Journalists' access meets news management (or is it censorship?)

Tools of the "corporate journalists'" trade.

Tools of the "corporate journalists'" trade.

There's a great and long-running debate raging over reporters' access to government officials.

Reporters feel press officers (in government these are referred to Public Affairs Officials or Public Information Officers) hinder their access to information. Press officers and government officials see it as managing the message and the accuracy of information.

Columbia Journalism Review recently had a solid overview of both sides in a recent blog post ("Hacks vs. flacks: Do public affairs offices get in the way?" August 14, 2013).

For the journalists, freelance reporter Kathryn Foxhall:

“It is massive, pernicious censorship that is now a cultural norm. It’s people in power stopping the flow of information to the public according to their own ideas and desires.”

For the press officers, Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary to President George W. Bush:

“It is really, really rare to find really good reporters with the length of time on a beat it takes to master that beat."

Both are right. In part.

I've been lucky to be on both sides. I started writing for a small daily newspaper and then was a reporter/editor for United Press International before becoming a public affairs official for private, not-for-profit health systems. 

Reporters who become "flacks" (as I guess I did!) are said to "go over to the dark side." But those of us who were deeply steeped and trained in journalistic values and ethics see our roles in our organizations as "corporate journalists" — we apply the reporter's tools and techniques (and the editor's skepticism) to our jobs. This means both playing devil's advocate within our organizations and sussing out the truth.

Our job is not to deny access — it is to facilitate access and ensure accuracy.

"Corporate journalists" work by a few simple rules:

  1. Never lie.
  2. Answer questions as openly and honestly as possible.
  3. Provide context and understanding.

Based on my journalism training at Boston University and Ohio Wesleyan University — and my real world newsroom experience at UPI — these are the same rules as a "real" journalist.

Which brings us to accountability. 

Organizations need to be held accountable — health care is going through its own accountability evolution as we speak. But reporters also need to be held accountable so that news is reported accurately, without sensation, and within the proper context.

People's lives and livelihoods are at stake. When a mistake is made, there is usually not malicious intent nor gross incompetence or negligence. But often stories get reported that way, which can cause the public to lose confidence in an institution. When the mistake is egregious, or even intentional, organizations need to own up to it.

Transparency is important. So is fairness. Taking the time to report accurately, with a solid understanding of a situation's context, will gain reporters more respect (and future access) and will better serve the public good.


News vs. ideas (or Miley vs. Madonna)

Sometimes a quote just grabs you, like this one from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams:

“News in general doesn’t matter most of the time, and most people would be far better off if they spent their time consuming less news and [consuming] more ideas that have more lasting import.”

The quote was in an interview Williams did for TechCrunch about his new venture, Medium, the latest entry in the (re-)emerging online long-form journalism market. 

This TIME magazine cover, with the teaser "Miley vs. Madonna," sparked an interesting discussion about "what is news."

This TIME magazine cover, with the teaser "Miley vs. Madonna," sparked an interesting discussion about "what is news."

Whether (and what) news matters is part of a discussion I have regularly with my son, Tim Rattray, who is studying journalism and screenwriting at Drexel University, like this recent one that was sparked by the teaser headline, "Miley vs. Madonna," on a recent TIME magazine cover:

Tim: "How is that news?"
Me: "It's pop culture. Magazines like TIME report on pop culture."
Tim: "Well, it's not news."

True enough. Our definition of news is changing and evolving rapidly, as is the way we consume it. There is an increasing emphasis on celebrity, pop culture and what us news junkies might call dribble. Less people read newspapers while more count on Twitter, Facebook and the Daily Show for their "news." Others even get their news cues from Kelly and Michael or The View.

But there is a movement, if you can call it that, toward longer-form journalism — what we scribes and PR folks call "thought pieces" — that slow down and really chew on topics (Williams's Medium is just such a long-form platform). In fact, Tim and his peers now probably consume more long-form journalism in the forms of both insight and criticism than actual news bits, at least on subjects that interest them. 

There is a place for both news and ideas. We need the news to keep current on what happens, but we need those big and bold ideas to provide context, clarity, consensus and, yes, even change.

Williams, again: 

“I think more people would be in a better place if more people shared their ideas.”

One thing's for certain — the sharing of ideas is making a strong resurgence. And participating in robust discussions around ideas, rather than just the news, would be a welcomed shift in our society.


Keep your non-profit off this list

America loves lists — especially bests and worsts. We also love to support worthy causes.

Before you give, make sure the charity or cause is doing the work you expect it to.

The Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting recently published "America's Worst Charities," a colossal reporting project that looks at how much donated money actually goes into a charity's mission. In some cases, charities that raised millions devoted less than 1 percent to the stated cause.

The result is some impressive investigative journalism that could only be done in today's "big data" era. It includes two deep and searchable databases. 

Thanks for joining @Watchup … now let's talk!

Every app is trying to master the consumer engagement game.

Take Watchup, a 2013 Knight Foundation News Challenge winner that builds you a customized video news channel for the iPad. It's short video news clips tailored to you and your schedule.

So I downloaded the app, registered using my Facebook account, selected some news subjects (world, ideas, tech) and the delivery time (mine is 7 p.m.).

2013-0701-Watchup email.png

And immediately got this email. Short, sweet, sincere.

The best lines (emphasis mine): 

My name is Adriano, I'm the co-founder of Watchup and no, I'm not a robot. I actually wanted to personally tell you how excited I am that you've signed up with our app.
Just reply to this email and I'd be delighted to have a personal conversation with you. Enjoy Watchup!

I love the offer — "a personal conversation with you." Whether Watchup can or will be able to act on your specific suggestion, the offer of a "personal conversation" will be enough to drive engagement.

Because now I'm engaged in the app and in a potential conversation. That's a +1 for Watchup.


Health: It's the next media frontier

Photo credit: Flickr user  Guy Mayer  (via Knight Blog)

Photo credit: Flickr user Guy Mayer (via Knight Blog)

The Knight Foundation has selected the next frontier for its Knight News Challenge: Health!

As Knight said in its announcement: 

"Health is a topic relevant to all of us. It’s an area where journalism, open data and public information become imminently relevant and useful to communities; where we have a direct, tangible opportunity to help people learn more and make smart choices through the use of technology and data."

As someone who grew up as a journalist — and since has spent more than 20 years trying to help reporters, editors and consumers understand health care — I see this as a project that can improve care and ultimately build healthier communities.

Information, technology and patient experience are rapidly converging in health care — and the Holy Grail will be a better informed and engaged patient and a healthier, more vibrant society.

This will be a project well worth following.

Knight will announce more specifics in August — on Twitter and on its News Challenge page.