Category: Journalism Thoughts

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Capstone - Summer 2017Journalism Thoughts

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Florida Sunshine Law

Capstone - Summer 2017Journalism Thoughts

The public records law in Florida is known as the “Sunshine Law,” enshrined more specifically under Title X, Chapter 119 of the state statues. It is one of the most open such laws in the country. Here are the introductory paragraphs of the law:

119.01 General state policy on public records.

(1) It is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records are open for personal inspection and copying by any person. Providing access to public records is a duty of each agency.
(2)(a) Automation of public records must not erode the right of access to those records. As each agency increases its use of and dependence on electronic recordkeeping, each agency must provide reasonable public access to records electronically maintained and must ensure that exempt or confidential records are not disclosed except as otherwise permitted by law.

These records are tremendously useful for journalists, who can find and use vast amounts of records on how the government functions, who are awarded public contracts (aka money) and how decisions are made.

Note that the Sunshine Law only applies to state and local records. It does not cover federal agencies (such as the FBI) or the state court system. Interestingly, it does not cover the state legislature, which enacted the statue. However, it does cover the state executive branch — that is, agencies overseen by the governor.

The Florida State Attorney General’s office has a wide-ranging Q&A on the subject, which can be found here.

The quote formula

J3117 - Summer 2017J3300 - Summer 2017Journalism Thoughts

The most fluid and clear way to structure a quote is to use what I call the quote formula. It has two parts. The first part is the introduction, where you would give the full name and title (if it is the first reference of that person) as well as a brief explanation as to why they are important to the story.

The second part, which is its own paragraph, is the direct quote. You should only use direct quotes for the most compelling parts — think of it as the text version of a soundbite. Everything else should be paraphrased.

An example: Andy Garmond, a climate scientist and professor at Florida Atlantic University, said poorer areas of north Miami-Dade County are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

“The city of North Miami is just screwed,” he said. “It’s going to be a real mess.”

Other tips (which you should read as “requirements” for the purposes of this class):

  • Do not stack quotes. That is, do not quote person A and, in the next paragraph quote person B. Each time you switch sources, you must use the quote formula.
  • Use no more than three sentences for any direct quote. You should really be shooting for no more than two. 
  • Put the attribution (that is “he said”) after the first sentence. This makes it clear to your reader who is speaking.

General thoughts

J3117 - Summer 2017J3300 - Summer 2017Journalism Thoughts

Here’s a few things to remember and keep in mind as we go through this semester:

  • Sourcing: When trying to get a specific piece of information, don’t just go to the obvious source. Take a moment and consider who else might have the information (and an opinion on that information, if need be). Then, reach out to multiple people at the same time. Don’t wait for your sources to return a call, just continue reaching out. Why? Because if Source A blows you off (or doesn’t have the info you’re looking for) Source B might. And if they both call back, bonus!
  • Photos: In our online world, photos, videos or graphics are increasingly vital. This means you may be asked to provide your own images. However, you need to get the names of anyone identifiable in your photos. Remember, get close! No one wants to see images 100 feet away from your subject. (Also reduces the number of people you need to get names from.)
  • Interacting: Remember that basic friendliness can go a long way. This does not mean butt-kissing or otherwise being obsequious, but it does mean to remember to be open, friendly and unfailingly polite.
  • Identifying yourself: You should identify yourself as a reporter for South Florida News Service as soon as is practical. First, this is basic journalism ethics: The people you speak to should know you’re a member of the news media. Second, that means your potential source is now on notice you may be writing down what they say. No additional notice or permission is required. This only applies to people who reasonably would be considered sources. It does not mean you have to blurt out to every receptionist, clerk or other gatekeeper that you’re a reporter. (They’re probably going to ask, though.)
  • But: Realize that this may mean people will treat you differently. This is natural. Remember, however, that you can put people at ease by saying that you’re just looking for some help finding some information, not that you’re going to quote them. Obviously, be truthful if you say this.
  • Finally: Know your rights. Reporters have no more rights than members of the general public to see documents, public records or other types of access. But it means we don’t have less right to see things or be in specific places than others. Don’t let public officials push you around. If they say you’re not authorized to see a document, ask for the specific exemption in the Sunshine Laws that allow for this. (If this is a low-level person doing this, politely ask to see their supervisor.

NYT delivery issues

Journalism Thoughts
It’s a small thing in the whole scheme of things (but, then again, what isn’t?), but I have been continually frustrated by the inability of the New York Times to get its paper to my door.
 
In the last month, I have received a total of four papers. Strangely, this includes the Saturday and Sunday papers; odd because I have a Monday to Friday subscription.
 
Since I am getting my papers on the days I don’t subscribe, I’m considering cancelling my subscription entirely with the hope that I would get a full seven-day delivery. Think it’ll work?

San Diego shooting and race

Journalism Thoughts

The reporting on race in crime stories is generally a fraught thing, and for good reason. For the most part, talking about someone’s race — especially a suspect being sought by the police — is generally way too broad without other markers. One example I give in class is this seemingly innocuous sentence: “Police said the suspect is a Latino male.”

If you run through you mind the people who fit the description “Latino male,” half of Miami-Dade County is now a potential suspect.

So, I was initially taken aback by this following sentence, published by CNN this morning.

The shooting victims were identified only as four black women, two black men and a Hispanic man. Their names were not immediately released.

This story was about a shooting during a pool party in an upscale apartment complex in La Jolla, near UC San Diego. The victims, as noted, are of color; the apparent shooter, who was killed by police, was white. One woman, not including the shooter, died, while the others were injured.

[As a side note: CNN has a one dead and six wounded, while the LA Times has one dead and seven wounded, a mini-clinic on what happens when reporting breaking news. CNN, for its part, has the most updated story, noting it previously had the LAT numbers, indicating that the police provided consistent, if incorrect, information last night.]

Similarly, the LA Times also makes note of the race of the alleged shooter and victims, writing:

The reports were grim: A white man wearing brown shorts was armed with a gun and shooting at what two witnesses described as approximately 30 people around the pool, most of them African American.

Seven people, all adults, were hit by gunfire: four black women, two black men and a Latino man. A woman later died at the hospital.

Though I have not made a comprehensive check, I note that the San Diego Union-Tribune and USA Today also noted the race of the victims and the alleged shooter.

It is certainly not possible to know why all of these newspapers (and their editors) decided to unreservedly state the races of everyone involved, but here are a few of the thoughts that may have gone into this decision, ranked from best to worse:

  • Level of detail: The amount of information provided by witnesses and police, including what the alleged shooter was wearing, his name and the fact he was a resident of the complex, made it clear the story was only talking about one “white man” and not a multitude.
  • Lack of harm: The alleged shooter is dead. No suspect is being sought by police and, therefore, no chance an uninvolved person, who shares this person’s race, will be unjustly accused based on the color of their skin.
  • The dead have few rights: Because the supposed shooter is no longer among the living, worries about his ability to get a fair trial is moot. In general, this is why you will see legitimate journalism institutions decline to name victims of rape, but no hesitation about naming the victim of a murder (and, in general, even a rape/murder).
  • Strangeness: Stories of random interracial shootings are (thankfully) very rare. However, that makes this story far more interesting than it would be if this man shot up a bunch of white people at the same complex. At the very least, it would not have become a national story. But the fact that something was interracial does not mean, by definition, it was “race-related.” It is way too easy to conflate the two.
  • The herd: Even if one editor somewhere felt a twinge about reporting on the races involved —  because, say, police have made it very clear that the motivation for the shooting is still being determined — he or she would be stuck. Why? Because every other outlet had decided to include that detail, any outlier publication not doing so looks either uninformed or as though they were intentionally hiding something. The latter is bad; the former is far worse.

Note that the first three are about the race of the alleged shooter (why I’m using “alleged” so much is a topic for another post). Only the last two involve publishing the races of all involved and they are, in my mind, the least justifiable reasons to publish the races. Arguably, of course, it would be difficult to write about one without the other.

On the whole, though, this was not a close call. The overwhelming public interest, and the fact the information about the shooter was rock solid, overrides concerns that the stories are shading this tragedy as racially motivated without (as yet) evidence.