Sunday, April 17, 2011

Interviews: PR versus News

As journalists, we benefit when an expert agrees to discuss some newsworthy topic with us. Whether it is a complete interview, some expert commentary, or filling in some background information to help our readers better understand some difficult subject, the addition of credible, original, third-party quotes almost always makes for a better article. What we have to also realize, is that, these experts, also have a purpose in giving us the interview.

Sometimes that purpose is simply to gain name recognition or to keep the name of their organization in the public eye. Sometimes, though, especially with people representing commercial operations, the sole purpose for granting an interview is to paint their company in a positive light for a free commercial. That's certainly their right. As journalists, though, we are not in the business of writing commercials for publication on news channels.

When the interview is giving a company a direct opportunity to refute some allegation against the company, then these PR statements can be of direct use as the official company response to some accusation or situation which casts them in a negative light. When we are asking for their expertise on a matter either not related or only peripherally related to the company in question, however, such scripted responses are of marginal use.

It is our job to cut through the company line to find real information that is of value to readers. For example, I recently had the opportunity to interview the Vice President of North American Manufacturing from the Ford Motor Company for a news article about the state of American manufacturing. He was certainly qualified to speak on the subject as the head of manufacturing for a major American company, however, his goal in agreeing to the interview was to promote the Ford Motor Company.

In arranging the interview, I was very up-front about the nature of the article for which the interview would be used. I wanted to examine the health of manufacturing in America, including the outsourcing of American jobs, the general direction of the economy, and issues relating to those topics.  The first sign that I was not going to get a truly candid interview, was that the VP, James Tetreault, had another Ford "spokesperson" on the line as well. This person was more of a PR expert along to make sure that Tetreault did not say anything of which Ford would not approve. Indeed, this person did jump in a couple of times to answer for Tetreault when I challenged his initial response.

I had initially intended the interview to be published as a Q&A piece with my questions and the relevant pieces of the interviewee's answers (edited for clarity and brevity) printed directly with a brief introduction, similar to this Q&A news article. Because of the high level of PR content, some of which was, at best, borderline in terms of being "factually accurate statements," I had to rethink my approach.

I wrote the article on the topic I originally intended, but included a couple of other credible third-party sources to refute one point made by Tetreault, and to buttress the independence of the article. However, I wrote the article in a more narrative form, using direct quotes from Tetreault, but not in a strict Q&A format. Much of the interview content turned out to be unusable for my purposes.

It is not always necessary to portray the interviewee or their company in a positive light. For example, if you happened to get an interview with the former BP CEO on the golf course shortly after the BP gulf oil well disaster, as a journalist, "You have to go beyond his statements that everything is under control and it's just a little bit of oil leaking out right now. Nothing to worry about." However, portraying an interviewee negatively may have repercussions as well.

In the case of the Ford interview I conducted, I researched some basic facts before the interview. When the VP said Ford's success in the first part of the year was due more to Ford's product assortment than to a more broad based upturn in economic conditions, I was able to counter with the fact that Ford's competitors had at least equal, and in many cases better overall sales increases during the same period. I pointed this out to him directly in the interview and included it in the article.

The use of qualified third-party experts can add significant credibility to a news article, but if you act as a shill for the interviewee's company, it can have the opposite effect.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Establishing credibility part II: Commentary

Even commentary pieces must be built on a firm foundation of unassailable facts. To convince a reader that your opinion has merit, you must have a higher amount of stored credibility because you are risking drawing down on it with every subjective or opinionated statement you make. Your credibility is taxed in direct proportion to the degree of outlandishness that each such statement contains.

For example, each of the following statements puts more of a strain on the author's credibility because of the increasing deviation from mainstream opinion. 1) We should subject anyone coming into the United States from a country of special concern to a more thorough search when boarding an airplane. 2) We should apply a more thorough search to anyone who fits the physical and behavioral profile of previously identified members of a terrorist group. 3) We should subject anyone of Arabian descent to an extended search. 4) We should deny U.S. entry to all foreigners. 5) We should nuke 'em all.

Each of those statements requires the writer to make a much stronger case built on a foundation of facts strong enough to support the authors' opinion, until you get to a statement like the fifth one that is entirely unsupportable and transforms the commentary article into a rant regardless of how much credibility the author has banked with the rest of the article. Carl Sagan may have said it best when he said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." That applies not only to scientific endeavors, but also to news commentary.

Readers understand that news commentary contains subjective statements based on the author's opinion. Good commentary leads a reader down a logical path. At first, the path should seem like familiar territory to the reader. They should feel as if they are walking on a firm grounding of familiar facts. The author can place plausible opinions in among the facts, like a will-o-wisp drawing the unwary reader deeper and deeper into the writer's forest of logic. The best commentary will take a reader to an unfamiliar destination, sympathizing with the commentary writer's opinion, without them ever realizing they left their old familiar path.

Establishing credibility Part I

I remember when the evening television news anchor was the most trusted man in America. When Walter Cronkite said "...and that's the way it is," we knew that that was indeed, the way it is. It wasn't his opinion. It wasn't his spin, or his interpretation of the a situation. It was the News with a capital N and that meant facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts.

Cronkite had that trust because he had developed a reputation and his credibility was beyond reproach. Honestly, that's the way I prefer my news. Give me the facts, and let me decide what I feel about the situation on my own. I don't need a triumvirate of morning show hosts to shake their heads and pass judgment on the news as if their opinion is more valid than that of anyone else.

Unfortunately, though, as Walter might have said that's the way it is these days. Commentary, opinion and facts are all ingredients in today's news recipe. Some recipes may call for more of one ingredient than the others. The net result, however, is that hardly any of us would volunteer the name of a modern day news anchor as the most trusted person in America these days.

As news writers, however, it is our jobs to present the news in a credible fashion. If the reader doesn't believe what we write, then we are wasting their time with our words. Simply saying something that's true doesn't always automatically translate into believability. As professional writers it is our jobs to choose words carefully. We can choose words for their emotional connotations, and that's fine, as long as we are also careful to use words and write with a credible voice, using solid logic applied to verifiable facts.

If I write that the most popular car color is red, I need to support and qualify that statement. Without that support it is not a credible statement and it detracts from any point I want to make in whatever I'm writing. After all, if I am caught in an error one time, the reader can only assume that the rest of my article is questionable as well.

To support the fact that the most popular car color is red, for example, There are several ways to go. I can remove my credibility from the equation altogether by attributing the statement to someone else. If I say "Joe Smith, the owner of Joe Smith's Fine Used Cars in Hoboken, New Jersey, told me that the most popular car color is red," then the reader can make a judgement about the validity of the information based upon their opinion of Joe Smith's credibility and his qualifications to make such as judgement.

Whatever the reader decides about Joe Smith, I, as the author, cannot be judged on the relative merit of that statement unless, in the rest of my article I assign it some credibility that differs from the reader's assumption. If I say "therefore, my recommendation for car companies to save money is to only make red cars because it is the most popular color," then I have added my reputation and credibility on top of Joe Smith's by personally validating his statement. Now again, my credibility is on the line with the reader.

Every fact or statement in a news piece either builds on the writer's credibility because it is explicitly sourced, or it relies on the credibility capital the writer has already built with the reader. A news writer's credibility balance sheet cannot go into negative territory or readers (and editors) will decide that your article has no real worth to them.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Finding news topics and sources

There are many ways to find original sources for news stories. often, these sources will also provide breaking news tips that let you get information at the same time as it becomes available to newspaper and television news reporters.

If you have a particular news niche in which you write regularly, think about the organizations that generate news in that area. For example, if you like to write about the latest medical breakthroughs, epidemics, food poisoning outbreaks, and other health news, there are a variety of very authoritative original sources available to you as a reporter.

You can start with the Centers for Disease Control's Press Room page. This page provides in-depth and authoritative information on current outbreaks of things like salmonella, bird flu, measles, and other public health concerns. You can find symptoms, statistics, prevention, and loads of other relevant information. Perhaps, just as important for some publishers is the availability of high quality, public domain images for use by journalists. These images fall into the category of an online press kit and include pictures not only specific to individual news stories, but images suitable for general medical news use. Don't forget that each one must be properly credited. The image below is an example of a CDC microbiologist inoculating an embryonic chicken egg against the bird flu.

Another useful source for medical news stories is the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). By registering for media access, you can get a weekly email summary of available news releases, including many that are embargoed to the general public. Here you'll find the latest medical studies, research, and other breaking medical news. Whereas you might use CDC for background information or general statistics, the JAMA releases might be the focus of your news article.

For example, on this page there's a summary and link to a full article which might lend itself to this title: "Study lists controlling behaviors linked to domestic violence." That's hard news which is of interest to a large segment of the population and which has some evergreen potential depending upon your specific angle and title. This story could be written up in a variety of ways to match the preferences of your intended publisher. If you have first hand experience with domestic violence, can call and interview a staff member at a local women's shelter, or add a brief list of domestic violence resources in your area, the story can be very effectively personalized and/or localized. It can even be written as a non-news article with an angle like "Controlling behaviors linked to spousal abuse, what to watch for." (That's not a great title, but I wanted to communicate the angle for the purposes of this example.)

By adding statistics on domestic violence from the CDC and other sources, you can strengthen your story and make it more than a simple recap of the JAMA release. Furthermore, because this story was embargoed when first made available, you have time to get all that background information in order, write and proofread your article and still be among the very first to get the story online as soon as the embargo is lifted.

Embargoed means that the organization is releasing information only to authorized journalists so that they can write their story in advance and be ready to publish the instant the embargo is lifted. Be careful to always follow the terms of the embargo and do not submit your story for publication before the time and date stated in the embargo. These kinds of restricted access sources can put the online news writer on an equal footing with any news agency in the world in terms of being first to print.

Government agencies with many different areas of interest make information available to the public and reporters regularly. The Department of Health and Human Services covers a wide range of health issues. A partial list of the web sites on which they make information available is found here. Most government agencies will also allow members of the media to subscribe for email alerts for timely press releases. Often you can sign up very selectively by region or specific topic, depending upon the agency involved. Many have public domain photos available for journalistic use, too. Just be sure to check and follow the terms of use outlined at each site.

More general information sources like PR Newswire or Newswise have sections dedicated to medical topics and registered journalists can received daily email updates of breaking news from those sources as well. It is up to you as a working journalist to separate PR hype from objective news and to treat each accordingly. That's not to say you can't report on Best Pharmaceutical's high expectations for a new drug undergoing preliminary clinical trials, but examine in-depth their claims and make clear the source of the information. If possible, call up a third party expert and get an objective and knowledgeable opinion  on the specific claims.

Other sources might be the press pages of major research hospitals and medical schools. These are primary sources which often include contact information for the actual researcher who wrote and conducted the study who may be available for a telephone interview or to answer a few emailed questions. When you can get original quotes directly from a source, you are further separating your article from the pack and adding a higher layer of quality.

A reporter may or may not be an expert in the field about which they write. It certainly helps. For example, a doctor writing about breaking medical news can use their own expertise to dissect claims, talk about  risks, and provide other detailed analysis. On the other hand, a good journalist investigates the topics about which they write. They report facts and rely on qualified third party opinions to verify those facts or provide explanations, implications, and other pertinent expert analysis. In cases where the reporter is not an expert in the field, they rely on some other source to make sure they fully understand what they are writing about.

In general, if you don't understand a press release and can't find someone to explain it fully, you shouldn't write about it.  Some publishers require the writer to be an expert in certain fields before allowing them to publish on specific topics. Medical news is often one such category. To be a Yahoo! Contributor Network (Y!CN) Featured Contributor, for example, writers are expected to either be a qualified health professional or have some other quantifiable expertise on the topic and must undergo an exacting approval process before excepted in that category.

If you start using these types of sources for your online news articles, and especially if you use several of them for each story to provide richer background detail and demonstrate a thorough understanding of the issue at hand, you'll be among the top tier of news writers. Try it and then compare your articles to those of traditional, respected news outlets. You'll find yourself noticing the deficiencies in many standard news articles which are little more than restatements of publicly available press releases. You'll also start to notice when the reporter didn't understand the nature of the topic. The difference between and association and causation in medical studies, for example, is often misreported by mainstream reporters and can be another angle for your news comparison article.

By using multiple primary sources, online news writers can write with a level of quality that is competitive with, and in some cases, better than any other breaking news publication.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writing better and earning more

The purpose of this post is two-fold, although I'll keep it short and to the point. I want to answer two simple questions.
  • How can I earn more with my writing?
  • How can I get better at writing?
The answer to both questions is: write.

Whether you're trying to earn a full time wage, help stay ahead of the bills, or just earn a few extra bucks each week, writing should be viewed just like any other job. It may be a job you love, but it is a job nevertheless. That means you have to show up for work regularly and get the job done. I strongly advocate setting up specific work hours each day (or each week) and sticking to them religiously.

During these work hours, you should be wholly focused on writing. I understand that you may also be taking care of young children and there's no pause button that lets you take a break from that during the day, but other than that, when you're at work, consider yourself "at work." Sit down at your keyboard and write. Whatever you earn with your writing will go up in proportionally to the amount of hours you spend writing (although it may not be a linear relationship).

Like any job, showing up and doing the work isn't a question of whether you feel like it at any particular time, but whether the clock tells you it's time to go to work. If you feel particularly inspired and want o work some overtime, that's fine, but skipping out early should not be an option unless you've already doubled your monetary goal for the month, then and only then, have you earned a vacation day.

For the second question, your writing will improve with practice. The more you write on a regular basis, the better you'll get over time. That improvement will take several forms. First, setting regular hours habituates you to writing. For most writers I know, the hardest part of any composition is the first sentence, and often the very first word. Regular writing hours doesn't give you the option of being uninspired. It's time to write, so you write. You can write whatever you want, but there must be measurable and consistent output.

Separate other "work" activities from actual writing. Not all your work time is actual writing. There's research, promotion, opportunity-seeking, skill development and probably a couple of other things that may vary for each individual. However, all too often, those activities tend to consume far too much of our writng time. Set specific limits for these activities that leave the bulk of your work time for just writing.

Secondly, the quality of your work will improve as you continue to write and publish. Practice, all by itself will make yo better, as will reading and comparing your work to that of others. If you're writing news, read traditional news reports (Reuters, AP, AFP, CNN, and/or all the others), but also read the news articles that get featured by your publisher whether it is Yahoo!, Examiner, or any other outlet. Make mental notes of what you liked about each of those reports, and work on improving in areas where you think any of them were better than yours.

That's not to say copy someone else's style. Develop your own style from an amalgamation of what you consider the best aspects of everything you read.  If you like the straightforward, fact-based style of Reuters, but also enjoy the friendly flavor of Yahoo!'s Shine and the compelling first-person story-telling of Reader's Digest, combine the three styles and see what happens.

Feedback from editors, category managers, private clients, or whomever you write for makes you better. They don't all give feedback, but when they do, pay attention. Don't be afraid to ask for examples or clarification from time to time if you're not clear about the feedback they provide. Don't be a pest, but do make sure you understand the feedback you receive.

If you feel you have made a major improvement or change in your writing, or are unsure of the quality of something you published, ask others in your writing peer group for feedback. Most good writers are happy to help.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Who says to avoid weasel words?

As news writers, we must be careful to distinguish between fact and opinion. When we offer our own opinion, it should be clearly identified as such. When we offer someone else's opinion, we must say whose opinion it is. That, of course, means that we have to know to whom the opinion belongs in the first place.
One of the most obvious and most widely used non-attributable attributions used in everyday speech is "they say." In a news article that means absolutely nothing. The sentence "they say that the economy is getting better," gives the reader no information at all unless you have clearly identified who the word "they" represents. For example, "I asked three professors of economics from the Harvard School of Business, and they say..." identifies the people whose opinion or expertise is being cited and is a perfectly acceptable phrasing, especially if the names of the individuals are included or at least available via a source link.

The word "they" is pretty nebulous and is an easy one to catch, but sometimes, we might sound like we're giving source information when we're not. "Four out of five dentists agree that for patients who chew gum, sugarless gum is better." That statement is somewhat misleading because it seems to give the source of some bit of information, but does it? Did the writer only ask five dentists? That might make it a statistically unreliable sample. Did the writer ask twenty-six dentists until he got four within a five dentist sample that agreed with the premise? Did the writer ask 2000 dentists and get agreement from 1600 of them? Unless the detail of the survey is given, the reader doesn't know how much weight or credibility lies behind the statement.

As independent news writers, we need to work harder than someone who writes under the mantle of traditional news services like Reuters or the Associated Press to establish and maintain our credibility. So when a Reuters news writer uses the phrase "Economists say job growth between 250,000 and 300,000 is needed..." hardly anyone bats an eye or asks, "which economists? All of them? was it the economist cited in the previous paragraph and some unspecified others? Is it four out of five economists asked?" Strictly speaking, we, as readers, don't know whether that group of economists is employed by a biased entity, have any particular credentials, or even if they exist in any way more substantially than some guys in business suits overheard in a Starbucks near Wall Street.We need to be better than that. News writers should always give the reader the source of that information. If it is the consensus ascertained from a reputable poll or survey of economists, then we need to properly cite the polling organization and even the date of the poll, preferably with a link back to the actual data.

Here's an example of a vague source reference that is acceptable, because the specific information is given later on: "A government report says..." By itself that would not pass muster because it is unverifiable. There are too many government agencies and reports to allow the reader to judge the quality of the information provided. While I recommend providing the best information at the first use of the source's information, in this case the Associated Press writer does fill in the blank in the next paragraph when he says "The Department of Transportation's inspector general says in a report posted online Friday..."

That qualification gives the reader enough information to make a judgement about the information's credibility. Ideally, in the internet age, he would have included a link to the original report so the reader has access to the full set of information and the context from which the quotes were drawn. This wasn't possible when newspapers were the primary news outlet, but it is now and we should take advantage of linking to source material to enhance our news reports whenever possible, and not just when it is required in the citation guidelines of a particular news publisher.

In short, for any information which we attribute to the opinion or expertise any group of experts, we must say who those experts are and how we know the group believes it in order for our work to be credible. That applies whether the group is they, previous generations, veterans, Republicans, liberals, economists, or four out of five dentists.