April 18, 2009

Bloggers so-called lack of transparency and the Contra Costa Times so-called not lack of it

The other day I was chatting with a smart, friendly guy who works as public relations manager for a local company. He was talking about the challenge for him in dealing with new media entities like bloggers. He wasn’t dismissing bloggers or the work we do, just saying it’s a challenge knowing who is credible—as in which ones approach their information- gathering and writing in a professional manner—and which ones do not. During this conversation, I didn’t tell him I had a personal blog, because we were talking in a context outside of what I do as Soccer Mom and Crazy in Suburbia. Also, his is not a company I ever foresee contacting as Soccer Mom. I was mainly interested in hearing his viewpoint, not initiating a full-blown discussion or debate about the topic.

More recently, a good friend who still works for a news organization raised the question of transparency and blogs like mine, which are anonymous or in which their publishers, like me, use a nom de plume. But what’s transparency and what’s not? What’s truth and what’s not?

My decision to identify myself as Soccer Mom on this blog rather than by my real name is ultimately a creative decision. I could say, from a writing standpoint, I feel more free—and therefore more honest and transparent—in expressing myself about certain topics, than I would if I used my real name. (That’s not the case in other works I’ve published under my own name.)

By the way, my employers recently became aware of my personal blog, and they turned out to be fine with it. They support any employee’s right of free speech—as long as the employee isn’t using company time to work on their personal hobby or money-making venture. Believe me, this is no money-making venture, and never will be. That was never my intention. I love learning more about my community, digging, raising questions, writing, sharing the information, getting dialogue going. It’s more than a hobby. It is, as I published yesterday, an addiction…

Meanwhile, the question of transparency and bloggers versus traditional news organizations was much on my mind last night and today. Yesterday, the Contra Costa Times published a story about the theft of the flag of mainland China which had been flying in front of OI-C Bowl Chinese Kitchen and Bar on North Main Street in downtown Walnut Creek. The Times story was based on original reporting from its night cops reporter, Roman Gokhman.

However, Gokhman left out what could be a key piece of this story. It is that this theft follows a blog I posted on the flag on March 24. As the Mayor of Claycord said in his own post about the flag theft: "The Times actually wrote the story about the theft of the flag, but for some reason, gave no mention of 'Soccer Mom's' recent article, which was probably the entire reason for the theft."

The Mayor has had his own dealings with the Times jumping on stories that he has broken but not giving credit, instead making these stories to appear to be their “scoops.” So not cool. Of course, the Mayor has been gracious about it, as explained by Phil Bronstein, editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle, in an August 2008 blog. In this blog, Bronstein is trying to deal with the “New Media Puzzle”:

Local blog Claycordbroke a real story with the help of its community of readers. … When some guy started buzzing his small plane way too low over homes in the area late the other night, reporting done by Claycord contributor "The Mayor" and commenters on the site helped identify the naughty pilot, took photos of the plane at low levels, and even found out the alleged pilot had a restraining order out on him related to some apparent domestic dispute.

This is happening more and more with some blogs - they break real news. CBS-5 did a segment about it and gave The Mayor and his blog credit (the right thing to do.)
But the Contra Costa Times took the story and gave no credit. The Mayor was forgiving and understanding, even though the reporter sent him a less-than-forceful argument for why they stiffed him. To his credit, the CCTimes reporter did sound a little, well, conflicted about it all …

Moral: always give credit where it's due.Your owe your audience a proper accounting. And they'll eventually kill you dead if you don't, especially these days when it's so easy to check the trajectory of a story.

By the way, I’ve had good dealings with CBS-5 as well, picking up on stories I’ve broken and giving me credit.

And, as readers of both this blog and know, I’m not as gracious as the Mayor. I’m Crazy Soccer Mom. I called the Times night desk last night. I left voice mails with Gokhman. I also e-mailed him and some of his editors.

I pointed out in my voice messages and e-mails how bloggers often get accused of “stealing” content from traditional news organizations and professional journalists. I fully confessed to my frequent “theft” of content from the Contra Costa Times and other traditional news sources. But I said I always give them credit and say that this information comes from them, not me. I also said that, yes, I occasionally complain about how the Times covers certain stories. But, ultimately, I support their continued existence and the important public service role they play in the community.

As I write this on Saturday morning, the writer and editors are no doubt off duty, and maybe will be off-duty through the weekend. But if I get any response, I’ll post it.

Okay, one could question why I’d want to take credit for a story that might have prompted a criminal act. Well, I don’t think what I wrote caused a crime. The criminal caused the crime. I didn’t expose anything that was not visible to the hundreds of people who walk or drive daily up and down Main Street in Walnut Creek. That flag was flying in plain view. I was asking the question of what people thought of it, after receiving a complaint from a reader. I personally took no position on whether this flag should fly or not.

As I mentioned in what I wrote last night, I believe I could have handled my original story better in one regard. I want to slap myself on the head for this oversight. Before publishing, I should have called the restaurant owner and or manager and asked, “why are you flying this flag?” This was a Basic Reporting 101 oversight. I would have written my post anyway, but with their response.

Of course, my blog could have nothing to do with the theft. Maybe the thief doesn't know about Crazy and noticed the flag on his or her own, was offended for whatever reason, and stole it. Unfortunately, whether the owners of the restaurant want to acknowledge it or not, that flag has different associations for different people, some positive, some negative. This flag flying in downtown Walnut Creek pushed buttons. The button-pushing certainly was apparent in the comments shared on my original post.

As for the Times failure to mention Crazy’s original blog in its story?

Well, I think by omitting it, the writer left out a potentially crucial piece of the story. Maybe the restaurant manager is angry at my blog, maybe the restaurant manager complained about it, and said I published an improper story. If that was the case, the reporter should write that. If that was what this manager said, then that’s the background of her restaurant’s current situation. And it deserves a mention.

Or, maybe the restaurant manager never mentioned Crazy in her interview, because she doesn’t know about it. Maybe Gokhman is unaware of Crazy, or at least that I “broke” this story about this flag flying and that it might not sit well with some people.

If so, he and his editors are aware of it now.

And, today, as unpleasant a task as it will be, I will call the restaurant, apologize for not getting their response in the first place, and apologize that their flag was stolen. I will also see if they will share their grievances about my blog, or this theft situation.

I’ll end yet another of my long diatribes with this question: Ultimately, who is being more transparent and thorough in reporting this story? The traditional Times and its staff writer who signs his story with his own name. And fails to provide possible context to the event he's reporting. Or me, the anonymous blogger who doesn’t work for a “credible” traditional news organization like the Contra Costa Times.

In this case--and, yes, I’m biased--I vote for myself.


Anonymous said...

Since when is the Contra Costa Times a credible news source? I trust you and claycord more than them.

Anna said...

Soccer Mom,
I think you're being too hard on yourself. Bloggers, even reputable and ethical ones, aren't expected to have contacted the flag's owner. I never thought twice about it.

Interesting events that have transpired.

Off topic, Does anyone ever remember the theft of the Chili's restaurant giant chili statue in Concord?

Anonymous said...

Mayor + Soccer Mom sitting in a tree............

shasta daisy said...

I vote for you!

Anonymous said...

Of course, the Contra Costa Times and others should cite your blog and/or others that they use as a jumping-off point for their stories. That's basic fairness. But bloggers aren't going the extra mile when they note where they get stories or info from; there's a basic copyright law of "fair use" involved, which means that bloggers shouldn't just willy-nilly post huge chunks of reporting by others without credit. But in the relatively short time that I've been reading Crazy in Suburbia (just moved to WC a couple yrs ago from SF), I can tell that Soccer Mom is very diligent about adhering to those legal and professional rules.

Anonymous said...

My issue is why, Soccer Mom, did you see a simple restauarnt flying a flag from the origin country of its food as a post? You don't do this about other places that fly international flags. You went for something sensational and inciteful. I'm sure what you did ultimately scared the poor owners of that restaurant. I like your blog and support your rights. But sometimes it seems like you're trying to create or fuel scandals; and this doesn't appeal to me, especially when race and culture are involved. I have the choice not to read you; I'm aware of this.

Soccer Mom said...

Dear 12:53 p.m.
You raise some good points, some I will seriously consider.
The thing is, for all the reasons I mentioned in my original story, a Mexican restaurant flying, for example, a Mexican flag, is not going to get the same reaction. The Mexican flag just doesn't have the same touchy political and historical associations.
Was it okay for me to single out this one restaurant owner? Maybe not. I'm wrestling with that one.
Did I sensationalize? Sure, to an extent. But that's the nature of the media. TV news sensationalizes all the time with its teases to the 11 o'clock news. A New York Times writer will shape a story with the first sentence and paragraph that will grab readers' attention.
As for picking this issue...
You know, I think the comments I've received are incredibly revealing about attitudes, negative and not, that people in our community have about 1) Asians 2) China 3) Communism 4) Free speech 5) democracy 5) What it means to be an American.
My whole purpose of this blog is to "scratch beneath the surface" of a shiny, happy surface. Alas, some of what you find when scratching is difficult, emotional, ugly, controversial.

Anonymous said...

It's not transparency, or the lack of it, of bloggers who claim to be journalists that worries me. It's the fact that many such bloggers have little or no training in journalism. They know not of ethics, fact-checking, copyediting, verifying sources, and researching all sides of stories. And when readers say they trust such bloggers more than they trust professionals with such training and experience, my worry deepens. That's not to say that bloggers don't have passion, nor that they are not capable of developing fair, solid stories. But when bloggers choose to be closed about their backgrounds, their training, and their support system, their content should rightly be at least minimally suspect, at least until independently and fairly verified.

Soccer Mom said...

"They know not of ethics, fact-checking, copyediting, verifying sources, and researching all sides of stories..."

And you're saying that professional news organizations always adhere to the highest standards of fact-checking, copyediting, source verifying, and, especially researching all sides of the story?

Or that professional reporters and editors don't let their biases creep into what ends up on the page?

I've worked at professional news organizations. Maybe you currently, do. Sorry, but I think you're being a bit naive. I've experienced lots of hidden agendas and lack of transparency.

Meanwhile, a reporter at a newspaper, unlike a low-life blogger like me, can rely on an editor--if the editor is good--to ask good questions, find holes, raise red flags about fairness--before the story goes to press. And that reporter can have copy editors--if they're good--find missing words, grammatical errors, and so forth.

So, this collaborative team effort will result in copy that reads more "professional."

I am my own reporter, writer, editor, copyeditor (except I do have a very diligent reader who alerts me to errors).

I do my best. I know how to report and research. I know about ethics. Do I always live up to my standards in this blog? Not always. But I'll be the first to admit and apologize when I don't.

Which is more than traditional news organizations will do when they screw up. They love to take down government or business leaders for circling the wagons in an attempt to cover their ass when they screw up. Well, professional journalism organizations are the absolute WORST offenders in the practice of Cover-Your-Ass, rationalizing, and self-justifying.

Meanwhile, I find that I can be MORE honest with readers than I ever could be as a so-called "objective" reporter at a traditional news organization when I can be upfront about my own biases and inject my own opinion.

As for passion: well, I look at coverage of the Times about some local issue or controversy. It's factual, but it's surface, for the most part. And it's dry, and I don't get a sense that the paper REALLY cares. Maybe it does. But it usually doesn't come out in the stories I read. (There are exceptions with some reporters and columnists.) And do stories in the Times always tell all sides? Please.

I'm not saying it's the fault of the reporters. I know some of them. They are working in a low-paying, struggling profession because they WANT to be reporters. They went to tell stories. They want to perform a public service. But they work in an institution that has these rules (yes, well-intentioned), but rules that don't always encourage people to take risks, to be more authentic, to actually, through their prose, to say what's really going on.

Also, I'm sure the Times is short-staffed (doing more with less), so reporters don't have the time to dig into certain issues as much as they like.

IMHO, readers shouldn't trust bloggers more than news organizations, or vice versa. Read both. I think there is room for both, especially for the discerning reader. In an ideal world, and in this new information revolution humanity is embarking on, it would be great for independent bloggers and news organizations to be friends, to cooperate, to provide complementary sources of information.

Anonymous said...

If I'm the only person who feels exposed, dirty and angry that local
police, under the pretext of DHS was
spying on everybody for a long time,
maybe I can use CPRA, FOIA, lawsuits
to protect my privacy; all I need do
is submit to autopsy, and all is well. The damage done 2001-present
will take our lifetime to clean up.
There is no such thing as privacy any more. Get over it, said Scott McNally, former CEO of Sun Microsystems.