The facts were flying in Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — and a team of 18 student “watchdogs” from an election reporting class at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy were among those watching. Our class was on the lookout for the statements that had been scrutinized by independent media fact-checkers, before and in some cases during the 90-minute debate in Las Vegas. The class shared links to those and some other findings the students thought were relevant in the live blog below. (Please note: This was a breaking news exercise done in real time for educational purposes. We’ll be discussing these posts in our class on Thursday — including the value and reliability of the sources we selected and linked to. So we would encourage you to read our postings with that in mind and to check the links and carefully evaluate those findings for yourself.)
Jayson Blair, a former New York Times reporter who is famous for the wrong reasons, stood in front of a class of Duke undergraduates Monday.
“There are no real ground rules,” he said. “You can ask me anything you want.”
There was an awkward pause. The students looked at each other, waiting for someone else to go first. A student in the front raised her hand and blurted out the first question.
“So why did you do it?”
She was referring to the 2003 scandal that seismically rocked the journalism world: the revelation that Blair had plagiarized and fabricated many of the stories he had written as a staff reporter for the New York Times. He had copied passages from other publications, conjured up fake quotations and lied repeatedly to cover up his misdeeds.
Blair resigned, and the Times published a punishing, lengthy report investigating Blair’s journalistic fraud and the newsroom breakdowns that had let him slip through the cracks. According to the report, Blair’s actions were “a profound betrayal of trust.” A month later, Executive Editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd turned in their own resignations.
Blair’s response to the student’s question was measured and thoughtful. It is, after all, a question that he has been asked – by editors, journalists, readers – for 13 years.
“There’s not one real, solid reason… it was a perfect storm of events.”
He got into journalism for noble reasons, he said. “I really cared about the profession and the impact, I didn’t really care about the fame and glory.” That didn’t stop him, however, from fabricating quotes and stories, decisions he now attributes to “a combination of deep-seated character flaws.”
Blair was suffering from undiagnosed bipolar disorder and recovering from severe drug and alcohol addiction – which added fuel to an up-and-down cycle of plagiarizing and fabricating.
But Blair doesn’t believe his mental state is an excuse for what he did. “There are plenty of mentally-ill writers out there who don’t do similar things.” Instead, he emphasized, it was his character that was at the core of the problem.
Despite the scathing report about his journalistic sins, many people at the Times responded with humanity and compassion. The higher-ups at the newspaper ultimately put Blair in touch with the psychiatrists that helped him treat his bipolar disorder, he said.
In the class, Professor Bill Adair’s News as a Moral Battleground, students peppered him with questions. Does he have advice for his younger self? When did he begin fabricating? Was it the system or himself? Blair begins fidgeting with a piece of blue cloth from his pocket as he tackles each one.
“I was too arrogant. That arrogance blinded me to a lot of my weaknesses.”
It began small, Blair remembered. His first instance of plagiarism was an unattributed quote taken from the Associated Press in an interview – one he was sure his editors would catch. But no one did.
“Once you do something that crosses any ethical line… it is easy to go back and do it over and over,” he said. “I danced around it and then crossed it and had a real hard time coming back.”
Is he sorry for what he did?
“Absolutely” he said without hesitation. Although he is not sorry for himself – it made him more humble, he believes, which strengthened his character – he is sorry for the colleagues he betrayed, the family he worried, and the damage he caused to journalism’s reputation. “I feel a lot of sadness. I handed people who didn’t want to believe journalists a great case for why they shouldn’t trust things. That hits me.”
Blair now lives in Northern Virginia, close to the family and friends he grew up with. After starting support groups in his area, he began working in mental health and currently runs his own life coaching practice. Although he wrote a book in 2004 about his experience, Burning Down my Masters’ House, he says he regrets writing it so soon after the scandal. It took him, he estimates, eight years to truly gain perspective on what happened. “I’m gonna burn all the copies!” he joked.
He isn’t seeking to return to journalism, he said, because he understands why he’d never be hired. “Once you’ve done something that leads people to question your trust, your effectiveness in the field becomes limited. You don’t have the right to go back.”
“I still love journalism. I miss it. (But) it just doesn’t work without the trust.”
Isabella Kwai is a Duke senior and a student in the class.
This is the prompt for the final paper in my PJMS 89S freshman seminar on the Digital Revolution and the Future of News. Students each need to write a 10-page paper and submit it by Dec. 12.
Congratulations! You’ve inherited a newspaper!
Your Uncle Bob, who had been publisher of the Oakville Acorn until he died in a tragic printing press accident, left the paper to you! In his will, Uncle Bob said he was giving it to you because he thought you had the right mix of journalistic skills and business savvy to keep the paper alive.
The Acorn is the only remaining daily paper in greater Oakville, a metropolitan area with 1.5 million people. It’s facing the same challenge as other papers – a sharp drop in ad revenue and declining readership as older customers die off.
It’s a well-respected paper that has won three Pulitzer Prizes (including the 2014 criticism prize for its restaurant reviews).
It is known for great investigative reporting and its in-depth local news. Oakville’s mayor is serving a 10-year sentence for accepting bribes that were uncovered by the Acorn’s investigative team.
Oakville is a growing area. It is the state capital and home of the largest university, Oakville State, which has a nationally ranked football team and rabid fans who travel hundreds of miles to watch the the Antlers play. The Acorn offers great coverage of the Antlers with special sections printed for every home game.
But the Acorn is facing many challenges. Its circulation has declined from a high of 300,000 in 2005 to just 120,000 today. That’s especially painful because Uncle Bob is still burdened with $5 million in debt to pay off the Goss Metroliner presses that he bought when the industry was strong. (Even sadder: he died when he fell into one of them.)
Classified ads are gone from the paper and revenue from display ads has declined 40 percent since 2000. To keep the paper afloat, Bob has been selling off the Acorn’s assets, including its downtown headquarters. The Acorn will be moving to a suburban office park on the edge of town that’s about a mile from the paper’s printing plant. A local developer plans to renovate the downtown building and turn it into a center for high-tech companies. The newsroom will become a food court.
For all of its success with accountability journalism, the Acorn has done little on the Web and in mobile. The paper is still using a 10-year-old CMS that was built to accommodate an early co-publishing deal with AOL. (“AOL” was an online service that introduced most Americans to “the Internet.”) The Acorn website offers no original content, just the same stories that are found in the print edition. Bob liked to hold them back until 6 a.m.
The paper is overstaffed. It has 200 newsroom employees, including many older staffers who are unfamiliar with Twitter and Facebook. One columnist recently wrote a column boasting about how he does not use Facebook.
It’s been several months since Uncle Bob died and you’re over the grief. You now have to figure out how to carry on his legacy and invigorate the Acorn. (Selling the paper is not an option. Uncle Bob’s will stipulates that you must operate the paper as a news organization or you will forfeit the other things you inherited — Uncle Bob’s sprawling Oakville estate, his 40-foot yacht Ink by the Barrel and his 2-bedroom timeshare in Orlando.)
So what’s your plan? How can you build on the strengths of the Acorn and the Oakville area? Write a 10-page paper about your plans to reinvent the Acorn and return it to profitability. Include your business plan and a detailed editorial strategy. Feel free to use sketches of your plans and samples of your journalism.
Make Uncle Bob proud.
Students in my freshman seminar, the Digital Revolution and the Future of News, had to come up with an idea for a new media venture and make an elevator pitch – in an elevator.
Here are the top five projects chosen by the judges (Ryan Hoerger, Leslie Winner of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and me).
The students will now develop the five ideas into prototypes and will then make presentations about them to the class as if they were pitching to a venture capitalist.
There’s been lots of harrumphing about the decline in local coverage of Congress. Many Washington bureaus have been closed and there are fewer reporters covering congressional delegations.
But is the coverage as weak as the critics suspect?
To find out, students in my Washington in a New Media Age class examined how the local media covered their representatives in Congress last year. Using the Nexis and America’s News databases, the students tallied stories about their lawmakers and analyzed the content.
The results justify the harrumphing. With few exceptions, local coverage of lawmakers is skimpy and superficial. The students found that coverage is particularly anemic for incumbents who are heavily favored — a group that has grown as more districts have been gerrymandered.
The student findings reveal an unexpected side effect of gerrymandering. It hasn’t just skewed the composition of congressional districts, it has become a justification for less news coverage. When a race is likely to be lopsided, editors often conclude they don’t need to cover the race or provide even the most basic coverage of an incumbent. So once a House member has a safe seat, they are likely to receive less scrutiny by the news media.
The average House member was mentioned in 160 news stories in print, online and television outlets, according to the data the students collected. That number sounds pretty respectable at first. But the number varied widely depending whether the seat was considered up for grabs. It was high for a closely contested seat such as Colorado’s 6th District (310 mentions) and low for the least competitive seats, such as the heavily Democratic 11th District in Virginia (51).
The students found little coverage by television stations, although it’s difficult to draw conclusions for all markets because of wide variations in how coverage is archived.
Even when the overall number is high, it doesn’t tell the full story. When the students examined the articles, they found a large portion had little or no discussion of policy or issues. And even when the coverage dealt with issues, it often provided little substance, the students found.
Student Thamina Stoll spent several hours reviewing the coverage of Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif, but came away with only a vague idea about what kind of lawmaker she is. “I still have no clue other than that she enjoys taking pictures for Christmas Cards, isn’t as involved in the immigration debate as she should be and that she appears to stress the importance of education,” Stoll wrote. “How should a voter feel comfortable voting for her again?”
Jordan DeLoatch, a student from the Raleigh-Durham area, found 171 mentions of his representative, Republican George Holding. But much of the coverage was shallow. “There was no fact-checking, no following up and no real attempt to dig deeper into the race,” DeLoatch wrote.
There were a few notable exceptions. The Denver Post and other news organizations in Colorado provided some good enterprise coverage of GOP Rep. Mike Coffman. And despite its national and international focus, the Washington Post did some good coverage of lawmakers in the Washington area.
But more often, the students found shallow reporting and a lack of questioning. News organizations, shrunken by the disruption of the digital age, have scaled back their accountability journalism. Many are more willing to publish a lawmaker’s op-ed than to assign a reporter who will ask critical questions.
Student Allie Eisen, writing about the 11th District in North Carolina around Asheville, found the coverage to be fawning and uncritical. She summed it up by saying that incumbent Republican Mark Meadows “is in the business of writing his own local headlines, and is wildly successful at doing so.”
At the end of each year, we struggle to give a 12-month period of our lives an identity. Time Magazine picks a Person of the Year, Barbara Walters whittles everything down into an hour’s worth of interviews—always, a winner must be named.
Last year, several stories in different states formed a common thread about the relationship between race and crime. The summer’s heat boiled over with weeks of protest in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting death of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown by a police officer. And then the unrest spread after grand juries failed to indict officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Eric Garner, whose fatal strangulation by a New York City police officer was captured in a viral YouTube video.
Just as we got set to turn the calendar toward a new year, New York was again struck by tragedy, this time in its police department when police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were ambushed and executed in what is being considered an act of retribution for Garner’s death.
These developments, both tragic and captivating, were my primary motivation for digging into the Durham Police Department in an exercise of web scraping, an automated process that copies content from websites, allowing you to analyze or republish it.
Every web page you visit on the Internet is nothing more than a series of tables and lists. And although some pages are more complicated than others and contain many moving parts, there are always you can pull data directly out of pages with short lines of code and easy-to-use widgets. The best part: as long as your code remains active, your data will continue to update in real-time.
Some background on my project: During the fall semester of my senior year, I encountered a late-college crisis of sorts as a humanities major with an extensive journalism background but few quantitative skills. Tasked with a research project to help complete my Public Policy degree, I decided to use the opportunity as an excuse to learn new computer skills, which is how I settled on web scraping.
My journey began at square one — the absolute basics of coding. After a few weeks spent learning the ins and outs of HTML, CSS and Python, I was ready to learn how basic scrapers worked. The next couple weeks were spent learning about scrapers and doing scraping exercises from a textbook before compiling a list of dozens of Durham city and county organizations I could potentially scrape. This ultimately landed me on the Durham Police Department, which publishes an intriguing list of unsolved homicides on its website for all to see.
After painstaking trial and error (and mostly error), I developed a scraper using a Google Doc that pulled all of Durham County’s unsolved homicide victims, dates and locations into a spreadsheet—25 years worth of cold cases. Using Python and the web app ScraperWiki, I wrote a loop that pulled every sub-URL present on the page into a long list, extracted the victims’ individual pages and inserted them into the sheet. This allowed me to write a second scraper that pulled full descriptions of the homicide out of each victim’s page. I then plotted my data on an interactive map.
Some context and reactions to my analysis of Durham’s unsolved homicides:
- Currently, there are just 28 unsolved homicides in the last 25 years. To put that in perspective, Durham had 30 homicides in 2013 and has since solved all but one of them.
- Of the 24 unsolved homicides that took place within Durham city limits, 20 of them took place on the city’s East side. East Durham is less developed and more poverty-stricken than the West side, home to Duke University, the city’s downtown area and most of its urban gentrification.
- Of the 28 unsolved homicides, five of the victims were white (17.9 percent)—17 were African American (60.7 percent) and six were Hispanic (21.4 percent). There had also been only one unsolved homicide with a white victim in the past 18 years. For reference, Durham County’s 2013 Census statistics indicate that 42.1 percent of residents were white, 13.5 percent Hispanic and 38.7 percent African American.