Court is Adjourned

As the semester at Emerson College is coming to a close, so is this blog. My teacher assigned this blog as a way to have me and my fellow students practice journalism as we studied it. Through this exercise, I must say that I have learned a great deal about both myself as a journalist and myself as a student.

First, I have learned that the news and literary magazines in high school that I read have had an incredible amount of influence on my writing style, which has always been formal and somewhat rigid. For example, I began this semester with large paragraphs and complicated sentences, writing essays more than articles. In my high school newspaper, the Arrow, this was perfectly acceptable and expected. However, through my college immersion into newspaper journalism with the Boston Globe and the New York Times I have begun to recognize the different elements of writing that are unique to newspapers, such as the inverted pyramid, in the articles I am reading.

With this blog especially, I have been challenged to explore and understand the principles of journalism. Prior to this class, I have had no formal journalism training. I feel that this class has been instrumental for me to begin to understand what it means to be a journalist and the kind of work and sacrifice required to be successful in the field.

As a result, I have been able to begin debating with myself whether journalism is the path I want to study or not. I am no longer as sure as I was in the beginning of the semester. To me, this uncertainty and need to explore is an essential part of the learning process. If I choose to major in journalism or film or philosophy or anything else I may become interested in, I want to choose it having considered other possibilities, thus making an educated choice.

For those who wish to continue following me and my development, I have a philosophy blog that I update on an almost daily basis titled Struggles with Morbid Bearded Men. Thank you for taking the time to read my posts. I have truly enjoyed writing this blog.

Published in: on December 20, 2009 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Neutrality

There have always been topics in the news world that have been difficult to stay neutral on, such as war, abortion, gay marriage, etc. The subject of music piracy has been controversial from the start of Napster in 1999. Recently, Mr. Saltzman reported on a case where a federal judge refused to stop Joel Tenenbaum, a Boston University Doctoral Candidate, from promoting illegal downloading.

This is the latest story in a long case in which Tenenbaum was convicted of illegally downloading 30 songs and was ordered to pay damages of $675,000. In this post, I will focus on the techniques Saltzman used to stay neutral in his most recent article on the case.

First and foremost, Saltzman does not express any opinion in his articles. Instead, he uses quotes to express the thoughts of those involved in the case. For example, Saltzman quoted the judge as writing,

“The word promote is far too vague to withstand scrutiny under the First Amendment,’’ Gertner wrote. “Although plaintiffs are entitled to statutory damages, they have no right to silence defendant’s criticism of the statutory regime under which he is obligated to pay those damages.’’

This way, Saltzman is not coloring the words of the parties involved or spinning the information, he is simply presenting it.

In addition, Saltzman in thorough in the information he provides. He reported the roles of each of the involved parties, thus attacking the story from all sides. When discussing the Pirate Bay post titled “The $675,000 Mixtape,” Saltzman qualifies the information with the sentence “There was no evidence that Tenenbaum was responsible for putting the playlist on the site.” With this style, everybody’s views are expressed, leaving it up to the reader to decide who is right.

This is the essential function of the journalist, to present the reader with as much information with as little bias as possible. The attempt to remove bias is a key feature of journalistic writing and defines it from other genres, such as the novel and the poem.

Published in: on December 13, 2009 at 9:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Journalism is Not Dead, Thus Spake Baron and Ainsley

Martin “Marty” Baron (left) and Steven Ainsley (right), (Illustration Credit: David N. Robinson)

It is no secret that the decline and fall of traditional media has been predicted time and time again as the internet has gained more popularity with media consumers. In the past year alone, the Rocky Mountain News shut down. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has managed to stay afloat, but stopped producing their print newspaper and now only produces a website. After watching their print circulation drop over the past 40 years, the Christian Science Monitor morphed their daily newspaper into a weekly magazine along with stepping up their web journalism efforts.

In spite of all this, the editor of the Boston Globe, Martin Baron, is optimistic. On 11/19/2009, both Baron and the Globe’s publisher Steven Ainsley spoke at Emerson College about the incredible year the Globe has undergone. Prompted by probing questions from Emerson’s Journalism Department head, Ted Gup, Ainsley and Baron gave insight into how the Globe survived during times of great financial strife in the Globe, as well as the future of journalism.

Ainsley said that the New York Times Company, which owns the Boston Globe, claimed that it was losing $80 million a year on the Globe and that unless that number could be reduced, the NYTC would either sell or close the Globe. It was clear from the interview that both Ainsley and Baron worked together to prevent either eventuality from occurring. Baron said 12 percent of the newsroom was laid off and that the remaining employees received a 23 percent salary cut. Intense negotiations with the different unions at the Globe saved $20 million alone.

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…to be a good journalist, you need to have a soul and a heart and a conviction…
-Martin Baron

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In a further effort to save the Globe, Ainsley hired a third party consultanting company to come in and find where spending could be cut to make the Globe more efficient. This last measure was a point of contention between the two colleagues because Baron was not sure if consultants could adequately understand the personnel required to run a newsroom and maintain the quality of product readers have come to expect. Ainsley described the sixty day period that the consultants worked with the journalists as containing “a fair amount of tension.” These efforts were not in vain, as the NYTC decided not to sell the Globe.

It is difficult to imagine how anybody can remain optimistic after such a year, but the enthusiasm was unmistakable in Baron’s voice as he discussed a perfect journalist for the future of journalism. Baron’s first words were “They would be human…to be a good journalist, you need to have a soul and a heart and a conviction….”

He added that a journalist needs to have a “deep-throated commitment to serving our readers and our users and our viewers and our listeners….” In addition, Baron talked about future journalists requiring the skills of traditional journalism (such as interviewing, reporting, the ability to talk to people, etc) and the ability to work across media to give users access to, “whatever people want, wherever they want it, and whenever they want it.”

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…the journalist of the future, in my view, is going to be a bit of an entrepreneur…
-Martin Baron

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Perhaps the most unexpected trait that Baron outlined was the need to possess an “entrepreneurial spirit,” to be able to adapt to change and live with uncertainty. With the traditional separation of the newsroom and conference room, this idea of an entrepreneurial journalist is quite radical, but makes sense in light of new opportunities technology provides today. For example, there are more news outlets now than ever before and many are started by a small group of people, such as Global Post, which was started by two journalists in January 2009.

Similarly, both Ainsley and Baron spoke about where they see the future of journalism. They both spoke to the need for flexibility in journalism. Ainsley compared to the process of changing the journalism industry to “turning a battleship.” Baron spoke of the Globe‘s efforts to remain relevant through the new tools available (such as video and audio productions for the Globe‘s website) which allowed them to compete with wire services, television, radio for covering stories.

For example, the Globe recently produced a documentary style video series about the death of Senator Kennedy which was sold to television networks, something the Globe has never done before. “The capacity to tell stories in new ways is an exciting prospect for us.”

The full audio from the event is available bellow:

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2936019&dest=-1]

Published in: on December 1, 2009 at 9:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Art of the Human Interest Story

Laura Goldman (photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Let us face it, reading about hard news 100% of the time can be both difficult and boring. It is important for newspapers and other media outlets to have what is professionally known as human interest stories, stories with little hard news value but are usually interesting and unusual. Jonathan Saltzman’s recent article about a women who stalked a prominent Boston financier for 15 years and threatened to kill him and his family is an example of a strong human interest story. There are several things that make this story in particular an excellent example of human interest: the case is undeniably strange and it is covered tastefully.

Thomas H. Lee (photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

There is little doubt that in this case the words of Mark Twain, “truth is stranger than fiction,” ring true. Saltzman himself referred to the defendant, Laura Goldman’s, obsession as “Fatal Attraction-like.” Apart from Goldman’s infatuation with Thomas H. Lee, the story is fantastic because of the span of time and space that encompasses the story. The article reports that the fiasco began with a brief “romantic relationship” between Goldman and Lee in 1993. Nor did the case remain in the United States. Goldman escaped to Israel in 2000 to avoid charges and remained there until April 2009, when she was extradited (brought from one place to another for legal purposes) to Boston. The inclusion of such detail makes the story more fantastical and was a good inclusion on Saltzman’s part.

Another important quality to this story is the fact that is is done tastefully. With such a outrageous story, it would be very easy to use language which plays up the story rather than reports it. For example, examine a section of the article bellow:

The most recent allegations against Goldman stemmed from a indictment handed up in November 2002. She was accused of leaving a message threatening to kill Lee, his son, and other relatives if he did not pay for her mental health treatment, referring to the money “war reparations” for their brief relationship, according to court records.

It would have been more sensational if Saltzman had replaced “kill” with “murder” and “brief relationship” with “short-lived love affair.” However, Saltzman kept the language even-handed and journalistic, letting the events speak for themselves. It is touches such as this that distinguish the Boston Globe from tabloid publications such as The National Enquirer and make this piece an excellent example of good human interest writing.

Correction: For those who saw this post prior to my most recent edit, you may remember that I referred to Mr. Saltzman’s article as a “fluff story.” As my journalism teacher pointed out, it is insensitive to call a story involving mental illness and death threats “fluff.” I apologize for not being more thoughtful in my words and I ask forgiveness from anybody I may have offended.

Journalism and Serving the Community

Jonathan Saltzman (photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

It was 11/20/1009. We sat in the large Boston Globe conference room. Two of the walls were glass, looking over the vast newsroom. Jonathan Saltzman, the subject of this blog, sat easily in his chair. I was seated across from him, pen and paper at the ready. The interview flowed like a good conversation rather than a formal interview between two journalists. While there was a variety of topics broached during, the major themes we discussed were his journalistic education and his passion for the profession.

He attended Brooklyn College where he majored in history, not journalism. He did work on the college newspaper and admits that he spent more time at the newspaper than he did in class, but he did not make journalism his main point of study, as many students (including myself) do today. Saltzman believes that such students are at a disadvantage, “you would be amazed as a writer how much informs your writing.” I believe this piece of advice is particularly important for my fellow journalism students today, many of whom focus on the technical aspects of their education rather than liberal arts subjects such as philosophy and history.

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I am proud that my kids know that I am a newspaper reporter.
-Jonathan Saltzman

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Another thing that struck me about Mr. Saltzman was the passion with which he spoke about his job. He often used the word “fun” to describe the different stories he covered throughout the years. His voice was full of vigor as he spoke about a story he covered over 20 years ago at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about retinitis pigmentosa. Retinitis pigmentosa is a degenerative disease which can eventually cause blindness. Saltzman was asked to write a story on the disease and soon found that there was a person who had contracted it in the area. He went to interview the patient and spent over two hours talking with him. Saltzman said he was touched by the fact that the gentleman could barely see him, yet the patient trusted Saltzman because he was a newspaper reporter. The interview reminded Saltzman of the trust and responsibility that comes with being a journalist.

It was clear that Saltzman’s passion did not derive from a love of the byline, it came from the love of “serving the community.” From the limited time I had to speak with Mr. Saltzman, it was clear that he was first and foremost a public servant. For me, the one quote that illustrates this best were the final words of the interview, “I am proud that my kids know that I am a newspaper reporter.”

The full audio interview is available bellow:
[blip.tv ?posts_id=2920718&dest=-1]

Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 5:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Accuracy is Not a Virtue, it is a Requirement

The fastest way to lose credibility in the journalism business is to be inaccurate. When the small details of the story are incorrect, the reporting in the entire article is called into question. There is a perfect example of this in the Boston Herald with their coverage of the arrest of Gerald M. Hill, a recently parolee. Hill was arraigned Tuesday 11/10/2009 on charges of armed robbery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and illegal possession of a firearm after robbing a Fenway taxi company with a firearm and pistol-whipping a dispatcher. Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald covered the story. The differences in both the facts presented and the reporting style are telling.

Perhaps the most startling difference in the coverage of these two stories is the inconsistency of some of the data reported in the article. In Jonathan Saltzman’s coverage of the story for the Globe the stated that Hill was 15 years old when he murdered Max Fishman, a rescue worker during the infamous blizzard of 1978. The Herald said that Hill was 16 when he committed the murder. A quote by Fishman’s son-in-law from the Globe article confirms Hill’s age to be 15 at the time of the murder:

During his incarceration over these 30 years, a lot of people said: ‘He served 30 years. He went in when he was 15. He served enough time.’

In addition, the Globe and Herald reported different numbers on the vote to parole Hill. The Globe reported that there were was a 4-2 vote in favor of paroling Hill. The Herald reported a 4-6 vote. There are only 7 justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Court (including Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall), which oversees appeal cases. Both of these inaccuracies speak to the quality of reporting offered by the Herald in comparison to the Globe.

The differences in overall reporting style between the two articles is equally as telling. The tone used by Saltzman is typical of most stories in the Globe: even-handed and lacking over-emotional phrases. For example, Saltzman leads with a narrative about Fishman’s son-in-law, Donald Shapiro and focuses on the parole process throughout much of the story. The Herald on the other hand, leads with the robbery. Also the Herald refers to Hill as a “paroled killer,” instead of “parolee” as the Globe did. This difference in style typical of the Globe and Herald and is not news to any Boston resident. However, it does raise an interesting question, “Do you give people what they want to know (the sensational details) or what you believe they need to know (the facts)?” That is a question for another post.

Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 2:01 am  Comments (1)  

Tarek Mehanna and the Ongoing Story

Tarek Mehanna
Tarek Mehanna, I cannot find a confirmed photo of Ahmad Abousamra (photo courtesy of the Boston Globe)

As a journalism student, there is one thing that struck me when I was reading about the indictment of Tarek Mehanna and Ahmad Abousamra in the Boston Globe on Friday 11/6/2009 (NB: an indictment is only a formal charge, not a conviction). As a journalist that covers trials, like Jonathan Saltzman, there must be very few stories that are entirely your own. Take the ongoing story of Tarek Mehanna. Before Mr. Saltzman could report on the trial, his coworkers at the Boston Globe had to report on Mr. Mehanna’s arrest and the subsequent FBI investigation. Thus, the question is “How do you pick up a story someone else has worked on and add more to it?”

The answer to this question comes in the form of old-fashioned-shoe-leather reporting. Saltzman took information from Mehanna’s blog and interviewed Abousamra’s father. These added details gave an understanding of the suspects’ viewpoints, not just that of the prosecuters. For example, when Mr. Abousamra’s father was asked about his son’s trip to Syria a few years ago, he stated that his son went to Syria to be with his wife, who is attempting to obtain a US visa. The Globe reported earlier that Abousamra had gone to Syria to allegedly find a terrorist training camp, according to the recently unsealed affidavit the FBI received. It goes to show that even alleged terrorists deserve fair and balanced reporting, just as they require a fair and balanced trial.

Some food for thought (courtesy of the Boston Globe)

Published in: on November 8, 2009 at 8:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Court is Now in Session

Welcome to Boston at Large, a journalism blog with a legal focus. My name is David N. Robinson and I am writing this blog as part of my Journalism 101 class at Emerson College.

Jonathan Saltzman (Credit: Boston Globe)

My goal with this blog is to explore the legal journalism of Jonathan Saltzman, a reporter for the Boston Globe. Mr. Saltzman has been working as a reporter at the Globe since 2003. Before his tenure there, he worked at the NPR station WBUR in Boston as well as the Providence Journal for a combination of 20 years.

So, why write about legal journalism? Have you ever seen an episode of Law and Order? According to NBC, it is the longest running court dramas with 20 seasons and many awards, including an Emmy in 1997. I believe that Law and Order’s longevity speaks of our society’s long-time fascination with the courtroom. Over the past 15 years there have been a number of high-profile court cases, such as the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 and the Michael Jackson trial in 2005, which were followed avidly throughout the nation. With such general interest, I believe that legal journalism is a very newsworthy subject and deserves great attention.

In addition to the writing, I am hoping to include several audio tidbits as the blog develops, such as interviews and commentary. I hope you enjoy reading the upcoming posts and always feel free to leave comments. I am learning and can use all the feedback I can get.

Until next time, stay safe.

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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