January 27, 2016: Well into the second half of the second decade of the new millennium. Maybe — with apologies to the political satirist and television host Bill Maher — it’s time for some new rules for journalists.
New Rule No. 1: Google before you gawk. A few weeks ago some reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer noticed a glowing obituary about a wonderful family man with a long and distinguished business career. He interviewed the man’s daughter, who added more luster to the account, and he had a compelling feature story for the newspaper’s website.
If the reporter had taken a minute — literally, 60 seconds — he would have discovered another dimension to the story of the late Colin Carpi, accused of murdering his wife back in 1971 in Princeton and also a controversial figure in the business world. See U.S. 1, January 13, for more details.
New Rule No. 2: Be a reporter and an editor, not an aggregator. The guy doing the Carpi obit for the Inquirer is probably a master at copying and pasting from one digital source to another and ultimately to his news story. We really shouldn’t single that reporter out. Cutting and pasting is now par for the course.
Even worse is that most reporters (not unlike most people in this Information Age) also have a strange view of what it means to “read” something. As I have written before, reading is becoming a lost art, which leads to our next new rule.
New Rule No. 3: Don’t confuse opening up some material in your web browser or E-mail inbox with actually reading. The latter requires some attention, minimally some scanning of one line after another, ideally a perusal of word after word. On some occasions you might even have to re-read a sentence or — god forbid — an entire paragraph.
New Rule No. 4: When one of your sources speaks, listen. It’s not always easy: The cell phone is buzzing, a new E-mail has shown up in the inbox, and another tweet looms. The speaker might even have a foreign accent. But hang in there, you might learn something.
New Rule No. 5: Don’t confuse an E-mail exchange with an interview. The other day I got a call from a business owner in Princeton seeking advice. He had received an interview request from an area newspaper reporter. The request — delivered via E-mail — not only asked for the interview but also listed the questions.
Isn’t it possible, in this 21st century world, that a reporter’s questions might change as answers are received? I advised the business owner to ask for a phone call.
New Rule No. 6: Don’t take sides, but pay attention to all sides. This challenges the journalist’s reading and listening skills. Case in point: Donald Trump’s assertion that Ted Cruz (Princeton ’92) may not be eligible to run for president because he was born in Canada. Many in the media had the same initial response — Trump is being his usual outrageous, incorrect self.
But several constitutional scholars, most notably Mary Brigid McManamon of the Widener University’s Delaware Law School, now point out that there is a difference between “natural born” and “naturalized” citizens. McManamon asserts that “the concept of ‘natural born’ comes from common law, and it is that law the Supreme Court has said we must turn to for the concept’s definition. On this subject, common law is clear and unambiguous.” Cruz is a naturalized but not natural born citizen.
New Rule No. 7: Everything’s public. The Rutgers Institute for Information Policy & Law is addressing this “new rule” with two panel discussions on Friday, February 19, in New Brunswick.
The panels will cover emerging legal issues and policy changes affecting newsgatherers — from drones to police body cameras.
As the website promoting the event says, “Digital startups and citizen journalists are plugging the news hole — getting the public important information and keeping the powerful accountable. If you are providing content for this new information ecosystem, you’ve probably run into basic legal questions, such as whether you can post video you captured or whether you need to take down video that has bothered someone.”
The fact is that journalists in public places can gather more information than ever. I suspect the definition of a public place will become even more expansive.
New Rule No. 8: It’s only a matter of time before New Rule No. 7 has a corollary: Everything’s public, including the journalist’s actions. Sooner or later some cell phone camera will catch a newsgatherer in some embarrassing light. Fair is fair.
Journalists, now in the spotlight of anyone with a cellphone, need to recognize that full disclosure applies to them as well as to public officials. And appearances of conflict should be disclosed as quickly as actual conflicts.
New Rule No. 9: Welcome the citizen journalist. Actor Sean Penn’s enterprising (if not totally enlightening) interview with El Chapo, the drug lord, has generated the predictable blowback from some in the mainstream media. Penn responded that you don’t need a license to practice journalism. He’s right and the professional journalists should hope it stays that way.
New Rule No. 10: Be a reporter, not a friend. Social media is a great way to extend the content of print newspapers. At U.S. 1 we try to follow major institutions and other media on Twitter and Facebook. And we tweet out timely and (we think) valuable updates to our online listings of events.
But please, we all get enough silly Internet memes and political and religious declarations through our personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. We do not need to receive a survey — as we did last week from the Trenton Times — asking us whether the impending winter storm would “wallop” New Jersey. We thought newspapers were supposed to inform us, not the other way around. But maybe that old rule doesn’t apply anymore.