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Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

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Hi and welcome back!  It’s been awhile.  Admittedly, the care and feeding of this blog fell off last semester (sometimes life takes over) but now I’m back to reviving my little plant.

So, of course, where to start?  As more than a few folks noted on Twitter the past several days, it’s been a rough week for newspaper ombudsmen.  Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor for The New York Times, drew much attention  with his column which posed this question:  “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

The lede is poster-child verbiage for those wondering whether there are still out-of-touch editors roaming around in the mainstream media:   “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Oy.

My head hurts.

The backlash on Twitter and on the comments board for the article was predictable. Christian Moerk of Brooklyn captured the feelings of many:  “As a former Times freelancer, and ’92 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn’t have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”

This old-school print mentality of he said/he said journalism still dominates too many mainstream newsrooms.  It’s one of the many reasons why journalists get a bad reputation.  Too many readers views journalists as nothing more than glorified stenographers.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls it the “View From Nowhere.”  The Times should really know better (remember the assertions about the “weapons of mass destruction?)

Brisbane’s question on how to tell the truth while being “objective and fair” came on the heels of a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, where he asked: “Is The Post innovating too fast?

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Q&A With Mike LaCrosse

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Mike LaCrosse, a 2010 graduate of the UMass Journalism program, and now a reporter/producer for WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. found himself in the middle of the Springfield tornado coverage this week.  The tornado was a local story that quickly went national, with a report from LaCrosse making it onto the ABC Nightly News broadcast.

“Being on network was pretty crazy,” said LaCrosse.   “I didn’t know until later that night.  ABC was recording all of our newscasts and used a phoner I did.  I started getting calls from people when the service got better telling me.  I was also on Channel Five in Boston and WBC radio.   It is pretty awesome being seen and heard as the lead story on network.”

“Overall it’s been a crazy and emotional last few days.”

Some more thoughts from LaCrosse:

1. Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield? What did you do?

I was in the newsroom running back to where our sky camera video comes in getting an operator to turn it so we could see it.I spirited back to the newsroom and was told to get to downtown so photographer Alan Rosko and I headed there and were in the south end within 10 minutes of the hit.

2. Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

I was shocked at what I was seeing. People were everywhere; trees were down; bricks were scattered everywhere; cars destroyed. It was overwhelming.

3. Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

Wednesday night I was all over the South End of Springfield. Talking to witnesses getting images. I kept doing live phone interviews during our five hour wall-to-wall coverage. We were all over. We ended up going live from Court Square. After that we continued talking to people about what they saw and their damage.

4. Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

Social media was tough because there was very limited cell phone service in the downtown area.

5. What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

Just how widespread the damage was and how people still remain in good spirits despite losing everything.

Q&A With Nancy Cohen

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This shelter is at Central High School in Springfield. About 200 people are there They're looking for donations of socks, t shirts, towels, baby wipes. (Courtesy of Nancy Cohen.)

Adjunct instructor Nancy Eve Cohen teaches Reporting and Writing for Radio and Podcasting at UMass.

Nancy is also the environmental reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio and the Managing Editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaboration of 20 public radio stations.

She’s been covering the aftermath of the Springfield tornado, producing several pieces including:

*  This report on tornado survivors for WBUR

*  “Clean Up Crews Get To Work in Springfield.”

An interview with Morning Edition host Ray Hardman

I recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on covering the tornado and its aftermath.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

I drove into Springfield the night of the tornado, a few hours later. There was a torrential rainstorm… every exit off the highway to Springfield was blocked so i wasn’t able to see much, but it prepared me for the next morning.  I knew it might be difficult to get where I needed to be when daylight came…

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

Shocked. I’ve been working in this business for a long time…even worked in a war zone… Sarajevo in 1992, but to see my own community ripped apart stunned me. The sheer force of the tornado was humbling

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

I managed to be in the right place at the right time on Thursday. Some of that was planning, some was assertiveness, some was dumb luck.

I got to one of the Red Cross shelters at 5:00 AM and snagged the last legal parking place. You couldn’t drive anywhere so it was key to stage oneself as close as possible.

When I walked into the shelter people were sleeping. I heard snoring, a few people were crying quietly. A baby was whimpering. A few people walked around wrapped in blankets, smoking.

One young woman said she had just paid her landlord before the tornado hit. Now she had no money and no place to live. A man in a wheelchair described waking up that morning in the shelter and realizing where he was and what had happened. His building was destroyed and he was worried his apartment would be looted. But he had no way to get there and little hope of finding another accessible apartment.

Many of the people had little to begin with and now they had even less.

After interviewing several of the survivors I went outside and walked south until I hit a police block. I talked to the police and they pointed out a man getting out of the car who turned out to be Senator Scott Brown. I had the chance to talk with him for a while. Then Governor Deval Patrick showed up along with Senator Kerry and the mayors of Springfield and Westfield.  I interviewed each of them and then, along with a gaggle of press, followed the politicians as they surveyed the damage on foot.

After the officials left a photographer friend and I talked our way past the police to some of the worst hit places.

I got some incredible interviews with two people who lived through the tornado…one took shelter in a closet inside, but the wind was blowing so hard the door almost blew away. Another saw a roof flying through the air “like the Wizard of Oz”  A building inspector examining the damage said it was a miracle not more people were killed “God Looked over the city and protected the people.”

Today, Friday I went to a new shelter that had been set up. I  spoke with a family who were from Somalia. They had come to Springfield a year ago after spending 12 years in a refugee camp. The 25 year old mother of four told me her new situation– homeless after the tornado— reminded her of being in the camp.  “It’s like when we fled from our country … We feeling like refugee all over again. We don’t have nothing now.”

One woman told me she had broke down crying the night before. ” I finally realized. like this is serious. I can’t go back to my home. Like this is it for us.”

I left the shelter and drove to a suburban neighborhood that was also hit. There was an army of utility trucks installing new telephone poles that had been snapped in half. There were damaged trees everywhere. Big ones. One house had several huge trees broken and splayed across the roof.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

None. This was old fashioned, on foot, on-the-ground from early morning until my deadline loomed.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

I haven’t had time to see a lot of other people’s work yet. I haven’t really stopped, but I’m about to.

Q&A With S.P. Sullivan

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The devastation in Springfield after Wednesday's tornado was surpising to many covering the aftermath. (Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan)

S.P. Sullivan is a 2010 graduate of the UMass journalism program.  Upon graduation, he took a job as a producer for MassLive, the online operation of The Springfield Republican.  I was chatting with him online prior to Wednesday’s tornado and caught up with him to see what the past several days have been like.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

When the first tornado hit I was in the office. I stuck around because I have a little car and I didn’t want it to blow away during the NWS’ tornado watch.

We saw the tornado pass a few blocks from our building, tearing debris off the tops of buildings, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed. Even when our general manager came back from a meeting with photos of a few uprooted trees downtown, I didn’t think it was anything more than the microbursts that sometimes happen around here, destroying a random barn and leaving everything else untouched.

So I left! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I went grocery shopping. But there was no way to know the extent of the damage at that point, and I couldn’t get downtown because of gridlock traffic in that direction. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard about the level of damage. So, jaw ajar, I went back to work from my dining room table.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

Because I was 40 minutes away in Amherst when I started working on tornado coverage, I did a lot of back-channel stuff Wednesday night. I’m a producer, not a reporter, so the paper had reporters all over the scene. I tried to flesh out details of what happened from the streams of media reports, the chatter online and communicating with other staff. I made sure the latest stuff was on the homepage as it was coming in and added all the necessary media.

Then, I started recording statements from the governor and other officials remotely using a complicated set-up involving my smartphone, a Zoom H2 recorder and a stereo cable. Because of that I was able to listen in on the governor’s press briefings and file stories on the site about the state response within minutes of them ending. I edited and embedded audio from those briefings.

Most of Wednesday night I was glued to Twitter on the back end, trying to vet information as it was coming in and post stuff as soon as it was confirmed by us or our media partners.

Thursday, I came in early and started out with my normal morning routine, which is manning the homepage. I built what we call a ‘defcon’ promo, which is a module that we roll out for large, breaking news events like this one. Then I worked with a reporter at the paper on a live blog, bringing together dispatches and photos from reporters in the field, user-submitted photos and video and updates on traffic, office closures and whatnot from state agencies.

In the afternoon, I was sent out in the field to capture images and on-the-ground perspectives of the recovery process. I visited the badly damaged South End and talk to a security guard from one of the towers, who had helped his tenants to the shelter at the MassMutual center. I got yelled at by cops and National Guardsmen for crossing police lines, and told by others that I was OK as long as I had my press badge. It was a confusing time, and I was struck by the number of people wandering the South End, taking pictures of the damage with their cell phones.

Between disaster areas, I found some women flagging down cars for a car wash to raise money for victims. A few of them had been impacted themselves. I thought it was a touching story and, for our readers’ sake and mine, I shot some video so we’d have a positive piece to balance out the desperation.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

I got on Twitter as soon as I knew it had happened because I have a decent base of followers in Western Mass. I knew they would be posting about the situation wherever they were at. It’s also useful as an aggregation tool, because it would take me 30 minutes to sift through all of the state’s news organizations that were covering this, but as everyone was sharing from their news site of choice, I was able to see headlines from all over in real-time.

Twitter was most useful in the hours right after the storm hit, and I keep checking it to this moment, but since Wednesday night I’ve mostly been using it to keep our 3,000+ followers up on what we’re doing, what other orgs are posting and what the various state agencies and aid groups are saying. I posted updates from the field, but that was somewhat difficult with spotty reception due to downed cell towers.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

It’s a friggin’ tornado in New England. Everything about the past 48 hours has been surprising. If I have to pick, I’d say the courage of the folks like the women I met at the car wash, who managed to remain positive amid all of the rubble.

Q&A With Dave Madsen

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Dave Madsen has worked in broadcasting since 1970, and now serves as managing editor and anchor for ABC’s affiliate WGGB TV, ABC40 in Springfield. He attended UMass Amherst, majoring in Communication. He has been teaching at UMass since Fall 2000, first for two years in Sport Management and then with Journalism starting in Fall 2002.

I checked in with Dave to get his thoughts about covering the tornado and the effects of the storm on Springfield and Western Massachusetts

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?
We were live on the air and watching our Skycam video as the tornado moved across the river and Memorial Bridge. People watching saw it as we did, live and heard our reaction to what we were seeing. It was stunning and hard to believe it was happening here.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?  Absolutely. The first pictures we saw came from the South End. It looked like a war zone.

3.    Can you describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

We went live, continuously from around 3:45 to 9. We kept updating information as it came into us from the field and from Facebook and Twitter, as well as our email address. We worked with police, hospitals and viewers , taking live phoners of people describing where they were and what they saw.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

Social media played a huge role. People were posting pictures and videos that we used on the air. We had more than 1,000 people friend our WGGB Springfield account Wednesday afternoon alone. People communicated with each other on our Facebook page, as well as with us. Yesterday’s tornado really reinforced my opinion on the growing strength and reach of social media. We streamed our coverage live all afternoon long. We got e-mails from people all over the country and world for that matter. We received a request from a blogger in Russia to use some of our video.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

The social media aspect. In times of crisis, it’s probably the most effective form of communication.

Multitasking and You!

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In case you missed it, PBS recently broadcast: Digital Nation: Life on the Virtual Frontier.  Check it out when you get a chance,  it’s an interesting look at how we all live our lives.

Here’s a little test for you:  At some point this weekend, try and do just one thing…..and, see how long you can do it for.

What was interesting is that as I watched this PBS program, I realized I had ESPN on the TV, I was doing e-mail, g-chatting with someone, and scanning Facebook.  I then shut them all down and focused on the PBS documentary.  I deliberately decided not to multitask, but it wasn’t easy.  So, try it!

Steve

Professor Whitehead Talks About Middle Class With Biden

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In case you missed it, Professor Ralph Whitehead was part of a panel (along with Vice President Joe Biden) at the Center for American Progress earlier this month–the topic: The Challenges Facing the Middle Class in the 21st Century Economy.

Check out the video of the panel.

 

Steve

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