October 22, 2005

Accountability for the incompetent

**This blog is not directed toward any Setonian reporter. You may read into it what you will, but none of the information listed below is directed toward any particular person or group. I am fulfilling a requirement for Media Lab and the references, if any are made, are rhetorical and should not be construed as pointing a finger at anyone.**

One of the most difficult things about working with new reporters is placing them where they will be most effective at getting the story and getting it right.

It's a balancing act between what you know the reporter knows, what the person in authority knows and especially, when the reporter knows what the authority figure knows, how they will interpret it.

In truth, reporters are, in some cases, translators, speaking the language of companies, politics and law when they have no previous training in any of these areas. That is why I rejoice in my liberal arts education. I know a little something about lots of things and can, when falling, land on my feet with minimal damage. This knowledge, as a Freedom Forum article notes, "compensates" for the inadequacies of the individual reporter.

Acting dumb is a valuable tool for a reporter, but actually being dumb is another thing all together. Before I interview anyone, I do my homework. I surf the web, find out opposing opinions from previous articles, talk to other reporters about their experiences, and stack the printouts on my desk for future use.

Then, when I have a working knowledge of my subject, I begin writing my questions for interviews.

In the interviews, I sometimes I act like I do not know something to get a good quote. Sometimes I pull facts from a binder and ask the subject about their feelings about my findings or, my favorite, ask about an opinion already stated by another interviewed person.

Reporting is work. Reporters have to be ready for that and also to guage themselves for many, many situations that are often out of their control; however, one must maintain the appearance of control for the self and the story's welfare.

Being "ignorant or incompetent reporters" is a choice. If reporters are called into a beat or even to a story out of the blue, they need to be ready, which may mean working beyond office hours.

That's one of things I love about journalism: the reporter is called into accountability, as well as the organization. The self becomes part of something bigger and is a symbol of that organization. I know that when I don't care, someone else will and vice-versa. In that way, someone or all involved parties benefit from the hard work of the individual, from byline to newspaper's title head.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at October 22, 2005 12:20 PM | TrackBack

Be as that may, I'll reiterate what I said at the meeting tonight. Many of the staff writers on the Setonian are there because they would like to enjoy the experience of writing for a newspaper. I know the editorial staff takes its work seriously, which is why we put out a wonderful product, but if the work isn't enjoyable for the staff writers, then believe it or not, we won't even have a newspaper.

We often lose sight of the fact that we're a college newspaper. Our circulation is a little over 1000, our target audience is the students on campus and at best, our competitors are other college newspapers that know of us. We're not The New York Times and neither are we trying to be. If we decide to put out the best work we can, then that is our choice, and you might not agree with me, but our reporters work just as hard as we do. But to expect for everyone to approach every article with an equal amount of zeal and enthusiasm is unfair, because not every student out there is a journalism major or wants to project college life into professional life.

Incompetent is a harsh word. Inexperienced just might fit the bill.

Posted by: Neha at October 24, 2005 1:04 AM

And I will reiterate my disclaimer, I was not referring to Setonian reporters, but rather, a general understanding of new reporters, for a simple class assignment.

I was a new reporter on a larger publication; that is true. However, I also know what it is like to be inexperienced, and I will say that if anyone knows me or has any sense of who I am and what I stand for, they will know that I would not intentionally try to hurt anyone or undermine the Setonian, and especially not new reporters.

It would be like cutting off my arms if I started lashing out at reporters, and to what end? So I get gratification out of hurting others and depleting the staff of great writers? Absolutely not.

I know what it is like to be the inexperienced reporter, and I do think "incompetent" has a harsh connotation, but I was simply using the same terminology afforded by the article. The title of the chapter is "Newspapers are unfair when: They have ignorant or incompetent reporters." It is found on this Freedom Forum study if you'd like to check.

I don't ask that the Setonian be the New York Times, and I dislike that experience in NYC being thrown in my face. I know, as you do Neha, the Setonian won't be the New York Times any time soon (nor will any other newspaper), but it can reach higher and strive for excellence in both grammar and punctuation and also story ideas. I think the Setonian should be pushed for good news content and by no means am I turning people away who have investigative story ideas or tips. However, I will approach fewer for publication, and put more time into finding reporters who want to work on stories like this. It was naive of me to think everyone would like in-depth features, just because I do, but I am not daunted.

If you would like to discuss this further, don't hesitate to talk to me in person. I have learned a lot from this experience, but that doesn't change my stance on reporting the dirt, as well as the stories that are lighter.

My blog is part of me and so is the Setonian, but I hope the staff, as I do, can differentiate me from the organization I work for. I, like all human beings, have many sides and activities I am part of, and I am not always talking in the context of the Setonian. I am not always and editor and the staff isn't always a reporter. In fact, I am a freelance cub reporter in the context of the Trib right now. One of the lowest on the totem. It's not an easy place to be, and I know it.

Posted by: Amanda at October 24, 2005 8:20 AM

I can't believe you kicked me off your "Meet Another World" list. Shame on you, Shame...

Posted by: Stephan Puff at October 24, 2005 11:06 AM

Sorry, I got sick of seeing Captain Vegetable every time I visited your site. :-D

Posted by: Amanda at October 24, 2005 11:09 AM

Amanda, I'm not throwing any valuable experience of yours back in your face. I'm sorry if I phrased my comment to sound like that, but it wasn't my intention. All I'm trying to say is that the fun and excitement have unfortunately left the Setonian, and we can't apply rules of a larger organization to a much smaller medium. At the end of the day, we are still a campus newspaper trying to enjoy what we can by stimulating the world of journalism on a small scale. It's too bad that the stress mars this experience for some people, and unfortunately, stress projects.

Perhaps as editors we need to take the lead and re-evaluate our perception of the way things are going. There's nothing wrong in considering a different perspective to approach the same problem. The larger, greater benefit will always be for the organization as a whole because positive changes on our part will affect the overall culture of the paper. You and I and everyone else will graduate and move on. The organization, however, will still carry its reputation and its name.

As far as your internship and your exposure to a paper like the Times are concerned, I think I've said earlier that I couldn't be happier for you because finding a strong internship that early in a college career is no less than amazing. But my professional thinking is separate from my personal relationships, and sometimes, both have to be dealt with in the same person, and here we have the unfortunate resulting conflict.

Again, my intention was not to make any personal attacks on you or any other member of the staff. I hope you'll take that into consideration.

Posted by: Neha at October 24, 2005 12:40 PM

Do you think I would be working for a newspaper that was turning into the New York Times? Heeeeck no! If anything, we are on our way to a lovely Rupert Murdoc publication. Oh to dream...

Posted by: MikeRubino at October 24, 2005 3:39 PM

"Forced Blogging" strikes again!

The phrasing Amanda used was taken from assigned reading in the EL 200 "Media Lab" class. When reading her entry, I understood that completely, and didn't think she was attacking anyone, but then as everyone knows, I'm the evil professor who assigns blogging homework. When something like this happens, I feel guilty. Amanda and Neha have worked it out (are still working it out?) among themselves, and I think everyone at The Setonian will benefit from the results.

Meanwhile, here are my two cents. I've said in EL 200 that I've noticed that the student leaders are holding themselves and their peers to higher and higher standards. That's great, but I wanted to clarify that just because the editors are starting to notice more mistakes, doesn't mean that the paper is getting worse, or that somehow we’re not fulfilling our mission.

Since there are more "casual" members of The Setonian than there are journalism majors, I do think it's important to spend time cultivating an atmosphere that makes people _want_ to work on the Setonian, that makes them want to hang around at the office and pitch in when necessary.

When I was an undergrad, I focused on getting my work done quickly and efficiently, but I didn't focus on making newbies feel comfortable, on passing on what I learned, on seeking out different ideas and implementing them even when I thought my ideas were better. And looking back, I can see why that was a mistake, where it came to ensuring the long-term good of the paper.

I think we can do that -- make The Setonian an enjoyable, supportive place -- without sacrificing quality, but when you consider the growth of the paper (two extra inches on each page since last year, another four whole pages for this last issue), we've got a lot of work to do simply maintaining the current quality. That's an accomplishment in itself. And keeping people happy? That's not easy! You have to work at finding out exactly how people want to be praised, and give them the praise that they want.

At home, I like it when my wife verbally praises my accomplishments. Instead of just saying "please," I make my kids say, "Dearest Daddy whom I love, may I please..." That's just me. My wife thinks verbal praise is lip service, and she'd prefer that I just shut up and take out the garbage like I'm supposed to.

So here I am, praising Amanda for supporting high journalistic standards. And I'm going to praise Neha just as much -- her self-appointed role as "staff mom" has accomplished just as much.

If you see something that's going right at The Setonian, don't be afraid to talk about it! If you'd like a bit more feedback -- especially positive feedback -- don't be afraid to ask for it!

I remember once after a particularly frustrating encounter with my dissertation adviser, where he had listed problem after problem that he found with my work, I asked him, "Could you tell me which chapter is the closest to being acceptable, so that I'd have some sense of where I'm doing something right?" He seemed very surprised that I was reacting that way, since he felt he was doing his job by giving me a rigorous and professional assessment of where my thesis wasn't going very well.

So he told me a few good things, and that was enough that I stopped being worried and I got back to the serious business of preparing myself for life after grad school.

I'm honored to be the advisor to such a fine group of students, and I'm proud to be associated with The Setonian.

You should be proud, too, of the accomplishments that mean the most to you. And if you'd like a bit of praise from your peers, your editors, or me, well, you might model the kind of praise you like to receive.

For instance, Amanda used her blog to praise Evan's accomplishments in getting The Setonian Online in September. And I've seen Neha talk her peers down off the ledge, so to speak, on more than one occasion.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at October 24, 2005 4:50 PM

I suppose that a public forum makes all the difference. It's not that I haven't tried to boost the self esteem of my peers and my co-workers. I've just done it in a one-on-one environment. I'm hoping taking them "down off the ledge" doesn't have a negative connotation to it.

Posted by: Neha at October 24, 2005 9:00 PM
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