Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jackson, Miss. | A handout photo, ethics -- and the demands for 'unique, high-impact local journalism'

When it comes to real news -- especially on hot-button subjects -- quality media outlets use their own staff or professional freelance photographers to make sure they're getting the full picture, both literally and figuratively. To do otherwise might compromise a news outlet's integrity.

Syrian rebel video screenshot; watch it.
Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. In the Syrian conflict, major news organizations including The New York Times have relied on YouTube video posted by rebel groups because journalists aren't allowed in the country. But the NYT and others usually disclose the source of the video, explain why it's being used, and note that its veracity can't be 100% confirmed.

I'm hard-pressed, however, to imagine the extenuating circumstances that led Mississippi's Clarion-Ledger last Wednesday to use a handout photo to illustrate a story on perhaps the most contentious issue in the nation: abortion.

A 10-paragraph story
That day, the Jackson paper published a short article (online, at least) under the headline, "Ambulance called to Mississippi's only abortion clinic." It had only a Clarion-Ledger staff byline. Here are the first three paragraphs in their entirety:

Around 12:20 p.m. on Wednesday an ambulance was called to the state’s only abortion clinic.

“We understand that a female patient was taken by ambulance to UMC,” said Dana Chisholm, president of Pro Life Mississippi.

The Clarion-Ledger reached out to Jackson Women’s Health Organization owner Diane Derzis but she declined to comment.

Lots of background
What followed were seven paragraphs of background material that, although helpful to a first-time reader, did not contain what an editor of mine would call "new news."

A photo without IDs.
But what drew my attention -- and that of a Gannett Blog reader -- was the accompanying photo. In it, a reader can just barely make out a patient covered in a green sheet being wheeled away. There are five other people in the photo, but it's nearly impossible to see their faces; three of them have their backs to the camera.

Violating a cardinal rule in journalism, the cutline doesn't identify any of the people by name. It only says: "A patient is loaded in to an ambulance at Mississippi's only abortion clinic."

And then there's the credit line: "Pro Life Mississippi/Special to the Clarion-Ledge[r.]"

Although Derzis, the clinic owner, declined to comment for the paper, she did speak to the Jackson Free Press for its story the next day. She called the paper's coverage an example of "unprofessional journalistic ethics."

The Free Press said it e-mailed Clarion-Ledger City Editor Sam Hall for a comment, but got nothing back before press time.

Questions, but few answers
I don't know why the paper published the story or the photo.

Many of my readers may be tempted to say that understaffed newsrooms are forced to rely more and more on citizen journalists and photographers for freebie photos and stories to keep websites fresh, and broadcasts and news pages filled with local content. Desperate editors resort to content they'd never consider a few years before.

It's worth noting that a year ago, the Clarion-Ledger advertised for columnists who would fill a position that it called a "labor of love." In other words, they wouldn't get paid. That ad came after a round of buyouts in February 2012 that targeted about 20% of what was then a 50-person newsroom. This is at a paper with current weekday circulation of 54,000.

Now, other readers might say this was just a poor news decision, one that can't be justified by any amount of cutbacks. The editors should have just used something else.

But what?
A wire-service story without any local interest? Generic features on health, food, and sports supplied by the remains of what used to be called Gannett News Service?

A reader tells me that Kate Marymont, who leads Corporate's News Department, sent a memo to editors last week as newspapers across the company were conducting another round of hundreds of layoffs and other job reductions. Dated Tuesday, the memo says:

"Going forward, we know editors face challenges in meeting the content needs of our print and digital readers. To support your efforts, we are launching several content initiatives.

"All are aimed at giving you ready-to-use national content so that your teams can focus entirely on the unique, high-impact local journalism needed to compete in today's crowded media world."

And I think I'll just leave it at that.

Is your site using photos or video from possibly biased sources? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.


  1. Let The Clarion-Ledger be the first.

  2. Don't know all the details w/ this but I do know the latest layoffs (6 in news, 2 in sports), combined w/ several openings that have gone unfilled, have left the CL woefully understaffed, to the point where you have to wonder WTF they are thinking and how in the heck they can get a paper out 7 nights per week. Counting the new sports editor, who came from out of state and has been on the job about a month and is still learning the computer system, let alone the Mississippi sports scene, Sports is down to 2 people to edit local copy. Unless those 2 work 7 nights a week, there's going to be several nights a week where 1 person is editing all the local copy by himself. Thats a recipe for disaster for for a state wide newspaper that covers 4 Division I football programs and purports itself to be the statewide clearinghouse for high school sports. Oh, and the lone remaining high school sports reporter quit the same day the layoffs were announced -- just as football season is beginning.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Jim, how about posting the entire memo about "ready-to-use national content"?

  5. Your ethics concerns are so quaint and old fashioned, Jim. It's a digital age now -- anything goes.

  6. Ready-to-use national content means USAT stories -- that 8-page section to be stuffed inside the larger Gannett papers -- I assume the smaller papers will get a package of USAT stories that designers at the hubs will continue to select and put on inside pages. Efforts to add features and sports to this are underway. Sports is the toughest nut to crack because each locale is unique, as far as what its readers consider important (which teams are of strong interest, etc.). But where there's an ethical corner to cut to save a buck, I'm sure the co. will find a way.

  7. Jim, your concern is a good one, but the truth is sites like Jackson are now so strapped that they are just scrambling to fill the space before deadline in print and before the website grows stale. They'll take just about anything and publish it. As for photographers, the CL photo staff just a few years ago was 9, including a veteran director, who was laid off about 3 years ago. Counting people who have left and were not replaced (and one who was moved from photo to Sports to replace the Outdoors writer who took a buyout), the photo staff is now 3 people. For a state-wide newspaper. Gannett has destroyed the editorial product of that newspaper, with lots of help from Bob Terzotis, Judy Terzotis, Larry Whitaker and Leslie Hurst.

  8. Shreveport uses what I call "clip art" on my new stories - a picture of Handcuffs, or "caution tape" instead of an actual photo from the scene of the story - sad...

  9. Sites are using a lot of stock art, especially in features sections. Where in the past a photographer would be assigned to illustrate a locally written feature story, now it's illustrated with stock art (also known as clip art, from olden times).

  10. Is it possible that they ran this photo not because of cutbacks but because the pro-life people were the only ones on the scene when the ambulance came? Still not sure how this is newsworthy, but that would explain it.

    1. That would explain how they got the photo, but not why they ran it.

    2. My paper has always run photos from the public if we couldn't get the photo any other way. I understand that the group that took this photo has an agenda, but if the paper was confident that it hadn't been altered and it accurately represented the scene, then why not run it? I still think this story wasn't worth running in the first place, but that's a separate question from whether it's okay to run a photo from the public.

  11. As a former member of the newsroom, I'm told the photo staff has been cut to three people, leaving large holes in coverage which are only going to get larger. Spot news is no longer covered, saccharine social media posts supersede doing hard news stories, and even shaky, amateurish videos of reporters mugging for the camera (which is too many of the locally produced ones) are more important than award winning still images. To the average reader, it appears they are attempting to kill off the printed version by driving away subscribers. But I think the leadership actually believe they run the Clarion-Facebook.

  12. I have to agree. Digital products are much more important to Gannett than the actal paper and the news it once produced. For Gannett, the news in terms of the newspaper is now an add on to anything digital.

  13. This is from poor leadership at the top & sacrificing journalism to bloat the web site. Most articles on the websites quote local tv & other media. The articles are excessively long & some show limited understanding, as though length makes up for substance. Conditions have worsened & there is pressure to film video, take pictures, play on the Facebook and fill the website that leaves little time for reporting. College kids hired cannot write. How long before this and other Gannett papers are just weekly entertainment tabs?

  14. More on using old photos:

  15. Crap is crap, even when its cooked up at the home office,

  16. I'm not sure if there is a gannett paper that has fallen farther faster than the CL. It used to be a very good state-wide paper w/ a bustling newsroom and journalists who wanted to make a difference. It's now a mediocre (at best) paper that has lost it's state-wide identity and really doesn't know what it's trying to do. The newsroom is a ghost town. But it does have some nice furniture. Too bad there's so few bodies left to use it.

    1. Does it still circulate statewide? How many editions does it print daily?

  17. A lot of good people still working very hard in Jackson, and doing great work. Geoff Pender, Brian Eason, Emily Le Coz and Jerry Mitchell all doing great watchdog work. Pender just published a great multi-page package this Sunday on state travel spending and people want to try to make a deal about an onliner and Facebook. Good grief. Just for the record, many of us are still proud of what we do, and what are co-workers do.

  18. I am not arguing with the work being produced by a few. Pender and Le Coz were great additions who are both great reads. Geoff's Sunday package on state travel was excellent. Jerry and Brian are doing good work. There are reasons to be proud, for sure, but I'm evaluating the product as a whole, from where it was 25 or even 10 years ago, and as a daily newspaper, not just for what it does most Sundays. One business writer? Two features writers? And look at the sports department. No columnist? No copy editors? Four reporters? The lone high school sports reporter just quit, just as football season is about to start? And what about photo, down to three staffers? The CL has fallen, you can't deny that.
    Jim, not sure about circulation but it's probably below 50,000 daily and around 55,000 to 60,000 on Sundays.

  19. There are good people doing good work in Jackson, more than just those mentioned. They don't get the recognition they deserve. And some of the staff are grossly overrated. There are great people who have left the CL and more will follow because of the awful conditions there.

  20. So I have first hand knowledge about this "story" and the half ass follow up piece that was at least an actual piece. If you check the comment section you see great strife over MANY details missed in the story. Also this piece and the follow up were both biased but the first was the worst. It was as if they decided to take the Pro Life Mississippi press release and tag it on a prior story. Then wrote it with no byline. When people called to complain about the fact the woman was referred to a patient w/o confirmation and the pictures of someone receiving medical care at a location that is in danger of being bombed, is under security and where the patients are routinely harassed were used we were blown off. I saw no journalist value in the pictures.
    Some more facts the pro life people WERE NOT THE ONLY ONES ON THE SCENE. Look at the photo those are clinic escorts blocking the protesters they didn't even bother contacting the escorts. Someone contacted the clinic owner and didn't ID themselves and said "I'm calling about the ambulance being called to your Jackson clinic. Do you know there has been a ambulance called to your Jackson clinic?" To which the owner responded "do you call every clinic when they have an ambulance called to it" the person said no. Diane hung up. The same person later ID by phone number as a CL writer call the clinic and started asking the clinic manager about what doctor was on staff again without ID herself. The manager gave her the info we give patients and hung up.
    As I see it the clinic owner did actually respond to the question the reporter didn't like the answer so she instead she didn't comment at all.
    Today the CL reported on the possible ID of a murder victim using the uncle of the victim (not the parents) and facebook

  21. not to defend the CL too much, but... there is no way they wrote that story about the identity of the body without having airtight sources on it. I'm sure their source was the family and/or police officials who were OK with the newspaper writing that it was the missing girl but didn't want their name(s) associated with the report. It happens all the time. The CL has slipped, and it appears to have broken from Gannett protocol by reporting using un-named sources, but it hasn't fallen so far as to report something based on an anonymous Facebook post.

  22. This is precisely what happens when experience in the newsroom was let go or forced out. The poster at 11:01 a.m. is full of you know what. (To 11:01 a.m. poster: That should be 'our', not 'are'. Guess if you actually knew a copy editor's job, that'd be a quick fix.) And if you really are "proud" of the work being done at the CL, you are truly delusional.
    I challenge anyone to pick up a copy, take the 10 minutes to read through it and tell someone, "Wow! I learned something today!" NEVER going to happen.

    With the exception of one of those mentioned, the others are not from the area and know NOTHING of the community. They have no ties to the community. They are not invested in the community. The community doesn't know them and contacts are few and far between.

    There is this asinine push to post junk on Twitter and Facebook and call it reporting. "Reporters" rush to the televisions with notebooks in hand, copying what they hear, then rehash unchecked facts into more junk and call it a story. That's if they even bother. Mostly it's wire stories. Stories written are fluff, done over the phone and filled with grammatical errors, mispelled words and unchecked facts.

    There are no ethics. Why? Because they don't know what they are. Lines are crossed daily. There is no neutrality. Dangerous for a newspaper. And sets them up quite nicely for lawsuits.

    The so-called 'content editor' doesn't come from a newspaper environment. He's so in over his head he drowned in his own ineptitude months ago. He's some toady from the state Democratic Party. Calling him clueless is an understatement to cluelessness. He NEVER should've been hired. There is NO direction and NO accountability in what is left of the newsroom. There aren't 30 in the newsroom anymore.

    That Gannett lacky Tolley is out of there before the sun hits the horizon, as is his underling. That publisher Hurst is drawing a good paycheck for doing pretty much nothing. Tolley despises Jackson and it shows. He despises being in Jackson and that shows. But seems to forget he's from W. Virginia.
    What he doesn't know (or maybe he just doesn't give a damn)is that those left in the newsroom despise him.

    To think of those that lost their jobs because of Hurst, Tolley and Gannett, then see what muck remains is a travesty. Tolley has systematically driven out or has been responsible for most of the African Americans in the newsroom losing their jobs. He's replaced them with very young, VERY inexperienced (some with NO experience), whites. How do I know? I'm looking at them. Don't believe me? Research who used to work here and compare it to who is in the newsroom now.

    The CL hasn't "slipped". It's trash. It's not a newspaper anymore. It's just paper. And an overpriced paper at that. Harsh local news has disappeared because it's just crime, mostly black related crime, etc. The white readership in "perceived" economically better communities don't want to read about that. That kind of coverage is reserved for one of their "passion topic" areas and has NOTHING to do with Jackson(a predominately black city), where the paper is based. Example: White girl disappears and is found dead- prominent, daily coverage. Black kid disappears and is found murdered-a blurb online.

    Solution: Shut the C/L down or for God's sake, find a wealthy, independent buyer and sell. Because it's very obvious Gannett could give a rat's rump about the workforce. Just look at the product.


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