Look no further than the rash of stories about creepy clown sightings around the country to understand how important it is to be a healthy skeptic. The topic of healthy skepticism is timely, with good reason.
Journalists get paid to ask questions, and the aim has always been to ask the right questions to get the right answers before readers ask those same questions. Our job is to educate, enlighten and inform.
In today’s world of easy and timely access to news and information of all kinds, it’s no surprise that readers are getting to ask questions in real time. That means journalists have to keep ahead of every story even more now than ever.
That’s difficult to do, especially in context of a story such as the clowns, which seems to be a messy mix of half-truths, outright falsehoods, urban legend and repurposed pictures.
Coverage has varied: tips about how not to dress for Halloween; what to do if confronted by a costumed clown; the genesis of creepy clowns; and maps showing sightings around the country.
Where does healthy skepticism fit in? It’s our job as journalists to question the veracity of every story about every sighting in every place. A good start is with some key bullet points we attribute to now-retired Reid MacCluggage, who began his career at the Hartford Courant, and who created a list of ways to develop a healthy skeptical habit:
- Challenge conventional wisdom
- Distrust unanimity
- When there’s a push to get stories published right away, take a second look
- Watch language. When stories report “surges” or “trends” or “waves” or “epidemics,” be especially careful. Check it out.
- If a story bothers you, stop and think about why it bothers you. Don’t let it be published until you feel right about it. Your gut instinct often gives you the best advice. Take it.
- Question stories you can’t check out in time for deadline
- Question stories everyone in the newsroom thinks are terrific
- Question the herd instinct
No one likes to be fooled. Journalists, especially, don’t want to inadvertently fool the audience with stories published haphazardly.
That’s why we purposely have not included photos of clowns or links to clown stories in this post. We don’t want to pass along what we cannot verify. But we invite you to check them out — either stories happening in your area or happening elsewhere.
Apply MacCluggage’s tips as you read. And then take care with your own “publish” button before you tweet, post or share. Be a healthy skeptic. Your audience will thank you.
If you don’t know what to think about the recent shutdown of Gawker.com, then you must read Farhad Manjoo’s column, “Gawker’s Gone. Long Live Gawker.”
It is rich — full of history and examples that bring context to the development and decline of the digital service.
Here are a few tidbits from the column:
- “It was the first publisher that understood the pace, culture and possibilities of online news.”
- “Elements of its tone, style, sensibility, essential business model and its work flow have colonized just about every other media company, from upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vox to incumbents like CNN, The New Yorker and The New York Times.”
- “It was one of the first web publications to understand that the message was the medium — that the internet wasn’t just a new way to distribute words, but that it also offered the potential to create a completely new kind of publication, one that had no analogue in the legacy era of print.”
- “Gawker didn’t just publish stories to satisfy these audiences, it also brought readers into its coverage — mining their thoughts and feelings for comments, tips, clicks and insights into what to cover next.”
- “After Gawker, you didn’t take nights and weekends off. You couldn’t publish once a week. The internet was a beast that always needed feeding, and it demanded ever-hotter, ever-more-outrageous takes.”
If you think this says it all, think again. And read the full column for a clear understanding that to know where we’re headed, we need to know where we’ve been.
We have seen that most recently with the made-up story involving four Olympic swimmers in Rio de Janeiro. The fabrication was that they were robbed in a taxi — by police, at gunpoint — when, in fact, they themselves had vandalized a public restroom.
The only money they had lost was the reimbursement they paid for the damage.
But they lost much more than money.
Why not tell the truth? Reasons can range from fear of failure to rash decisions to lack of conscience. We all know what it feels like to be fearful of something. But doing the right thing must prevail.
That’s why we encourage “thinking in advance” by always asking: What’s the consequence?
For journalists, this could mean, “What will happen if …”
- I publish this fact without checking its accuracy (possible correction needed)
- I publish this quote about someone else without checking its veracity (possible libel)
- I publish this information without giving credit to the person who owns it (plagiarism)
All of these could lead to loss of credibility. And when credibility is lost, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to gain it back.
That’s why in our classrooms, the consequence of any of these is an F for the assignment and possibly for the course.
It’s a harsh reality — as difficult to give an F as it is to receive one. But an F now might mean all the difference later.
The truth always comes out. It could take hours, days, weeks, months or even years. And, inevitably, one lie or untruth will lead to another.
Think in advance. Think of the consequences. Think.
During a routine trip to the grocery store today, a conversation between two college students — the cashier and the bagger — caught my attention. The bagger said he had not yet registered for the one course his adviser told him he “must take” this fall. The cashier told him that she had registered for all of her classes on the first day of registration.
Two students. Two schools. Two approaches.
As an observer, it was amusing to listen in on the banter.
As an adviser to college students, it was just a bit disheartening.
Registration can be a stressful time for students in any year and any major. There are so many moving parts: days and times that might conflict; caps on the number of students allowed in each class section; courses that might be offered in only the fall or spring semester, but not both. Then there are other considerations: plans to study abroad; work-study obligations; jobs off campus; and, understandably, having time for a life outside the classroom.
With all of these variables, why would a student not register for a course at the first available opportunity? It’s a question that confounds us.
It could be procrastination. Or inattention to details. Disorganization. Complacency. Unwillingness to focus on the future. Confidence that it will all work out. All of the above. Or none.
While we have helped many a student figure out a mere semester’s worth of courses or an entire four-year plan, we haven’t figured out why or how some end up in difficult scheduling situations with no easy solution.
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with our mantra to Think Like an Editor, then focus on the all-important element, which is to think. As we’ve said before, the ability to think is underrated. But it is an empowering trait and an all-important one for journalists of any age and at any stage in their careers.
Judging from the conversation in the grocery store, that bagger is thinking now. Good for him. Sometimes the most powerful lessons learned are the ones that cause the most angst at the moment.
And in a nod to youthful exuberance, it should be noted that that bagger was not disheartened at all. Although behind on his registration, he was just as pleasant and jovial, happy and content, responsible and respectful as that cashier who was on top of her game.
Two students. Two schools. Two approaches. Two good kids.
If you’re starting a new job or an internship at a news organization, take a moment to learn these six simple ways to stand out as a professional member of the team from Day One.
- Dress professionally. This doesn’t necessarily mean full-blown business attire. But it does mean dressing appropriately for the position. A reporter covering breaking news? Be sure your shoes will take you where you need to go. And don’t follow the veterans in the crowd. They might wear jeans and T-shirts, but that’s not for you. At least not yet.
- Know the policy for corrections. We all make mistakes. Before it happens to you, be proactive and ask about the proper procedure for bringing a published error to the attention of your news organization. Is there a particular person to tell? Who makes the correction? Is there a form to fill out? How do you inform your audience?
- Know local style. Even if your news organization follows Associated Press style, you can be sure there are local exceptions. Again, ask. And find out where the local style guide resides. How can you access it so you can learn it and use it?
- Know what to do if you’re ill. Before the day comes when you are too sick to go to work, ask about the proper procedure for alerting your supervisor or news organization. And, how? Some prefer email, others text message, others a phone call.
- Know the policy for sharing your work on social media. Is sharing required? Expected? Desired? And, how often and how much?
- Know the policy for engaging with readers who post comments on your stories. Should you end your story with a question to your audience, as some news organizations suggest, as a way to encourage civil engagement? Should you post answers to questions that are raised? Should you remain silent?
First days — anywhere — are memorable ones. Make yours memorable for the right reasons. And you’ll make a good impression.
Are you engaged in the news?
That’s the big question today, which is National News Engagement Day. Engagement is the theme of this annual day — set aside for journalists and news consumers to “read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”
We can thank the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication for that directive and for creating NED, as we affectionately call it. And we do thank them.
In its second year, NED has given us at the Newhouse School a reason to embrace and promote what we do every day — as professors and as professionals. And we get to have fun doing it.
As AEJMC says:
“National News Engagement Day will not only contribute to an informed society,
it will encourage people of all ages to explore news and raise awareness
about the importance of being informed.”
That’s why roving reporters will engage the Syracuse University today by:
- Interviewing people across campus about which news stories they are following right now
- Asking how people get their news
- Encouraging those who are engaged in the news to take selfies with Otto, our beloved mascot
- Walking our special Newhouse News Hounds around campus
- Handing out free swag generously donated by national and local news outlets
- Pointing people to a short survey about their news consumption habits
If you want to join in, it’s easy to do on social media wherever you happen to be today.
- Studying abroad?
- Spending a semester in L.A.?
- Attending Newhouse in NYC?
- Are you a Newhouse alum working as a professional journalist and communicator?
Check out all the day’s activities at newhouse.syr.edu/NED
And then do what AEJMC has asked. Again, all you have to do is “read, watch, like, tweet, post, text, email, listen to, or comment on news.”
Use the hashtags #NHned and #NewsEngagementDay
Please share this today. We are eager to engage with you.