Archives for category: Journalism values

I was an assistant news editor at the Santa Fe New Mexican on September 11, 2001. The experiences of victims, firefighters, police, soldiers, sailors and airmen are the first things most people think of when 9/11 is mentioned. Their sacrifices were the most heroic acts and tragic losses of that terrible day. But journalists also had a role: helping communities stricken by fear, sadness, confusion and grief understand what had just happened. This is how the day unfolded in our newsroom after New York and Washington were attacked and a second attempt to strike D.C. again was foiled over Pennsylvania.

Santa Fe is in the Mountain Time Zone, two hours behind the East Coast. Attacks that happened between 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. in New York occurred between 6:46 and 7:03 a.m. our time. I had worked the night shift on Monday night, got off work at 1 a.m. and went to bed at 1:30 a.m. My work week ran Thursday through Monday with Tuesdays and Wednesdays off. My Tuesday routine was to roll out of bed at 9 after seven and a half hours of sleep and head to the Spanish class I was taking at Santa Fe Community College.

About 8 a.m., the phone rang and my boss told me the news: A plane had struck the World Trade Center. The nation might be under attack. We’re putting out a special noon edition. We need you to come in and help produce it. I called my prof to let him know I would miss my morning class and probably my lab section in the afternoon. He said he understood.

My groggy mind quickly filled with questions: A plane? What kind of plane? A military plane? A civilian plane? Was it an accident? Was anyone hurt? How many? Was it intentional? How big was the plane? If it was civilian, was it a commuter jet? A small private plane? A jetliner? How many people are in the building? What time is it there? Does the time of day mean there might have been fewer people?

If it was intentional, who attacked us? Why did they do it?

A newsroom, like an army, lives on its stomach. When I got in to work, the top editors had ordered breakfast and coffee for the crew. The morning news meeting convened at 9 a.m. The goal was to have a four-page special edition on the press by noon. That was three hours to produce four wide-open pages.

City desk sent eight reporters out to get local reaction as soon as the bulletin came over the Associated Press wire that terrorism was suspected. We had a local story in the works about whether Santa Fe was prepared to deal with a terror attack. The business editor monitored the markets to see how they would react. On the copy and design desk, another editor and I sifted stories as they came in over the wires. It was so hard to keep up with it because AP was sending everything in adds. “Adds” are sections of a developing story that are sent out piece by piece, sometimes three or four paragraphs at a time, sometimes one or two paragraphs at a time, sometimes just a sentence. That day, almost all of the adds came one sentence at a time.

At one point, AP didn’t know where President Bush was. He was rumored to be in danger.

Soon came word that the Federal Aviation Administration had cleared the skies and any private plane that did not respond would be shot down.

About 10 a.m., the first shocked first-person stories rolled in over the wires. People were holding hands jumping out windows at the World Trade Center. Firefighters asked why they got to live when some of their brothers died inside when the towers collapsed.

About 11 a.m., we debated which photo to put on the front page. One of the photo editors said we should run a picture of the smoking World Trade Center that showed people falling to the ground because that was the news, that was what happened, that was reality and we shouldn’t shield people from it. In the end, we agreed that a photo showing people running away from the base of the towers illustrated the fear and the scale of the attack without being distasteful.

About 11:15, the local stories started coming through. We assigned two copy editors to read each one simultaneously – one on the computer and one on a printout. After they finished, they conferred to make sure they had caught every error, clarified confusing points, and had the latest information. The reporters stood by to answer questions about content as the editors tabbed through word by word and scrolled down line by line.

While that happened, the city editor, managing editor, an assistant editor and the front-page designer conferred about story play on the front page. This normally would have taken place four or five hours before deadline when we had a good idea of what each of the stories would be. Time was not a luxury we had that morning. We only knew exactly what we were going to put in the paper 45 minutes before deadline.

My role at that point was copy desk chief. Another senior editor and I split the stories as they came in and gave them a final read before sending them to the designer to put on the page. We had already filled two pages. The content we read at that point would go on the front page and the jump page. As we read all the stories, we wrote “refers,” sometimes called teases, to put in a box on the front pointing readers to other stories inside.

It was hectic. We made deadline. Then I went to class.

Santa Fe has a special connection to New York. They’re both major American art markets. Lots of New Yorkers have second homes in Santa Fe. Lots of my classmates had family and friends in New York. None worked in the World Trade Center, but some lived nearby. They feared for their loved ones. Nothing made sense.

So my professor turned the class over to me, and I delivered the news I knew. The questions kept coming from my classmates, just as the questions bubbled up when I first heard the news. I could tell them the facts. I could tell them which rumors were unfounded — and there were many. I just couldn’t tell them what it meant and what would happen. “What does this mean?” and “What now?” were particularly urgent questions. It was frustrating to not know the answers.

It was such a whirlwind that morning, I wasn’t sure what good we had done because there were so many unanswered questions. Over the next couple of days, we speculated — in the gallows humor style that journalists use when we’re really scared or shocked or angry or sad but hope to mask it — what anyone might attack in Santa Fe. The one thing we could think of was St. Francis Cathedral, which I actually thought would never be on the radar of a foreign power or a terrorist seeking to strike fear into our hearts. We thought maybe there would be small bomb-vest attacks in a shopping mall or other shopping centers elsewhere. But there was no possibility that could ever happen since we were so far out of the way and the terror value just wouldn’t be that big. Right?

Then I remembered that Los Alamos National Laboratory, with all its nuclear research materials, was just 45 minutes away. My blood ran cold.

I have told this story to my reporting and editing students the last couple of years. I tell them the skills we build together will give them the ability to react to the news instantly and efficiently. That all the experience they can get in their young careers will make it easier to cope in chaotic times in the newsroom. That mastery of AP style and grammar and punctuation are the “small ball” skills that you need to make automatic so you don’t have to even think about them on deadline when big news happens.

I tell students my experience of 9/11 this time of year to give them a slice of a working journalist’s reality and to show them what role we play in times of crisis. I just hope their cohort of journalists, with an array of digital and new media tools and social media and multimedia storytelling skills at their disposal, will be more tenacious than mine at asking questions about how our nation uses its might and about the wisdom of the decisions our leaders make. I urge them to be more vigilant than we in the aftermath of September 11. I pray they will be wiser.

Change is not the new normal. Change has always been normal.  That applies to the ways we gather information, process it, disseminate it, and make sense of the information others have reported for us. Technologies change, and with them, so do we. That doesn’t mean we must betray our values as journalists. Journalism values endure.

Mike Szvetitz, sports editor for the Opelika-Auburn News and one of the news professionals who teaches in Auburn University’s journalism program, told the Auburn Society of Professional Journalists chapter tonight about his life as a sports journalist. He emphasized the enduring values of journalism, the need to be accurate and accountable, to report without fear or favor, and his belief that it is better to be second and right than first and wrong. Of course, he said, it’s best to be both first AND right. But you can’t have everything sometimes.

Szvetitz said these values hold up even amid rapid changes in the technologies of reporting and storytelling. It is vital for all reporters to be able to do multimedia reporting as well write stories for print. The demand for these competencies is a response to audience demand, and it’s a delicate balancing act.

Yes, he said, audiences still want long-form features. Yes, they want to hear sound bites from the players, at least to a degree. People will listen to as much of Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn as you put online, but not everybody is as interesting as he is. What online audiences really want, though, is to see what the quarterback looks like calling the play, taking the snap, fading back and passing the ball, and they will click on that 10-second clip again and again and again so they have ammunition with which to argue about the QB’s technique.

What’s going on with that? As I see it, the written report gives the audience knowledge and understanding and a good story. The multimedia clip gives them something to get involved with, something to get angry or overjoyed about, something to react to viscerally. Marshall McLuhan had it right when he wrote in the 1960s that these new media are extensions of the human nervous system that mimic the function of our senses.

New media inform us, they entertain us, and they can evoke emotional responses. They reach in through our eyes and ears and touch our emotions, conjuring joy, fear, jealousy, anger, compassion, satisfaction, and so on. The power of multimedia is the power to help us sense what it’s like to be where the news is, and to feel what the people in the story are feeling. What we feel in a story, we remember.

When multimedia and online systems emerged in newsrooms, many rank-and-file journalists regarded them as risky because they were unproven. There was no rulebook, and that was a problem to the risk-averse who had been steeped in a culture in which the best way to keep your job was to not risk surprising one’s editor and publisher. We’ve gotten over our aversion to this “new” medium after a decade and a half of dithering, and journalists are finally learning to love it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have dragged our feet if we just remembered that even if the field was different, we could still apply our journalism values to it.

The last great technological disruption before the Internet came from television, a risky medium in which Edward R. Murrow saw great potential. The previous great disruption came from radio, a medium Walter Cronkite embraced with gusto. Incidentally, why did he lose his job at KCMO-AM in Kansas City, Mo.? Journalism values. He was fired because he refused to follow his boss’s orders and air a story before he could check out the facts. He landed on his feet, joined United Press (which became UPI), became a star reporter during World War II, and was recruited to work for Murrow at CBS.

What does that historical antecedent teach the postmodern journalist? Though no rulebook exists for this newly invented game of online and multimedia journalism we now play, we can always fall back on principles and journalism values. In the long run, being right and second will serve you better than being first and wrong — regardless of the medium.

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