3 reasons to avoid copying TV reporter’s F-word rant

GIF of Charlo Greene

Courtesy of PerezHilton.com

Until last Sunday, few people outside Anchorage, Alaska’s TV news audience knew of KTVA-TV reporter Charlo Greene.

She changed that in one second on a live broadcast and became a prime example of what not to do when leaving an employer.

In signing off from the CBS affiliate on Sept. 21, Greene acknowledged playing a key role in the story she was reporting on medical marijuana and announced that she was switching allegiance from journalism to the cause of legalizing marijuana use in Alaska by telling viewers “As for this job, well … f**k it. I quit.” She then walked off camera to leave a stunned news anchor stumble through damage control.

From Anchorage to Albany, N.Y., the Web went wild over Greene, known off-screen as Charlene Egbe. Links to her flameout appeared on hundreds of sites. A YouTube clip of it posted by the Alaska Dispatch News had 12 million hits by the following Thursday.

She did what many people dream of doing.

But the backstory makes her cavalier farewell far from heroic or enviable. Greene had opened her own medical marijuana dispensary in the months before producing a five-part news report for the station on Alaska’s legalization initiative. She also had legal trouble related to her advocacy. KTVA’s news director said in a public statement that Greene never disclosed her conflict of interest to the station.

The station has reason to be embarrassed, but so too does Greene. The Dispatch News reports that advocates for the initiative found fault with her reporting and that Greene says she went rogue mainly to reverse waning support for the legalization movement.

In a post-meltdown interview with Vice.com, Green ended with this:

“If you’re going to quit your job, do it big. Why not? Your job probably sucks, so go ahead and get whatever you can out of it.”

Sage advice perhaps for inconsiderate nonconformists but toxic for everyone else. A truly effective workplace exit impresses both ex-employers and potential employers and preserves the shine on one’s own reputation.

By leaving KTVA the way she did, Greene badly bruised herself and the people around her in three ways:

By using vulgar language — We hear the F-word all the time in music, movies and casual conversation, but a stigma sticks to it in most professional and public venues, and usage is discouraged in workplaces, schools and stores. Greene demonstrated how the centuries-old F-word still cuts through our social sensibilities. However, the F-word is a one-trick pony; the second use lands a weaker punch than the first, and continued usage implies the user has a limited vocabulary — which undercuts anyone who works in communications.

By being unethical — Green apparently continued acting like a journalist even though in her mind she stopped being one. She told Vice.com that KTVA gave her a platform “to draw attention to the (marijuana legalization) issue” and hinted that her outburst formed sometime between Sunday and April 20, the date Greene says the advocacy group she heads received its business license. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” When professional ethics waft out the window with the pot smoke, credibility in all things likely follows.

By harming others — Greene obviously had her own interests in mind when she paraded her petulance. She neglected to consider, or was indifferent to, the impact of her actions on others, and that could rebound in her face. The Federal Communications Commission has levied fines on broadcasters who permitted even accidental on-air uttering of F-words. KTVA is apologetic; still, accusations by supporters of the initiative that Greene let bias and inaccuracy seep into her reporting have raised questions about why KTVA considers Greene’s activities surprising. Meanwhile, marijuana-use advocates in Alaska and Colorado say Greene’s profane exhibition potentially weakens their efforts to advance the issue with maturity.

Had Greene remained professional and objective, KTVA lacked a reason to probe her work behavior or her privacy. Digging too deeply amid the latter risked violating her civil rights. Personal responsibility, not an employer, determines an individual’s credibility.

Andy Warhol once said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This week, Charlo Greene received quite a bit more attention than that. Next week, nobody will take her seriously for even half as long.

You won’t believe what this journalist did using clickbait

Clickbait IconSee? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or fewer, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

(A version of this post appears at KolbeCo.net.)

Zhopped offers free online photo editing, for fun only

ZhoppedDespite the abundant tools available for digital photo editing, none include the skills to use them.

Enter Zhopped.com, a Las Vegas-based website that offers to edit photos by request, whether that request is a simple crop or complex art. All the work is performed by a community of editors and artists who are off-site and use their own tools and time for free.

In time, Zhopped hopes to become a marketplace where the community’s members bid for services.

“Zhopped was created to be an easy, fun and visual way for people looking for photo or image editing help,” the site blog says. “It’s also for creative individuals of talents to show off their skills by helping others.”

Subscribers simply post a photo, write an open request for changes to the photo, and an editor steps in to do them. Comment fields under each photo let users issue instructions and criticism. Users and editors are allowed to register with alter egos.

The range of requests to date is broad. In one, for example, a subscriber requests a tighter crop on a house photo. But in several, the editors are asked to switch out backgrounds to put photo subjects in new locations.

So, what prevents photos like that from turning up in professional publications? Zhopped doesn’t say. The site’s usage policy stipulates opposition to the use of copyrighted work, as well as pornography, and its terms of service prohibits making something commercial out of something personal.

Zhopped will cancel any account found in violation of these rules. Beyond that though, the site accepts no responsibility for artwork once it leaves Zhopped’s platform.

Zhopped went public May 1, but stumbled recently due to a hacking issue.

“We lost about five weeks’ worth of data through a hacking exploit that compromised the server host, which also corrupted some of our backup data,” another blog post explains. “Sadly, some users may need to recreate their usernames.”

A request for comment from Zhopped’s operators has not been answered.

KMOV: Setting a bad example

KMOV logoFrom the first day of my course in basic journalism at Lindenwood University last semester, I hammered into my students’ heads the importance of accuracy in reporting.

It was an essential part of my lectures, my assignments and my grading system ― so much so that the students were ordered to supply me with contact information for the sources in each of their stories. Any detail they cited had to be referenced, and that reference had to have an email address or phone number attached for me to verify.

If doubt trumped veracity, their grades suffered. Heavily.

“Accuracy is at the core of your credibility,” I said and posted in a PowerPoint presentation. “Subtract that and you’re less of a journalist, less of a professional.”

I wonder now if I should extend a formal invitation to the reporting staff of KMOV-TV to take my course. Because recent events involving the CBS affiliate have put into question its appreciation of accuracy in reporting.

The first event, profiled here last month, involved former KMOV news anchor Larry Conners, who stirred protest and scuttled his job by alleging via Facebook that the Internal Revenue Service was harassing him because of an interview in April 2012 with President Barack Obama that Conners believed put the president on the defensive.

Conners admitted in the Facebook post he had no proof but neglected to mention that his issues with the IRS went back at least four years before the interview. The station soon fired Conners, accusing him of harboring bias and dragging KMOV’s name through his speculation.

Conners insists he was just doing his job. He’s busy now however leveling another accusation, having filed a discrimination suit against KMOV on a peripheral matter.

Event No. 2 blew through Twitter on Friday evening as tornadic winds bounded between St. Charles and St. Louis, followed by a flood of tweets saying KMOV had reported on television around 8:30 that a “mass casualty” event involved a storm-wrecked hotel in the storm’s path.

The phrase echoed ominously across social media as the Twitterverse awaited a citable source from KMOV confirming the destruction. No other news provider offered similar reports or alternate confirmation, and at least one wondered openly where KMOV was getting its information. Meanwhile, social media watchers said KMOV kept repeating the frightening words on the air.

KMOV began backing away from its initial televised report about 30 minutes later, but not before changing the location of destruction and leaving St. Louis County authorities and representatives of the hotels that were named to assuage fears via their own social media. By then, the storm seemed secondary on Twitter to KMOV’s own hasty, alarming damage assessment.

Twitterers continued hurling brickbats at the station well into the next day. Even social media maven Andy Carvin of National Public Radio weighed in.

“Yet another twitter rumor spread because of poor initial reporting by mainstream media,” he tweeted Saturday.

Though KMOV never explained itself, the initial report of mass storm casualties was thought to be inspired by a vague understanding of dialog emanating from a police scanner ― historically, an unreliable source for factual information. You would think KMOV already knew this.

“Police reporters depend on sources in the department and on their knowledge of police procedure for their stories,” wrote educator Melvin Mencher in his college text “News Reporting and Writing,” now in its 12th edition. He later added that, “Sins of omission occur when the journalist fails to act in situations in which revelation is required. … More often, the omission is the result of laziness or ignorance.”

A group effort by Fred Fedler, John R. Bender, Lucinda Davenport and Michael R. Drager titled “Reporting for the Media” reiterates this point.

“If reporters lack some information, they should consult their sources again,” the authors wrote. “Reporters should never guess or make assumptions about the facts. … Conscientious news organizations check their stories’ accuracy.”

And former newspaper editor Tim Harrower devotes a portion of his own popular textbook, “Inside Reporting: A Practical Guide to the Craft of Journalism,” to covering accidents and disasters. Intrinsic to this kind of journalism: confirming before reporting.

“No matter how useful the Internet may be, it’s no substitute for reality ― for real discussions with real human beings,” Harrower wrote.

All of these texts have been around at least 10 years and are staples of journalism education. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at KMOV who studied journalism hasn’t read one, or read one like them.

But if they haven’t, the Boston Marathon bombings offered a contemporary lesson as twitterers latched onto police scanner reports of the manhunt for the bombing suspects, and ensuing urban lockdown, and quoted like gospel every snatch of detail and garbled bit of dialog.

“Any reporter who was trained in an honest-to-goodness newsroom knows this much: The police scanner is a blunt instrument, not a source of solid facts,” wrote Curt Woodward in Cognoscenti, assessing the manhunt’s impact. “… The stuff being said over those airwaves is definitely real. But it isn’t necessarily true.

“Civilians can be forgiven for not knowing this. But professional journalists? Yikes,” he continued. “If you care about your audience, you don’t report what you hear coming over the scanner, without confirming it first.”

True, the proximity of Conners’ situation and KMOV’s storm reporting were too close to be anything but coincidence. Still, the dual social media failures imply a pattern of behavior, a misunderstanding about the importance, relevance and sensitivity of social media usage in news reporting.

So, I welcome staffers at KMOV to sit in on my classes next semester, particularly the one where we discuss how best to use tools such as Facebook and Twitter, and review how the station can start setting a better example. Or, I can lend them the textbooks; I have all three.

Or, maybe I’ll just have one of my students explain it to them.

Larry ignored me, and look what happened

Poor Larry. If only he had taken me up on my offer.

Larry Conners, courtesy of  the Post-DispatchThe Larry in question is Larry Conners, the once-ubiquitous, now erstwhile KMOV-TV news anchor. My offer was an invitation that he join the St. Louis Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

I can’t help but think that if he had accepted the invitation, maybe, just maybe, Conners wouldn’t be in such a fix today.

Instead, he’s learning a lesson about the vagaries of celebrity and social media, and those lessons can to be harsh.

Al Roker knows this. So does Anthony Weiner, Ashton Kutcher, Kenneth Cole, and the former Chad Ochocinco: Posting or tweeting with indifference, ignorance or insensitivity can tarnish reputations, perhaps beyond polish.

The Web bristles with examples of questionable social networking behavior, to the extent that a top tip for job hunters is sweeping out offensive material from their networking sites before sending out résumés.

Yet the harsh lessons persist, with no learning evident or behaviors changed. Conners, 66, a 37-year veteran of St. Louis television, sets the latest example.

Conners took a face plant on Facebook last week when he hinted at personal intimidation from the Internal Revenue Service resulting from his televised interview of President Barack Obama in April 2012. During the interview, he issued criticism allegedly passed along from KMOV viewers about the president racking up frequent flyer vacation miles at taxpayer expense.

Conners spoke out only now because he says he was inspired by a recent IRS admission that the agency allowed tougher-than-usual scrutiny of records coming from conservative interest groups seeking tax-exempt status.

On Facebook, Conners, while not revealing his politics, suggested the interview with Obama alone might have brought down scrutiny on himself. He didn’t mention though that his own tax issues predate the Obama interview.

On air a day later, Conners backtracked a bit from his insinuations, but that clarification apparently wasn’t enough. His employer first suspended him, then cut him loose, saying the Facebook post undercut his journalistic credibility and that of the station.

Since then, Conners has defended his intentions on a rival station. His next defense may come in court; Conners has hired an attorney.

I shake my head in dismay.

Three years ago, I was the newly minted president of SPJ’s St. Louis chapter, and as a courtesy to all major media members in the area sent out invitations to either join or rejoin the 114-year-old national society, which among other ideals espouses a Code of Ethics considered to be the standard for behavior among journalists.

The society not only posts this Code online, it has printed copies that the St. Louis chapter offers at most of its monthly meetings. High up in the Code’s wording, it exhorts journalists to “exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” and to “distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”

Given Conners’ lengthy tenure in television news, one might think he wouldn’t need a reminder. But that’s why SPJ posts the Code and prints the cards; we all need reminding.

Today, journalists toe a thin line between objectivity and subjectivity. The former underpins their credibility; the latter seeps through because media companies urge their talent to blog, post and tweet for the sake of higher readership and ratings.

Undeniably, social media has become a tool for news gathering, but it’s also a window into a person’s thinking.

And there’s another problem. Social media lets users believe they’re staring at a screen instead of a potential audience numbering in the millions. The impersonal nature of digital networking masks a deeper truth: We’re actually staring at each other, face to face.

That’s why Conners might be forgiven for his statements against the IRS, and his transgression dismissed, on a claim of social media ignorance. But he went a step further by concluding his Facebook accusation with the line, “Can I prove it? At this time, no.”

Those perhaps were the worst words he could have written. Proof forms the foundation of journalistic credibility and integrity. Absent proof, Conners’ words amounted to a rant. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is clear on this.

So, I wish Larry had taken me up on my offer to join SPJ awhile back. Then he might have had the Code on a card somewhere within view while he was Facebooking.

I’ll probably send him one anyway. He can still learn something from it.