For the Record Dean Wright on Ethics, Innovation and Values Thu, 31 Mar 2011 21:53:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 One final point Thu, 31 Mar 2011 21:53:15 +0000 After six of the most rewarding years in my career, this is my final week at Reuters as global editor for ethics and standards.  In this role, it’s been my job to make sure Reuters journalists have the guidance, tools and oversight to help them practice journalism in a way that is consistent with the  highest ethics and standards.  I’ve spent most of my life doing more-or-less daily journalism, and now my wife and I have formed a media consulting company. But before I move on, I’m taking one last opportunity to reflect on why I’m proud to have been a Reuters journalist.

Some say journalism’s golden age has passed. But speaking as someone who has been at this for 38 years, I think we’re living in it.

The news cycle of the first three months of 2011 has clearly shown the value of having experienced journalists in place around the globe to tell the world’s stories and provide insight into how those stories affect the lives of our audience.

I’m humbled by the skill and courage our journalists have shown in reporting on the wars and revolutions in the Middle East and the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Just this week, Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance Iraqi journalist who had worked for Reuters since 2004, was killed while reporting from Tikrit when gunmen attacked a government building.

I’m also proud that, at Reuters, we do our work in the open.

In 2009 we made the Reuters Handbook of Journalism available for free online. The handbook is the guidance Reuters journalists live by and we were proud to make it public.

As I wrote in 2009, we made the handbook public for three important reasons:

Transparency. At a time when public trust of the media is in short supply, it’s important that news consumers see the guidelines our journalists follow.

Service. Sure, anyone with an internet connection can be a publisher. But publishers have varying standards of truth, fairness and style. Our handbook is a great starting point for journalists and publishers as they build their own standards.

Geography. Reuters serves a global audience and or handbook recognizes the cultural and political differences that our journalists face in reporting for the world. This is a handbook not just for English-language journalists in the United States or the United Kingdom, but for wherever English is used.

The response was gratifying. I heard from journalists and journalism educators around the world who were grateful for free access to this resource. We also heard from people who pointed out occasional inconsistencies between the handbook guidance and the way we actually reported stories. And that’s great–because we believe in transparency.

Not all interactions have been so pleasant. Partisans on all sides of Middle East issues are particularly prone to alleging bias in our reporting—and I’ve long since lost hope of convincing them that journalists can indeed put aside their own viewpoints and even ethnic backgrounds and report a story fairly and completely. That’s what our journalists do every day.

I’ve also given up on looking for wisdom in the anonymous comments that we and most other news organizations allow on stories. There is some wisdom there, but it’s drowned out in a cacophony of vituperation and recycled partisan attacks. It’s great to have interaction with our customers and readers, but I’d really like to know you better—not just as Johnnycat99 or Teaweasel.

Technology has liberated us and presented new challenges. How can we be sure that images we gather through social media or from third parties are legitimate at a time when photo manipulation technology can make doctored photos virtually impossible to detect? We’ve even had isolated instances of our own journalists using such technology improperly, instances that have been dealt with swiftly and decisively.

And yet, as I said earlier, there is so much reason for optimism about journalism.

Journalists are better educated than ever, have more powerful tools for gathering and transmitting news than ever and, as we’re seeing this year, are having a greater impact than ever.

And judging from my contacts with the Reuters journalists who do the hard work of daily journalism, they’re less cynical and more idealistic than ever. So many have told me that they see themselves as evangelists of truth, of independent reporting and the free flow of information. For most, this is much more than a job. They believe, as do I, that the world would be a poorer, meaner place without their efforts.

I salute them and pray for them.

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Hungary drudges through this toxic spill Thu, 21 Oct 2010 05:01:52 +0000 HUNGARY

I wish it were the awarding of its 14th Nobel Prize that is putting my country in the news these days.

Instead, Hungary is back on the world stage because of a disastrous chemical spill. An avalanche of a highly alkaline mud that could fill 440 Olympic-sized swimming pools has broken through the shoddy containment walls at an aluminum plant not far from the Lake Balaton region. As a result, nine people have died and 250 were injured. Wild and farm animals have perished, and lands and little summer gardens that were the villagers’ food and staple for winter have been ravished.

The 16th century castle in Devecser has surely seen a lot but now looks over hundreds of homes doomed to demolition. Kolontar, the village right under the alumina pond has even been compared to Chernobyl, the infamous home of a nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

But a comparison of this sort only adds more damage to the grief: The red mud, as bad as it looks, is not highly radioactive, which was the case with Chernobyl. What makes the red sludge dangerous is alkali, which can dissolve skin as water dissolves soap. Eating up shoes and rubber boots, alkali left villagers with second- and third-degree burns.

Unfortunately, Alkali is all too familiar to Hungarians.

“Heartbroken maids would drink [alkali-rich] laundry detergent in the 19th century,” Dr. Zoltan Komaromi, secretary of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, said. “Alkali dissolves the esophagus immediately so drinking it used to be a popular way of committing suicide.”

Beyond the obvious damages, however, not even experts of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences or the top eco-toxicologists of Europe who arrived in Hungary last week have been able to assess the long-term consequences from the sludge. For it is the first ecological disaster of its kind in the world. So are the methods with which Hungarians try to fight it.

They have dumped tons of clay and vinegar into rivers. They poured gypsum over the land. The neutralization of the alkalinity worked just in time to save the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, a main drinking water supply.

For now, the most urgent task is preventing the mud that covers an area twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park from drying into dust and being carried by the wind. When inhaled as dust, alkali is still a menace — it burns sensitive tissue in the nose, throat and lungs.

Residents are already allowed to return to the settlements, but hundreds of them decided to stay away from their homes for good. Who would blame them when no one is sure about the long–term effects of heavy metals in the mud and rumors spread about carcinogenic repercussions and even radiation.

“Continuous inhaling of toxic dust may result in an excessive metal load in the body which may damage the lungs and may cause tumors,” said Dr. Gabor Zacher, head of Toxicology at Péterfy Sándor hospital in Budapest. “We have only guesses at this point. The world, in four or five years time, will be able to learn from our example, but for now we cannot say anything unambiguously.”

Meanwhile, an increasing number of people in Ajka, the town closest to the alumina refinery have spoken about illnesses caused by inhaling its red dust decades before the accident.

“In my street, almost every house has had someone getting sick with cancer,” Ferenc Nemeth, a local of Ajka told Duna TV, a Hungarian public channel. “My father had lung cancer, my neighbor was operated with brain tumor and my other neighbor died from lung cancer. (…) We’re scared that this is going to continue,” he said.

If anyone could provide some advice it would be Jamaicans, one of the biggest alumina exporters in the world. “Each year, bauxite processing in Jamaica produces enough caustic mud to bury 700 football pitches and their goalpost,” wrote the New Scientist in 1986, the year when Jamaicans seriously started research ways to reduce the accumulation of red mud.

An obvious idea was to make bricks of it so they needed to test its toxicity. Dr. W.R. Pinnock, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies and an expert of red mud projects, found that a building made entirely of materials based on red mud, “wouldn’t be safe” for permanent living. But, sadly, Jamaicans know that there is no real “cleaning up” when it comes to waste material.

So Hungarian wit is most needed now to figure out what to do with our mud if we are to preserve the environment and ourselves.

The opinions expressed are Donath’s own.

Photo caption: A footprint is seen in the mud after red toxic sludge flooded the village of Devecser, 93 miles west of Budapest, October 11, 2010. A million cubic metres of red mud burst out of a sludge reservoir last Monday, flooding three local villages and fouling rivers including a tributary of the Danube. The town of Devecser, home to 5,400 people, is on alert should it need to be evacuated. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

could provide some advice
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Toward a more thoughtful conversation on stories Mon, 27 Sep 2010 16:19:04 +0000 Visitors to this space may recall that I wrote this summer about the issues Reuters and other news organizations face in dealing with reader comments on stories.

I’ve become increasingly concerned about the quality of discourse in comments on news stories on and on other major news sites.  On some stories,  the “conversation”  has been little more than  partisans slinging invective at each other under  the cloak of anonymity.

I believe our time-challenged, professional readers want to see a more rewarding conversation—and my colleagues who lead are introducing a new process for comments that I believe will help bring that about.

The new process, which gives special status to readers whose comments have passed muster in the past, won’t address the anonymity issue, but I do think it is an important step toward a more civil and thoughtful conversation.

Let me introduce Richard Baum, Reuters Global Editor for Consumer Media, to tell you about the new process:


Like many major news publishers, we’ve agonized over how to balance our enthusiasm for reader comments on stories with our belief that few people would benefit from a free-for-all. Most of our readers respect our request for comments that “advance the story,” by submitting relevant anecdotes, links and data or by challenging our reporting when they think we’ve fallen short of our editorial standards. It’s rewarding, sometimes even exhilarating, to see the way our audience builds on our coverage.

Where we struggle is with comments that we believe contribute nothing useful to the conversation. I’m not talking about obscenities and spam — we have software that aims to block the publication of those — but something more subjective. Most of our readers are business professionals who value their time highly. We believe they want comments that are as rewarding to read as they are to write. The challenge is how we deliver that experience in a way that doesn’t delay the publication of good comments nor use up resources that might be better deployed on other parts of the site.

I’ll explain how we’re tackling that shortly. But first, here are some examples of the type of comments that fall foul of our moderators:
— racism and other hate language that isn’t caught by our software filters
— obscene words with letters substituted to get around the software filters
— semi-literate spelling; we’re not looking for perfection, but people shouldn’t have to struggle to determine the meaning
— uncivil behavior towards other commentators; debate is welcome, schoolyard taunts are not
— incitement to violence
— comments that have nothing to do with the story
— comments that have been pasted across multiple stories
— comments that are unusually long, unless they’re very well written
— excessive use of capital letters

Some of the guidelines for our moderators are hard to define precisely. Mocking of public people can be fair sport, for example, but a moderator that has just approved 30 comments calling someone an idiot can rightly decide that there’s little incremental value in publishing the 31st. When we block comments of this nature, it’s because of issues of repetition, taste or legal risk, not political bias.

Until recently, our moderation process involved editors going through a basket of all incoming comments, publishing the ones that met our standards and blocking the others. (It’s a binary decision: we don’t have the resources to edit comments.)

This was unsatisfactory because it delayed the publication of good comments, especially overnight and at weekends when our staffing is lighter.

Our new process grants a kind of VIP status on people who have had comments approved previously. When you register to comment on, our moderation software tags you as a new user. Your comments go through the same moderation process as before, but every time we approve a comment, you score a point.

Once you’ve reached a certain number of points, you become a recognized user. Congratulations: your comments will be published instantly from now on. Our editors will still review your comments after they’ve been published and will remove them if they don’t meet our standards. When that happens, you’ll lose points. Lose enough points and you’ll revert to new user status.

The highest scoring commentators will be classified as expert users, earning additional privileges that we’ll implement in future. You can see approval statistics for each reader on public profile pages like this, accessed by clicking on the name next to a comment.

It’s not a perfect system, but we believe it’s a foundation for facilitating a civil and rewarding discussion that’s open to the widest range of people. Let me know what you think.

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Hungary grapples with free-press issues Thu, 12 Aug 2010 19:40:29 +0000 When my editorial assistant, Mirjam Donath, traveled to her native Hungary recently, I asked her to look into some of the ethical issues faced by journalists there.

In a coincidental piece of timing, Hungary’s president this week signed into a law controversial media legislation that has drawn criticism from constitutional law experts and press freedom advocates. So Mirjam’s interviews in Hungary are all the more newsworthy now.

Over to Mirjam.


If the man who introduced the ombudsman institution to Hungary says that the freedom of the Hungarian press is in danger, a journalist takes notice. And Laszlo Majtenyi, the first Freedom of Information Commissioner of Hungary and former president of the media supervisory authority (ORTT), warned me of just that during my recent visit to Budapest.

Following the first round of the Hungarian elections, analysts predicted that the two-thirds majority of the center-right party, Fidesz, which formed Hungary’s new government in April, was to have a slightly positive impact on financial markets. This unprecedented mandate, which gives the government the power to make even constitutional changes without the consent of the opposition, promised relatively quick implementation of economic reforms.

But as soon as the government came into power, first the Hungarian currency, the Forint, tumbled in early June. Then, the IMF suspended negotiations on Hungary’s funding program in July. And this week, President Pal Schmitt signed the most controversial part of the new media law package, which was condemned by constitutional experts in Hungary and press freedom watchdogs abroad.

…the law was prepared in full secrecy, a circumstance that would alone make it unacceptable, even if its elements were otherwise correct. “Which they are not,” Majtenyi says.

Proponents of the act, drafted to be appropriate for the new digital media environment and for the renewal of the media supervisory authority that had faced corruption scandals, say it is designed to promote the freedom of information. But Majtenyi, who quit the authority presidency in protest over a frequency auction scandal in 2009, says that the law was prepared in full secrecy, a circumstance that would alone make it unacceptable to him, even if its elements were otherwise correct. “Which they are not,” Majtenyi says.

The main controversy is over the new law that merges the national media supervisory authority (ORTT) with the telecommunications authority (NHH) into a  “Media Council.” The Council, which will supervise both public and private broadcasting, will be presided over by an appointee of the prime minister – the most influential political leader in Hungary, Viktor Orban at present – for a nine-year term, and cannot be dismissed unless he or she refuses to do the job.

The members of the Council will be nominated by the parliament so that its composition will roughly mirror the influence of the parties in the parliament, which was not the case with the old authority. Since the Council is responsible for nominating the directors of Hungary’s public service media positions, which had formerly been subject to open competition, critics warn of the prime minister’s direct influence on the future leaders of the public media.

Dunja Mijatovic, the representative on freedom of the media of the UN Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) appealed for modifications in the draft laws in June.

“Their [the proposed laws’] adoption could lead to all broadcasting being subordinated to political decisions,” wrote Mijatovic to Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi in an open letter.

“The offensive against the new media law is organized by people abroad who are hurt and dissatisfied with the changes”

Annamaria Szalai, the Fidesz delegate at the current media authority ORTT, and freshly appointed president of the new supervisory authority, said the international criticism was baseless. “The offensive against the new media law is organized by people abroad who are hurt and dissatisfied with the changes,” she said in a statement  Wednesday.

Zoltan Kovacs, the secretary in charge of government communication,  said the new laws would improve the Hungarian public media, which he characterized as “lavish, professionally and financially uncontrolled and non-functional” during the eight-year reign of the previous government.

“By becoming an independent state administrative body, the [media supervisory] authority’s legitimacy and controllability are indeed growing from now as it will need to report to the parliament that is elected by the people,” Kovacs said. “This will be guaranteed by the Media Council that is elected by the parliament.”

Answering criticism that the president of the Council is unavoidably the prime minister’s man or woman, Kovacs said that it is general international practice in democratic countries for the prime minister, head of state or president to appoint the president of the media supervisory authority. Kovacs listed France, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark as examples.

…the lawmakers do not and cannot aim to eliminate the freedom of the press. They do aim, however, to extend their political authority.

The question may well be if the Hungarian democracy, like its older European counterparts, is ready to put all the media control mechanisms into the hands of a government that has a two-thirds majority in the parliament.

Financial control is among those mechanisms, too. The new media law will put the assets of Hungary’s public television, radio and news agency under the ownership of the Media Council, which is, for the time being, under the direct control of the government.

Majtenyi doesn’t agree with critics who say that the Fidesz media proposition is similar to those of the communist state control of media. His team of constitutional experts at the Eotvos Karoly Institute, a watchdog NGO created by the George Soros Foundation, published an analysis on Hungary’s press freedom in August, which states that the lawmakers do not and cannot aim to eliminate the freedom of the press. They do aim however, according to the report, to extend their political authority, which could weaken the constitution and endanger Hungary’s international trust.

According to Political Capital, a private research institute that specializes in risk forecast in Central Europe, press freedom is threatened by the increasing market power of private news organizations close to Fidesz, rather than stronger government influence on public media.

“The past eight years have seen a proliferation of private media groups that are linked to Fidesz. They exercise substantial influence over advertisers, which may mean less ad revenue for news outlets that are not allied with the government,” states Political Capital in its 2010 Political Risk Index.

RTL Klub, one of the most popular private television stations, and the conservative weekly Heti Valasz are both owned by a media company where the majority stakeholder was Hungary’s present minister of national development, Tamas Fellegi. Before becoming a minister in April, Fellegi, a businessman, sold his stake. The buyers were Zsolt Nyerges, one of his former business partners, and Istvan Stumpf, former minister in Orban Viktor’s first Prime Minister Office.

“Professionalism is still secondary. Some very bad bias rules our profession”

The Hungarian media market is not doing any better than other markets across the world, but it is significantly smaller. In a country of 10 million, even the leading tabloid Blikk could only sell 203,000 issues in the second quarter of 2010, according to MATESZ, the Hungarian Audit Bureau of Circulation. Journalists say that there is not yet a demand for unbiased journalism in Hungary.

“Our basic problem is that the country lacks a strong middle-class who would want and have the money to spend on information about the workings of the government. Until there is demand for it, it’s difficult to expect professionalism from journalists,” said Andras Stumpf, a correspondent of Heti Valasz.

Providing a service that supports a clear political agenda also builds loyal readership, which helps a media outlet survive, said Ferenc M. Laszlo, a correspondent of Hungary’s leading news portal Origo.

“We still want to sort of advise people on what and how to think,” he said. Laszlo recently left Magyar Narancs (Hungarian Orange), a liberal weekly for Origo, a German company, as he finds it one of the most professional media organizations in Hungary, “a representative of the Anglo-Saxon type of press,” where he doesn’t worry about possible editorial pressure to produce biased news reports.

“Professionalism is still secondary. Some very bad bias rules our profession,” Laszlo said.

Majtenyi, who served as Hungary’s first news ombudsman at the daily Magyar Hirlap until the paper refused to publish his criticism, refuses to blame Hungary’s 20-year-old “young” democracy for press problems.

“In 1848, when Hungary declared independence from the Habsburg Monarchy, the first public demand of the modern Hungary was, ‘We wish the freedom of the press and the abolishing of censure’,” he said. “Ironically, the only era when our press was unlimitedly free according to international standards is these last 20 years. Citing our young democracy is not a valid excuse. That would be fake reality.”

Mirjam Donath is editorial assistant to Dean Wright, Reuters global editor for ethics, innovation and news standards.

]]> 0 What did you say your name was? Fri, 09 Jul 2010 14:56:19 +0000 Let’s see who’s been commenting on Reuters stories and blogs in recent days and weeks. There’s gadfly, WeNotMe, Blisterpearls, northboundgirl, Snowshoes and JacktheBear, among others. I strongly suspect those are not their real names.

I don’t mean to call out these particular commenters, and I’m happy to see our readers taking the time to engage in robust discussion on But I’m beginning to think our discussion would be even more robust and insightful if those making comments signed their real names.

News organizations have grappled with how to handle reader comments practically since the dawn of online media. When I was at in the 1990s we had message boards that at first were heavily monitored (at a fairly high cost) and then were largely unmonitored. By 1998, no matter what the purported subject of the board, the discussion would be taken over by frenzied postings on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

Some organizations have taken a very laissez-faire approach to reader comments, allowing anything to be posted and taking down only the most egregiously offensive comments after the fact. Others have taken a much more labor-intensive–and expensive–approach, moderating all comments before they’re published. Some have banned anonymous comments. Most are somewhere in the middle.
I spoke with Reuters general manager for global consumer media, Keith McAllister, about the approach.

“We want our users to be as involved as possible in,” Keith said. “User comments, particularly, help us move stories beyond our own reporting and analysis to unpredictably interesting and valuable places. We learn from (users) and, we believe, (users) learn from each other.”

He added: “We are also zealous guardians of the quality of the community because so many of you rely on our site to be a place of serious and informed debate. That’s why we ask users to register to comment and why–in the near future–we’ll take the additional step of clearing each new user’s first comment.”

I think that’s a smart move that will make the debate in the comments sections even smarter. Still, I wonder if we should tackle the question of anonymity.

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten explored the subject of anonymous, vitriolic comments and asked in an online poll if readers who file comments should be required to identify themselves. As of this writing, about 46 percent say no and 41 percent say yes.

New technologies have offered more sophisticated and powerful monitoring and registration tools, but in the end it all comes down to how much news organizations are willing to spend and to whether we fundamentally believe that people should be allowed to comment anonymously or be required to identify themselves.

Print newspapers and magazines only publish signed letters to the editor and almost all verify the sender’s identity before publication. But again, this costs money and time.

Most news websites encourage comments and allow a great deal of freedom for commenters to say pretty much anything they want as long as it isn’t hate speech or obscene. The result is indeed a free-for-all of opinion, from right to left and, in some cases, well outside the generally accepted bounds of reality.

Isn’t this a good thing? the argument goes. Shouldn’t we encourage as much discussion as possible?

I’ve always thought so. But lately I wonder if the discussion is really serving the needs of our audience. As I read the comments on stories about the health care debate in the United States, so many seemed be little more than pre-cooked soundbites and talking points of the left and the right. There is little actual discussion as partisans on both sides fire salvos of invective at each other. And on stories that deal with Middle East, the divide is even more pronounced. Is this useful, or is it more like shouting at the television set–and just about as effective?

So what? I’ve been told. Is this really any different than Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where speakers can mount a soapbox and expound on pretty much anything they want to? Well, actually it is. In Hyde Park, you can see who’s doing the speaking.

Would the online debate among commenters be stifled by requiring commenters to sign their real names? I suspect some would be less likely to want to attach their names to their opinions and some would sign false names but I also believe we might get more thoughtful comments. And I believe commenters would be less likely to throw insults at an identifiable person than at an abstraction like johnny99gogo.

Of course, this may be an argument for the last century, anyway. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have changed the ways people share their thoughts with each other by promoting more selective communities. The comments section on stories and blogs may already be a dinosaur.

What do you think? Are there other ways to promote smarter, more civil discourse.

Chime in. But could you sign your real name?

Dean Wright
(formerly johnny99gogo)

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When journalism becomes a good story Mon, 14 Jun 2010 20:27:06 +0000 The recent publication of “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman’s  witty and entertaining little novel about a struggling English-language newspaper in Rome with a colorful staff, was a reminder that, even as newspapers face a tough economic climate, there’s still a good market for stories about them.

Maybe it’s because I want to find some glamor or intrigue or romance in my  profession, so I find it reassuring that writers are still able to spin entertaining tales about journalists.

So, in addition to “The Imperfectionists,” here’s a completely arbitrary and woefully incomplete list of works that either have journalists as major characters or have journalism as a backdrop to the action of the book.  There are no “how-to” or educational works here, though some of these do offer lessons in the ethics and practice of journalism.

–“The Year of Living Dangerously,” by Christopher Koch: Maybe it’s the romantic 1982 Peter Weir film adaptation with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver that makes this work so unforgettable to me.  A young Australian broadcast journalist, Guy Hamilton, arrives in Indonesia during the Sukarno era and joins a foreign-correspondent community marked by rivalry and the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol. Lots of romance and espionage intrigue and a plot to overthrow Sukarno. Hamilton finds himself way too close to the story.

–“The Lotus Eaters, “by Tatjana Soli: This newly published novel follows an American female photojournalist during the Vietnam War. As the title’s nod to Greek mythology indicates, the novel looks at how journalists are sometimes narcotized by the stories–particularly the wars—that they cover and find they can’t live without them.

–“1984,” by George Orwell: It’s been 61 years since it was published and 26 years since the title year passed into history. But the novel that gave us Newspeak, Big Brother and doublethink remains an inspiration for journalists who report on the world as it is–not how the Party decreed it to be.

–“The Quiet American,” by Graham Greene: What is it about Asia that gives us such great journalism books? Greene’s novel, set in the sunset of France’s war in Vietnam and in the dawn of America’s conflict, features a journalist, Thomas Fowler, who is finally forced to take a stand. But does he do it for the right reasons? And is it worth a life?

–“In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote: I’m stretching the criteria here. A controversial and compelling “true-life novel” about the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, Capote’s book isn’t about a journalist or journalism; it’s a work of journalism that reads like a novel. Capote worked on the book for more than five years and the work–while challenged as inaccurate and ethically compromised by some critics–shows how deeply Capote immersed himself in the story. (The 2005 film “Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance, explores Capote’s techniques.

–“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren: This is a book I have been reading and re-reading for more than 40 years and I always discover something new in it. On one level, a tale of Willie Stark, a charismatic populist politician who descends into corruption, it’s also the story of Jack Burden, a journalist who begins by reporting on Stark, then becomes his personal aide. It’s a complex, multilayered novel that challenges the notion that a journalist can be a passive observer.

I said at the beginning that this list would be arbitrary and incomplete. Tell us what books about journalism have inspired you, enraged you, made you laugh, made you cry. As in all the best journalism, make sure there’s a good story.

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Local takes on a global media revolution Wed, 19 May 2010 16:50:23 +0000 It’s easy to become enchanted with the multimedia world of communications we live in. Every week, it seems, technology brings a new way for people to connect with one another and for journalists to tell stories.

But I’m reminded that this is not the case for much of the world—that the brilliant technologists and the daring entrepreneurs of “new media” tend to ply their trade in the developed world.

Actually, I was reminded of this by my editorial assistant, Jacqueline Bischof. Jackie hails from South Africa and after working with me for the better part of a year she will be returning this summer to her homeland, whose media industry will benefit greatly from her intelligence, creativity and energy. We’ve had numerous conversations about the implications the digital revolution has for the developing world, so I asked her to share some thoughts.

Over to Jackie.


Audio slideshows. Streaming video. Flash graphics. Bandwidth- intensive sites.

Bischof picIn the two years that I’ve been living in New York City, studying my Masters at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and working, I’ve been absorbed by discussions around digital media and the way the industry has been both energized and intimidated by the potential of the Internet to host new forms of communication. I’ve seen some beautiful sites, fabulous interactive graphics and exciting digital tools that illustrate the powerful story-telling potential of the web.

Some of my favorite works were produced by Reuters staff: Larry Downing’s incredibly moving photo essay on Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, the multimedia-rich and collaborative Thomson Reuters focus project exploring high frequency trading, and Finbarr O’Reilly’s latest work on poor whites in South Africa.

But while reading these works, and listening to the debates, I’ve struggled to shake one thought. What about people who have limited — even zero — access to these new digital tools? In places where bandwidth is expensive and slow? Are they being shut out of the conversation? What are the consequences of a global digital divide? The question has been around since the erratic growth of technology across the globe first began.

Internet World Stats records that as of the 31st of December, 2009, there were 1,802,330,457 people using the Internet. Of that number, about 86 million were in Africa — 4.8 percent of the world’s users. Internet penetration is less than nine percent of Africa’s population, compared to 76 percent in the United States. In fact, only 30 percent of the world’s population is currently online.

My home, South Africa, has a dual economy with both high and low Internet usage. A majority of people are still offline. For some, this is because there are no resources for access, and for others, it’s because the Internet has not come to completely dominate our lives as it has in the U.S. My nieces are almost teen-agers and their Internet usage is still limited to researching online encyclopedias. They’ve hardly been near Facebook, except to view my photos, and they’ve probably not yet heard of Twitter. This is not entirely out of the ordinary for the younger South African generation — we’re nowhere near the possible levels of addiction or dependency that are starting to show in the Western world!

When I arrived in the States, I went from having Internet access with capped bandwidth that I would hesitate to waste on downloading a YouTube video, to unlimited wireless access that made streaming video immediately accessible. I’ve been able to explore and view more online in the last two years than I could’ve imagined back home.

It seemed almost absurd to me to apply aspects of the digital media discussion to my home: With such low Internet penetration on the continent, what does the “digital age” – requiring fast, inexpensive bandwidth and speedy processors — mean to the majority of Africans? Where do we fit in this dazzling multimedia landscape, which both excites and distresses the media industry in the U.S.?

Over time I’ve come to realize that we do have a hand in this game. With the vast uptake of mobile phones and stunning examples of innovative use of technology on the continent, we’re participating — in our own way, African style. And the Internet has also allowed people on the margins to have access to the online world in ways previously unimaginable. Look no further than the work of BOSCO-Uganda, which recently won the Breaking Borders award for using innovative technology to expand access to information online. BOSCO’s original aim was to establish solar-powered communication lines between people in internally displaced camps in Northern Uganda — people who would normally be completely excluded from the global conversation. Kubatana, another winner, has used every medium possible to get its information out to Zimbabweans.

Necessity breeds innovation, and information is a necessity. Most people, according to a BBC World Service poll, believe Internet access is a fundamental right. People will find any way to get access to information, and journalists will find any way to provide it. That is a global truth I find incredibly inspiring.

Jackie Bischof is editorial research assistant to Dean Wright, Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Born and raised in Johannesburg, Jackie was an Michael and Ceil Pulitzer African fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and returns to South Africa to work as an administrative assistant on the Reuters World Cup desk.

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Honoring Free Expression Online Thu, 06 May 2010 19:00:14 +0000 One of the many joys I have in this job is getting the occasional opportunity to help give prizes away.

I served as a judge for the first Breaking Borders Awards, which were created by Google and Global Voices, and supported by Thomson Reuters, to honor some of those who strive for freedom of expression online.

The awards–$10,000 each and divided into three categories: technology, policy and advocacy– were presented Thursday at the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit in Santiago, Chile.

Deliberations were difficult, as the standard of entries was high and the judges were impressed by the work being done by individuals and groups to deliver on the Internet’s promise: a medium that allows for freedom of expression and the free flow of information.

The winners were decided after several weeks of deliberation by the judging panel, which included myself, Robert Boorstin, Director of Public Policy at Google; Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University; Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of Global Voices Online and Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology; Edetaen Ojo, Chair of the International Freedom of Expression of Exchange and executive director of Media Rights Agenda in Nigeria; and Jose Roberto de Toledo, founder of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism.

In the advocacy category, for “an activist or group that has used online tools to promote free expression or encourage political change,” the winner is the Zimbabwean online community Kubatana uses the Internet, email, SMS, blogs and print materials to disseminate information to the public and is a valuable resource for information on the country. Its website hosts debate, publishes official government and legislative rulings and has an extensive archive of human rights and civil reports.

The judges were impressed with the way Kubatana uses a mix of high-tech and low-tech to distribute information in and outside of Zimbabwe. Using internet and mobile technology, their e-mail and SMS alerts and website unite several hundred organizations.

The technology category, for an individual or group “that has created an important tool that enables free expression and expands access to information”, was won by BOSCO-Uganda, an organization based in Uganda and in the United States that started with the aim of establishing communication between displaced persons camps in northern Uganda, using a solar powered, long-range wireless computer network. The organization’s goal is to further provide information and communication technology solutions, such as web training and online collaboration, to enable peace building in rural communities in northern Uganda.

We were greatly impressed by the organization’s smart use of available technology, adapted to local conditions. This ingenious use of technology has allowed a significant engagement with the global community and has expanded access to information for people on the margins. BOSCO-Uganda was a true example of the potential the web has to create new and empowering forms of expression and communication.

The policy category, given to a “policy maker, government official or NGO leader who has made a notable contribution in the field,” was won by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit media agency that has sought to promote values of investigative reporting in fostering good governance, freedom of expression and the right to information. Since its start in 1989, PCIJ has fearlessly reported on issues of corruption and malfeasance in government.

In a nation where journalism can be a dangerous profession, PCIJ provides much needed support–in funding, training and maintaining information databases. It is useful both for journalists in the Philippines and for Western journalists who need a view of the complicated information society there.

I hope this will be the first of many years in which Breaking Borders Awards honor those who are using the Internet to promote freedom of expression.

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Check out the new Reuters Financial Glossary Fri, 09 Apr 2010 15:22:53 +0000 It starts with “A/S” (abbreviation for Aktieselskab, Danish company title) and ends with “zero coupon yield curve” (a yield curve of zero coupon bonds. Market practice is often to derive this curve theoretically from the par yield curve. Also known as a spot yield curve).

Between those two entries in the Reuters Financial Glossary are more than 2,000 other terms used in the financial industry and in the reports that journalists write about it.

As we did with the Handbook of Journalism, we’re making the financial glossary available on the Web. As with the handbook, I believe it’s important that Reuters readers and customers see the guidelines our journalists live by and some of the tools we use to do our work.

The glossary is the result of hard work by Ian Jones, who retired from the Reuters London Treasury desk and did a total rewrite of the glossary; Tomasz Janowski, of our Singapore Treasury desk, who reviewed the work; and interactive developer Mia Walczak, who led the development effort.

The glossary can shed a little light on the sometimes murky world of finance. As we’ve seen from the fallout of the recession, it’s a world everyone should be more familiar with.

The glossary also makes for good reading.

Some of the terms will be familiar to readers who follow the debate on Wall Street pay–“golden hello,” “golden handcuffs” and “golden parachute.”

Others may be less familiar: “Shogun bond” does not refer to the brotherhood of Samurai but to a “public offering in Japan of a non-yen bond by a foreign borrower.”

There’s a “swaption,” understandably “an option on a swap,” and the “Old Lady of Threadneedle Street,” the “colloquial name for the Bank of England,” which is situated on Threadneedle Street in London.

Then there are “Fibonacci numbers,” a number sequence named after a 12th-century Italian mathematician that has shown up Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and other novels. As the definition explains: “The ratio of any number to the next highest in the sequence is approximately 1 to 0.618 and the ratio between any number and the two next higher numbers, for example 89 to 233, is approximately 1 to 0.382. They are sometimes described as golden ratios and said to be found in a wide range of natural phenomena such as the ratio of male to female bees in a hive and the diameters of the seed spirals in the head of a sunflower.”

Not all the entries have such a magical component, but they’re all helpful in decoding the financial world.

There’s a feedback button on the glossary, so if you have feedback we’d love to hear from you.

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Social media: Some principles and guidelines Wed, 10 Mar 2010 16:09:26 +0000 The rise of social media has brought journalists some powerful new storytelling and information-gathering tools. However, with these new opportunities have come some new risks.

At Reuters, we have just published some social media guidelines that lay out some basic principles and offer recommendations that should prove useful as journalists navigate what can sometimes seem a chaotic landscape.

In building the new guidelines, we’ve embraced some basic principles:

  • We encourage the use of social media approaches in Reuters journalism.
  • Accuracy, freedom from bias and independence are fundamental to our reputation. These values and the Trust Principles apply to journalism produced using social media just as they have to all other journalism produced by Reuters.
  • A distinguishing feature of Reuters is the trust invested in its journalists to rise above personal biases in their work and to apply common sense in dealing with the challenges offered by social media.

This last point is particularly important to me.

I’ve written in the past about how we depend on our journalists to rise above their biases to cover stories in an independent way, whether they’re in Gaza or Washington–or anywhere else.

As comments have shown–and will no doubt show again–there are those who will never believe this is possible. And there are those who would actually prefer to read, listen to or view only those information sources that confirm their own worldview.

Some news organizations have been more proscriptive with their rules or guidelines for journalists using social media–and it’s tempting to provide the rule-hungry with specific latitudes and longitudes of what’s acceptable.

But I think that approach sells short the ability of journalists to use their brains and to see–and report on–a world that’s changing every day.

That’s why I think of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism as a living document, one that helps us navigate that changing world with an eye on the future while being grounded in the ethical behavior and high standards that have brought us so far.

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