive.

If you’re using GIFs for news, send us a link so we can highlight what you’re doing!

“Fake news” and how to stop it

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Mar 072017

By Dylan M. McLemore, University of Central Arkansas, @voiceofD

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it?

Where is fake news coming from?

At least two broad sources…

  1. Pranksters

Like this guy, who amuses himself watching Trump supporters share his falsehoods as fact.

  1. Broke Young People

Like these two recent college grads, who couldn’t find a steady job and instead learned the art of clickbait headlines and riling up conservative voters.

Or teenagers in Macedonia, who Silverman’s team discovered run over 100 pro-Trump fake news websites.

Does fake news have an effect?

Part of the frustration about fake news is that it seems so easy to avoid. But the reason partisans fall for it is the same reason its effects might not be as direct as one would think.

As I wrote in 2011 about chain emails:

Partisans tend to seek agreeable information. They are also less likely to think critically about information that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs. It’s part of a phenomenon known as “biased assimilation.” In their pioneering study, Stanford researchers Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979) wrote that a person’s pre-existing attitudes and beliefs lead to “A propensity to remember the strengths of confirming evidence, but the weaknesses of disconfirming evidence, to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically.” (p. 2099)

That it was, and is, happening more in conservative circles may partially be driven by attacking power – fake news has a rebellious tone better fitting an attack on the establishment. To that point, most of the left-leaning fake news I saw this campaign season also targeted Clinton, generated in support of anti-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders. But conservatives also possess strong group ties and distrust in traditional media – both of which encourage seeking affirmative messages from alternative information sources. Both are less common among liberals, who are typically more fractured and do not view media as an out-group, suggesting this may continue to be more prevalent on the right.

Did fake news win Donald Trump the election? No. I can’t imagine the Venn diagram of people willing to believe the fake news headlines above and people willing to even remotely consider voting for Clinton had much overlap. Fake news might’ve offered affirmation to entrenched partisans, but their vote would’ve remained the same without it.

The greater effect concerns information and discourse. Interpretation of facts is always going to be muddied by our personal and group biases. But people mindlessly sharing any made up “fact” that validates a worldview is inherently more dangerous. Fake news doesn’t simply create different perceptions of reality, it creates separate informational realities altogether. It’s not about selective exposure or selective interpretation. It’s card stacking with a second deck pulled out of thin air. I don’t know how conversations can even begin if that’s the starting point.

What can be done to stop it?

Advocates of media literacy like myself have been fighting against the former for years. Consume news across the spectrum. Learn about competing viewpoints. Recognize objectivity doesn’t equal agreement. Learn how the news sausage is made, and which outlets make it best.

That’s an easy message to preach, and a difficult one to practice. It demands time, empathy, and recognizing one’s own biases. It’s not achieved in a day.

But vanquishing the latter – the narrow definition of fake news we’re facing today – seems more attainable. Recognizing and rejecting fake news might be seen as the introductory course in media literacy. It requires the most basic of fact checks and skepticism.

A SHOCKING headline with BRUTAL sensationalism in ALL CAPS??!! From a source I’ve never heard of called “Right Wing Patriots for Freedom News Daily.biz”? I should probably Google that…

Essentially, this:

Because we’re dealing with a narrow class of verifiably false information, the mechanisms of distribution can get involved in stopping it. That’s what Google and Facebook did over the weekend, both announcing they would ban fake news sites from using their advertising platforms to generate revenue. For any profit-motivated fake news site, that may well be a death knell – Google and Facebook combine for about 75% of all digital advertising revenue. If you’re cut off from both, there isn’t a lot left.

Facebook went further, announcing ways for users to report fake news and a yet-undefined partnership with fact-checking organizations.

So all is well, right? Wrong. Killing a source of steady confirmation isn’t going to go smoothly, as I wrote in a Twitter thread:

  • Facebook is dealing w/ fake news. Here’s why that’s not going to be pleasant for Facebook or legitimate media.
  • Fake news is more prevalent on the right (for the moment, at least). When those stories get banned, conservatives are going to see bias.
  • Flagging fake news will bring about @jwherrman‘s prediction- partisans are going to start flagging disagreeable news as “fake.”
  • Facebook’s definition of fake news is narrow (as it should be). Partisan complaints of mainstream bias won’t be heard.
  • So Facebook is going to be right back where they didn’t want to be- in a vast liberal media conspiracy to silence right-wing voices.
  • Except liberals will think the cleanup didn’t go far enough. So we’ll again retreat into our confirming bubbles, for all else is “fake.”
  • Getting rid of blatantly false news is good. But partisans who enjoyed that confirmatory high are in for withdrawals. It’ll be messy /END

Here’s the op-ed by John Herrmann I referenced in the thread. The money line:

“Fake news” as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.

Brace yourselves, we may be shining more light on fake news than ever before, but that doesn’t mean traditional media will suddenly be perfect and revered, or that your Facebook feed is going to suddenly be a kinder place.

*Now, about that Buzzfeed study. It’s obviously not exhaustive. I’m sure the entirety of legitimate news shares still outpaces the entirety of fake news shares, simply because there’s so much more legitimate news content. Researchers sample, as opposed to analyzing the entire population of data, for feasibility. Silverman’s study is a snapshot of what’s happening with the most engaged real/fake news. Read this critique, or Silverman’s own thread about the study’s limitations.

Podcasting tips from a pro

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Mar 022017

If it seems to you like podcasting is making a comeback, hold it right there. It never went away, according to Michael O’Connell, host of the It’s All Journalism podcast and author of the forthcoming book Turn up the Volume: A Down and Dirty Guide to Launching a Podcast.

“Thousands of podcasts were out there, thriving,” O’Connell says, before Serial made a huge splash in 2014. But most people didn’t know much about podcasts until the true crime series from the creators of public radio’s This American Life “created a buzz for itself and for podcasting.”

So what are the keys to creating a successful podcast? That depends on how you define success.

Podcasts are niche products, by definition. “When you choose a topic, you are limiting the size of your audience,” O’Connell says. “Expect your audience to be much smaller than you imagine…and don’t expect to make any money at it.”

The average podcast gets just 150 downloads per episode each month, according to O’Connell. That’s not nearly enough to appeal to advertisers. And besides, most podcasters give up before they get to the 150 download plateau, which usually takes about six months.

There are podcasters who do turn a profit, of course, but O’Connell says almost all of them already had an audience before launching a podcast. And they make most of their money not from advertising but from marketing to their audience. Adam Carolla, for example, sells merchandise, books and live appearances to his fans.

If you’re not intent on making a living with a podcast, what you need to succeed are passion, authenticity and commitment, O’Connell says.

“If you have a message you are passionate about, people will connect to your passion and listen.” That’s more important than broadcast-quality audio or high profile guests. “I don’t want to downplay the importance of good audio production. It’s important to master it, but it’s not that difficult to master.”

O’Connell says regularity is crucial to success. “Establish a rhythm and a routine for people to come check out your content.”

All you need to get started is a microphone, an audio recorder (which could be your smartphone) and a website. Edit audio with Audacity (it’s free). Interview guests using Zencastr, also free for hobbyists. Put your podcast up on SoundCloud or a similar hosting site, embed it on your own site, promote it on iTunes, and you’re off.

How long should a podcast be? As long or as short as it needs to be, O’Connell says. He calls BS on the “recommended length” of 22 minutes.  A recent study found the average listener stays tuned for 33 minutes. The sweet spot may be somewhere in between, since many people listen while commuting and the average commute time in this country is…26 minutes.

O’Connell’s advice is to “start short, earn long.” Do 10 minutes a week when you begin and see how it goes. But keep this in mind: there’s a big drop off in listeners after two minutes. “If you don’t hook them, they’re gone.”

Finally–this may be obvious–before you start a podcast, listen to some! Here are a few of O’Connell’s and my favorites:

Into the Dark, a true crime series from American Public Media.

Millennial, a show about “how to maneuver your twenties.”

RadioLab, a show about curiosity, from WNYC.

Song Exploder, an exploration of music from LA producer Hrishikesh Hirway.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which breaks all the “rules.” Published sporadically and can be hours long.

And a megalist of 50 more,  from The Guardian.

Not your enemy

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Feb 222017

Attacks on the news media are nothing new, especially from American presidents. Even that vocal defender of a free press, Thomas Jefferson, had it up to here on occasion with newspapers and “the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” Richard Nixon’s famous “enemies list” included more than 50 print and broadcast reporters targeted for reprisals. But Donald Trump’s assault on journalism is different and more dangerous.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump isn’t just calling the news media his enemy. And, unlike his predecessors, he’s not doing it in private.

Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who helped break the Watergate story, told CNN Trump’s attack on the news media is more treacherous than Nixon’s. “We’ve never seen in an American president such open authoritarian moves and rhetoric,” he said.

What’s the right response for newsrooms and for individual journalists? Many have taken to social media to assure the public they’re not the enemy. (Full disclosure: I changed my Facebook cover photo to make the same point.) It makes you feel better to say it, but only for a minute. It’s kind of like responding to a playground taunt of “Are too!” by shouting back “Am not!”

The real question is, what now?

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley says the answer is to keep doing the work we’ve always done. “Our job is unchanged, it is the same. Find the facts, present the truth, let the audience know what our process is.” And in an interview on the podcast Pod Save the World, Yahoo anchor Katie Couric warns journalists not to get sucked into personal battles with Trump  (Start at 6:00 in.)

That seems right to me. The news media has a much bigger and more important job to do: to regain the public’s trust. The current administration’s assault on journalism plays into a public mood that has been souring for well over a decade. No one goes into journalism to be liked (or at least they shouldn’t), but trust and respect are crucial for us to do the job the public needs us to do, and we have to earn them back.

ABC’s Martha Raddatz believes “thorough, honest reporting” is the way to do it. It’s essential, certainly, but I don’t think it’s sufficient.

Here are a few additional suggestions:

  • Treat the people we cover and the audience with respect.
  • Stop blaming everyone else for the mess we’re in. It’s not the Internet’s fault, it’s not the explosion of outlets posing as news sources. It’s us
  • Explain what we do and why we do it. Admit it and apologize when we’re wrong.
  • Cover important news and do it in an interesting way. Stop spending so much time chasing celebrities and clickbait.

That list comes from a keynote speech I delivered at an SPJ conference 16 years ago.

Perhaps we could ask the audience for a little help. This new video from MediaTory, a Polish journalism group that recognizes good work, makes a good point.

“We’ve created this campaign to make people smarter in using media,” project coordinator Wiola Klytta told me by email. “We wanted to say them: you decide what’s on the top, you decide what media are talking about. You click, you choose a channel = you are a journalist, because you affect on popularity of the text. If you are dissatisfied with news, you can blame you and your curiosity.
“We want people use media more consciously and responsibly,” she said. “We hope to get them know, that they are significant influencers – from their choices depends quality of media reports.”

There’s a lot of work to do. Let’s get started!

Update: WCBS Radio’s Steve Scott, president of the New York Press Club adds via Twitter: “Don’t be afraid to stand up for our profession.” Here’s the letter the group sent Trump after his “enemy of the American people” tweet.

How newsrooms stay on top of the news

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Feb 022017

Running a newsroom is both a sprint and a marathon. You have to move fast as things change, sometimes minute to minute, while also planning for the long term. How do you manage?

Some of the most popular tools in newsrooms are free and open source, like Twitter and Google Docs. Whatsapp has proved useful in communicating to and from the field on breaking news. But there’s extensive use of paid services, too, according to news managers I joined for a recent panel discussion hosted by the Associated Press.

David Bruns, executive producer of original video at The Washington Post, named Slack, Storyful and Spike as among the most useful tools in his newsroom’s arsenal.

Slack is a messaging and file sharing service with cloud storage that allows newsrooms to create “channels” for workgroups or stories. Other apps like Dropbox and Google Drive can be integrated into Slack. And it’s free to try the basic version.

Robert Lydick, vice-president of station operations for TEGNA, also praises Slack. “We use it for almost everything,” he said. Among other things, Slack helps the group’s newsrooms keep tabs on what’s trending because Chartbeat’s data analytics are integrated.

Storyful, owned by NewsCorp, verifies user generated content for its subscribers. It also secures rights to video for its clients.

Spike is a dashboard that promises to help news organizations discover content and pinpoint trends so they can publish content that’s likely to go viral with their audience.

Lydick said his stations find Bitcentral a useful workflow tool. The system notifies producers when a file is in the queue. Sounds good, but I’m a little nostalgic for the days of yelling across the newsroom to find out if a story’s ready.

As good as these tools are, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for these newsrooms. “We’d love to have one tool [do it all] but the reality is by the time you roll it out there are three more out there,” Lydick said. “I don’t see one that does everything.”

What tools does your newsroom use? Add suggestions in the comments!

Reporting tactic: Soliciting leaks

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Jan 252017

Less than a week into the Trump administration, multiple government agencies have told their employees not to speak to the news media or release information to the public. Journalists have responded by spreading the word that it’s easy to reach them, securely and confidentially.

Many news organizations use SecureDrop, which describes itself as “an open-source whistleblower submission system.”

Reporters like Danielle Paquette of the Washington Post shared links to their SecureDrop sites on Twitter.

ProPublica has a “how to leak” page, set up at the end of November, that explains what’s behind the request.

Our job is to hold people and institutions accountable. And it requires evidence. Documents are a crucial part of that. We are always on the lookout for them — especially, now.

Have you seen something that troubles you or that you think should be a story? Do you have a tip about something we should be investigating? Do you have documents or other materials that we should see? We want to hear from you.

The page includes links to its own SecureDrop site, as well as instructions on how to use the free Signal app to contact individual reporters. It’s been shared hundreds of times on Twitter in just the last 24 hours.

On its “News Tips” page, the New York Times tells potential leakers it can be contacted via WhatsApp, Signal, encrypted email  and the US Postal Service, as well as SecureDrop.

Here’s SecureDrop’s list of news organizations and others using its system to receive information anonymously, which includes the Associated Press, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Toronto’s Globe and Mail. My guess is that list will expand. [3/2/17: Just learned The Tow Center has a useful guide to SecureDrop.]

In fact, shortly after I published this post, I ran across a Twitter thread from John Ryan of Seattle public radio station KUOW spelling out ways of contacting him:

Do you know of any other news organizations currently soliciting anonymous submissions? Share in the comments, please.

Jan 052017

I’m a reporter. What do I care about SEO? The answer should be “plenty,” if you care whether anyone sees that story you worked so hard on once it’s posted online.

Here’s why:

The digital audience is made up of seekers and scanners. People seeking information about a particular topic will search for it online. At NPR, for example, almost 70 percent of the traffic to the website comes from just two sources: social media and search. Typically, people aren’t coming to the NPR home page and browsing. They’re looking for something specific. If your headline, story URL and metadata include the same key words people are searching for, your story has a better chance of being found and read. That’s what SEO (search engine optimization) is all about.

Writing headlines with SEO in mind should help capture the scanners, too. People who land on a page they’ve found by searching will take a quick look at other headlines in the sidebars. To grab them, your headline needs to attract attention and inspire the reader to want to know more.

Keep in mind that a headline must work alone. It will be seen in lots of channels, including social media, without the context of the rest of the story. It may not even be connected to an image. A headline also has to be clear and accurate. Headlines should not promise something the story can’t deliver. You’re not writing click-bait (I hope). You want people to read the story and feel that it was worth their time, so they’ll come back.

So do some research. The simplest way is to search for yourself. Type in what you think the key words for your story might be. At the bottom of the first search page on Google, you’ll often find a list of “related searches” that will tell you what other people are searching for, either validating your choice or giving you better alternatives. Another option: use CoSchedule’s headline analyzer, and download their list of “power words” for grabber headlines. (Thanks to Chris Newmarker’s column in the latest SPJ Quill for the suggestion.)

With SEO in mind, keep your headlines short. Google will only show the first 55 to 60 characters, so eight words should be enough. Short headlines work better on mobile, too. See what I mean?

A few additional thoughts about headlines:

A headline is not a tease. Headlines need to convey specific information about the story, so readers know at a glance what it’s about. Don’t be vague and don’t try to be clever.

Beware of tired formulas. Questions in headlines are overused, and often raise a question the story doesn’t answer. Don’t do that. And don’t write a question headline that can be answered “yes,” or “no.” Why would anyone bother to read the rest of the story?

For more on headline writing, here are some helpful tips from Colin Dwyer and Stephanie Federico, digital editors at NPR.

How the Wall Street Journal boosts social sharing

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Nov 142016

wsj-twitterEvery news organization wants its stories shared as widely as possible. Managers encourage reporters to share their work using their own social media profiles, while the social media desk (if there is one) posts to the newsroom’s main Twitter feed, Facebook page, and other outlets. But, if we’re honest, it can often be a bit scattershot. At the Wall Street Journal, a new emphasis on teamwork has helped to juice the process.

“We work hard a communicating internally,” Natalie Andrews, social media editor, said during a recent webinar hosted by Muckrack. When political stories are published, for example, the social team sends the link to other reporters on the politics team along with sample text they could use on social.

“I was worried at first…I’m going to be flooding these people’s inboxes,” she said. “And people were like, no, this is the kind of email I want to get.” People want to tweet each other’s stories, Andrews said, and it also helps them to know what the rest of the team is doing.

wsj-where-they-standThe social team has been getting involved in story planning, too, in an effort to help make stories more social- and audience-friendly. They meet with the design team to ensure they build gifs and graphics that can be shared on social media and read on a mobile device. During the presidential campaign, for example, simple graphics linked to a comparison of candidates on the issues. As topics came up, the graphic would go back in circulation. One graphic had a million views over a weekend.

“We can tweet them every day and they get seen every day,” Andrews said.

The social team doesn’t work in a vacuum, either. They stay in touch with reporters from start to finish.

“It’s really helpful for us to hear from the people who are doing the reporting and editing,” says Todd Olmstead, senior audience engagement editor. “They help us wrap our heads around what the key points are. We’re managing an influx of stories from all around the world and they help us filter through what they’re working on.”

How do they manage all this communication? “We Slack a lot,” Olmstead said. Using the online collaboration tool “helps us stay organized and on track.”

But the real key to success has less to do with process and much more to do with content. “What makes the whole operation run is having really great stories and kick-ass reporting,” Olmstead said. “That’s the thing reporters do and should be doing. That allows us to have an engaging social presence. We can write the best Facebook post but it’s not going to be successful unless we are consistently publishing really great stories.”


Reading lists

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Oct 182016

book-readingSometimes it just takes a little nudge. I’ve had a couple of reading lists on this site for years, and it’s been a long time since I updated them. So I’m grateful to the reader who pointed out that a lot of links were out of date and motivated me to fix them!

I’ve just updated two pages: suggested reading for writers and recommended journalism textbooks. Have at ’em. And, as always, if there’s a title you think I should add, please let me know.

TV storytelling one on one

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Sep 152016

Who comes to mind when you hear the words “TV news” and “storytelling?” For me, it’s a short list. The late Charles Kuralt and his On The Road stories for CBS News. Steve Hartman, who revived the On the Road franchise for CBS. Bob Dotson of NBC News and his American Stories. And Boyd Huppert at KARE in Minneapolis, who roams the Land of 10,000 Stories. So how cool is it that one storytelling legend recently sat down to interview another? Pretty cool.

Kuralt died almost 20 years ago, so even if you remember him as the anchor of CBS Sunday Morning, you may never have seen his work  “On the Road.” His segments were a regular feature on the CBS Evening News beginning in 1967 and ran for almost a quarter century. Cameraman Izzy Bleckman traveled the country with Kuralt in an RV, finding stories wherever they went.

A lot of people wondered why – why would you come out and do a story about me? And maybe after they saw it, they saw something they never knew about themselves, that they did have something to say, that they did have an interesting story to tell. Wed’ have a tough time after spending time with some of these folks detaching ourselves, getting back in the bus. Wed just seen something terrific, a calm and beautiful existence.

Kuralt told the stories of “ordinary” Americans with the greatest of respect. Here’s just one example:

What’s changed since the Roanoke TV murders?

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Aug 262016

wdbj-shooting-780x439It’s been a year since that awful morning at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia. A year since a promising young reporter, Alison Parker, and a well-liked photographer, Adam Ward, were shot to death during a live report by a former employee of the station. The murders caused soul-searching in some TV newsrooms about the security of crews in the field, but there’s no evidence the industry as a whole has changed its ways.

As I wrote at the time, I’d have been surprised to see stations cut back on live reports. The live-shot is the life blood of local TV news, after all. And I’d have been shocked to see stations routinely provide security for crews in the field–an expensive proposition to say the least.

WDBJ, on the other hand, has changed. Owned at the time of the murders by Schurz Communications, a privately-owned company based in Indiana with stations in seven markets, WDBJ was sold to Gray Television as part of a package deal.  Schurz is out of the local TV business altogether. Gray now owns or operates stations in 51 markets.

As often happens when stations change hands, layoffs hit WDBJ a few months after the acquisition. About 10 people were let go–most of them photographers and other off-air staff–and according to Brian Stelter of CNN, there is now increasing pressure on WDBJ employees to work solo.

Two employees said on condition of anonymity that the “one man band” assignments are becoming more common but that news crews with multiple employees still handle some stories.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who follows the TV news business. Roanoke is a medium-sized market (No. 69, according to Nielsen (pdf)), but the VJ phenomenon hasn’t been confined to the smallest markets for quite some time.

A new documentary produced by Karin and Bill Schwanbeck, who teach journalism at Quinnipiac University, takes a look at the practice. The film follows five young journalists as they struggle with the reality of small-market TV news–long hours, low pay, and lots of time alone in the field. The filmmakers also talked to Mary Bock, now at the University of Texas, whose research on VJ’s we featured a few years back. They interviewed me, too.

Small Markets, Big Dreams runs an hour. If you know any aspiring TV journalists, make them watch it. They should know what they’re getting into.

Ethical editing

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Jun 162016

couric gunIt was only eight seconds. Eight seconds of silence between a question and answer. But it didn’t actually happen that way. And now, the decision to insert an 8-second pause in a documentary about a controversial subject has become a controversy of its own.

The director of the documentary film Under the Gun says she made a “creative decision” by adding the pause between a question posed by Katie Couric and the answer from members of a gun rights group. Here’s how it plays out on video:

Director Stephanie Soechtig defended her decision to Variety:

You have Katie asking the group this question, “Do you think people on the terror watch list should be allowed to own guns?” Katie’s asking the question of the group, but as the filmmaker, I want to ask the question of the audience. So what I was thinking, my editor was thinking was we need to stop for a second, because the film moves along at a really fast clip. So you’ll see that throughout we’ll stop down after something happens or when we present something. The terror watch list is a real pivotal feature in the film, as is the whole notion of background checks. So this felt like a really crucial time to stop down and allow the audience a moment to let that question sink in.

No one might have noticed, except for the fact that the group in question had its own audio recording of the interview. They knew full well that one of them had immediately answered the question, and they cried foul. Adding a pause, they said, made them appear to be speechless.

Couric took responsibility, admitting the edit misrepresented the exchange. She also appeared to throw the director under the bus, saying she had initially questioned the edit, but let it go after talking to Soechtig:

I questioned her and the editor about the pause and was told that a “beat” was added for, as she described it, “dramatic effect”…I regret that those eight seconds were misleading and that I did not raise my initial concerns more vigorously.

Here’s the thing: A documentary is supposed to capture reality. It may not be journalism, strictly speaking, but it’s supposed to based in fact. Adding eight seconds of silence and covering it with B-roll shot at a different time is a distortion of reality. If you’re going to play around with content that way, please do us all a favor and call what you’re producing a movie, not a documentary.