AP Stylebook changes rule on “illegal immigrant”

On Tuesday, the Associated Press announced a change to its stylebook indicating that its writers should no longer use the term “illegal immigrant” to refer to someone living in a country illegally. The change affects more than just A.P. staffers. Many journalism outlets and independent writers depend on the Associated Press Stylebook to set the standard for terminology and punctuation ethics in the craft.

According to Jim Romenesko, senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll said that the term “illegal” “should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.”

Carroll said the decision came after extensive discussions including people “from many walks of life,” which caused them to realize their acceptance of “illegal immigrant” was imprecise and not consistent with their standards for other topics like mental health issues, which require writers to use credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels.

“Will the new guidance make it harder for writers?” Carroll asked. “Perhaps just a bit at first. But while labels may be more facile, they are not accurate.”

Banging my head against the computer screen

What a depressing day to be an online journalist.

First, yesterday we lost access to Jim Romenesko (at least temporarily), thanks to a ham-handed and misguided “investigation” by his bosses at the Poynter Institute.

Poynter Online Director Julie Moos gently scolded Romenesko for “incomplete attribution” in his blog posts on Poynter.org. Which is ridiculous within the context of his blog, which links and excerpts media news stories from around the Web. Moos wrote that Romenesko should have placed quotation marks around the words he was excerpting from the articles he linked, and that would now be Poynter policy for the his and other blogs on Poynter.org.

So Jim quit.

The reason for using quotation marks and attributions on information from sources to clearly identify to readers what information in a story is coming from which sources. Neither I nor hundreds of the readers who took to Twitter, Facebook and blogs to support Romenesko found that a problem with his work. Romenesko helped invent a new format for news reporting online, one that aggregated information from multiple sources and delivered in a way that deviated from traditional journalism formats, but that communicated that information more effectively and efficiently than those old forms could have.

Trying to impose those old forms on Romenesko’s blog not only ignores its purpose, it helps to defeat it, by cluttering it with pointless keystrokes.

As Topix CEO Chris Tolles tweeted, “CJR & Poynter represent neither reader nor journalist. Just voices from inside coffin of the institution of ‘editor’.” [Moos credited an editor at Columbia Journalism Review for tipping her to the quotation mark issue.]

Let’s not forget that ethics stand as means to an end. When ethical rules become an end to themselves, we open the door to actions that are right by the letter of the law but completely wrong by its spirit. Sometimes, the rules have to change to preserve their spirit. You want an everlasting code of ethics for journalism? Try this: Tell the truth, and by doing so, inspire people to read it, to share it and to act upon it.

Everything else is just technique.

Romenesko found a new way of communicating attribution that renders old “rules” about attribution irrelevant. Journalism leadership that focuses on the ends our ethics are supposed to guide us toward would have recognized that. Leadership that focuses on rules for rules’ sake, wouldn’t have. And didn’t.

It’s clear from this episode that something does need to change at Poynter. But it wasn’t Jim Romenesko.

(Romenesko is launching his personal website next month. I suspect that it will be taking away quite a bit of traffic from Poynter.org.)

Second, yesterday I also received a depressing survey from the Online News Association. Here are a few of the 15 questions asked:

1. Do you ever find it difficult to draw a line between advocacy and objectivity in your own work?

5. Do you believe that the use of social media as a a (sic) reporting or news aggregation tool carries a risk creating demographic and informational silos?

6. Are you conflicted about creating your own “brand” or identity on your social media channels?

7. Do you believe your ties with your social media community(ies) influence your ability to maintain fairness and objectivity?

Oh, for goodness’ sake.

I’m hoping that these are clumsily-worded questions, and not reflective of ONA’s institutional attitude. (Though even that wouldn’t speak well of a professional organization dedicated to better communication online.)

On 1: Advocacy and objectivity are not mutually exclusive. Advocacy is part of every journalist’s duty. We should advocate for our reporting, for our communities and for the rights of all to express themselves in public forums. (Though we are allowed to advocate against what some people use those forums to say, especially when they try to deny rights to others.)

We achieve objectivity when our reporting can be duplicated and not contradicted by others who are reporting independently of us. Eliminating advocacy in the name of achieving objectivity does not necessarily bring us any closer to the point where our work can be verified by others. But it does isolate us from the communities and causes we should be helping by illuminating the truth.

On 5: The mass market was a myth. As soon as publishing technology allowed them the choice, they were going to choose to read and watch information that fit their interests and traditions. Ignoring social media won’t bring the audience back together, as they were when technology limited readers to getting news from a local paper. It simply will render journalists irrelevant to modern publishing and communication.

On 6: Please tell me that this question gets a 100% “No” response. What, you don’t like having a byline?

On 7: I actually screamed when I read this one. Establishing ties with your community are essential in maintaining fairness in your reporting. You need to know the people in your community, and be willing to meet them and interact with them where they are – whether than be in schools, community meetings, churches, parks and, yes, on social media networks.

But the previous questions framed social media as a “risk” and “conflicted,” which leads the survey-taker to think of social media as a negative influence on good things such as, presumably, fairness and objectivity. I reject that framing, but I feared that a “yes” answer would be interpreted by the ONA as affirming that framing. So how the heck I am supposed to answer if I want to defend the use of social media in reporting?

It’s enough to make you scream.

ProPublica's outreach a welcome step toward "open-source" journalism

A couple of outreach efforts by ProPublica this week caught my eye as examples of how the Web can make journalism more open and effective — and reminders that both journalists and the public need much more of this.

The first was a post on the ProPublica website Monday offering a “step by step guide” and searchable database for anyone tracing the influence of a nonprofit organization called ALEC that has proven highly effective in developing “model bills” for state legislatures.

The second was a conference call Tuesday that drew about 140 people to hear about using ProPublica-built data and a news application for reporting on education access issues in local schools and districts.

ProPublica published a national story based on the data, examining the relationship of poverty to educational access, along with a Facebook-integrated app for looking up and comparing schools and districts.

These two efforts are moves in the right direction not just for ProPublica but for journalism and the public. By sharing data and making it easy to use, ProPublica produces more value from its deep investments of time and expertise. ProPublica can also benefit from the insights and experiences of others who share or report on the data.

During the conference call, reporter Sharona Coutts, news application developer Al Shaw and computer-assisted reporting director Jennifer LaFleur heard questions, comments and suggestions. Reporters, whose affiliations included both traditional and startup news organizations, also poked and prodded at some of the findings.

As anyone who’s worked with databases knows, data analysis tends to prompt as many questions as it answers. The ProPublica team explained what they’d done to clean up and amplify two major sets of federal data and encouraged reporters to add their knowledge and mash up the new data with other sources. ProPublica also emailed followup links later to those on the call.

This kind of nitty-gritty, story-specific journalism discussion has generally occurred mainly among a limited subset of journalists through specialized skills organizations (such as Investigative Reporters and Editors), in training seminars or in members-only settings. ProPublica’s model shows the promise of opening up that discussion much more broadly — not just among journalists, but for public view of how journalism is done.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s general manager, told me that transparency and public engagement have been part of the core discussion at ProPublica since its launch in 2008. In the past year ProPublica has accelerated its social media push, growing Twitter followers by more than five times (55,883 as of this morning) and Facebook friends by more than three times (20,280).

ProPublica has as much competitive DNA as any news organization. Yet Tofel and Editor in Chief Paul Steiger note that their decisions to share databases and expertise don’t have to pass muster with corporate owners or stockholders.

Last year, a ProPublica collaboration with several other news organizations on a project called “Dollars for Docs,” showing pharmaceutical company payments to physicians, expanded its impact after the initial series by sharing and inviting further use of ProPublica’s data. Eventually, dozens of print, online and broadcast outlets drew on the database to produce stories. ProPublica’s “tools and data” page shows other examples.

Given ProPublica’s mission to “make change,” Tofel said, anything that extends the organization’s reach is worth trying.

“That tends to drive us toward open source and it tends to drive us toward sharing,” Tofel said, “and it tends to drive us toward wanting people to follow up on our stuff.”

ProPublica benefits from such followup as its work is credited broadly and its databases and stories are linked off other sites. Social media efforts like the #muckreads feature launched recently (Tweet stories using the #muckreads hashtag and ProPublica considers and aggregates on its site), along with news apps and story links, can help boost traffic to the ProPublica site, now at about 300,000 monthly unique visitors and 1 million monthly page views.

The Web, of course, offers many resources for learning about journalism. Poynter has greatly expanded its online training and knowledge-sharing, through blogs and the News University curriculum, and numerous journalism/media blogs publish spot reports, opinion pieces and guidance that fuel shared learning. Foundation and university-led institutes and websites keep up a steady stream of conversation about ideas and practices. And professional organizations play varying roles in learning for members, with IRE standing out as a leader.

ProPublica adds a new dimension as a news organization sharing its resources directly.

The Web and social media channels also are rich in open discussion and knowledge sharing about some aspects of news and information online — data analysis and visualization, use of social media, new tools and technology. Tech culture is intersecting more and more with journalism, and journalism can gain much more from that influence than new gadgets for old ideas.

Journalism researchers Nikki Usher and Seth C. Lewis explored this idea in an article on the Nieman Journalism Lab blog examining how open-source themes emerged in the learning lab portion of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. (I wrote here earlier about the partnership, known as “Mojo.”)

“What can open source teach journalism,” Usher and Lewis asked, “and journalism open source?”

Their findings outline ways the authors think some of the ideas of open-source software align, or don’t, with journalism: transparency, iteration, standards and collaboration. The Mojo experiment should be a good test of cross-pollination.

I’d like to hear about and share other examples of open sharing of resources that enable public-affairs news and information. Please post examples in comments here or email me using the link above. I’ll report back here.