But Cooper was originally going to tell a different story.
If it weren’t for a well-timed question, a burning curiosity and his editor, Cooper wouldn’t have told the story that sparked investigations and discussion of Nebraska’s prison system.
Readers would’ve read a different story entirely.
Five months ago, Cooper wrote about Quentin Jackson, a man convicted of shooting a bouncer at an Omaha nightclub. Jackson was attending a hearing on whether his conviction should be overturned in street clothes instead of prison garb. He had been let out of prison on a “day pass” – a pass inmates qualify for when they have less than three years left in their sentences.
The news peg for the story: Jackson had been sentenced to 14 to 15 years in prison but was to be released after only six years, Cooper said. He wrote the first story on deadline and said it questioned whether Jackson was going to be released earlier than he deserved.
After doing some digging and finding out that there was data to prove that Jackson would be doing less time than he was supposed to, Cooper was prepared to follow up with another story to prove the accuracy of his first story and expose the miscalculation of Jackson’s release date. But an itch to find out more and a conversation with his editor caused Cooper to wait.
His editor allowed him to do more research about other inmates and their release dates.
Cooper said he took “one month to crunch parole and release dates,” which led to the conclusion that 873 prisoners were given miscalculated sentences. The result? Cooper had a better story.
And the followup stories just kept coming.
Cooper wrote about something with an impact. He used reporting to expose inconsistencies and injustice – provoking discussion and forcing change.
“Always look for the better story,” Cooper said. Also important, he said, is to write the story in the best way. And according to Cooper, the only way to do that is to paint a picture with the details.
Cooper tells sources, “Take me back.” He asks, “What do you see? What do you smell?”
A journalist’s job is to get as close to the truth as possible, Cooper said. His goal is always to explain and to translate information for the public.
The process it took for Cooper to write a story of substance with tremendous impact provides the steps it takes to write the best story. It requires more than a bit of curiosity, the calculated skills of a good interviewer, and a willingness to follow the story wherever it leads.
And of course, the best story also requires a good editor.
– By Michaela Noble
Ideally, a comment section on an online article should be an open environment where the general public can discuss the events in the news.
That is probably what most news organizations had in mind when they gave readers the ability to comment on stories, back when news websites first started appearing. One at a time, news outlets such as ESPN, USA Today and Time have started disabling anonymous comments. Anyone who has scrolled through a YouTube video comment section knows why.
It goes back to a 2010 article from the American Journalism Review, which called for an end to anonymous comments. According to the review, comment sections were filled with anger and often hate speech. Some organizations followed the recommendation, but the problem of out-of-control online comments is still very real, as shown by the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.
It has been handled in many ways, either by shutting off comments entirely or making them invisible until approved. Shutting down comments poses some problems. It is the easiest solution because it eliminates the issue entirely. It also alienates readers, who were once invited to discuss their opinions, but now must do so elsewhere.
Then there’s comment moderation, which some websites have embraced. However, approving comments to be visible online takes extra time and effort, which today’s shrinking newsrooms are running short on.
Another route is to hide the comments behind a button, like the New York Times has, or put it farther down the page than the average reader is likely to scroll. Very little has helped; even requiring a Facebook account to comment doesn’t seem to stop people from posting toxic, often racist messages.
Ultimately, it’s a newspaper’s reputation that keeps it in business. It is unfortunate, but an anonymous racist comment really does reflect negatively on the paper and its readers. Maybe not directly, but what is the general public supposed to think when racist comments start showing up on their hometown newspaper’s website? Is the paper racist? At the very least, the reader who made the comment probably is.
I think there is a fine line between giving readers a space to express their reactions to current events and a platform from which they can attack each other. Racially charged crime stories aren’t the only articles that attract hostile comments. Even comments on special interest websites can get especially ugly.
Comment sections are not the democratizing, social engagement engines news organizations were hoping for. Plenty of news sites have already disabled comments; those that haven’t should.
Turn comment sections off before any more death threats are made, and before any more bigotry can give itself a platform. Media organizations should quit allowing immature, reactionary readers to damage their reputations any further.
_By Samuel Egan
Clayton Real, a University of Nebraska freshman, was found dead in his fraternity house Sept. 5.
His fraternity released a statement that said his death could have been “caused by a diabetic incident, possibly complicated by off-campus alcohol consumption.”
Is this information important? It did not come from an autopsy, which means this is just a possibility.
How do reporters and editors juggle the public’s right to know and still remain sensitive to the victims or survivors?
The simple answer: the truth.
If someone were to die in a car accident, it would not be important to add that he or she was a sexual predator because it has nothing to do with the car crash.
In Real’s case, Professor John Bender, of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at UNL, said reporters were right to add the suspected cause of the student’s death. He said it granted readers a reasonable explanation rather than leaving readers to question the cause of death. Those unanswered questions could come around to hurt Real’s family.
“Sometimes, the speculation can be worse than the truth,” Bender said.
Different types of death stories require different actions by journalists covering the stories.
“Some circumstances are going to be more problematic for the family, the survivors and others,” Bender said. “It’s never going to be easy no matter what the circumstances are.”
The most difficult stories to write, Bender said, are suicides, public deaths and deaths of young people.
He offers some advice for journalists.
“One thing that I think can help is making it clear to the people you’re trying to get a portrait of that person,” he said. “You’re not just writing about how they died.”
Bender also said editors should keep two ideas in mind when deciding what information to include: Is there a reason for the public to know and does this help the public understand?
The Daily Nebraskan’s initial story of Real’s death had more than 5,600 hits online, which makes it the most clicked story for the Daily Nebraskan this year. This is all the more reason to get the right information in the story.
If a reporter has covered a death and needs some help coping afterward, Poynter has some tips to help.
_By Eric Bertrand
You have a split second to make a decision that could mean life or death. Do you reach out a hand to a victim of an accident or capture the moment forever in a photograph? If you choose the latter, does the provocative-yet-gruesome image belong on the front page of a family newspaper?
Humanity and ethics are topics of great debate when it comes to journalism. We are constantly questioning where to draw the line between duty as a photojournalist and desire to help our fellow man. The first journalism class I ever took started the first day with a photograph of a young boy being suspended on a fence by a post pierced through his cheek. Our teacher posed a provoking question: Do you help him down or do you take the photograph first?
Photojournalists take on the role of quiet observer. Many photojournalists spend a substantial amount of time with their subjects to make their presence feel natural and to capture a subject’s true character. If a photojournalist were to interfere in an event, this standard of non-intervention is broken. We must determine in each case if our role is more important as documentarians or protectors of victims. We must prioritize whether to properly convey an event or message to the public with a photograph or act as a bystander who reacts swiftly to prevent more pain or violence to a victim.
Donna Ferrato, an experienced photojournalist, dedicated a significant portion of her career to documenting domestic violence. Ferrato wrote a book titled “I Am Unbeatable” that included photos from many different cases of domestic violence. In a feature done by The Guardian last year, Ferrato speaks about her experience and the battles she faces with her conscience.
“I was there first as a photographer, not as a social worker,” Ferrato said. “Yes, I would always be divided on whether to take a picture or defend the victim, but if I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman, I’d be helping just one woman. However, if I got the picture, I could help countless more.”
The National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) created a list of guidelines for photojournalists to follow to maintain ethical reporting. This is what the NPPA asserts: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy. Intrude on private moments of grief only when the public has an overriding and justifiable need to see.”
The recent Boston Marathon bombings and subsequent photo coverage are one example that I believe have an “overriding and justifiable need” for the public to see. The chaos, fear and tragic injuries caused by the bombings are essential elements to communicate to the public. This event raised questions of security, and many citizens across the country were affected.
Another consideration an editor has to make is whether the graphic content of some of these pictures, like the one shown here, should be printed in a paper distributed to families. We must ask ourselves if jarring and gruesome photos are necessary to convey the magnitude of a tragedy. The New York Daily News caught heat for altering a photo of a Boston Marathon bombing victim to make it less gruesome, yet many readers are outraged by photographs they deem “insensitive” published after tragedies. One Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer committed suicide after receiving so much heat for his picture of a child that was suffering from severe malnutrition.
There are no definite lines to draw when it comes to documenting tragedy in photojournalism. Each photographer must decide by his or her own standard how to react in a tragedy. Ultimately, as a photojournalist, you have to live with your conscience and decide what your priority will be in the wake of a tragedy.
_By Morgan Horton
I was almost completely convinced that, in today’s society, breaking a news story first means absolutely nothing anymore.
With the pace of journalism progressively increasing and continuous updates flowing directly to audiences, readers are receiving information quicker than ever. Sure, news organizations can still break a story, but with every other news outlet capable of having a journalist on the scene within minutes, many news organizations can report the same story soon after.
Often the first organization to break a story has a very small amount advantage over competing news outlets. So why is being the first to break news even important?
On Sept. 16, Deadspin.com published a story about an almost 2-year-old secret recording of Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini criticizing media and fans in a profanity-filled rant. The story put media and fans alike in Nebraska, and beyond, into a frenzy.
And Deadspin broke it. Everybody knew who broke the story, too. Everybody knew exactly where to find the audio.
Within minutes, though, media outlets, primarily in Nebraska, began producing short clips, basically recapping the Deadspin story. Then, as updates became available from University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials and others close to the story, readers began turning their attention to sources reporting those updates.
Sure, Deadspin broke the story, and people inevitably were forced to Deadspin’s site to hear the audio. But as the story unfolded, readers turned heavily toward local media outlets.
Which brings me back to my original question: Was it important that Deadspin broke this article?
No. Deadspin didn’t follow up on this story. Many others did and that’s why people turned their attention away. Reporting the story fully and accurately is what’s important in today’s digital age.
Many media outlets still struggle with this concept, as an interview with NPR media correspondent David Folkenflick states.
Some still feel the pressure to be the first to report on a story. Those pressures can, and often do, lead to inaccuracies, which ultimately harm a journalist’s reputation and a news outlet’s brand.
To deal with those pressures, I think it’s important to remember that breaking a story is not important. Being accurate is important. As Scott Kleinberg, a social media editor at the Chicago Tribune, said during a trip to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln last spring, “Being first is one thing, but being right is everything.”
In 2008, participants in the Nebraska High School Press Association’s journalism camp were given T-shirts with the words “seek the truth and report it” screen-printed in bold red letters. Of course, the point of the shirts was to remind students of their responsibility to report news fairly and accurately. But that phrase runs much deeper.
On Wednesday, Sept. 11, Julie Chen announced on the CBS daytime show “The Talk,” that she had plastic surgery in 1995 to make her eyes look “bigger,” following discrimination by an agent and a news director. Chen has been quite successful during her 25-year career. She was a news anchor for “The CBS Morning News” and “This Morning.” She currently hosts “Big Brother” and “The Talk.”
No matter how successful Chen has been as a broadcast journalist, after admitting to this procedure, will audiences be able to look past the surgery to the journalist she is? This is where journalism ethics and fair reporting come in.
Chen said that she was urged by her superiors to have the double-eyelid surgery to look “less bored” and “less Chinese.” In this case, her bosses were suggesting that to be able to successfully report the news, she must look less like herself. Is that the kind of example journalists should be setting? Isn’t our job as journalists to be honest to our readers and various audiences, no matter what? Telling Julie Chen to undergo this life-changing surgery to get ahead in her career is the same as lying in a story to make it more appealing.
Julie Chen is not the first female journalist to have plastic surgery for career purposes, but because she is Chinese-American, the question of race must be considered. When her news director at WDTN-TV said she’d never be at the anchor desk because she is Chinese, he also told her she wasn’t relatable to the community of Dayton, Ohio, because of her race. An experienced journalist should know that separating the news by race is one of the fastest ways to alienate readers. That is also just not what journalism is supposed to be about. We are here to advocate for our audience, to inform them so that they are able to make better decisions.
Whether you are an editor, reporter, anchor or online journalist, knowing your demographic is key. One must keep in mind, however, that it is so important to report the news for everyone. Doing anything else is a violation of our code of ethics.