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Naomi Klein: “There is Crying in Journalism”

You know the scene from “A League of Their Own” when that one girl is sobbing and Tom Hanks yells at her, “There’s no crying in baseball”? In that movie, it’s a clear way for him to articulate that he’s still wary about if there should be women in baseball, because women, of course, lead to emotions, and emotions lead to tear-streaked baseball mitts and smeared mascara.

My mom has modified this line for most situations where she did not want me to be crying throughout my life. From “There’s no crying on your birthday” (I had a weirdly precocious understanding of mortality) to “There’s no crying in the musical” (but I was cut from another tap number!), the statement was always well-intentioned, but never followed. I wasn’t just not going to cry if I felt something overwhelming.

Based on my undergraduate education in journalism so far, I definitely also thought there was no crying in journalism. First, exempting one lecturer, my professors have all been men, mostly around my dad’s age. One professor I had used an article about his own friend’s death as an example in class, something brave and powerful but heartbreaking. We are taught to be objective, stalwart and solid in the face of the craziness we’re covering.

Yet when Naomi Klein came to speak last week as a winner of the Izzy Awards, awarded by the Park Center for Independent Media, she showed a very different side of journalism. She said that growing up, her mom was a documentary filmmaker with Studio D, a renowned government-funded all-women studio. David Sterritt explains: The [National Film Board] describes Studio D as `the first ever all-women’s filmmaking unit.’ It was established in 1974 as part of the NFB’s continuing effort to give all segments of the Canadian public meaningful access to its government-funded facilities.” Klein said that when these women created documentaries about important issues, often directly pertinent to the women’s movement, they would have screenings in public spaces, followed by in-depth discussion and, often, crying. The films were fact-based and well-made, but the information they provided incited their audiences to action. The filmmakers weren’t left untouched, either. For good journalism, she said, “It’s the combination of the digging and the caring that’s really important.” People like her become independent journalists, she continued, because the mainstream institutions of journalism don’t allow us to care. The independent sector does. Independent media is where the diggers- those willing to go deep into research, holistically explore the issues- and the carers- those who put their hearts on the line- collide.

Throughout her speech, Klein repeatedly referenced her family and the incredible influence they played in her journalism career. Her prolific journalism career today is built on the foundation that her parents and grandparents provided. We’re all constructing our careers on organic foundations of advice from parents, wishes of friends, philosophies of our hometowns, mantras of professors. We care because they cared about us. That caring can only make our journalism better.

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Baristanet: An Entrepreneurial Success Story

In “Entrepreneurial Lessons,” by journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, he discusses being a judge at an entrepreneurial journalism competition. After providing many tips for entrepreneurs and journalists themselves, he emphasizes how glad he was that young journalists were taking business seriously: “Journalistic entrepreneurship is not an oxymoron. To my amazement, every single one of the students said they wanted to start these businesses; I was hoping one or two might be so ambitious and independent…. It is a lesson to the industry: Give this kind of talent an opportunity to invent and innovate and they will.” 

He also linked to another post where he talked about the judges of the competition. One that caught my eye was Debbie Galant of Baristanet, a harbinger of hyperlocal Jersey journalism that was founded ahead of the curve in 2004. 
 
Baristanet has many unique attributes. Covering a small area of Essex County, NJ, it receives its income through ads and has inspired many contemporaries (including, according to its website, ones in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, New Haven, Watertown, MA and Red Bank, NJ.) It has an interesting connection to its audience by sourcing citizen journalists but also having a moderated comment policy that includes registering a log-in account. In a 2012 post that Galant wrote when she decided to move on from the site after 8 years, she writes of its founding. “Blogging had created an instant publishing platform and with a minor investment, I could start a 21st century version of the local hometown paper. The news site I imagined would be breezier than a traditional newspaper, more fun, and more interactive.” Baristanet proved to be all of these things, now, according to its about page, receiving over 9,000 page views per day. 
 
Jeff Jarvis, who wrote the original article above, has blogged about Baristanet as well. He met Galant at a meetup where, he said, “She thought blogging about a town was a great idea. ‘But why would I do it for you, Jeff?’ she said. She was, as usual, right. So she started her own, Baristanet.” As I’ve learned repeatedly through this independent media class, blogging made starting one’s own journalistic outlet much easier; she could work for herself, and employ her own local and committed staff. Hopefully, the many brilliant ideas afforded grants at the competition that Galant and Jarvis both judged created some tangible winners that will be just as successful as Baristanet has become.

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…What Exactly is Libel?

In a 2004 piece for The Guardian, “Why Kerry Should Sue the Sun,” Sidney Blumenthal discusses Matt Drudge’s release of “information” that John Kerry was having an affair just when his campaign was escalating. He connects this to the inadequacies, in his view, of American libel law. “In the US,” he writes, “there is virtually no legal protection for a public figure, especially a political one, from defamation. Libel laws are de facto defunct.”

Reading this made me realize that, well, I don’t know too much about libel laws. I know that public figures are far less journalistically protected in the US than in the UK, but what does that mean?
According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, “Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.” Following this definition, the Kerry incident would certainly fall under the definition of libel: his reputation was injured, he received hatred from the public and his campaign, or professional endeavor, was damaged.
However, in the  US, that definition in full really only applies to private individuals, that is, the average person. For public figures— any official/politician/celebrity/celebrity-du-jour, it’s only libel if the statement was made with actual malice and/or negligence. This basically only applies if something was published with full knowledge by the publisher that it was false.
In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the defamation policies were tightened in 2012’s new Defamation Bill when lawmakers decided that defamation could be claimed with very little substantiation. The law simultaneously was designed to increase protection of writers stating their opinions in publications. “Freedom of speech will be given more protection and the libel law reformed in England and Wales,” the BBC reported. “Claimants will have to show they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation.”
So, if you were as baffled by libel as I was, hopefully this cleared up a few things for you too. Libel laws seem quite important to me; they’re a major protection from false claims. How can we have truth in our reporting without them?
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Class Matters When Accessing Information, Too

A vital aspect of online journalism is that it has the potential to even the playing field so more voices can be heard. Of course, this wasn’t true at all at first; those with proximity to the Internet itself were more likely to blog since the average person didn’t even know what a blog was. Now, most people have computers or smartphones or at least access to them in places such as their work, public schools or even libraries. Many people of various economic and class statuses are able to be citizen journalists today; the tools themselves are increasingly accessible.

But, after reading about Mayhill Fowler’s reporting in the 2008 election, I realized how much of a role financial and class status can play in the information one can access. Information is, of course, supposed to be the most “free” resource of all, but that of course is not true.

Fowler got her start as a journalist as a part of the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus program, created so citizen journalists could participate in reporting during the 2008 campaign season. The L.A. Times states that she first became noticed after “her report on Barack Obama’s statements about small-town Americans — that job losses cause them to become ‘bitter’ and to ‘cling to guns or religion’ or other views.” These quotes caused some to deem Obama “elitist,” and also for many to criticize Fowler.

For me, there are many ethical issues in how Fowler got this story. She went to a non-press event and recorded it; even though she says her recording device was visible, how could we know?

But for me, less ethical is how she got there. The L.A. Times says, “She attended the Pacific Heights fundraiser after asking an Obama official she knew for an invitation.” How many young people, poor people, people who are far from cities, less formally educated people know an Obama official that could get them into anything? Later on, the article also says Fowler “had given nearly the $2,300 maximum to [Obama’s] campaign for the Democratic nomination.” According to Factcheck.org, 47 percent of the donations to the Obama campaign were less than $200— far, far less than the cap that Fowler reached with her donation.

Fowler has the unique position of being a citizen journalist separate from the mainstream, and having far more financial and access resources than the average citizen journalist. Yes, she sought truth and reported it, but her methods of doing so were questionable.

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Women Journalists Are Not Their Bodies– Yes, Even When They’re Pregnant

Bust magazine’s blog recently drew my attention to the incredible sexism towards Kristi Gordon, a Global News TV anchor who’s currently pregnant. In a recent segment of the show, as well as a typed statement, she talked about some of the commentary she’s received via email from viewers. Here are just a few excerpts:

  • “Wearing tops that cup your baby bump are not very flattering. There are many maternity tops that are flowing and professional looking. Please be more professional.”
  • “BUY some DECENT clothes and have more respect for the unborn child, you’re not the first pregnant woman. OMG.”
  • Cover up or take time off.”
  • Hussy!”
photo from DailyMail.uk

Men and women alike still think that they have the right to comment on and control other women’s bodies, especially the body of a pregnant woman (what could be more traditionally-womanly than that?) But as Bust’s Princess Weekes responded to that second comment: “So we should show respect to the unborn child, but not to the woman who is pregnant. Funny huh?”

Journalists aren’t actors or models; the vast majority never walks down a red carpet. Lately, actors have been calling out the news media for their undue emphasis on appearance when it’s their work that should be the focus of discussion. I agree with this trend; it’s absurd that their dresses and workout regimes are discussed more than their acting. At the same time, Hollywood and fashion have a history of being interwoven; journalism is an entirely different game all together. Journalists seek truth and report it. It’s vital to our country’s conscience, but it’s not glamorous at all.

With so few women getting on air or in print at all, it’s disappointing that once they get there, they are harangued by degrading comments. The Columbia Journalism Review cited the Women’s Media Center 2014 report last year to bring attention to women’s lack of representation in the news media. “Despite the increasing prominence of women’s sports and female sports fans, sports editors are 90-percent mate, and 90-percent white,” they wrote. Men still account for two-thirds of American daily newspaper newsroom staff, with women comprising 36 percent, a number that has remained largely unchanged since 1999…. Minorities consistently comprise 12 to 13 percent of American newsrooms overall.”

Gordon had a supportive news team that decided to address this sexism on air, but if she hadn’t had allies— it matters that her co-hosts are both young and that one is a woman— her qualms may never have made it on screen at all.

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Activist Journalism is a “False Dichotomy”

In the 2013 New York Times piece, “Journalism, Even When It’s Tilted,” the late David Carr discusses the distinction between activism and journalism. He quotes Glenn Greenwald, who calls that separation a “false dichotomy,” but Carr doesn’t come to the same conclusion himself.

“But I do think that activism — which is admittedly accompanied by the kind of determination that can prompt discovery — can also impair vision. If an agenda is in play and momentum is at work, cracks may go unexplored,” he writes.

This counter-argument appears to make sense. People naturally affirm their beliefs, both consciously and unconsciously. In a media climate where we can compile our own media sources, self-professed conservatives watch FOX and liberals watch MSNBC. Would a journalist who also identifies as a feminist or environmentalist, then, only seek information from those sources? Would she succumb to logical fallacies because she only wishes to affirm her existing beliefs?

I don’t think so. Any activist knows that preaching to the choir is unproductive. Activist journalist (if that’s the right term) work often deconstructs the arguments of their ideological opposition rather than just repeatedly declaring their own views. For example, featured today on the Feministing website is one piece explaining the unfairness of an Indiana woman’s arrest as a result of her miscarriage and another article about why the mainstream media is minimizing the allegations against Bill Cosby. These pieces are clearly subjective editorials, railing against the mainstream media, but they’re also well-sourced and transparent.

A good journalist will take an extra effort to investigate the cracks in their story; an “activist” journalist will need to explore those cracks even more deeply. After all, they have so much more to prove.