Monday, October 30, 2006

"Things to do before I die"

If you’re the type of person with a list of "Things to do before I die," I’ve got an addition for you.

It probably belongs at about #57 or #58 on the list, somewhere inbetween "Go on an African safari" and "Spend one night in a Wal-Mart."

Here it is: Join the editorial board of a newspaper.

You may think it sounds lame, but I assure you it is actually one of the cooler things we newspaper people get to do.

OK, that didn’t make it sound much cooler.

But hear me out on this.

Editorial boards, like the one at the Collegian (which we lovingly refer to as the Board of Opinion, or BOO for short), are an organized body of co-workers getting together to iron out issues and ultimately tell the world what they think and why.
How is there anything cooler than a chance to showcase your opinion in front of a huge audience?

That’s what editorials are, the column-like content on a newspaper’s Opinion Page that is not accompanied by a byline. That’s simply because editorials are not the opinion of one person; they are they opinion of a collective body of individuals, and, therefore, should carry some more weight.

Matter of fact, they are supposed to be the opinion of a group of individuals who are generally more informed about news events than the average reader.

That absolutely does not mean that editorials are always right; they are wholly and completely opinions like any other opinions and should be regarded as such.

But I think it’s important for readers to at least know how they are developed, particularly editorials that fall into the category of endorsements.

And with elections coming up in a week, readers across the country may be bombarded with this type of editorial in all types of newspapers. Endorsements are simply the opinion of an editorial board about what candidate they recommend for an elected office.

These are valuable editorials because they can potentially influence voters for the better of society. Of course, if editorial boards screw up, then the effects can be damaging.

At most newspapers, including the Collegian, endorsements are written after the board has interviewed all candidates for the position and gotten a good grasp of each candidate’s platform, experience and credibility.

From here, it is the job of the editorial board to debate each candidate’s positive and negative characteristics and then decide who is best suited for the office.
Then a member of the board is charged with the task of writing the board’s opinion in the form of an editorial, which in turn can influence readers on who to vote for.
The Collegian has in the past endorsed candidates for student government and for presidential elections. However, it is difficult to endorse candidates for state and federal offices because the candidates often do not have time to sit down with the Collegian’s Board of Opinion or they do not value the votes of the younger demographic.

It’s unfortunate, but all we can do is invite them.

So, Bob Casey, Rick Santorum, Ed Rendell and Lynn Swann…any takers?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

In a few months as editor in chief of the Collegian, I’ve already gotten to make quite a few obvious editorial decisions.

Exhibit 1: The page one story last week that quoted former UPUA presidential hopeful Jay Bundy comparing his tenure as our student representative to a glorified pile of cow dung.

Quite obviously, I thought runing the full quote, in all of its glory, was justfied given the circumstances of the story.

Agree with it or not, that’s the job of a newspaper editor.

But there’s also been some not-so-obvious decisions you might not have noticed – ones for which I had to take time to weigh the pros and cons before coming to a conclusion.

Exhibit 2: Yesterday’s article about the eight-hour stakeout in Nittany Apartments that ended in an unfortunate suicide – and the photo that accompanied it.

The photo I decided to go with – which showed the window police broke to shoot tear gas into the apartment – might not have been the photo of the century, but it served a purpose that I thought was important: to visually show readers how police deal with situations like this.

It did the job, and I doubt many readers thought twice about it.

But, you see, there were other photos – ones that showed more than just a broken window and the outside of a building.

Collegian photographer Andrew Lala did an excellent job of covering what turned out to be a relatively big news event. And he came back to the newsroom with photos of blood and gurneys.

Some photos even showed the police and emergency workers removing the body of Philadelphia resident Qwynton Armstead.

They were great photos but I had to ultimately decide whether they were appropriate for the pages of The Daily Collegian.

They weren’t.

In this case, it was better for everyone involved to be as sensitive as possible with our handling of the story. Sensationalism and shock value do not justify insensitivity.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Judging their news judgment

I’ve written about e-mail messages before, and I’m going to do it again.
But this time, I’m not talking about my personal inbox.

This time I want to address the inboxes of journalists from at at least seven news organizations and how they passed over one of the biggest stories of 2006.

In case you didn’t know, a significant amount of time elapsed between the time media organizations were alerted to the scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fl., and the time that it was actually first presented to the public.

And it all goes back to e-mail.

Turns out that several people connected to the story attempted to alert media to the scandal by forwarding Foley’s messages to journalists. All the journalists really had to do was read them and investigate.

Or so it seems.

But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. While the public has an undeniable right to question their decision not to investigate the story earlier, I’m going to take this opportunity to defend those organizations for what I can only assume was a choice to use limited resources most effectively at the time.

There is an unbelievably large amount of information streaming into most news organizations, all of which require journalists to be ever so careful in determining the validity of the stories they choose to pursue. This is especially true in the age of the Internet, when anyone with access to a computer can log on and send an e-mail full of falsified information to the media.

Heard of journalists being the ultimate skeptics? There’s your reason why.

Lots of people want publicity; but most of them don’t warrant it.

That’s where news judgment comes in.

In the case of Foley, it could be argued that the editors failed to investigate the e-mails enough to make an educated news judgment. Certainly, had they had all the information, they would have pursued the story full force.

So, is this some sort of media cover-up? I highly doubt it.

Is it an example of a flaw in the system? I’d say yes.

But while this could be recorded in history as a failure on the part of the seven news organizations that sat on the information, it could also be regarded as an example of why online journalism (and blogging, specifically) is in the best interest of the public.

It’s just up to the more traditional forms of to keep up.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

USG or UPUA? That is the question

Ya wanna get a bunch of Collegian people fired up?

Two ways: One, tell us the local liquor store is going out of business.

Two, start a debate on the role of student government and the merits of putting their "news" on the front page.

You might find a little more passion behind option #2, but you’re sure to get some heated opinions on #1 as well.

It’s a constant struggle at the Collegian to weigh the pros and cons of showcasing USG or UPUA news on the front page of our newspaper.

We know students may be focused more on option #1 than the latest student government news, but our obligation as journalists is to present the information students need.

Students need to know what their student government is doing.

Tomorrow Penn State students are getting the chance to elect the first leaders of the new University Park Undergraduate Association, which has replaced the Undergraduate Student Government as the official voice of the students.

It’s a milestone in Penn State history that most students seem to be only mildly aware of.

But it’s created reverberating effects in the basement of the James Building, where we Collegianites gather to put out a newspaper every day.

The change in student government has resulted in a change in the way we cover student government. At the moment we’re following both USG and UPUA because no one knows for sure which organization will be most effective.

I’ve got my money on UPUA simply because it’s got the backing of the administration. But there are motivated people in USG as well, and they may be able to make themselves relevant once again.

And while this change in student government progresses, the same debates go on every day in the newsroom.

Is UPUA worth front page coverage? How extensively should we investigate the candidates? Are students even aware of what’s going on? And where, in all of this, does USG fall?

I couldn’t say that we have definitive answers to any of those questions, but I do know that student government should be of concern to students at this university.

We might not notice too much when they accomplish nothing, but I’d be willing to bet option #1 that students will notice when student government does something a little out of the ordinary.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sex sells

As passionate as I am to defend the media sometimes, I am absolutely just as willing to point out when we screw up.

Check the Web sites of the three major cable news networks (CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC) and you’ll probably find the same lead political story on each of their home pages.

If you haven’t heard, Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley has resigned over accusations that he sent sexually explicit e-mails to a teenage congressional page. My guess is that you’ve heard.

Lesson of the day: We Americans just love a political sex scandal.

Assuming the facts of the case have all been reported accurately, this is most definitely a disturbing example of a congressman violating the trust of his constituency. His resignation was most definitely in order and the alleged victim has every right to pursue legal prosecution.

But beyond that, I have trouble believing this particular news story warrants the type of 24-hour coverage CNN, Fox and MSNBC seem to think it deserves.

Look no further than the “smaller” stories on the same Web sites.

Apparently Brazil’s incumbent president nearly losing power, the U.S. Secretary of Defense reinforcing his commitment to the Iraq War and the chilling release of a video showing the men who committed the most horrific offense of terrorism on American soil laughing and joking are stories less “newsworthy” than the one of a corrupt politician with a thing for teenage male congressional pages.

Anyone else having flashbacks to the Clinton-Lewinsky “scandal?”

Does this latest example of political corruption warrant news coverage? Absolutely.

Is it relevant to upcoming elections? For sure.

Are readers and viewers likely to pay closer attention to this story than ones that actually have an effect on their lives? You bet.

But my guess is that the story of Foley’s apparent infatuation with teenage boys and his subsequent stupidity for acting on it is no more important than Clinton’s affinity for affection from female interns.

And we all know where that got (or failed to get) us.

Unfortunately, I fear that this latest example of America’s obsession with sex scandals will be inappropriately making headlines far further into the future than seems necessary at the moment.

You see, when media outlets of all forms (TV, newspapers, Internet, radio, etc.) make decisions on how to “play” stories, the goal is to communicate some sense of importance to readers and viewers.

The message behind a newspaper’s most prominent headline is simply that this particular story is the most important news of the day and should therefore be read (or viewed) by the most people.

Herein lies the problem of playing up a scandalous, sensationalized and overtly sexualized story, such as Foley’s.

In cases such as these, members of the media can be easily seduced by sexy headlines and the attention that such stories often produce.

But that doesn’t make it right.