Saturday, February 04, 2017

Buried treasures in Trump's orders

The coverage of President Trump's executive orders has been intense and informative.

Yet I can think of no other time that it is incumbent on us as journalists -- and just as citizens or plain old human beings -- to read the texts of those orders (I'd encourage you to bookmark that link) and ponder (and seek a range of informed guidance on) what they really say. This means every journalist because, as we've seen already, the tentacles of these have the potential to  reach into almost every community.

I know, it is a lot to ask in a world already demanding too much of our time and mental processing power. But while the media coverage (and what we filter from it) gives us the most salient, emotional points, these orders are filled with gifts that have the potential to  keep on giving (tongue firmly planted in cheek, lest you interpret that as an endorsement).

For instance, in one of Trump's immigration orders (there are at least three, if you count the one primarily dealing with the border wall) is language prompting our typical sky is (well could be) falling stories.

The alarm is well-placed, but you also need to put it in wider context and understanding of the system. Such stories tend to rouse the populace for a relative instant, but the process is a long grind that requires constant vigilance. What usually happens is that the emotion subsides, we move on to other things, and the long, slow engagement is left to the lawyers and lobbyists (and a few journalists, if we are lucky) whose natural habitat is deep in the muck (that swamp Trump said he wants to drain?).

Now, more than ever, to follow that usual pattern is to wake up one day and go WTF?

The screening system order - perspective
Yes, you should be concerned about this proposed screening system (if nothing else but for the retaliation it could invite on the world stage).

But as with all such things (including most laws passed by Congress), the devil will be in the administrative details. What needs to be watched closely, of course, is the agency rule making under this authority. I agree the language is very broad. So is a lot of legislation. Definition of irony - the same process has been used to promulgate many of the regulations across government that the Trump administration finds abhorrent.

Here is the language (you'll have to scroll down to Section 4): "This program will include the development of a uniform screening standard and procedure, such as in-person interviews; a database of identity documents proffered by applicants to ensure that duplicate documents are not used by multiple applicants; amended application forms that include questions aimed at identifying fraudulent answers and malicious intent; a mechanism to ensure that the applicant is who the applicant claims to be; a process to evaluate the applicant's likelihood of becoming a positively contributing member of society and the applicant's ability to make contributions to the national interest; and a mechanism to assess whether or not the applicant has the intent to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States."

The "such as" standard does not not mean, for instance, that in-person interviews would have to be done for every person. "Uniform" as used in law does not necessarily mean the exact same thing for everyone. It means you can set up a series of exemptions, but the policy has to be applied uniformly, not arbitrarily, and there must be clearly stated (and constitutional) reasons for the disparate treatment.

Don't read this as my endorsement. Far from it. It's scary what could be done under this language. I'm suspecting the ultimate end is to create a vast database, far more intrusive than now. (And with just a few legal gymnastics, well, we'll extend that to U.S. citizens who have traveled to whatever countries we think are baddies -- or house baddies -- because, you know, you might have picked up the germs and we can never be too careful and ...

Think I'm being a bit paranoid? Perhaps, but remember the "enhanced interrogation" legal gymnastics or those WMDs Iraq supposedly had?)

But wait, there's more ...
But while this order has garnered the lion's share of publicity, just as concerning is some of the language in the other immigration/border orders that has not gotten a lot of publicity. For instance, here is the language buried in another executive order:

Sec. 5. Enforcement Priorities. In executing faithfully the immigration laws of the United States, the Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary) shall prioritize for removal those aliens described by the Congress in sections 212(a)(2), (a)(3), and (a)(6)(C), 235, and 237(a)(2) and (4) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1182(a)(2), (a)(3), and (a)(6)(C), 1225, and 1227(a)(2) and (4)), as well as removable aliens who:

(a) Have been convicted of any criminal offense;

(b) Have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved;

(c) Have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense;
(d) Have engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency;

(e) Have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits;
(f) Are subject to a final order of removal, but who have not complied with their legal obligation to depart the United States; or

(g) In the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.

I don't know about you, but (b) - littering?, (c ) - WTF?, (e) - what does "abused" mean, (g) - no room for abuse there, eh?

Ought to give a lot of pause.

I like to think due process is one of those things that borders on a human right and that (once we decided it should apply to everyone) has distinguished the United States.

Also, consider these sections:

Sec. 13. Office for Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens. The Secretary shall direct the Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take all appropriate and lawful action to establish within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement an office to provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens and the family members of such victims. This office shall provide quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.

Sec. 14. Privacy Act. Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.

Fascinating to me that we propose to establish a government bureaucracy devoted solely to victims of crimes by removable aliens. (How are they different from other crime victims?)

And we'll suspend privacy laws for anyone not a citizen or lawful resident? Seems we've seen something like this before in the Japanese internment camps and in Nazi Germany?

At least, for now, we're not proposing they be penned in or wear a special mark.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bannon and the NSC - as a journalist, make sure you read the law

Amid all the hand wringing about Steve Bannon and the National Security Council, there has emerged a shorthand (that Bannon is "part of the National Security Council") and a meme (that Bannon somehow will have to undergo Senate confirmation).

Both are ill-advised and remind us again why it is important to read the law

As I understand it, he twas not appointed to the NSC but invited to attend meetings of the principals committee, an interagency working group. The distinction is important.

If you look at the U.S. Code, his position does not actually qualify for appointment to the council, since his is not a secretary or undersecretary (and I don't know of any appointment provision subject to Senate confirmation beyond this). To fit him into those specified categories would be a stretch:

"The Secretaries and Under Secretaries of other executive departments and of the military departments, when appointed by the President by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to serve at his pleasure."

The other members of the NSC specified by law are the president, vice president and secretaries of state, defense and energy. Other people may be invited to attend, but they are not members of NSC just by attendance. Trump's executive order is fairly careful in parsing this out.

The principals committee, on the other hand, as an interagency group, contains a wider array, such as the attorney general, treasury secretary and homeland security adviser. No Senate confirmation to serve on it is required. It is at the president's discretion.

There are also several other committees (see the executive order) that can have fluid membership and do not require confirmation.

The joint chiefs were never, by statute, part of the NSC (though the president may invite them to sit in). And while Bannon will have great influence over national security policy as part of the principals committee -- and that is properly the subject of much agitated debate -- we need to be precise in what we are talking about.

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

AT&T's massive outage shows how not to do customer service in social media age

AT&T's U-verse service (disclosure, I'm a customer) has had massive outages across the country -- apparently -- for a day or more. The company's response shows how not to do customer service in today's social media world (or one that, just in general, relies on that internet pipe).

I say "apparently" because AT&T has been less than forthcoming in what it's telling people.  You won't find anything on the company's much-touted @ATTCares account on Twitter.

Its @Uverse account is nothing but marketing

What few statements have come from AT&T PR folks have been opaque

The tech support site has a canned statement

And canned chat

The best info is coming from third-party sites like

This probably should be taught as a textbook case study in business and communications schools about how not to handle things in 2016. (I'm also fascinated that it seems few news organizations seem to have picked up on how widespread these problems seem to be.)

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Tuesday, November 01, 2016

When we call something "public," let's be precise

So this arrived in my inbox this morning
"Ga. journalists arrested for filming during open meeting; may face jail time"


And it links to this, with the headline:

Georgia Citizen Journalist Facing Criminal Charges for Recording Public Meeting

And, yes, there should be lots of outrage over this. Watch the video (I've included it directly here as well).

And I very much hope Tisdale wins her lawsuit and bleeds them dry.

But we need to be accurate when we call something a "public" meeting. This was the note I wrote to the SPJ official, Sharon Dunten, who sent this out:


With all due respect, and very much acknowledging that the officer's behavior here seems beyond the pale.

A political rally on private property is not a "public" meeting. Whether it was advertised as such and so she was there by invitation, and thus the trespass is bogus, is, unfortunately, a matter to be adjudicated (or, one might hope, dropped by a sane prosecutor, which does not seem to be the case). Whether it was advertised as "public" is a point of evidence and perhaps law in that adjudication -- once one invites the public, may one then decide to kick part of the public out? But inviting the public  does not mean that one relinquishes the right to control numerous aspects. (e.g.: "No shoes, no shirt, no service").

Yes, there should be outrage directed at the deputy. Yes, it's BS to invite the public to a rally like this and then expect a reporter with a camera not to be there (if she had just had a notebook, would she have just blended in and  been ignored? - serious duplicity for which the organizers should be called to heel).

But let's not weaken the case and diffuse what should be focused outrage by calling it a public meeting. Let's save that for when this kind of stuff happens at real public meetings where the law is crystal clear so that so we have an even clearer case. It is entirely appropriate for us to be outraged at this. It is not good for us to bandy about the term "public," thus weakening, not strengthening, its meaning. Bad cases make bad law -- and bad statement of the facts makes bad practice.

Doug Fisher

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

The nuance of headlines

The headline this morning on the story of our dean, Charles Bierbauer, who announced yesterday he's leaving that job at the end of the academic year in June, got me thinking about the nuance of headlines.

Headline writing is tough. Don't believe me? Just try summarizing that nuclear disarmament story in a nine-count, three-line, one-column hed in print. (That would be a total of roughly 27 characters for those of the Twitter age, and probably one or two fewer because with print fonts, capital letters are wider and count as 1 1/2 or two, m's and w's are wider, some lowercase letters only count as one-half, etc.)

It's not a lot better online. Sure, you don't have to worry about those pesky line breaks, but even online heds have their limits -- abut 65 characters if you want to make sure it displays properly in those search engine results or on a mobile screen. Again, still less than your normal tweet.

There are a lot of ways things can go wrong.

This discussion isn't about the laughingly off tone, like "DOJ launching Fannie probe" (referring to an investigation of the Federal National Mortgage Association, more commonly known as Fannie Mae).

Nor is it about "Their ship has come in" -- a glaringly tone-deaf headline atop a story about a memorial for the hundreds of sailors who died when the USS Indianapolis sank. (Their ship is never coming in.) Or the awful "xx Mississippians gone with the wind" (I forget the exact number) on a story about hurricane deaths.

This is about those tiny but important nuances that journalists must face every day. They are ever present in reporting and writing. They become more glaringly so when translated to a headline.

So today there is this headline on a story on The State newspaper's website:

OK. It's serviceable. Nothing really wrong. But as we've learned time and time again this political season, there is right -- and then there is more right. With headlines, it often comes down to verb tense and word connotation and order.

In headline writing, there are some rules, or at least guides, when it comes to verb tense. The present participle (stepping) indicates current ongoing action or sometimes action to be completed in the near future. The present tense is used as "historical present" to represent action recently completed. The future speaks for itself. The past tense is rarely used; it is supposed to signify new information about something in the past not previously known (say, for instance, you just got a 5-year-old report showing that the Justice Department investigated Fannie Mae but no one knew till now. Then you might write DOJ probed Fannie ... OK, maybe not. But you get the idea.)

So using "steps" in this headline really means the dean has done the deed already. Yes, he's announced it, so one could argue he sort of kind of stepped down. But he's not really leaving till June, and this is August, so the nuance is wrong. "To step" (or will) is the better choice. That is the tense used in the university news release (though it is interesting to see the URL uses "stepping").

All words have denotation and connotation. So the denotation of "step down" is fine -- it is what he is doing in the broad sense. But the connotation gets us to nuance again. When we hear an official has stepped down, the mind wonders a bit why? Did something wrong? Retiring? Health?

In other words, while the phrase is technically correct (denotation), it is broader than needed and leaves itself open to questions and multiple interpretations, not all of them flattering (connotation). In headline writing, whenever the count allows you to be more specific, it's almost always better because it gets connotation out of the equation. And our job, after all is to try to perfect communication -- make sure the message sent is most likely the message received.

So what is Bierbauer really doing? Well, after almost 15 years and at age 74, he's actually retiring. So that would be the better word.

Longtime USC communications dean to retire

Word order
Some have noted that Bierbauer said in his letter that "this is not retirement." Granted, but we are journalists, not stenographers, and so we have to apply some reasoning. But this also highlights the nuances.

Most journalists I know never really admit to retiring. They can always scribble, after all. And "emeritus" status at a university is like being a retired federal judge or commissioned military officer -- you can always be called out of retirement. (Style warning: Never call someone a "former" general, etc., unless he or she has renounced the commission or somehow been dishonorably discharged.)

This is what Bierbauer wrote: For now, this is not retirement, but transition. I plan to work on the Watson-Brown journalism history project, hope to do some writing on media and politics and determine ways I might continue to be useful to the college and university.

So he is retiring as dean. Which gets us to word order. Since we're dealing with an online hed, we can more easily switch things around:

Bierbauer to retire as longtime USC communications dean

That maintains the sense that he's retiring as dean. (If space is an issue, take out "longtime.")

While this may seem nit picking -- after all, the original hed was serviceable -- this gets to journalistic craft. There used to be time -- admittedly not much, but still a little -- to reflect on these things in the course of putting out the "daily miracle." We need to figure out how to preserve that in this hamster-wheel world journalists now exist in.

On an end note, it's been a pleasure working with Dean Bierbauer, who came on board at USC a year after I did. He's been a steady hand at the tiller and always a proponent of good journalism and good journalism teaching. He understood that delicate balance we walk between the academic and professional missions of the school. I wish him the best.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

SC Newspaper Circulation - the bleeding continues

I've written before about how South Carolina's capital city newspaper, The State, has been bleeding circulation. The new numbers in the S.C. Press Association handbook paint an even more troubling picture statewide.

Not that this isn't happening almost everywhere, of course, but it's useful to know the numbers, especially since most have dropped under 50,000, which used to be the cutoff for a metro daily.

Updated: I found 2008-09 SCPA figures, which paint an even starker picture.

The State43,67596,759112,051
Greenville News45,60170,04687,609
(Spartanburg) Herald Journal28,38039,22746,738
(Charleston) Post and Courier62,08196,00599,829
(Myrtle Beach) Sun News35,76047,28251,731
(Florence) Morning News18,84228,63131,163

Another dramatic drop is the Times & Democrat in Orangeburg, which has slipped under 10,000 to 8,468 from 20,345 just seven years ago.

As with much of the industry, so far, from what I can tell, the online numbers aren't filling the gap.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

This AP story on Pokemon got a little ahead of itself

It's kind of an axiom of news writing that the first example you use in a story should back up the lede.

This AP story on Pokemon Go trips over that test ... unless the woman quoted owns the museum.

It's easily addressed. Just extend the lede with a second graf, something perhaps like:  And some people, like xxxx, are so miffed by some of the players' conduct that they're trying to harness the power of online crowds to back up those requests.

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

You ignore the work on structured stories at your own risk

If you are a journalist (or PR writer), you should read David Caswell's latest about his research into structured stories and follow the links, especially to the structured stories database.

Here's a definition from one of Caswell's earlier atricles
Structured Stories is a form of structured journalism, an approach in which reporting is entered directly into a database and then extracted as needed to create digital news products. Early examples of structured journalism, such as PolitiFact and Homicide Watch D.C., are limited to fixed news items in narrowly defined subject areas. Structured Stories, however, attempts to encode any journalistic news — from any subject area — into structured events and narratives.

Articles are not obsolete in a structured journalism approach but instead are organized within much larger journalistic structures that provide context, coherence and flexibility. These narrative structures are then used to make news stories intelligible to computers and, therefore, available for a variety of digital applications.
This is a not-so-nascent-anymore corner of journalism thought that says, essentially, that the beautifully crafted narrative you just wrote is nothing but data. That fire story you wrote? The address is data, so is the amount of damage, the cause, the type of house, etc. And it's data insurers and others might be willing to pay for.

Adrian Holovaty famously proposed this disaggregation of journalistic stories in 2006. Matt Waite extended it seven years later.
Caswell has now been testing the idea on an operational scale in New York, Los Angeles and Missouri (Where he's a Reynolds Fellow).
You risk not paying attention to this at your own peril. 

Let me put it this way, how many of you scoffed not that long ago at the concept of computers "writing" journalism stories? How's that worked out?  (A search on "Automated Insights" will fill you in a bit more, such as the AP's wide use of the software, if you haven't been paying attention. Here's some more on AP.)

Now, if you go to Caswell's Structured Stories site and look at some of the work, to those steeped in "storytelling," the examples don't look like much. Bullet points, cards, etc. Certainly not an eye-pleasing "story" (and, let's be honest, we misuse that term a lot anyhow; much of what we do is factual exposition, not story).

But what you are seeing is Holovaty's vision beginning to be turned into reality. And here's why it's important:
  • When you break stories into data, you can repackage that data in many ways and resell it, meaning more streams of income in an era when that's guaranteed to get executives' attention (after all, what other business do you know that leaves more than half of its raw material on the shop floor?).
  • This inevitably means changes in workflows, training and, perhaps, the romantic notion of the storytelling journalist. From another of Caswell's articles: Working with structured information enables the journalist to become like an air traffic controller for news: coordinating, routing, verifying and organizing news as well as identifying gaps in knowledge and filling them by assigning journalistic resources to conduct original reporting. This level of coordination is an impossible, even meaningless, task in a media environment based on text articles, but in a structured media environment it becomes easy and valuable.
  • Caswell says he's shown in real operational situations that structured journalism can be done. 
  • Finally, if you scoff that "people will never read this stuff," I want you to think about two things. First, much of this is not designed to be read by people; it is designed to be read and repurposed by machines. Second, go to the top of any one of those story databases on the Structured Stories site and click on the "told as" drop down menu. Go down to "natural language."  I have not found a natural language version yet, though I haven't gone through all the items,. But take a close look, and what does it say? "Natural language generation by Automated Insights." Uh huh.
Oh, and there's one other. In an era where consumers more and more are accustomed to blending their information and media inputs as they wish, this is the ultimate way for them to do that with journalism.
In many ways, this is another aspect of the "semantic web," essentially, the idea of turning much, if not all, of the web into data. Projects such as Open Calais have been grniding along for several years, trying to figure out how to turn all this unstructured information (in our business = story) into structured data.

So whether the prospect makes you recoil or not, it's time to start paying attention. Your future in journalism (and PR) probably depends on it.

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SC legslators suggest Wikipedia will do over those expensive databases

(Update: 1:40 p.m. 3/26: Ron Aiken of The Nerve says the language was stricken in conference committee last night but that the sponsor, Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, says he'll bring it up again next session.)

S.C.'s State Library apparently is up in arms about some legislative budget engineering that would put some requirements and restrictions on the statewide DISCUS system, the free digital library available to everyone in the state and probably one of the state's best (if somewhat hidden) resources.

First there was a House budget proviso that would have prohibited the library from licensing electronic sources "where the same information is easily found in free online products such as Wikipedia." (Oh, there's a reliable source, eh?) It also would have prohibited licensing databases of articles "from mainstream newspapers and magazines, as these can almost always be accessed free online and are easily discovered through Internet search engines."

That same proviso also would have prohibited the inclusion of scholarly articles as not "intellectually accessible to the general population," but that was stricken -- as was the whole proviso.

But now the House has amended the Senate version to insert a new proviso that says no database DISCUS buys can have more than 20% of material freely available online.

There also are a bunch of technical requirements, such as that all databases must have responsive design that allows them to be viewable "down to the smallest smartphone size" and that there be an extensive geolocation service for all users. Video would also have to be delivered as H.264, MPEG-4 AVC format.

So in theory the responsive design requirement is a good one -- but will that put valuable databases/info off limits?

If you are out of state (or even on the border and your cell signal is being picked up by a tower in Georgia or NC) does that mean no access?

Sure, H.264 AVC is the advanced standard now, but things don't change much in tech, do they? So how quickly, if this is specified in state law, will it become outdated?

Generally, the success of legislating specific technology requirements has not gone well through the years.

To see the State Library's take on all this and the source docs:

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Monday, May 02, 2016

Wishful thinking, newspaper edition

From the wishful thinking dept. at Editor and Publisher.:
Returning to print shouldn’t be seen as taking a step back. Many readers still rely heavily on the print edition. A Pew Research Center study found that around half of newspaper readers in three U.S. metropolitan cities (Denver, Colo., Macon, Ga., and Sioux City, Iowa) only read in print.

With the saturation of news, the toxicity of online harassment, and the amount of poor Web experiences, readers will soon want to come back to print. This resurgence must take place if we want to keep print around for many more years, and publishers can accomplish that by immersing readers—not with virtual reality headsets—but with ink on their hands.
That's at the bottom of a mishmash, way-too-long piece that tries to make the case that poor woeful newspapers are being victimized again by technology, this time ad blockers (BTW, there's an easy way to get around Forbes' ad-blocking message and many other publishers').

That Pew statistic? It's a nice way of deception. Remember, it says half of all newspaper readers. It doesn't say what's happening to the overall number of newspaper readers (in other words, if there are still two newspaper readers and one reads only in print, you've met that stat -- but it's hardly a viable business model).

I'm a big fan of "newspapers" if you mean the term to refer to robust news orgs. If you mean it to refer to ink on paper, however, I'd like to introduce you to the dozens of students I interact with every semester. You know, the future higher income, higher educated readers your advertisers want. "Newspaper" is not in their daily universe.

This, of course, from the same people who have been telling themselves for years that as people age and buy houses, have kids, etc., they'll start reading newspapers -- despite every bit of solid social science research that's debunked that.

So how's that working out?

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Let it be stated -- stop using that word

In the flurry of coverage over the blowup in the investigation of corruption at South Carolina's Statehouse, an ugly little verb of attribution -- stated -- seems to be cropping up like spring flowers. (Just one example.)

Why ugly? I'll let Jack Cappon, one of the finest AP features editors ever (and a pretty damn good writer too), explain from his book on writing (which, BTW, should be on your desk). The bold emphasis is mine:

Asserted, stated, declared are often indiscriminately used for said. All are stronger and much more formal. ... Stated shouldn't be used at all; it is the instant mark of a wooden writer. (It fits if you're quoting from a deposition, but still looks dusty.)
 It also has connotations of increased veracity.

So let's put stated in its proper place -- on the top shelf, out of reach, to be looked at occasionally as we grab the easy-to-reach said. That way, we don't have to risk injuring our writing by reaching too high for it.

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