Tag: journalism

Taking a leaf from Ron Burgundy

Apparently the anchors at this station will read anything they see on the autocue (and their fact checkers won’t read the autocue out loud).

I can not believe this made it to air unchecked.


But the apology is pretty classy. And absolute.

Access all areas: a photojournalist’s two years with the Yakuza

I love this sort of reporting. Journalists going above and beyond to get a unique story, I especially love the sort of “access all areas”  (however carefully stage managed by the subject) feature, when the subject is something that happens behind doors that are usually well and truly closed to the public.

This photographer named Anton Kusters embedded himself in the life of a Japanese Yakuza crime family, producing a series of photos for an art exhibition and book. He blogged his way through the project here.

I arrive early. I’ve hitched a ride with two young recruits who will be trained here. I have no idea where we are, other than that we are at the beach somewhere, several hours away from Tokyo. We park the car and head on to the compound.

It’s a regular little seaside town, and the place we’re staying in is a traditional Japanese guest house. We walk up to the late Miyamoto-san, who is in charge of the annual organization, and greet him. He’s going over the daily routine together with Tanaka-sensei.

Tanaka-sensei is a master swordsman and martial arts teacher, who has fought in the Afghan war in the 1980′s by training the Mujahedin in different combat and sword fighting techniques. He is here to teach the recruits meditation techniques, unarmed and armed combat, and bodyguard practice.


There are a couple of images at these links that may or may not be disturbing – so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book or anything…

I can never figure out why, apart from an overdeveloped sense of their own grandeur or significance, a career criminal, or a criminal organisation, would want the exposure that attention like this brings.


“In the hotel bar I am only slowly starting to understand the minutial social order that is continuously happening within the Yakuza, the micro-expressions on the faces, the gestures, the voices and intonations, the body language. Everything seems to be strictly organized but at the same time seems to come naturally: strangely, I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do, where to sit, when to talk or when to shut up… it’s like I feel the boundaries, the implicit expectations, and I am slowly learning when I can do, and when to best hold back.”

Kusters describes the experience at some length here… – again, one of the slide show images will probably not be your cup of tea – so I’ve put the good quotes below.

AK: I was extremely nervous. Since they are gangsters, I thought I should be very careful, in case I shot something I wasn’t supposed to see. But this actually upset the gang. They saw my nervousness as disrespectful. I remember one time early on this guy pulled me aside and said, “You are here to take pictures. Act like a professional.” It turned out they respected me if I was really aggressive about getting a certain shot. To not take photos was a sign of weakness.

S: So who were the people you followed around? What were they like?

AK: I followed around two people mainly, who brought me into the bigger social circle. One was the kaichou, the president of the organization. The other was Shoichiro, who was the street boss.

The kaichou looked a university professor—wire glasses, white hair, a goatee. He always walked around in a tailored suit—all the higher ups did. The kaichou acted like a CEO, delegating tasks to a lot of people, always being driven around, surrounded by bodyguards. He liked golf. I thought he was friendly enough, but wasn’t very chatty. I didn’t expect him to be, he had a business to run all the time.

Shoichrio was a muscular guy, since he worked as the physical enforcer for all the gang’s ground operations. He was very gruff, especially on the phone and when he was around his subordinates. But he was a lot chattier than Kaichou, and I was actually closest with him. He was actually very particular about his appearance, and got his haircut and nails manicured once a week.

AK: Tattoos were originally used as a way for members to recognize each other at bathhouses, the traditional yakuza place of business. But these tattoos obviously have deep significance for yakuza, and getting one is a very big deal. It’s a sense of pride and belonging, as well as a testament to one’s manhood because the process is so painful.

Gangs typically have a certain artist working for them—but this wasn’t an “in-house” situation and there was no pressure on members from seeing other artists. These artists work through a very old medium of hammering four inked needles into the skin, at around 120 pokes per minute, at a precise angle against bodyfat. There aren’t too many of them operating anymore, so the gang treats with a tremendous amount of respect. Even the kaichou called his tattoo artist “sensei.”

To get a meeting with an artist, you first need an internal recommendation. Then you have an interview with the artist to see if he even agrees to take you on—they say the honor of being chosen by a tattoo artist is as important as the tattoo itself.

I was with the kaichou when he got a second tattoo. The gang had just entered into an alliance with another family, so as a show of loyalty he had his original full-body tattoo burned off with hot coals and replaced with a new tattoo. It took 100 hours to complete. They called him “The Master of All Pains.”

Crazy stuff.

It reminds me a bit of Gang Leader for a Day – which is an excellent book about the economic and sociological structure of an American street gang…

Guy named Dragan reinvents the term “jumping the shark”

When a television show channels its inner Happy Days and features something as ludicrous as the Fonz jumping over a pair of sharks on waterskis those in the media biz know its days are numbered. It is said to have “jumped the shark”… this is a pejorative description of the act of doing anything to garner ratings and attention. Or it was. Until now. A Serbian man named Dragan was swimming at the beach and decided that it would be fun to jump off a high diving board. He landed on a shark. A man eater. Killing it. Here’s the news story, corroborated on the New York Post’s website.

Here’s a snippet:

“Dragan climbed on the jumping board, told me to hold his beer and simply ran to jump. There was no time for me to react or to try to stop him, he just went for it” says Milovan.

“Dragan jumped high and plunged down to the sea, but didn’t make as much splash as we thought he would”, explained Milovan.

The reason could be because Dragan Stevic ended up jumping straight on the shark which was lurking near the beach, probably looking for its next victim. Dragan had nailed it right in the head, killing it instantly. The Egyptian police found the shark washed out on the beach that morning.

Sadly. The story is a fake. Not even a good one. And it’s an indictment on the state of modern journalism that the New York Post decided to run it just because it had already reached a viral tipping point online. They have jumped the shark.

Blog Commenting Guidelines for Journalists

The Guardian Newspaper has posted its commenting guidelines for its own journalists.

I like them.

1. Participate in conversations about our content, and take responsibility for the conversations you start.

2. Focus on the constructive by recognising and rewarding intelligent contributions.

3. Don’t reward disruptive behaviour with attention, but report it when you find it.

4. Link to sources for facts or statements you reference, and encourage others to do likewise.

5. Declare personal interest when applicable. Be transparent about your affiliations, perspectives or previous coverage of a particular topic or individual.

6. Be careful about blurring fact and opinion and consider carefully how your words could be (mis)interpreted or (mis)represented.

7. Encourage readers to contribute perspective, additional knowledge and expertise. Acknowledge their additions.

8. Exemplify our community standards in your contributions above and below the line.

Journalism in the age of Data

I haven’t watched this yet – but it promises to be pretty interesting and I’d like to be able to find it easily.

Journalism in the Age of Data from Geoff McGhee on Vimeo.

Warning: May contain traces of wikipedia

Wouldn’t it be nice if your morning news came with a straightforward interpretive key – something a little bit like these warning labels (available as a pdf) from this guy named Tom Scott.

This article contains unsourced, unverified information from Wikipedia.

Journalist does not understand the subject they are writing about.

At the end of the day we’ll never get rid of cliches going forward

A journalist has been researching cliches. Which might sound a bit like a cigarette company researching the harm caused by nicotine. But this journo, Chris Pash, came up with the following as the most (over)used cliches in journalism

1. At the end of the day

2. Split second

3. About face

4. Unsung heroes

5. Outpouring of support

6. Last-ditch effort

7. Concerned residents

He also makes this statement:

Writers in particular genres tend to reach for particular cliches. Book reviewers, for example, favour “compelling” and “masterful”as well as the made-up word “unputdownable”, whereas travel writers show an over-dependence on “paradise”, “must-see” and “best-kept secret”.

Which is true for any profession. We’ve all got our own jargon and favourite terminology. One of my favourite media release cliches was “key strategy” – which is both weaselly, buzzwordy, and slightly tautologous. Perfect cliche fodder. It almost always came with the modifier “one of our” (and the accompanying pluralisation of strategy) – just to show that we weren’t nailed down to a single idea.

Pash manages the Dow Jones Factiva Database, which stores all the content from about 25,000 major news outlets and magazines. He ran searches on the material for particular phrases, like “at the end of the day” and identified the list above as the most commonly used cliches.

But, at the end of the day, nobody really needs to write “at the end of the day” do they?

Pash attributes the soul-crushing dominance of “at the end of the day” at least partly to its frequent appearance in direct quotes, particularly those given by politicians. “They use it almost as punctuation,” he says.

Being aware of the cliches you use is good. Because cliches make for tired writing, and thus, bad communication. As soon as a phrase becomes a cliche it has lost its magic.

Why you shouldn’t care that 50% of all media coverage comes from PR

As a former PR spin twit* nothing raises my hackles faster than the suggestion that PR is a pointless industry that thrives on the back of lazy journalism like a carrion bird picking the dead carcass of this once noble industry.

Crikey “broke” a story today, a bit of a non-story if you ask me, and it is certainly not “news” to anybody who knows anything at all… more than half of the stories in the media that Crikey monitored for a week originated in Public Relations.

After analysing a five-day working week in the media, across 10 hard-copy papers, ACIJ and Crikey found that nearly 55% of stories analysed were driven by some form of public relations. The Daily Telegraph came out on top of the league ladder with 70% of stories analysed triggered by public relations. The Sydney Morning Herald gets the wooden spoon with (only) 42% PR-driven stories for that week.

I’d be willing to bet that 95% of that 55% were about newsworthy issues that were worth breaking, and that they were reported in a fair and balanced manner.

As a PR spin twit I released hundreds of media releases a year – and probably 30% of them were never ever going to get printed but were released to meet KPIs, commitments to other organisations, or political expectations. Media releases are currency in modern business – a way that companies can be seen to be taking a proactive stance on issues. Who cares if this sort of release is picked up (well me, as a PR spin twit whose pay increases are dependent on a better than average rate of pick up of my stories)? Some media releases are produced simply to reflect the company line on issues upon request, others are glorfied advertorials that might get a run on a really slow news day – but the vast majority – are things that a company believes are going to make the news because they are inherently newsworthy. Media placement is competitive – especially when you’re in a major city where space is tight. You’re not going to cheapen your brand by releasing something that everybody recognises as dross – unless you’ve got a really good reason to do so. You want to be the guy the media calls when they need stories, not the guy who clogs their inboxes with meaningless corporatised tripe filled with weasel words.

I’m actually surprised at how low that figure is – I wonder if they excluded all sporting stories from the mix – which would be a folly, because I can’t think of any competitive sports team that doesn’t employ a media manager to train players in how to talk to the media after games. PR is happening any time someone talks to a journalist with an agenda. Unless the journalist gazumps somebody with an FOI story, or doorstops them with a bombshell question, you can bet that “PR” is at play when any spokesperson from a listed company, political party, advocacy body, or sporting team fronts a camera.

If this figure only considers proactive PR, rather than reactive PR, it’s still lowballing the actual reality – there are thousands of ways to place a story – and unless a journalist literally stumbles across the story themselves on the way to work you can bet they’ve got a source who is interested in seeing a story getting out. Whistleblowers are engaging in public relations.

It’s disingenuous to run this story suggesting that the landscape of journalism is changing, or indeed that there’s a problem with the idea of public relations. Journalists are interested in pursuing either truth or their newspaper’s particular agenda (read the hobby horses of their readership). These biases are usually so overt it’s as if they’re declared on the masthead or clearly obvious from the demographics they reach. So long as news is market driven – ie giving the masses’ itching ears what they long to hear – PR professionals have to be presenting stories in interesting and intriguing ways that will move units and sell advertising.

Here are some facts to consider when dismissing news coverage because it originates in PR…

  • Most public relations professionals hold some sort of qualification in journalism or communication
  • Most have a good eye for a story
  • Most are killing more dumb stories in their organisation as editorial decisions (ie things people think are stories that aren’t) than they are releasing
  • Most are investigating their claims and fact checking rigorously to avoid releasing bad information (which is deadly for any company that trades on its reputation)
  • Most have a vested interest in the truth getting out – unless they’re working for a terrible and unscrupulous company in which case they’re interested in cover up and are culpable, or working for a politician in which case their bias figuratively written all over their faces.

PR people aren’t the bad guys – and spin mostly isn’t the enemy. Spin is the product of a culture that crucifies any company or individual brave enough to take an unpopular stand. If you want to know why politicians vacillate and pontificate rather than providing answers to questions from journalists look what happened to Tony Abbott when he admitted the he’s scared of homosexuals (which was admittedly a pretty stupid thing to say).

This quote from the editor of The Australian – Chris Mitchell – to Crikey is pretty telling…

“It’s very difficult I think, given the way resources have drifted from journalism to public relations over the past 30 years, to break away as much as you really want to … I guess I’m implying, the number of people who go to communications school and go into PR over the years has increased and the number in journalism has shrunk even more dramatically.”

Why are we assuming that the better trained and more talented journalists end up working for the media? I’d rather keep a good company from the maws of the ravenous tabloid journalist than feed the masses their latest sacrifice any day of the week. There is no real nobility in the fourth estate (the media) any longer.

The Crikey article reaches some stupid conclusions that are pretty close to scaremongering propaganda themselves.

Our investigation strongly confirms that journalism in Australia today is heavily influenced by commercial interests selling a product, and constrained and blocked by politicians, police and others who control the media message.

Why is controlling a message a bad thing? If it was up to the unscrupulous headline grabbing media barons they’re conduct crucifixions by media, or put heroes on pedestals, just to sell more papers. Why would the media run a moderate, unmanaged quote when they can take a sensational soundbite and beat someone they don’t like over the head with it. You’re stupid not to think about how you control your message in any context.

Some PR is stupid though – I’ll leave this rant with a priceless quote from a SMH story in the Binglegate case. The only winners in this case are the promoters (and perhaps Michael Clarke). Max Markson is using this opportunity to get himself on TV so every aspiring celebrity golddigger knows his name – and the best line in any of the stories surrounding the affair came from Bingle’s law firm. In a media release.

”We are not seeking publicity by this media release.”

How can you tell me a line like that is not worth a story of its own – and Crikey complains about 55%.

*A title bestowed on me by the Townsville Bulletin’s resident cynical “about town” columnist…

From Sunday School to Jihad

This is a bizarre story, told through some incredible journalism, of a young American man’s journey from the Sunday School rooms of an Alabama Baptist church to the bowels of a Jihadist operation in Somalia.

Here’s an excerpt. It really is worth reading the whole thing.

Despite the name he acquired from his father, an immigrant from Syria, Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain-spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like “sugar” and “darlin’.” Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar went to Bible camp as a boy and sang “Away in a Manger” on Christmas Eve. As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. “It felt cool just to be with him,” his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. “You knew he was going to be a leader.”

A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world’s most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.

Read the whole thing – and then read this perspective on the story from another guy who grew up in aSoutherb Baptist church – Russell Moore – who provides a handy foil to the gun-toting American redneck type response that would traditionally see this guy as death deserving traitorous scum…

“You and I heard the gospel because of another jihadist’s trip to Damascus. Saul of Tarsus was filled with indignant zeal and, armed to the teeth, he thought he could terrorize the name of Christ off the face of the earth. What stopped him wasn’t a set of arguments. What stopped him was Christ. And the gospel he found on that sandy road was later propelled, through him, across the world right down to wherever you, and Omar, first heard it.”

Dead celebs society – RIP Johnny Depp – and other hoaxes

Twitter is abuzz with the news that Johnny Depp is dead (he’s not). I can’t believe how many gullible people get suckered in by a good Twitter hoax. It is, however, a sign of the shifting nature of news. News now breaks on Twitter. Which is a shame. Because Twitter is full of twits.

The blame for this shift rests firmly with the established media. The problem is that the media has completely lost touch with what news is, and often serve up marginally interesting tabloid gossip instead of actual news. Sadly, marginally interesting tabloid gossip is not their forte. The Internet is much better at it. When conventional news covers celebrity gossip they’re about as good as the joke in the next sentence is funny. Tonight’s story it was the Brangelina split – apparently Angelina is enforcing a prenup condition whereby she keeps the “A” from their name – so Brad will now be “Brd”.

Because celebrity news – and deaths – are much more important than normal deaths (by a scale of about 100,000 to 1) journalists are forced to turn a rather minor event into something major (and the Twits follow suit). This is how they do it (from here)…


And here’s Surviving the World’s insight on why this is unacceptable.

If the media reported things as they happened, and with the attention they deserved (which is a big ask – I know) then we wouldn’t be left with the Twits setting the news agenda, and there’d be no chance of a hoax like this resulting in such an outpouring of unnecessary emotion.

A journalistic gem

This, friends, is a fine piece of journalism. A reporter has tracked down and interviewed members of an internatiaonal cabal of diamond thieves to produce a stunning picture of the life of Yugoslavian professional criminals.

It does seem eerily similar to a bunch of Mafia “confessionals” that I read when I wanted to write a Mafia novel. The accounts from the gangsters perhaps suffer a little from their slightly myopic and glorified storytelling. But it’s well worth a read.

The heist alone is worthy of detailed retelling (and will no doubt be the plot line of Oceans 14) – from the story:

Each member of the gang did his or her job perfectly. The attractive young woman seduced the son of the jewelry store owner in Rome to find out where the safe was in the owner’s house. She also discovered that the owner needed builders for repairs. Some of the others secured the renovation contract and cased the house. The get-away driver spent weeks learning every one-way road and stop sign in downtown Rome. And eventually the safe-cracker, the smallest in the group, hid himself inside a false-bottomed chest that the others left on the balcony of a bedroom where the safe was located.

As luck would have it, he didn’t even have to break into the safe, which was hidden behind a painting. The jeweller’s other son left it open for 15 minutes, plenty of time for the diminutive safe-cracker to remove the diamonds and make his escape to the street, where the driver was waiting for him. Back in their rented apartment in Ostia, near the Fiumicino airport outside Rome, the gang met up and celebrated.

The heist was the work of a subgroup of a network of criminals dubbed the Pink Panthers. In the last ten years these guys stole $340 million worth of jewelry in 160 robberies in 26 countries.

Some of the quotes from the criminals are just priceless…

“Any good robbery should take up to 20 seconds.”

Another said that having a nickname and reputation in the media will be the death of the gang:

“When they give you a name you’re in big trouble,” he said, as he finished up a dinner of fresh sea bass at the seaside restaurant and lit a cigarette. “Because every single small policeman is trying to catch you. We lost a lot of guys because of that name. Some of our co-workers got drunk in casinos and were bragging about it, thinking they are something. It’s better to be nothing. The best criminals are those who stay out of prison.”

Lehrer’s rules for journalism

Jim Lehrer is to journalists what any other respected expert is to their chosen field. He finished his last broadcast with a list of rules that have guided him through a career in the profession.

  • Do nothing I cannot defend.
  • Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  • Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  • Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
  • Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  • Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  • Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
  • Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes, except on rare and monumental occasions.
  • No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  • And, finally, I am not in the entertainment business.”

Journalism and literal blowholes

The exploding whale video is one of my favourite YouTube videos of all time – and is in fact one of the most popular ever uploaded.

The journalist who reported the story in 1970 has now written a book about the story.

“We’re hearing this noise around us and we realize it is pieces of whale blubber hitting the ground around us (from) 1,000 yards away. A piece of blubber the size of a fingernail could kill you if it hit you in the right part of the head, so we ran away from the blast scene, down the dune and toward the parking lot. Then we heard a second explosion ahead of us, and we just kept going until we saw what it was: A car had been hit by this coffee-table-size piece of blubber and had its windows flattened all the way down to the seats.”

Now he’s pigeon-holed as the whale guy.

Linnman, now a reporter and morning host for KEX Newsradio 1190 AM in Portland, said not a day goes by that someone doesn’t mention or reference the story to him.

He has learned to accept his fame and people’s undying interest in the bizarre story by writing a book, “The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories From the Evening News,” featuring detailed accounts of his day on the beach along with some of his favorite feature stories from his career.

Journalistic hazards

I deal with journalists frequently. They are often a cause of professional frustration. But it can be a tough job. Especially when your screw ups are very public, and live. Like these.

Graphical truth

GraphJam is awesome. And it appears that it has been overtaken by acerbic Christian wits and journalism graduates… such is the level of cynicism displayed by these posts…