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  • The New Orleans Times-Picayune did vital environmental reporting for decades

    Strong environmental journalism is key to informing citizens and holding polluters accountable

    Blog ››› ››› EVLONDO COOPER

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    Update (5/31/19): After publication of this article, Media Matters spoke with The New Orleans Advocate and learned that it has made job offers to The Times-Picayune's full three-person team of environmental journalists and those offers have been accepted. The Advocate also plans to bring over a grant-funded journalism fellow as part of a year-long environmental reporting project that was started at The Times-Picayune. These journalists, who are expected to begin their new jobs on July 2, will join the Advocate reporters who have been covering environmental issues as they intersect with other beats.

    "We are extremely excited to be expanding our environmental coverage," said New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr. "The Advocate has a strong record of environmental reporting in New Orleans and Louisiana. These reporters will add to what we can do to keep citizens informed."  

    The Times-Picayune, a 182-year-old newspaper published in New Orleans, has produced some of the most important environmental journalism in the country. But after a surprise purchase by the owners of The New Orleans Advocate and the Baton Rouge Advocate in early May, the entire staff of the Picayune was laid off. The buyers reportedly plan to merge The Times-Picayune with The New Orleans Advocate, but it's unclear how many of the 161 Picayune employees will be rehired to work on the new joint paper, which is expected to relaunch in July. Local environmental advocates are concerned that a degraded and depleted Picayune will have a much harder time informing the public about important environmental issues.

    The Times-Picayune has been a longtime publisher of award-winning environmental journalism

    For decades, The Times-Picayune has produced groundbreaking stories about how humans affect the environment in southern Louisiana and around the world. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its “Oceans of Trouble” series, which examined threats to fish populations around the world.

    In 2006, the Picayune was awarded another Pulitzer, this time “for its heroic, multi-faceted coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, making exceptional use of the newspaper's resources to serve an inundated city even after evacuation of the newspaper plant.” The paper's Katrina reporting was also built on critical work its journalists had done in previous years. In 2002, it published a prescient five-part series that revealed how woefully unprepared the region was for the full brunt of a major storm. The series included an ominous warning: “It's only a matter of time before South Louisiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane. Billions have been spent to protect us, but we grow more vulnerable every day.”

    The Times-Picayune has twice earned the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, presented by the Columbia Journalism School. In 2001, it won for “Unwelcome Neighbors: Race, class and the environment,” a four-part series that examined environmental justice and the legacy of environmental racism in Louisiana. And in 2008, it was honored with an Oakes Award for a special report titled “Last Chance: The fight to save a disappearing coast.”

    The newspaper also received many other accolades over the years. For example, the Picayune's reporting on the BP oil spill earned first place for outstanding beat reporting in a small market from the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2011. In 2018, the paper partnered with The New York Times to produce a three-part series that investigated the ecological catastrophe occurring along Louisiana's disappearing coastline, and further reporting on the topic won the 2018 Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press Managing Editors award for continuing coverage.

    The Times-Picayune continued to produce innovative and informative environmental journalism even after suffering massive staff layoffs in 2012. But as in far too many other newsrooms across the country, good journalism would ultimately not be able to save the paper.

    Great journalism isn’t enough to stem the tide of newspaper dissolution and consolidation

    Notable achievements, high readership, and even profitability have so far proved unable to stem the growing tide of newsroom erosion and extinction all around the country.

    Picayune journalist Haley Correll, who found out that she lost her job while in New York to accept an award, illustrated this point in a tweet.

    The Wall Street Journal recently took a deep dive into the dire state of local newspapers. The article noted, “Nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one,” according to a 2018 study by the University of North Carolina. The job losses have also been staggering: Between 1990 and 2016, newspaper positions in the U.S. declined by about 60%, falling from 465,000 jobs to 183,000.

    In a region highly vulnerable to climate threats, activists stress the need for strong environmental journalism

    Local environmental activists have expressed apprehension about what the Picayune’s sale portends for the future of journalism in a region that is highly vulnerable to climate change and plagued by environmental injustices like “Cancer Alley.” Dustin Renaud, a spokesperson for New Orleans-based conservation nonprofit Healthy Gulf, told Media Matters, "Environmental protection starts with informed citizens, and The Times-Picayune has been an invaluable source of information on issues like sea-level rise, land loss, increased severity of storms, and oil and gas development, which are all very real threats to Louisianians.”

    His unease is shared by Andy Kowalczyk of climate action group 350 New Orleans, who told Media Matters, “Unbiased reporting is increasingly important in Louisiana because there is an all-too-common and casual lack of transparency from regulators of polluting industries, and, of course, the industries themselves.” 

    They're right to be concerned. Research suggests that the loss of local newspapers can result in citizens who are less civically engaged and institutions that are less accountable, leading to more government and industry waste, fraud, and abuse. A recent study also found that newspaper coverage of polluting plants was correlated with lowered emissions from those plants.

    Without knowledgeable journalists who can tell compelling stories, a local paper will sometimes morph into a digital version plagued by junk advertisements and rife with stories that have little relevance to the community it serves.

    Renaud emphasized the importance of tenacious reporters: “We need dedicated environmental journalists to tell the stories that Healthy Gulf advocates for or else we risk important environmental news falling through the cracks.” Having experienced journalists on the job is particularly important for beats like environmental reporting that require a grasp of science, regulatory systems, politics, and local arcana.

    There is at least one bit of good news on this front: Poynter reported that the leaders of The New Orleans Advocate intend to hire some Picayune journalists on contract, and “the hires will draw on the strength of the Times-Picayune’s environmental reporting,” among other areas of expertise.

    Potential new models for local news

    The outlook for local news outlets around the country is bleak, but there are new models being pioneered that have the potential to help newspapers survive and even thrive in some cases.

    One example is Report for America, a project aimed at recruiting, training, and placing 1,000 reporters in local newsrooms by 2023. The organization splits the cost of a reporter’s salary with the local newsroom and an individual donor, university, family trust, or foundation. This year, Report for America placed 61 reporters in 50 local news organizations.

    Another project is focused specifically on the environmental beat. InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network is "hiring experienced reporters based in key regions of the nation to write stories, train local reporters, and collaborate with newsrooms to produce more in-depth environment reporting.” The network recently teamed up with 14 news outlets in the Midwest to produce a series of stories on local climate solutions.

    Public funding of news outlets is another model that is beginning to be tested in the U.S., as the Nieman Lab reports. In New Jersey last year, grassroots activists successfully pushed through the Civic Info Bill, which created a public fund to support journalism projects and other potential ways to inform state residents.

    In Utah, The Salt Lake Tribune recently announced that it is seeking to become a nonprofit. If successful, the paper would become the first “legacy U.S. daily to switch to nonprofit status,” according to a Tribune article. The effort will be a complicated process; to kick it off, the Tribune’s owner has petitioned the IRS to change the paper’s status “from a privately owned business to a community asset.”

    These are promising steps, but the ability of these models to support quality journalism is still in doubt -- as are the fates of many talented and experienced journalists who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living. But no matter which models ascend to fill the role historically played by local newspapers, one thing is certain: They should be guided by the consistently rigorous, revealing, and relevant reporting produced by local papers like The Times-Picayune.

  • We reviewed every fact check from Facebook's new partner The Weekly Standard. There is a lot of partisan opinion. 

    14 pieces are attacks on fact-checking institutions for perceived liberal bias. 17 are opinion columns that reach conservative conclusions, defend Republican politicians, or attack Democratic politicians. 

    Blog ››› ››› CRISTINA LóPEZ G.

    The Weekly Standard is the latest organization to be approved by Facebook to join its fact-checking initiative, despite its political bias, record of serial misinformation, attacks on nonpartisan fact-checking institutions, and dismal fact-checking track record.

    In December 2016, Facebook announced its plans for an initiative to partner with the journalism organization Poynter and with fact-checking organizations to help address the problem of fake news and hoaxes on its platform. These third-party fact-checkers would need to be vetted by Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and would need to meet five principles: a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness, a commitment to transparency of sources, a commitment to transparency of funding & organization, a commitment to transparency of methodology, and a commitment to open and honest corrections.

    After finding substantial fault in the Standard's fact-checking process, the ICFN verified it on the basis of just three weeks of new fact-checks that met it standards, despite Poynter's own three-month requirement and over the concerns of its own assessor. MMFA reviewed over 40 pieces of content tagged as fact-checks since early 2011 and found that:

    • Only 24 of the 43 pieces published on the Standard’s website categorized under the tags “fact check,” “fact checking,” and “Tws Fact Check” are actual fact checks.

    • 14 pieces are attacks on fact-checking institutions for perceived liberal bias.

    • 17 pieces are opinion columns that reach conservative conclusions, defend Republican politicians, or attack Democratic politicians.

    • One piece fact-checks a post from a website that describes itself as satirical.

    • One piece fact-checks a meme. Most of the websites the Standard took to task for sharing the meme noted the possibility that it was a hoax.

    • Only 12 pieces feature the byline of the Standard’s official fact-checker, Holmes Lybrand. Of those 12, only seven appear in the section that the Standard presents as its formal fact-checking operation (of those seven, it seems three were published within five minutes of each other).

    • One piece labeled a fact check was written by a Standard opinion writer.

    The Standard has a long record of misinformation and its catalogue of fact-check attempts are no exception; in his November 2017 analysis, the assigned Poynter assessor stated that he would recommend approval only “with several edits and revisions.” But the Standard’s Editor-in-Chief Stephen Hayes told The Guardian that the outlet considers its formal fact-checking operation to have started six months ago and that “the work really does speak for itself.”

    Hayes also touted the hiring of fact-checker Holmes Lybrand as proof of its fact-checking bona fides. As of this writing, Lybrand has published 12 pieces, only seven of which actually comply with IFCN’s requirement that fact-checks be archived on their own page. The rest can be found under its old “fact-checks” section alongside opinion columns.These hard-hitting pieces include a fact check of a claim it isn’t clear anyone was contesting, a non-answer ruling saying “it’s complicated” (in which the author also fails to disclose the conservative/libertarian leaning of one of the sources used for the analysis, the Pacific Legal Foundation), and a piece that included a correction for an inaccuracy.

    Lybrand’s previous fact-checking experience includes work at The Daily Caller News Foundation, where he directed much of his ammo at fact checking institutions and invoked a common right-wing talking point to criticize CNN for its use of a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) hate-group map after a gunman claimed it as his inspiration for an attack. In addition, the description on Google for his personal website publicizes that he “presents conservative viewpoints on politics, culture, and current events.”

    Only one of these is the actual fact checks section

    Before its sudden interest in developing an actual methodology to correct misinformation, the Standard’s attitude toward fact-checking was very different. Its website tag “fact-check” houses a bulk of articles dating back to 2011 in which a popular theme of commentary is “fact-checkers are bad at their jobs.” At least 14 articles under this tag are criticisms of fact-checking organizations over perceived liberal bias. And, as if it’s already not hard enough to find the official “fact-checking vertical,” there’s also the wildly confusing existence of a third website tag called “fact checking,” housing more anti-fact-checker rants similar to those found under the “fact checks” tag, but not available there. The categorization fumble makes it clear that even the outlet itself has a hard time differentiating between its partisan and its purportedly objective content, raising the question of how a reader should know the difference.

    Facebook’s decision to include an explicitly partisan outlet like The Weekly Standard in its fact-checking fake news initiative shows that Facebook is more concerned with appeasing right-wing fury than with combating propaganda and fake news.

  • Good News: We Can All Stop Worrying About Bullying Now

    Blog ››› ››› LUKE BRINKER

    Conservative media figures are pouncing on a fallacious column suggesting that bullying has nothing to do with suicide rates among teenagers, in order to justify their long-standing campaign against anti-bullying efforts.

    Writing for the Poynter Institute on October 25, Poynter faculty member Kelly McBride denounced media coverage of bullying-related suicides as "emotional linkbait." McBride argued that such stories promote "a false narrative" - that bullying can lead to suicide - "that has no scientific support":

    Yet when journalists (and law enforcement, talking heads and politicians) imply that teenage suicides are directly caused by bullying, we reinforce a false narrative that has no scientific support. In doing so, we miss opportunities to educate the public about the things we could be doing to reduce both bullying and suicide.

    There is no scientific evidence that bullying causes suicide. None at all. Lots of teenagers get bullied (between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 teenagers report being bullied in real life, fewer report being bullied online). Very few commit suicide. Among the people who commit suicide, researchers have no good data on how many of them have been bullied. 

    It is journalistically irresponsible to claim that bullying leads to suicide. Even in specific cases where a teenager or child was bullied and subsequently commits suicide, it's not accurate to imply the bullying was the direct and sole cause behind the suicide.

    McBride's entire argument proceeds from the construction of a straw man. Nobody claims that bullying always causes suicide, but it's hard to ignore the finding that victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide, according to researchers at Yale University. Similar research has confirmed a correlation between bullying victims and suicidal behavior.

    It's true, as McBride notes, that not all bullying victims kill themselves. It's also true that not every cigarette smoker dies of lung cancer, but that's hardly a compelling reason to downplay the risks of smoking.

    Unfazed by the logical flaws plaguing McBride's column, right-wing pundits reacted with glee, wielding it to advance their long-running crusade against anti-bullying programs, particularly those aimed at addressing bullying of LGBT youth.

    On the October 28 edition of his radio show, Rush Limbaugh read extensively from McBride's column, concluding that bullying has been over-hyped by the media: 

  • How An Austrian Blogger's Report That Paul Krugman Filed For Bankruptcy Ended Up On Boston.com

    Web News Experts: Bogus Krugman Story Shows Dangers of "Mechanical Aggregation"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    The bogus story that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy appeared on Boston.com, the sister website of The Boston Globe, through a third-party content provider that posts content without editorial approval and provides such content to more than 200 web outlets.

    That provider, meanwhile, took the story from an Austrian-based blog without any editorial review or fact-checking of its own, a practice that is becoming more and more common in the Internet content sharing world. The blog has since deleted its post and all posts from the author appear to have been removed from Boston.com.

    The false story, which had its roots in a satire by the website Daily Currant, was subsequently picked up by the conservative site Breitbart.com, a move later criticized by Krugman himself and numerous news outlets from The Atlantic to Politico. Breitbart.com has deleted the post, with its author blaming Boston.com, which he says he "trusted" for the story.

    But according to Boston.com, they played no role in the creation of that post, an editorial mechanism which troubles some observers.

    Ron Agrella, editor of Boston.com, said the item was placed on his site by the content provider financialcontent.com on March 7, without approval or review from either Boston.com or the Globe.

    He said he reached out to financialcontent.com at roughly 9 a.m. EDT today to have the item removed. It was removed at 11:34 a.m. EDT.

    "The reason why we partner with them is to provide stock data," Agrella explained Monday, just hours after the item was taken down. "That is why we contract with them. The stories are additional content provided on the side. We have partnered with them for 10 or 12 years."

    Financialcontent.com had picked up the item from an Austria-based business blog, Prudent Investor, without any editorial review of its own, according to financialcontent.com CEO Wing Yu. 

    "We are a technology company, we don't have an editorial desk," Yu explained. "There is an RSS feed that we parse from each content provider. We have categorized [Prudent Investor] as a business content provider and the content is syndicated along with the byline."

    YU said Prudent Investor is one of more than 400 content providers that financialcontent.com draws on for news and data, which it then forwards to some 200 news outlets such as Boston.com, as well as others owned by McClatchy, Media News Group and AOL.

    The Prudent Investor website is based in Vienna, Austria, and run by Toni Straka, who describes himself on the blog as "an INDEPENDENT Certified Financial Analyst who worked as a financial journalist for 15+ years and now evaluate global market trends."

  • CNN's Kosik Regrets Occupy Wall Street Tweet As Industry Criticism Mounts

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    CNN business correspondent Alison Kosik, whose recent tweets referred to Occupy Wall Street protesters as whiners and interested in "smoking weed," now regrets at least one of the postings, according to a CNN spokesperson.

    Asked to respond to the tweets that have drawn criticism from media critics and journalism veterans, CNN emailed this short statement:

    Alison regrets the tweet and took it down.

    That statement was in reference to a Twitter exchange Kosik had in which she described the "purpose" of Occupy Wall Street protests "in 140 [characters] or less" as "bang on the bongos, smoke weed!"

    Another Kosik tweet, in response to a question about the list of demands from protesters, stated: "the list of whines is too long already."

    Both Twitter comments were captured by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Kosik has removed the "smoke weed" posting, but the "whines" item remained up as of Friday afternoon.

    Several media writers and news instructors said Kosik crossed the line when she offered such opinions on Twitter while also covering the growing story as a CNN reporter.

    "What is her job? Is she a straight news reporter?" Eric Deggans, media critic of the St. Petersburg Times, asked sarcastically. "And if she is considered a straight news reporter, it crosses the line because she is revealing contempt for the protesters before she even gets there."

    Media critic David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun said Kosik needs to understand the power of her tweets.

    "It's public record. You can say 'I'm doing it in a different forum, it is not in the story or the post or the report,' but you are still making a public utterance about this story," Zurawik said. "I think this is really a management problem at CNN New York. I don't think their standards are there. You have what is really an important story, literally on your doorstep and you go out and make fun of it."

  • Poynter Official On Judy Miller Criticism Of Islamic Reporting Course: "She's Crazy"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Judith Miller's criticism of a Poynter Institute online course on Islamic issue reporting, which she claimed urged "political correctness," drew a harsh rebuttal from the journalism training outlet.

    Kelly McBride, a Poynter senior faculty member, told Media Matters: "I think she's crazy. The course urges journalists to be smart, accurate and contextual when it comes to reporting on Islam in America. It suggests that when you are reporting about deaths caused by Islamic terrorists that you not descend into fear mongering and instead put the threat of terrorism in proper context.

    "It is a sound, solid journalistic course, it's based on the values of accuracy and fairness and context and independence in minimizing harm."

    At issue is an online column Miller posted at Fox News' website Friday about the free Poynter online course: Covering Islam in America.

    Poynter's News University presents the course in conjunction with Washington State University and the Social Science Research Council.

    Miller wrote that she took the course and objected to its suggestion that Islamic terrorism might be getting disproportionate coverage in relation to other deadly issues such as AIDS or world hunger:

    The professors offer these helpful comparative death tolls to give the 9/11 death toll "some context," they say.

    But the implicit message of the course seems obvious enough: 3,000 dead Americans, (and they might have looked up the actual death toll) have been over-covered. Why don't journalists spend more time covering malaria, or hunger, or especially HIV/AIDS, which the last time I checked, was hardly being ignored by the nation's media?

    For that matter, why aren't the media investigating bathtub deaths, since according to "Overblown," John Mueller's attack on what he regards as the government's obsessive focus on terrorism, more Americans die in bathtub accidents each year than in terrorist attacks?

    The answer should be fairly obvious to such an august institution as Poynter: just as the press covers murders rather than traffic fatalities, which far outnumber killings in America each year, it covers terrorism intensively because motive matters.