Know What Type of Journalist You Are
Internet-savvy journalist David Cohn shared with us how important it is to know what type of journalist you are. You cannot be everything to everyone, so we encourage you to consider the following factors when making strategic decisions about your work.
The unique value you bring to information, such as:
- In-depth, original investigation (involving a great deal of primary research, data analysis, interviews, etc.)
- Curation and context (making sense of the noise generated by the deluge of social media buzz and news coverage about major events that already have wide coverage)
- Fact checking (verifying user-generated content, cross-checking stories against a network of experts over social media and other online channels, and and reviewing existing stories for authenticity)
The area of expertise you will primarily cover, such as:
- Special interest groups
- Government programs
- Consumer products
- Specific industries
- International conflict
- Legal cases and developments
By establishing a more specific approach to journalism, you can not only differentiate yourself from others in the field but also leverage your most valuable assets (such as an amazing network of political contacts or an ability to analyze reams of government Census data).
Clarify How to Use Information from Sources
Journalists are expected to honor the wishes of their sources with regard to anonymity and the use of information. For this reason, interviews should be clearly established as on the record, off the record, background, or deep background before they begin.
Both journalists and sources have varying understandings of what these terms mean. We defer to the definitions presented by the Associated Press:
On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.
Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.
Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
Build a Strong Network of Sources
Behind every great journalist is a far greater network of contacts: sources, experts, academics, professionals, foreigners, locals, average Joes, and fellow journalists.
A large, varied, and robust network will help you:
- More quickly verify information (because you already know a particular source and his/her credentials and background)
- Catch important news before it breaks
- Gain insights that have not already been extensively shared in the media
- More easily cross-check information from dubious sources
- Craft balanced stories that pull information from a wide variety of perspectives
- Complete stories more quickly (as you may have to spend less time searching for sources)
- Get regular pitches (some of which will be truly valuable)
- Gain access to otherwise-unreachable sources (thanks to a mutual contact)
It takes time and a great deal of effort to build a good network, but the result is well worth your effort. To build and maintain an ideal ecosystem of sources and contacts, it can help to:
- Frequent meetups, conferences, industry meetings, festivals, and other events where valuable sources and contacts are likely to be found
- Regularly follow up with previous and potential sources to keep the relationship alive
- Follow your contacts across social media channels to keep tabs on their work
How to Grow Your Network While Providing Thorough Coverage
When you finish an interview with a source, ask "Who else should I speak with about this issue?"
Doing so will introduce you to new sources, increase the size of your network, and lead you to provide more thorough coverage of an issue.
Know How to Contend with Leaks of Confidential and Sensitive Information
When covering sensitive issues such as leaks about national security or controversial government programs, reporters run the risk of being targeted by government agencies with charges including espionage and criminal conspiracy. Should a source give you access to classified materials, it is important to know that you may be criminally prosecuted under the federal Espionage Act for conspiring with an employee or aiding his or her violation of the act.
Should you be covering sensitive issues, have sources that leak confidential information, or be covering information provided by whistleblowers, proceed with extreme caution and take care to protect your anonymity and that of your sources.
For more information on how to do so (as well as why you may wish to be careful), review the Digital Media Law Project's guides to receiving documents and information from government sources and protecting sources and source material, as well as this Foreign Policy piece by David Gomez, a former assistent special agent-in-charge and counterterrorism program manager with the FBI.
We provide additional summaries of the Digital Media Law Project's tips for protecting sources in the legal considerations lesson within this course.
A summary of Gomez's tips for contending with national security leaks:
- Do not say anything potentially condemning or specific over the phone; talk in person
- Do not use any internet channel to communicate with your source
- Do not meet with sources in public spaces where you can be observed
- Consider using the U.S. mail for communications, but know that letters may still be compromised
- Vary your routine so that you are not predictable
- Avoid behaving nervously in a manner that would arouse suspicion
- Consider why your source might be leaking classified information to the press and carefully consider whether publishing it is worth the risk (jail time, expensive litigation, etc.), as unauthorized possession of classified information is a crime, whether you publish it or not
- Do not bother with disguises, exchanges of money for information, or electronic surveillance equipment
- To avoid accusations of criminal conspiracy, do not conspire with your source
- Again, think long and hard before publishing classified information as doing so may put lives at risk
Carefully Source and Verify Information
Trustworthy reporters choose their sources carefully and carefully verify information before sharing it as sloppy sourcing and fact checking can permanently compromise a journalist's reputation.
Those who earn Online Journalist credentials through Gigaverse adhere to our standards with regard to sources and verification. We recommend that anyone taking this course carefully review these standards.
Issue Corrections Promptly and Accurately
No matter how carefully you source and verify information, there may still be times when you publish inaccurate information. Though these situations may be inevitable, it is important that you correct your errors as quickly and thoroughly as possible.
When you realize you have published inaccurate information:
- Correct the content (e.g. the inaccurate sentence in an article) immediately
- Consider the impact the inaccurate information may have on your audience and how important it is to take additional efforts to set the audience straight (e.g. going so far as to issue a new story or send an email to subscribers)
- Consider where your audience is most likely to see a correction (in an email update, a tweet, a correction within the article, an alert on a main page of a website, or a combination of several tactics)
- Add and disseminate the best mix of corrections based on your previous conclusions
Corrections are frequently presented in the following formats:
- Notes at the beginning or end of an article
- Struck-through text with corrections within the body of an article
- Updates presented within a centralized "Corrections" or "Errors" section of a publication
- Corrected graphics or images with a "FIXED" or "CORRECTED" mark
- Corrected image captions noting the error
- A new description added to video or audio content clearly indicating the error
- Addendums added to video or audio content correcting the error
- Corrected transcripts for video or audio content
- A social media post (e.g. tweet, Facebook post) clarifying the inaccuracy of a previous post
- An entirely new article or post clarifying the mistake that was made
- Emails distributed to one's readership clarifying the error
- Corrections distributed to (and published on) other websites and publications that referenced the error
Work Ethically and With Honor
Those with Online Journalist credentials on Gigaverse also adhere to our Standards for Ethical Conduct. No matter whose standards you choose to follow, it is important that you behave in a manner that you see to be ethical.
Carefully read through our standards (or those of top news organizations and journalism groups below) to gain an understanding of the ethical standards to which professional journalists are held.
- Gigaverse Standards for Ethical Conduct
- The Associated Press’ News Values
- Reuters Handbook for Journalism
- Poynter Guidelines for Journalistic Ethics
- Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Make Your Reporting Easy to Use and Trust
If you work independently, you may not be expected to adhere to the strict rules of a particular news room, but this does not mean that you can ignore them. If you want your photos, videos, and written reporting to gain an audience and spread, it must be trustworthy and usable by other newsrooms.
To ensure the usability of your work, it helps to:
- Provide clear channels through which others (sources, newsrooms, readers) can contact you
- Clearly mark time and location in photos and video footage
- Geotag videos and images whenever possible
- Do not alter (photoshop, frame, or otherwise manipulate) videos or photos
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