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Should the New York Times have published a photo of US Libyan ambassador? The ethics of online photo galleries

Advance warning – this post will be mostly opinion on my part.  It’s based around something I found that I felt I had to get a few of my own thoughts down.

By now, most of us should be aware of recent events in the Middle-East, and the protests/ unrest that have apparently been sparked by a certain ‘film’…

One of the events that troubled me the most, and the one which I think has had the most media coverage so far, was the death of US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

A few days after, I was (still) reading about it, actively looking for new articles, when I came across this from the New York Times website.

It’s a response from their public editor, Margaret Sullivan, to reader concerns/ complaints about a photo the Time had run in an online photo gallery accompanying an article about overnight events in Libya (the attack on the US consulate)

Now – I hadn’t yet come across the Times article in question (I usually go to the ABC and BBC first), so off I went to check it out.

And I’ll freely admit I found the photo in question confronting and my initial reaction was that it crossed some sort of line.  And despite what I’m about to talk about, I still feel a tad uncomfortable about it, which is why I’m not going to link to the photo directly.  However, if you need to see the photo for yourself, it’s the final photograph in the picture gallery accompanying the story linked to at the beginning of Margaret Sullivan’s response.

In short, it’s an Agence France-Presse photograph showing “a man, reportedly unconscious, identified as Mr Stevens,” with severe blackening to the face (bruising or smoke damage, I’m unsure).
On the one hand, I understand the reader’s complaints highlighted in the Times’ response.  I think it would be distressing for members of Mr. Stevens family to see those images in the media and I also (partly) agree that the story may have been told well enough without that particular photo.

On the other hand, I can understand the Times‘ position.  There may be a clear “journalistic imperative” to running the photo – in many ways, the photo is a defining moment in the story the Times is trying to tell.  I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that they run photos of “Iraqis, Syrians” dead etc, so why not the ambassador.  While there are plenty of photos of civilian casualties, I don’t think many of them feature the victims in such a face-on close up.

However, what this incident does highlight for me is the benefit of an online photo gallery.  The photo was run “in the last position in the frequently updated gallery, where it would be less prominent.”  Thus, reporting the story online allowed the Times to still run their potentially controversial photo, but not give it the full emphasis that a front-page printing would – which I think would have been insensitive and certainly have overstepped the line.  Margaret Sullivan says she would not want to see the photo on the front page, where “its prominence and permanence would give it a different weight” (although, in my opinion, an online gallery makes it potentially even more permanent).

At the end of the day, while I still find photo’s publication slightly uncomfortable, I agree with the Times that an online gallery was the most suitable and ethical place to run it.  I certainly prefer it to running it on the front page, which I believe some other news organisations did.  It should also be noted that the Times did not go on and print it on the front page the next day.

As an aside, here’s the Timesresponse to a request from the US government to remove the photo – I think it’s good to see a news organisation “sticking to its guns” once it has made a decision (though if it had been an even more graphic photo, I think the removal request would be justified).



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Live Blogging vs Live Tweeting

Oh dear… I appear to have missed last week’s post.  Curse property law assignments!  However, now that I’m free of leasehold covenants, rent guarantees and indefeasibility for a couple of weeks – on with the blogging!

Today, I thought I’d take a brief look at live blogging compared with live tweeting, and why one might be preferable to the other.

Live blogging

According to Daniel Hurst, from the Brisbane Time, live blogging involves “ditching the normal news structure”.  Journalists instead provide regular, short updates on a continuous news story.  He says they can be used to cover a wide variety of stories, including:

– unfolding political stories, debates and elections

– severe weather events

– sporting matches

– riots and protests.

Essentially, Hurst said live blogs can be used for any topic in which an audience will be interested in ongoing updates.  He also said running live blogs for rapidly unfolding events makes it easier for readers to digest “bite-sized” pieces of information and that it’s easier for journalists to write short, sharp updates.  The Guardian’s Matt Wells makes some similar comments here.

It was also pointed out to us that live blogs can sometimes take a more conversational tone (though I’d assume the context of the news item in particular would determine if this was appropriate).  For example, check out the ABC’s live blog coverage of the Olympics Closing Ceremony – possibly the best example of a “conversational tone” I’ve seen.  Obviously a more “light-hearted” story like the Closing Ceremony could allow you to be personal and less serious, as compared to say, live-blogging a natural disaster.

The other main benefit of live blogging that Hurst discussed was that it developed a two-way conversation with the reader – journalists can include social media (and other interactive media) to show reactions to news, as well as excerpts of analysis and comments from (and links to) other articles (even their competitors!).

However, live blogs don’t necessarily work for every story.  Channel 4’s technology correspondent Benjamin Cohen (quoted in Matt Wells’ piece above) says live blogs need a “lot of content to work” and also only really work if journalists have a big audience to read and share it.  He says they can also be confusing for new readers (because of the amount of content) and thus need continual “signposting” – good curating and management are to prevent a live blog becoming a “mishmash of tweets and comments with context.”  Finally, I find it interesting that Cohen also says, for some breaking stories, it’s actually more interesting to look at the Twitter stream for a breaking story – which leads nicely into my next point.

Live Tweeting?

Many people will be familiar with the idea of live tweeting – follow any journalist or news organisation on Twitter and, when they attend a press conference or breaking news event, you can be sure there’ll be a constant stream of updates letting the reader know exactly what’s going on (as best they can in 140 words).  The Poynter Institute’s Herbert Lowe describes live tweeting as a “standard tool” for breaking news.

However, Daniel Hurst was sceptical about live tweeting press conferences, and another Poynter Institute author, Matt Thompson, has given five (in my opinion) convincing reasons why a live blog might be better.

Firstly, Thompson does admit Twitter has some “key advantages”, namely that the software is easier to use (no live blogging client to try and embed in your site) and that it also allows you to engage with everyone who follows you (not just those visiting your site on a regular basis).

But he also points out that Twitter’s 140-character limit makes it difficult to capture the “flux of a speaker’s argument, or the back-and-forth in a panel discussion.”  It is good for tweeting “applause lines” though.

Of Thompson’s five points, I think the first two that running a live blog forces journalists to pay attention and forces them to write – warrant some discussion.  I’m not 100 per cent sure doing a live blog will force journalists to pay more attention.  I suppose you could argue the increased amount of information needed (or provided?) by a live blog means journalists would pay attention so they can write more (with the flipside being live tweeting journalists only looking/ listening for main points).  However, I think a live tweeting journo would still need to pay attention to all the information, so that he actually knows which pieces are the most important.

Thompson’s second point is something I could agree with entirely.  I’ve already mentioned, in my Speed vs. Accuracy post, that I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  I like the suggestion that the continual pressure of needing to provide longer updates every few minutes stops journalists from fretting over every word and sentence.  Hopefully, doing some live blogging might help break me from this habit.  Conversely, I think trying to live tweet something might make me more pedantic, as I try and condense all my ideas down into 140 concise characters.

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Coverage Analysis – Lance Armstrong’s announcement re: USADA

Well, what a news day Friday 24th August was. We had former Bundaberg surgeon Jayant Patel’s conviction overturned (and a new trial ordered) by the High Court, Norwegian killer Anders Breivik declared sane and, in the cycling world, the news that Lance Armstrong had decided to end his battle against the United States Anti-Doping Agency over doping allegations.

It’s this last story that I’ve chosen to do a coverage review on, for several reasons.

  • As a law student, I don’t think could cover the first two without getting side-tracked into legal analysis (which isn’t really the point of this blog).
  • The Armstrong story was the first time I’ve actually seen a story break on Twitter before my eyes (as in, one moment nothing, then whoosh – news!) and I followed the ABC story as  it was written and updated.
  • I used to watch the Tour de France in the Armstrong days, with my father, and he was/ is one of the few athletes I’ve come close to semi-admiring.  So the story had a tiny bit of  personal connection for me.

For this review, I’ll be comparing the coverage of two news sources:  The ABC Online news story, and the article posted to the Courier Mail’s online site later that day.  I will also be loosely judging the stories based on a few of the Dozen Online Writing Tips, suggested by Jonathan Dube, from and the Poynter Institute.

1.            ABC Online story

Here’s the tweet which first alerted me to the story.  I was idly browsing Twitter when it popped up in my news feed.

And here’s a clarification tweet that came up a bit later.  Take note of the clarification – as one commenter said, it really is almost a completely different story.  I suppose this is a good example of “Speed vs Accuracy” at work.  But at least the first tweet told me the story had broken AND the ABC did clarify/ correct the error pretty quickly.

And here’s the article that appeared on the ABC’s website.  There wasn’t a link to it from their Twitter feed, but I knew once I saw the tweet that I could head over to their website.  I was actually there before the article was put up.

As I mentioned previously, I literally watched this story come together over a few hours.  It started with a very basic couple of sentences breaking the news, and then I watched as more detailed was added (until the full story was up by the time I got home)

Overall, I think this story is the better of the two, for two main reasons:

1. The ABC has (in my opinion) the better story.

At just a quick read, the reader is able to understand the gist of Armstrong’s statement and why he has made his decision.  However, the USADA’s position is put forward to counterbalance, with quotes from the USADA chief executive.  Further, the entire USADA’s case is outlined in the fact box, which helps present their side of the story.

Overall, the article is probably more biased in favour of Armstrong.  He’s the most extensively quoted person, though this may be because the author seemed to be at the announcement (the way the story went together showed me a good example of how a running story pans out).

The story’s lead is nice and clear and there doesn’t appear to be any instances of “pile on”.  Although the story was continually updated with new information, the article remained perfectly understandable for new readers (see hints for online writing #6 & 7).  It also neatly follows conventional journalistic structure, with the most important information at the start, with everything under the pull quote as background information for the interested reader.

Finally, the story is a good length.  Once the fact box is taken out, it’s just under 700 words, which seems a good length (hint #8 suggests keeping stories under 800, as a guide).

2. The ABC has told the story well. 

They’ve clearly thought about how to best ‘Tailor their news gathering’ (see hints for online writing #3) to tell the story.

I think there is excellent collaboration between the writing, visual and interactive elements.  The completed article has a nice picture slideshow (mostly of relevant images from his Tour de France wins).  The USADA’s case against Armstrong is comprehensively outlined, but in a summary box next to the article, so the main story isn’t burdened with the extra detail.  It ends with a few links to Youtube videos of Armstrong’s cycling career (which I thought was a nice touch).  There are also links throughout the article to other relevant stories, and importantly, the link to Armstrong’s statement is in the first couple of paragraphs.

If there’s one criticism I have of the layout, it’s that it could maybe be broken up better (the paragraph spacing could be bigger), although the addition of the pull quote gives the reader a place to pause.  There’s also a link to a Google Map of the United States, with (I’m assuming) the location of Armstrong’s press conference marked?  I’m not really sure that this adds anything to the story.

2.            Courier Mail online story

Note: The Courier Mail may have posted an improved/ different article later.  However, I selected this article, as it was the one first linked to in their twitter feed and the one used to break the story.

Overall, I don’t think this article provides particularly outstanding coverage.  There are several reasons for this:

1. The headline is inaccurate (at least in my opinion).

It states “USADA strips Lance Armstrong of Tour de France titles.”  As far as I am aware, when the article was written, he had not been stripped of his titles (leaving aside questions of whether the USADA actually has the jurisdiction to do so…)

2. The story itself

The article is written strangely and is awkwardly organised.  The actual article seems to finish just above the sub-heading “Lance through the heart”.  My eyes actually skipped over/ didn’t register the little “-AFP” indicator at the end of it when I read through the first time.  The rest of the story appears to be a mix of commentary and reporting from a different author – Philip Hersh from the Chicago Tribune.

However, it’s the overall tone and viewpoint of the article I have the most issues with.  The article seems very pro-USADA/ anti-Armstrong.  The USADA’s voice and opinion features most strongly and Armstrong doesn’t even get a say until very near the end.    The link near the end to Armstrong’s statement almost looks like an afterthought.  Also, there seems to be a bit of “pile on” happening in the latter half (see Dube’s hints for online writing #7).   A paragraph about other Tour de France winners/ cyclists who have been caught for doping appears before the information about Armstrong’s statement.  While this ordering isn’t a “pile on” of “new” information (as the Tour de France background is older news), I still think it creates an awkward mish-mash of the story.

Also, some of the reporting and commentary hardly seem impartial: “But he officially will be known as a doping cheat forever,” and “Armstrong’s statement was still filled with the arrogance and bravado that marked his post-cancer cycling career.”  The first video does help provide a little more background for Armstrong’s side of the debate, but not much.  However, the article ultimately does seem to cover the story from the USADA side.

The article also might run a bit too long – it’s nearly 1,000 words.

3. The layout

I think the Courier Mail could have done a bit better at breaking the story up.  There’s a lot of text to read and very little else.  The one photo of Armstrong and a single heading – no charts or tables that might be useful in summarising information (as suggested by Jonathan Dube’s 9th tip for online writing).  The standfirst at the beginning of the story doesn’t actually summarise its content, instead linking the reader out to other articles.  I don’t think the videos really help to “break up” the story either, given they’re placed before it.  There is a link to a larger photo gallery, but it takes you to the Herald Sun’s site.

Overall, it doesn’t look like the Courier Mail put a large amount of time and resources into this article.  Perhaps this is understandable, given that August 24th also saw a massive local story break (Jayant Patel’s High Court victory), which the Courier Mail did cover extensively.  Jonathan Dube’s first online writing tip is to “Know your audience.”  As the Courier Mail is primarily a Queensland newspaper, it makes sense they would given more attention to the Patel decision.

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