The Beautiful Struggle Review

Books have the ability, and some would say the responsibility, to transport a reader somewhere unexpected, to educate them in a way unique to the written word. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle both transports and educates in a way that is thought-provoking and timeless, conveying hope within struggle and love even in crumbling circumstances.

Coates’s memoir is unlike others, just like the life he is detailing in his book. His reconstruction of the past is as authentic as it could be, peppered with slang and rooted in the growing popularity of hip-hop culture to keep pace with the story. The beautiful struggle Coates refers to in the title of his book is that of growing up in West Baltimore in the midst of the infamous crack epidemic that overtook the lives of other promising black men in that time. Coates was raised by a very complex father, a father of seven with four different women, making his home life a patchwork quilt of children and family. Paul Coates was a former Black Panther and founder of a black publishing company. He filled the house with books and knowledge for his children to explore, which undoubtedly fueled Ta-Nehisi’s creativity that would lead him to write such an accomplished and poetic life story, as well as influenced his views on reparations as documented in The Atlantic.

Coates details a post-civil rights movement adolescence surrounded by chaos but centered in family, specifically his father and older brother Bill, beautifully articulated in ways such as, “We were a close-knit circle, but a circle surrounded by dire wolves.” He ably accounts his differences from Bill in their life paths, displaying a lack of interest in street life with more of a knack for Dungeons and Dragons while Bill gained a reputation in their neighborhood. What they had in common was the love of their father, who was more unconventional than not, banning Christmas and Thanksgiving out of principle and raising his children with a singular goal: to prepare them for adult life.

More than anything, The Beautiful Struggle serves as a coming-of-age story that tears away the glamour and nostalgia other tales of the same nature often carry. Instead, the influence of his father brought Ta-Nehisi reverence for his family’s culture and a continued interest in being “conscious.” As a younger boy, Coates was harder to corral than some of Paul’s other children, an anomaly with his stature and education and no willingness to fight or showcase his academic potential. When Coates finally got to Howard University where his father taught in order to give his children access to higher education, he came alive and embraced his opportunities.

When most people consider the inner city of Baltimore in the 1980s and 90s, they think of drugs, gangs, violence and general chaos. The Beautiful Struggle brings another reality out of the shadows, a reality made possible by drive, strong family, education and resistance to damning temptations. Coates’s writing is magical, weaved with poetic language while he tells a very real story, making the book both effective and interesting. The book is as good a tribute to such an upbringing as one can imagine.

Chastity Hunts For The Key

During Melissa Bailey’s ethics discussion with our class today, her tale about college freshman Chastity caught my attention the most. Bailey spent a day with Chastity, asking her questions about her quest to become the first in her family to graduate from college. They toured Fairfield University, a predominantly white school that Chastity fought tooth-and-nail to attend. She took five classes as well as juggling a commute from New Haven, a work-study job and a weekend Dunkin Donuts job.

During their tour, Chastity lost her key, which served Bailey well as a metaphor for her situation in overcoming adversity for the cause of higher education. The situation, while not life and death by any means, did present an ethical challenge — should Bailey help solve the problem by paying for a cab and avoid a four-hour hunt around campus for a car key or stay detached and note how the student would overcome the obstacle?

I believe Bailey did the right thing in maintaining her journalistic detachment, and as it turns out, her story on Chastity’s determination and problem solving skills did benefit Chastity in the long run through donations made to support her education. One could say that karma worked it out in the end. Bailey seized an opportunity to let Chastity’s character speak for her rather than interfering and changing the narrative, and that was the right choice in terms of journalism ethics.

Final Paper

For my final paper, I’ll be expanding upon my presentation on citizen journalism and the ethical questions that arise with its growing popularity. My central argument will be that citizen journalism is an imperfect solution to the problems modern journalism faces due to ethical issues based on lack of training.

I’ll start with some background history about citizen journalism in order to provide context, starting with its origins during and after 9/11. I’ll primarily be focusing on three particular cases in which citizen journalism had a profound effect on the situation — the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street movement and Ferguson protests.

So far for my Arab Spring research, I have articles from the Guardian, PBS, The Editors’ Weblog and the Baker Institute as well as an academic paper. For Occupy Wall Street, I have information from the Huffington Post, Freepress.net and Northeastern Professor Sarah Jackson as well as Josh Stearns’s piece on Storify. For Ferguson, I have work from the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Poughkeepsie Journal. For general information, I have criticism of citizen journalism from digitaljournalist.org, PBS and journalist/strategist Vincent Maher.

I think that by going over case studies in which citizen journalism made an impact and examining the ideas of critics, I can make an argument about citizen journalism’s necessity in today’s media culture.

Managing Comments

The advent of the internet has made significant changes to news media, both good and bad. Easier and faster communication is chief among them, but it is not without its drawbacks. Along with news sites posting many stories online for wider access and visibility to their readers, the comment section seemed like a great way for interested readers to commune and share their views and interact. Not only could they talk to each other, but the news sites now had insight into what their audience was thinking.

With comment sections came trouble. Sections that don’t require real names or ones that allow anonymous comments are filled with vitriol and hate speech and not much useful commentary at all. To combat this new reality, as of 2011, the LA Times started a new practice. They began using Facebook comments as their comment sections which forced commenters to be honest about their identities and lessened the ridiculous and hateful messages spreading across the internet. For comparison sake, they began their experiment by running Facebook comments and their traditional system together to see the difference in content and it was clear that Facebook kept most people in check.

Poynter.org that reported on this new practice acknowledged the point made by digital culture expert Danah Boyd, who offered the idea that anonymous comments give a voice to the oppressed and vulnerable who don’t feel safe sharing their identity with their opinions. The writer of the article agrees with this issue, but says that it’s a small price to pay for a respectful online community. I believe that Facebook comments are a good start to addressing this issue, but that anonymous comments should be allowed and moderated by a responsible staff so as to allow a voice for everyone.

Mark Garfinkel

“At least feel and you’re halfway there.”

Among the nuggets of wisdom the Boston Herald’s Mark Garfinkel offered us in class yesterday, this was probably my favorite. Garfinkel, an accomplished photojournalist with years of experience and lots of engaging, interesting stories, discussed ethical situations in photojournalism and the do’s and don’ts of photo editors.

Garfinkel began by talking about posed photos and how they innately lie to the reader, despite the emotional or artistic impact they may have in service of a news organization. He discussed the changing standards of photo editors over the past few decades, displaying more graphic and distressing pictures that had once been front page news that would be much more difficult to print now. Garfinkel expressed his distaste for this practice, saying he’d much rather see a light shone where it isn’t pleasant, but is necessary. I agree with this for the most part, and I agree that publishing decisions should be made by journalists and editors on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, Garfinkel’s message was that he still fluctuates over ethical topics in the business and that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gray areas in photojournalism are natural and unavoidable and should be handled with sensitivity and a responsibility to the audience.

The Journalist and the Murderer Review

Janet Malcolm’s iconic first line of her book The Journalist and the Murderer has not made her many friends in her field, but it certainly makes you think twice as a journalist about your chosen profession. In her words, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Malcolm uses the rest of her book to back these sentences, and she does it very well.

Malcolm uses her engaging, riveting style to tell the story of convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and the man that wrote his story, author Joe McGinniss. MacDonald, sentenced to life in prison for the horrific murder of his pregnant wife and two young children, allowed McGinniss into his life for years in order to tell his side of the story and proclaim his innocence. In fact, McGinniss decided, after years of research and study, that MacDonald was guilty, so MacDonald sued him for libel and ended up winning the case.

Malcolm uses this case study as an in-depth look into the moral choices journalists make and their effects on their relationships with their subjects. MacDonald never worried that McGinniss would write that he understood MacDonald to be guilty, and Malcolm had evidence as to why MacDonald felt secure in their friendship. Malcolm published letters between the two men in which McGinniss repeatedly expressed his belief in MacDonald’s innocence and confirming their friendship, though he made it clear in his book and in later interviews that he always felt otherwise. Malcolm explores the reasoning behind why McGinniss chose to mislead his subject, noting that in order to get the best story, he had to gain his trust, and he lied in order to do it.

Malcolm’s book is very ironic. She herself is a journalist and she herself was sued by the subject of one of her other books. She spends the bulk of the book lambasting the journalistic profession, her own profession, calling it immoral, even saying that, “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self-absorption and the journalist’s skepticism.” Her self-awareness as a journalist is apparent and makes her seem more trustworthy than McGinniss and some other journalists who have taken the same approach to their subject relationships.

The Journalist and the Murderer is about lines — where they are, whether they’ve been crossed, and whether it’s ok to cross them. Malcolm’s perspective on this case is especially interesting, if a little self-important, considering her own situation. She fearlessly addresses the questionable moral standpoint of betraying trust and lying to get to “the truth,” but it is worth noting that her own case would inevitably have altered the way she approached this subject. In a way, this makes her no better than McGinniss himself, toward whom she made it clear she did not have warm, fuzzy feelings.

Malcolm’s study of the journalist-source relationship is fascinating and thought-provoking, made even more so by her own circumstances.

Quotation Alteration – Zinsser and Malcolm vs. AP Style

As journalists, we are taught from the beginning of our education to quote our sources accurately to maintain the ideas these subjects convey to us as well as our own credibility. Accuracy in quotations in journalism is sometimes very extreme, as suggested by the Associated Press Stylebook’s rules about including even small grammatical errors in quotes. This rule of accurate quoting serves journalism as a safety net — if your source said it in those exact words, there is no gray area of misrepresentation with which to blame the journalist.

The AP Stylebook holds this ideal as a rule for a reason. Verbatim quotes keep journalists honest and leave no room for misinterpretation on behalf of the author of a story. However, not everyone subscribes to this belief, claiming instead that changing a quote to better illustrate a point is acceptable. William Zinsser and Janet Malcolm are both very well respected writers who uphold this ideal and regularly edit quotations because they believe it serves the story better.

I find the idea dangerous. Direct quotes convey exact meaning and don’t allow a journalist to reinterpret words as they see fit to elucidate an idea. If journalists take liberties with a quote, they are innately changing the meaning, and therefore misrepresenting their subject. However, I think AP Style’s insistence on leaving grammatical errors and slips of the tongue in a quote may go a little too far and can distract from the message of a quote. I agree with Zinsser’s notion about the acceptability of changing the order of quotes as long as it upholds the intended meaning of the quote itself. Beyond that, direct quotes keep journalists safe and I think they should be taken seriously.

How to Fix Rolling Stone Magazine

It is no secret that Rolling Stone needs some fixing. With their recent public relations nightmares, such as the now infamous UVA rape story and the choice to put Tsarnaev on the cover of their magazine after the Boston Marathon bombings, owner Jann Wenner would need consultation in order to proceed with polishing his magazine’s tarnished reputation.

I would recommend some drastic measures, coming from a PR standpoint. The most recent problem of the UVA rape story was not isolated to the author of the story. The blame for those mistakes goes not only to the freelance writer, who I would recommend dropping entirely, but also to the direct editor of the article, Sean Woods, and the managing editor of the magazine, Will Dana. The fact checkers employed for this story should remain in their positions, but I believe the rest of the staff involved should be let go. A clean slate would do Rolling Stone a world of good, the way a bad restaurant can turn things around with an “Under New Management” sign in the window.

Throughout the process of writing the story, the fact checkers were under utilized and even ignored. When they asked some key questions, pulling at loose threads, they could have helped to stop this catastrophe of a story from being published. In class, we discussed possibly bringing fact checkers along with writers to keep more eyes and ears out for journalistic truth and I support that idea. I also think that from here forward, every story, no matter who writes it, should be more carefully supervised by editing staff so there won’t be as many overlooked issues. If the magazine implements ideas like these, it can start down the road to recovery.

The Views from Somewhere and Nowhere

One of the key ideals of journalism since its inception has been the importance of objectivity. Leaving personal experience and beliefs and other biases out of a story is part of a journalist’s job. This objectivity is meant to keep news organizations honest and maintain the trust of the public consuming said news, but in recent years, objectivity has been known to overwhelm journalism when it is taken too far.

The “view from nowhere” is exemplified by news stories that don’t go the extra mile to educate, but instead report the back-and-forth debate between parties or opponents that are deemed newsworthy. One particular story from the BBC can be characterized this way. The story, centered around the impending deadline of changes to the Patriot Act, is well written and concise. However, its focus is on the disagreements about the Act in the Senate, not on the Act itself. It gives context for the Patriot Act and informs about the opinions of both sides of the debate, but it would do well to go into detail about potential changes and how they would affect readers.

On the other hand, the “view from somewhere” is considered “good” objectivity — the kind that offers a stance while also sharing all the facts and context necessary for a complete news story. The Boston Globe’s opinion section recently published this story about the Fung Wah bus line. The story has a clear angle in wanting to give the ill-fated bus line another chance in the market while offering details about its history and debunking myths about its safety issues. The story informs, but with a clear purpose and stands as a good example of the underrated “view from somewhere.”

Informing the News Review

In his book Informing the News, Thomas Patterson overachieves in his criticism of modern journalism by detailing all of its faults and suggesting a solution for its future. In his introduction, he discusses his goals for the book, stating that he will outline the problems in the news and how his concept of “knowledge-based journalism” can solve such issues. He cites dozens of sources and studies along the way, which solidify his position as a credible critic and a voice to listen to as we look into journalism’s future. However, due to the range of topics he covers and the lengths to which he goes to explain them fully with references and examples, the book is quite dense and overwhelming in a textbook-like manor.

Patterson guides us through the problems of modern journalism and very clearly defines these issues: the information problem, the source problem, the knowledge problem, the education problem, the audience problem and the democracy problem. In this way, Patterson does the reader a favor and should be praised for his well organized criticism, despite how difficult it can be to absorb it in its entirety. The information problem points out the drawbacks of faulty details and their tendency to run rampant in today’s news media through talk shows and blogs. The source problem refers to issues with journalists trusting the wrong people and not working hard enough to verify information before publishing it. The knowledge problem addresses the difficulties that arise in covering subjects in which reporters are not experts, as well as obtaining journalistic truth.

The section dedicated to the education problem discusses reformatting the education of future journalists in order to take steps toward “knowledge-based reporting.” The audience problem touches on the economic issues facing journalism and how news organizations are forced to balance their bottom lines with informing the public effectively. Finally, the democracy problem outlines the pros and cons of citizen journalism and the 24-hour news cycle’s affect on the public attention span. If the reader was only to take one significant point away from the book, it should be Patterson’s idea about changing the way journalism schools are structured.

Patterson suggests a new approach that includes encouraging journalism students to specialize in other subjects in order to produce generations of well-informed reporters to help solve other journalistic complications, including the information and source problems. This idea makes a lot of sense and if executed correctly and instituted at educational centers around the country, could make positive changes in the field so journalism could worry less about the content it creates and more about how to keep the business side of news afloat without compromising integrity.

The idea itself could probably use a book of its own, serving as a guidebook for universities and professors looking to change the way journalism is taught in the US and abroad. Patterson would do well to offer more detail in the way of curriculum, as it feels as though this book is missing the next step. Overall, the book covers a range of issues and solutions that weigh too heavily for one piece of writing. However, Patterson’s ideas are inspiring and worthy of study by journalism schools, as they could be the key to changing the way the news operates from education to implementation.