5 Specific Ways The Flint Journal Can Do Better

By Afi Scruggs

Marjory Raymer Flint Journal

Marjory Raymer, editor of The Flint Journal, apologized for the newspaper’s journalistic lapse but failed to say what corrective actions she would take.

Although the furor is waning over the Flint Journal’s handling of Councilmember Wantwaz Davis’ criminal past – the newspaper did not report that he is an ex-felon until the day after the election – one question remains: How will the newspaper prevent a similar lapse? Editor Marjory Raymer apologized to readers, but she has not said what the paper will do to prevent similar episodes from happening again.

I’ve come up with five suggestions that will work for the Journal, and for any news organization that is serious about covering its communities. Notice I didn’t say, “serious about covering minority communities.” That’s because news is news and best practices have no color.

  1. Reinforce Journalism 101 and review the news drivers: At least two sources say Journal reporters covered forums where Davis spoke openly about his imprisonment. But that fact wasn’t tweeted before the election, let alone reported. Whether blaming incompetence, inexperience or negligence, one thing is clear– the newspaper’s staffers don’t recognize news. So take them back to school. Remind them of the seven criteria that determine newsworthiness: Timeliness, proximity, prominence, magnitude, consequence, uniqueness, and conflict.
  2. Make reporters and editors check the newspaper’s archives: Davis noted the Journal had covered his murder case back in 1991. Sure enough, the newspaper quoted from its archives in its post-election day story. In the pre-Internet era reporters routinely pulled stories – actual hard copies – from the newspaper’s library. The advent of keywords and tags makes searching the archives so easy it ought to be standard procedure, especially when writing about political candidates.
  3. Get reporters on the streets: If the Journal resembles its sibling publications, reporters aren’t in the office much. When the parent company, Advance Publications, cuts newsroom staff, it also frees them to work remotely. That means journalists can file stories remotely, from home or a favorite coffee shop. Encourage reporters, photographers and even editors to work the neighborhoods and show their faces in places they would generally ignore. Community engagement should not be limited to social media; in-person interaction goes a long way.
  4. Increase the diversity of your news staff: I can’t report the demographics of the Journal’s newsroom because the paper doesn’t participate in the American Society of Newspaper Editor’s annual census on newsroom diversity. But two-thirds of the 25 Michigan newspapers in the 2013 listing have no minority news staffers. If that’s true of the Journal, its editors must ask how a virtually all-white newsroom can cover a city that’s almost 60 percent African American. But diversity shouldn’t be limited to race and ethnicity; it also means representing diversity of thought, which can lead to identifying stories others miss. The Journal obviously needs savvy, experienced journalists who can recognize a good story when they see it. In other words, the news staffers should be young and old, African American, Latino/Latina, Asian and White, white-collar and blue-collar – at least, but also possess different levels of experience that can enable reporters to learn from each other and develop a set of best practices when it comes to identifying news.
  5. Repair the brand: Right about now The Flint Journal is the media’s version of the Healthcare Marketplace. The news outlet’s local readership won’t forget about this debacle. The paper needs to do more than post an apology on its site. Its senior leadership should ask what community leaders and activists want from the paper. Then tell the public how the Journal will fill gaps and improve coverage – and do what you say. It’s a cliche but true: Actions speak louder than words.

Guest blogger Afi Scruggs is a freelance digital journalist and commentator.

Why The Flint Mich. Journalism Fail Was Journalistic Neglect

Flint City Council member Wantwaz Davis

Flint City Council member Wantwaz Davis.

When traditional media falls short in its responsibility to inform the public, a ritual invariably follows: Acknowledgement, apology and promise to improve.

The same old routines resume, however, after the rite– until the next breakdown.

That’s why I’m rolling my eyes at The Flint (Mich.) Journal. The paper failed to provide the most cursory of local election news coverage of a convicted murderer who ran and won a spot on the city council.

Wantwaz Davis will represent the city’s predominately African American fifth ward after beating the incumbent by 71 votes. Davis served 19 years for second-degree murder and was released on parole in 2010.

Although Davis had been open about his past throughout the campaign, the paper didn’t report about him until the day after the election. The story informed readers that Davis was one of two newly elected council members with a criminal record. On Nov. 8, the paper’s editor, Marjory Raymer, apologized to readers.

“We reported (Davis’ prison record) the same day we discovered it. However, we did not inform voters – the way we all wish we could have – of that information before they went to the polls on Tuesday,” she said. “We can’t change what is. What we can do is acknowledge we should have done better and pledge to you that we will do better.”

Raymer hasn’t responded to my request for an interview, but we see things differently. The newspaper’s failure is more than incompetence.

It’s neglect.

The Flint Journal’s debacle is just another journalism failure that minority communities have endured for years. Over and over we’ve seen minority coverage limited to spot news, usually short hits about crime or some other dysfunction. Longer stories are bound by a couple of narrative frames: Disadvantaged people overcoming obstacles; disadvantaged people overcome by obstacles.

Admittedly I’m viewing this situation from Cleveland, about 240 miles southeast of Flint, but my perspective isn’t shaped by location. It’s shaped by my experience as an African American news producer and consumer. The Journal’s transgression is part of a pattern that stretches past Flint to my town, which is served by the Journal’s sister newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and beyond.

That kind of disdain adds a ring of insincerity to apologies like Raymer’s. Here’s why: The paper may not have known about Davis’ past, but voters did.

He told them, over and over, in interview after interview, and at forum after forum.

Local radio host Tom Sumner says he interviewed Davis, as well as other candidates, during the primary and the general election campaigns. According to Sumner, Davis played up his past.

“It was his narrative. It was ‘I turned my life around, so I could turn the city around. I could be a mentor to young people to keep them from making the mistakes I made,’” Sumner recounts.

Local activist, Kathryn Blake says Davis spoke at numerous events that The Flint Journal covered.

The Flint Journal knew (about Davis’ background) before the election,” she says. “We had candidate forums here. The Flint Journal was there.”

So why did the newspaper fail to do its job? Jack Lessenberry, a prominent Michigan commentator blames drastic newsroom cuts.

“To save money, Advance Publications, the parent company of The Flint Journal, laid off more than a third of the staff four years ago,” he writes. “They cut home delivery to only three days, later four days a week.”

Sumner concedes that the paper’s staff is thin and inexperienced. But he thinks the paper made a news judgment that came back to bite them.

“I think they didn’t expect (Davis) to win. I don’t think they took him seriously enough as a candidate,” Sumner says.

I don’t think the paper took the community seriously enough to cover it correctly. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time; sad to say, it won’t be the last.

Guest blogger Afi Scruggs is a freelance digital journalist and commentator

‘Scandal’ Schools Journalists On Perpetuating Sexist Stereotypes

By Tracie Powell

I am a gladiator. That simply means that I am a huge fan of the ABC series Scandal; I even belong to a Facebook fan group of Scandalholics comprised primarily of journalists who appreciate the show’s great storytelling.

Set in Washington, D.C. the show follows the travails of a fictional president (Tony Goldwyn’s Fitzgerald Grant), his mistress (Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope) and a series of dramatic subplots that often highlight the interaction between politicians and journalists that keeps nearly 9 million viewers tuned in each and every week. In the last episode Lisa Kudrow (yes, Phoebe of Friends fame), who plays member of congress and Democratic presidential candidate Josephine Marcus, schools journalists on their complicity in pushing sexist stereotypes.

The speech, as you can see below, provides a lesson not only for the fictional characters on the show, but also real-life journalists.

In the scene, Marcus is being interviewed by reporter James Novak (not likely inspired by the syndicated columnist and commentator Robert Novak who died in 2009). Anyway, the live interview opens with the characterization of Marcus as “a real life Cinderella story,” war widow, first time “congresswoman” and questions whether she is qualified or “a political lightweight squeaking by on her down-home charm.” The introduction conveniently leaves out the fact that Marcus is a former soldier and lieutenant in the army, experience her primary Democratic challenger, who is male, does not have. Novak, the reporter, adds to the sexist narrative, first pushed by Marcus’ rival, by thanking Marcus for having him in her “lovely home,” a request the news network made but is not revealed by the journalist. As the scene unfolds, viewers (both fictional and real) glimpse a serving of ice tea, which was furnished by TV producers, not Marcus, a little fact that she lets be known via a speech on sexism that is nothing short of epic.

Watch for yourself:


Lessons for Journalists

After Marcus finishes with Novak, he doesn’t quite know what hit him. Here are a few tips that could have helped Novak and may come in handy for real-life journos too:

1. Use gender neutral language. Instead of “congresswoman,” the term Novak employs, use the proper name labels “Representative” or “Senator” instead. Use “business person” rather than “businesswoman” and “chairperson” instead of “chairwoman,” etc.

2. Follow AP Style. The AP Stylebook states: “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject.” The news announcer’s introduction of Marcus as a Cinderalla story and war widow should have been red flags, and Novak could have avoided a headache by simply not mentioning Marcus’ “lovely home.” And what was the point of that ice tea anyway, other than to call attention to kitchen skills over her military and political skills? The AP also warns that copy “should not express surprise that an attractive (or charming) woman can be professionally accomplished.” In the Scandal scene, Marcus’ accomplishments were barely mentioned or not mentioned at all, until she brought them to light. That’s a major no-no.

3Be Transparent. Unless overly obvious (inside a TV studio, for example) share with viewers where the interview is being conducted and perhaps why. It helps engage viewers and readers by putting them “in the room” with the subject and let’s them know why they are there. It also helps build credibility with viewers by helping them to understand how journalists do their jobs.

4. Do your homework and tell a complete story. It’s not clear whether Novak knows about Marcus’ military history at all since he does not mention it. That kind of biographical information should have been key to the introduction of a candidate running to lead the country’s armed forces, don’t you think?

Sadiyyah Rice contributed to this report.


Enemies of the State: Government Surveillance in Communities of Color

Government Monitoring Is A Way of Life for Communities of Color

By Tracie Powell

Immigrants, Hispanics, blacks and Muslim Americans are used to living under the watchful eye of the government. It’s simply a way of life, which may explain why communities of color seem to be unfazed by news reports about government spying on citizens. Or maybe they’ve just forgotten their history.

Advocacy organizations are setting out to remind these communities why they need to be more engaged in fighting against government surveillance. Media advocates are seeking to broaden the conversation, linking the NSA leaks to stop-and-frisk laws that hurt African Americans and racial profiling that targets Latinos. 

“In the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI spied on leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. to try to discredit and destroy the civil rights movement. Anti-immigrant policing policies have empowered law enforcement throughout the U.S. — but especially in the Southwest — to target Latinos, who are subject to sweeping deportations and a prejudicial criminal justice system,” Josh Levy, campaign director for advocacy organization Free Press, writes in today’s Talking Points Memo. “Similarly, police in New York City and elsewhere use stop-and-frisk practices to racially profile African-Americans and other people of color. And since 9/11, the FBI has infiltrated Muslim-American communities, particularly in New York.”

Even still, according a recent study released by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, more than two-thirds of blacks (66%) believe the leak of classified information about National Security Administration phone and internet surveillance serves the public interest., compared to about half of whites (51%) and Hispanics (50%).

Surveillance of communities of color was the focus of a panel discussion last week, in which there was agreement that government monitoring is nothing new in America, or around the globe, which is why these communities seem indifferent to constant news reports on the subject. The discussion, hosted by Free Press, took place on the eve of the Stop Watching Us Rally held in Washington, D.C. late last month.

In order for communities of color to understand why they should care more about threats to their private communications, the panelists argued that not only will advocates need to focus on reforming the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act, they will also need to broaden efforts to include reforming local law enforcement’s reliance on racial profiling, stop and frisk and other discriminatory tactics.

A video of the panel discussion is below. It runs 1 hour and 27 minutes:

Clicks Ain’t Journalism

When it comes to the news industry, clicks are increasingly the coin of the realm. This is especially true for local television news. Take, for example, Washington, D.C.’s CBS affiliate WUSA 9 News, which aired a segment last week that was light on news, but racked up plenty of clicks when it went viral.

The segment features veteran broadcaster Bruce Johnson and his camerawoman on assignment, trying to get information about an alleged home invasion and hostage situation. A woman at the residence asks the news crew to leave, and assaults them when they don’t. WUSA 9 played the story big: Not the home invasion angle, but the journalists coming under attack part. In setting up the segment, Johnson reports that he doesn’t know whether the woman was one of the victims of the alleged home invasion, and she is never identified in the video clip.

What the segment may lack in news value, it makes up for by exploiting racial, gender and class stereotypes and by being sensational; and it has left many media observers wondering why it aired in the first place.

“I think this is a pathetic example of journalism,” said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute who specializes in journalism ethics. “The journalists don’t know who this woman is or what her relationship to the story is. The reporter and the anchors do the exact opposite of what journalists are supposed to do. They made the story more confusing, for no good reason.”

WUSA’s news director Fred D’Ambrosi defended his decision to air the video to The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi (D’Ambrosi didn’t return phone calls from allDigitocracy). “If the definition of news is something unusual happening, this was certainly something unusual,” D’Ambrosi told Farhi. “Bruce has been a reporter for 35 years, and this has never happened to him. . . . [Showing this] might help people understand what journalists go through. I wish I knew more about the woman who came out, but you have to make the best call under the circumstances.”

Johnson agrees with his boss, and so does Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association in Washington. Cavender told Farhi: “Based on what I saw and what I learned of the story, I would have gone with it.”

But what exactly did viewers see? What did they learn? And even though the station has the power to air whatever it wants, was it ethical for WUSA 9 to do so? Many of those commenting on the video, including fellow journalists, root for the news crew and poke fun at the woman who may or may not be a recent crime victim, raising even more ethical questions about the station’s goal of airing the clip.

A study on images of black women released last month by Essence Magazine found that the “angry black woman” is one of three negative stereotypes all too prevalent in the media. The unidentified woman in the video fits the myth of the angry black woman almost to perfection: Hostile, hysterical, ranting and aggressive, no matter the myriad emotions — if in fact a victim — she may have experienced the night before. Viewers simply do not know, and this is precisely why the video should not have seen the light of day.

Jackie Jones, Chair of the Department of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University in Baltimore, said beyond the stereotypical imagery, there was nothing to have been gained from airing the story.

“Usually when someone is cussing you out and threatening you, you get in the truck and leave,” said Jones. “There was nothing to be gotten out of that story and once he did the stand-up, he should have been through. All that said, since no one was hurt and it wasn’t clear what this woman’s role was in the house, I probably wouldn’t have run the story at all, except that there had been a standoff and possible hostage situation.”

Phyllis Fletcher, an editor at KUOW Public Radio, said viewers simply aren’t given enough information about what really happened. Nor is there enough information for it to be a story, she added.

“The reporter, and ALL due respect to the brother and the position he’s in, admits that he doesn’t know whether the young woman had been a victim in the crime the news crew sought to report. That is a serious issue,” Fletcher wrote in a Facebook post. “Yes, it’s true she doesn’t represent herself very well in the video. But we don’t have context for who she is or what the news staff said outside of their edits. She may not even be 18. The focus of this segment is not even actual news. The station anticipated, correctly, that it would go viral though.”

In the end, WUSA 9 probably accomplished exactly what it wanted. After all, there is more pressure than ever for news directors like D’Ambrosi to rack up clicks, often at the expense of true engagement with audiences.

Poynter’s McBride said she suspects WUSA 9 “just wanted to show the video of this woman making a fool of herself because it is sensational.” McBride wondered: “Why not do some reporting? Why not knock on the door and ask her if she wants to talk about what happened at her house? Why not get more information from the police?”

Answer: Because good journalism isn’t necessary when all that’s really wanted are clicks.