A NC candidate like no other

State legislative candidate uses his far-reaching online presence to bring conspiracy theories and far-right messaging to his campaign

By Lizzie Bond – November 5, 2018 | Print this article

During this heated state legislative campaign season, one North Carolina House candidate’s social media posts look very different from those belonging to other Republican candidates across the state.

And it’s not just because he has tens of thousands of followers across nearly a dozen Twitter and Facebook accounts.

A long shot candidate in Greensboro’s strongly Democratic District 58, Peter Boykin, 41, fiercely champions President Trump’s Make America Great Again agenda. He also promotes his controversial-to-some group Gays for Trump; lambasts liberals; and embraces far-out conspiracy theories.

Peter Boykin recently posted this photograph after Facebook disabled at least on of his pages on the site.

He’s unapologetic about his work, first reported by the Daily Beast, as a cam-model in his early twenties for a now closed pornography website.

The North Carolina Republican Party supports his candidacy for the North Carolina General Assembly and provided the bulk—over $1,700 since July 2018—of his modest campaign funding. That amount is similar to the state GOP’s support of other long-shot Republican NC House candidates in Guilford County.

Boykin said he decided to run in Greensboro because the area “felt like home” and that he “owed it to the community” to “represent every single person” in Guilford County’s District 58. But he has not campaigned with the intensity of many other Republican candidates.

He also said he hopes that his candidacy will help him gain even broader recognition that could help him run for national office one day.

“I wanted to have some kind of legitimacy in what I was doing,” Boykin said. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re just trying to get famous,’ or ‘Oh, you’re just trying to make money.’ ”

Who is Peter Boykin?
Boykin regularly flips on a video camera to record himself for segments he posts across his Facebook accounts, often while donning a modified red MAGA cap, a plaid shirt in need of an iron, and a headset reminiscent of that worn by a NASA flight controller.

But instead of “Make America Great Again,” Boykin’s Trump-red cap reads “MAGA for Everyone” and “Boykin for House.”

In 2016, Boykin founded Gays for Trump. The group gained national attention as it solicited support from gay Americans for then-dark horse candidate Trump through widespread social media messaging and outreach.

Gays for Trump has also organized events, like the “WAKE UP!” party at the 2016 Republican National Convention to celebrate President Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate. In attendance were prominent far-right figures, such as white supremacist Richard Spencer and former Breitbart News editor and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

The group remains active by hosting and participating in Pride and Pro-Trump marches in North Carolina and Washington, D.C. It maintains a public Facebook page and a private Facebook group, where nearly 2,400 members bond over their, to some, paradoxical identity of advocating gay rights and backing President Trump’s agenda.

In the early days of the Trump administration, Boykin began hosting the MAGAFirst Radio Show on the partisan news and commentary website, MAGA One Radio. The Pro-Trump radio network self-describes as the “new home for InfoWars,” referring to the far-right media platform known for pushing contentious conspiracy theories. In September, Twitter permanently suspended InfoWars and its founder Alex Jones for violating policies forbidding abuse.

After having amassed his tens of thousands of online followers with his distinctive online personality, Boykin filed as a Republican to run to represent his home District 58 in Guilford County in February 2018.

Even after Facebook disabled his primary personal account days before the Nov. 6 election, Boykin managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view. That included at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.

Across accounts, he shares everything from karaoke covers of himself singing top hits like Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” to self-recorded videos expounding on hot-button political issues of the day filmed while driving and wearing his red cap.

In an August Facebook video that tallied nearly a thousand views, Boykin voiced support for InfoWars and Jones, who Sandy Hook Elementary School parents are suing after he pushed spurious claims that a 2012 mass shooting at the school was staged by the U.S. government, as the New York Times reported. Jones has insisted it was part of a plan to repossess Americans’ guns.

In that same Facebook video, Boykin asserted that commentators like himself and Jones must stand unified against “the Left, those large corporations [that] are attacking us” by “trying to take our first amendment away.”

He then went on to embrace a conspiracy theory regarding the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting promoted by far-right internet personality, Laura Loomer, and endorsed by InfoWars.

During a recent interview, Boykin noted that he finds it unreasonable and impossible that the Las Vegas shooter, an “old man,” as he calls him, was “able to basically just wipe out all these people with this gun” without help.

Instead, Boykin said he suspects the shooter was a “runner of weapons…probably left over from the Obama days,” who was once recruited to run guns to Mexico during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Days before the Nov. 6 election, Facebook disabled Boykin’s primary personal account. But for most of his campaign, he managed multiple Facebook accounts and pages promoting his points of view, including at least four public pages for himself, a “Gays for Trump” page and group, one campaign page and three pages related to his online radio show.

After contending that “the left” is “systematically shutting down ANY social media means for people who lean right to communicate” to sway voters before election day, Boykin speculated that Facebook may have disabled his account because of previous contact with the far-right, men-only organization, Proud Boys, whose accounts were also disabled by Facebook and Instagram on October 31, according to the Associated Press.

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines Proud Boys as a general hate group that promotes white nationalist, misogynistic, and Islamophobic rhetoric and whose members regularly appear at extremist gatherings like the violent 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia that resulted in three deaths.

Boykin said he is not affiliated with Proud Boys but has described the group as “the only organization that protects people who peacefully protest” and that “the left [has] turn[ed] into the enemy.”

A Nontraditional Candidate 
Boykin said he is not concerned that some of his far-out comments would affect his General Assembly candidacy. Instead, he expressed frustration over what he called “fake news” propagated on “liberal websites…that made it seem like I hate transsexual people and how I can’t stand them.”

The North Carolina House candidate was referring to a March 2018 Daily Beast article where he was quoted as saying transgender individuals are “mentally challenged” and should thus be disqualified from serving in the military.

“I have a lot of right-leaning transsexual friends who admit it is a mental issue,” Boykin said in an October phone interview. “Although transsexual rights are valid, they are different from gay rights, and we can’t let the transsexual rights drag down our gay rights.”

In March 2018, the Richmond, Virginia LGBT online news source, GayRVA, labeled Boykin a “drop the T” advocate who founded the sketchiest right-wing organization ever to come out of the gay community,” adding that his election to the NCGA would “be an extraordinarily bad thing” for the LGBT community.

More recently, Boykin has criticized the Trump administration’s reported move to exclude transgender qualifications in federal classifications of sex, clarifying that he does not take an anti-transgender stance and that “Gays for Trump includes the whole RAINBOW of Letters.

His unusual past and brazen online presence stand out in an era in which many politicians carefully craft every word out of fear what they say will spread out of context or with unintended connotations.

Boykin said he considers his work in online pornography years ago is “irrelevant” to his campaign. “I didn’t do any movies. I didn’t do any hardcore anything. I took basically pictures of myself behind a protected wall to make sure that people who were underaged would not see it and it was supposed to be private,” he added.

And he often blurs the lines between his campaign and non-campaign social media accounts.

On his primary campaign Facebook page, Boykin mostly shares his daily radio show segments and reposts far-right Breitbart articles—upwards of 15 in a day. Meanwhile, on his personal account, he broadcasts his candidacy and implores his many followers to donate to his campaign.

When asked why the North Carolina Republican Party supports Boykin, Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said via email that the party supports “a long diverse list of Republican candidates across the state.” Woodhouse, who declined a phone interview, did not respond to inquiries about Boykin’s porn-acting history and endorsement of controversial conspiracy theories like those about the Las Vegas shooting.

Guilford County GOP chairman Troy Lawson, who is running for NC House District 57, did not reply to multiple requests for comment about how Boykin’s candidacy reflects on his county’s Republican brand.

Since he filed and automatically became the Republican candidate for District 58 with no primary challenger, Boykin held an October “Boykin for House” fundraiser event at the GOP’s county headquarters. He said that turnout was lower than hoped and his campaign actually suffered a loss in funds after paying to bring speaker Juanita Broaddrick, who is known for alleging that former President Bill Clinton raped her during his bid for governor in 1978, which Clinton has denied.

Guilford County Democratic Party Chair Nicole Quick said she views Boykin’s candidacy as another platform for him to promote his personal brand.

“Given the way he’s chosen to run his campaign it really is more of a publicity stunt for his Gays for Trump network,” she said. “He’s not been out in the community campaigning or making connections.”

Quick added that she has not seen Boykin engage in typical campaign activities in Greensboro, like canvassing door-to-door, while his Democratic opponent, incumbent Amos Quick has. Representative Quick, a Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in High Point, was a Guilford County School Board member for over a decade before his 2016 election to the General Assembly.

Boykin said he has placed 100 “Boykin for House” yard signs across District 58, although without the help of campaign volunteers.

Despite Boykin’s hopes for campaign legitimacy, Quick, who is not related to the District 58 incumbent, said the Guilford County Democrats don’t take Boykin’s candidacy very seriously.

While his chances of winning in heavily Democratic District 58 are slim, Boykin noted that he sees himself as reaching heights beyond his forty-thousand-plus Twitter followers and beyond a state house seat.

“My goal for the future would be U.S. House or Senate,” he said.

For now, though, his following comes from being an unusual online character, sporting his “Boykin for House” red cap and singing to Toby Keith’s “I Just Wanna Talk About Me” with lyrics of his own.

They go like this: “I just wanna talk about Trump, I just wanna talk about MAGA, I just wanna talk about America’s Number One.”

Lizzie Bond is a Duke sophomore and student journalist at the Reporters’ Lab. Since August, students working at the lab have reviewed thousands of political claims on social media for the NC Fact-Checking Project.


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Duke students tackle big challenges in automated fact-checking

Trio assembled promising building blocks needed for live fact-checking

By Catherine Clabby – October 8, 2018 | Print this article

Three Duke computer science majors advanced the quest for what some computer scientists say is the Holy Grail in fact-checking this summer.

Caroline Wang, Ethan Holland and Lucas Fagan tackled major challenges to creating an automated system that can both detect factual claims while politicians speak and instantly provide fact-checks.

That required finding and customizing state-of-art computing tools that most journalists would not recognize. A collective fondness for that sort of challenge helped, a lot.

Duke junior Caroline Wang

“We had a lot of fun discussing all the different algorithms out there, and just learning what machine learning techniques had been applied to natural language processing,” said Wang, a junior also majoring in math.

Wang and her partners took on the assignment for a Data+ research project. Part of the Information Initiative at Duke, Data+ invites students and faculty to find data-driven solutions to research challenges confronting scholars on campus.

The fact-checking team convened in a Gross Hall conference from 9 am to 4 pm every weekday for 10 weeks to help each other figure out how to help achieve live fact-checking, a goal of Knight journalism professor Bill Adair and other practitioners of accountability journalism.

Their goal was to do something of a “rough cut” of end-to-end automated fact-checking: to convert a political speech to text, identify the most “checkable” sentences in the speech and then match them with previously published fact-checks.

The students concluded that Google Cloud Speech-to-Text API was the best available tool to automate audio transcriptions. They then submitted the sentences to ClaimBuster, a project at the University of Texas at Arlington that the Duke Tech & Check Cooperative uses to identify statements that merit fact-checking. ClaimBuster acted as a helpful filter that reduced the number of claims submitted to the database, which in turn reduced processing time.

They chose Google Cloud speech-to-text because it can infer where punctuation belongs, Holland said. That yields text divided into complete thoughts. Google speech-to-text also shares transcription results while it processes the audio, rather than waiting until translation is done. That speeds up how fast the new text can get moved to the next steps along a fact-checking pipeline.

Duke junior Ethan Holland

“Google will say: This is my current take and this is my current confidence that take is right. That lets you cut down on the lag,” said Holland, a junior whose second major is statistics.

Their next step was finding ways to match the claims from that speech with the database of fact-checks that came from the Lab’s Share the Facts project. (The database contains thousands of articles published by the Washington Post, FactCheck.org and PolitiFact, each checking an individual claim.)

To do that, the students adapted an algorithm that the open-source research outfit OpenAI released in June, after the students started working together. The algorithm builds on The Transformer, a new neural network computing architecture that Google researchers published just six months prior.

Duke sophomore Lucas Fagan

The architecture alters how computers organize trying to understand written language. Instead of translating a sentence word by word, The Transformer weighs the importance of each word to the meaning of every other word. Over time that system helps machines discern meaning in more and more sentences more quickly.

“It’s a lot more like learning English. You grow up hearing it and your learn it,” said Fagan, a sophomore also majoring in math.

Work by Wang, Holland and Fagan is expected to help jumpstart a Bass Connections fact-checking team that started this fall. Students on that team will continue the hunt for better strategies to find statements that are good fact-check candidates, produce pop-up fact-checks and create apps to deliver this accountability journalism to more people.

Tech & Check has $1.2 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Facebook Journalism Project and the Craig Newmark Foundation to tackle that job.

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West Wing Writers

What we did on our summer vacation — Part 3

Students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program are holding a variety of summer internships

By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi – August 10, 2017 | Print this article

During the past several weeks, we have taken a close look at the summer internships held by students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program and the Duke Reporters’ Lab. The students below are working on a range of projects involving journalism, from sports and education reporting to speechwriting and political communications. (Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Hank Tucker – The News and Observer

For Hank Tucker, spending his summer making the rounds of North Carolina’s college sports scene is great preparation for his role as the incoming sports editor for the Duke Chronicle. In the last two months, he has covered Jay Bilas, Duke graduate and ESPN college basketball analyst, Chuck Amato, the ex-North Carolina State head football coach, and Lincoln Riley, the new head football coach at the University of Oklahoma.

Tucker is covering local sports as an intern at the News & Observer in Raleigh. The relative dearth of competitive action in the summer months has challenged Tucker to approach sports news from fresh, interesting angles.

He recently reported on Raleigh’s bid for a Major League Soccer team and also wrote an article on efforts to revive Rickwood Field, the oldest professional baseball park in America.

“My favorite days are when I get to leave the office to cover an event or interview somebody locally,” Tucker said.

Working at the N&O has opened Tucker’s eyes to the existential struggles of the newspaper industry. Due to financial constraints, the newspaper discontinued its copy desk, which means that Tucker is solely responsible for the accuracy of his stories.

How news is read online is changing the role and metrics of the journalist, he discovered.

“I’ve known for a while and learned in classes that print newspapers are dying and becoming less profitable, but I’ve experienced it firsthand this summer,” Tucker said. “The N&O is going through a process called ‘newsroom reinvention,’ which is an effort to write more engaging stories for a digital audience and un-prioritize the print product. The beats for reporters are being reorganized and there is a much bigger emphasis on online page views.”

Tucker is keen to use this experience to amplify the Chronicle’s online presence.

“Learning more about how to reach more people and drive up online traffic has been a big thing that I’ll try to take back to school and apply at the Chronicle,” Tucker said. “Figuring out what works best in different areas of the Internet is something I never really thought about before but something that will obviously be more and more important with the way journalism is going.”

Sam Turken – WBUR

In Boston, Sam Turken is getting a firsthand experience of the city and its pressing social issues. In the past two months as an intern at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station, Turken has covered everything from wealth disparities and affordable housing shortages to the city government’s response to a surge in violent gun crime.

Turken is interning at WBUR’s Newscast unit, which produces short news bulletins that are broadcast on NPR on the half-hour.

“It’s an amazing feeling to know that my writing is being read for NPR,” Turken said. “Newscast reports on every breaking development throughout the day. We’re among the first ones on the scene of every new notable story. And there has been no limit to what I’ve been able to write about and cover.”

In addition to reporting with Newscast, Turken has also had the opportunity to work on a variety of stories and projects with the digital team. He has helped build research databases on possible sanctuary cities in Massachusetts and engage East Boston residents in discussions about climate change through Listening Posts, which are digital forums that host community conversations.

Turken, the incoming managing editor of the Duke Chronicle, is an aspiring public radio journalist. He said that he has been able to learn about the mechanics of radio production through working with seasoned WBUR reporters and producers.

“Unlike most traditional print news writing, writing for radio involves writing more like the way you speak,” Turken said. “You have to present complicated information and topics in a way that is easy for listeners to understand. I have become more comfortable doing that over the past two months. I also have learned new tricks to capture and keep listeners’ attention.”

Julia Donheiser – Chalkbeat

This summer, Julia Donheiser is reporting across the landscape of education issues. From New York City, she has covered stories ranging from the local to the federal, from the classroom to the policy desk, from the 2017 National Teacher of the Year to Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Donheiser is an intern at Chalkbeat, an online, nonprofit publication that focuses on education reporting. Working at Chalkbeat is Donheiser’s first experience in the newsroom, and she said she has learned a lot about the nature of online journalism.

“I’m not big on social media at all,” Donheiser said. “In fact, I only have Twitter because my bosses throughout the years have pressured me into getting an account for the sake of journalism. It’s kind of crazy to see the additional readership we get just from tweeting things or sharing them on Facebook.”

At Duke, Donheiser is studying data journalism through Program II, a program that enables students to design their own interdisciplinary curriculum. This summer, she has appreciated the opportunity to practice the blend of long-term research and reporting she wants to do in the future.

During the past two months, Donheiser’s main project has centered on discrimination against LGBT students in the Indiana voucher program. She has analyzed more than 300 private school handbooks, interviewed school administrators on policies and built research databases.

“It’s really cool to be reporting on something and know that it’s going to stir up the discussion, at the very least,” Donheiser said. “It’s also kind of scary to think that I’m putting out data that’s going to make a lot of people angry, but that’s the nature of watchdog journalism.”

West Wing WritersCarly Stern – West Wing Writers

Working at West Wing Writers, Carly Stern is learning how the nuances of language can influence public policy discourse.

Stern is an intern at the Washington, D.C.-based speechwriting and political communications firm, which was started in 2001 by speechwriters from President Clinton’s speechwriting shop.

During the past two months, Stern has worked on projects focused on reproductive rights, U.S. foreign policy, stigma surrounding AIDS and workplace diversity.

“On a day-to-day basis, I provide research assistance and perform a range of writing-related tasks, but my work always varies,” Stern said. “When colleagues are looking to learn more about a new client or seeking to formulate an approach to an argument, I might take a deep dive at compiling relevant articles, institutional reports and data.”

Stern has taken many reporting classes through the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program. She said the storytelling skills she developed in those courses have been useful to her internship, where she is involved with crafting complex policy arguments into digestible narratives.

The challenge of both communications and reporting is getting readers invested in your argument, she discovered.

“The work I’ve been doing at West Wing Writers requires me to consider these questions every day,” Stern said. “In particular, my tasks require comprehensive consideration of narrative structure. Framing is crucial, because I have to create a human connection to the statistics I’m compiling.”

Stern said she has enjoyed being pushed to think outside her point of view.

“When I’m working on a memo for a client, I can’t necessarily communicate how it comes most naturally to me,” Stern said. “I have to think about the language this person would use to make the point, and contemplate which personal biases might influence his or her perspective.”

Likhitha Butchireddygari – NBC News

A rising junior and the incoming 2017-18 editor-in-chief of the Duke Chronicle, Likhitha Butchireddygari is finding that her college journalism experiences have been more than useful for real-world reporting on national stories.

Butchireddygari is an intern in the investigative unit at NBC News and has been involved in coverage of such issues as election security and the opioid crisis. She assists with research, data collection and reporting for collaborative investigative projects and also has been able to pursue her own investigations.

“So many of the skills I employ at my internship are skills I absorbed from Policy Journalism and Media Studies coursework, such as reporting from Newswriting and Reporting and data analysis from Journalism in the Age of Data,” Butchireddygari said. “I also first realized my interest in investigative journalism through an assignment for Bill Adair’s News as a Moral Battleground course. While researching an incidence of fabrication at a local Massachusetts newspaper, I realized how enthralling enterprise reporting can be.”

Butchireddygari said she has been surprised to learn of the intricacies of the television news production process. Her experiences at NBC News have reaffirmed her interest in a journalism career, she said.

“The most fulfilling part of my summer so far has been waking up every day excited to go to work, knowing that I have so much to do and contribute, and ending the day with a small sense of accomplishment,” Butchireddygari said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a very involved internship that allows me to contribute to so many meaningful and important projects.”

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What we did on our summer vacation — Part 2

Students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program are holding a variety of summer internships

By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi – July 27, 2017 | Print this article

During the next several weeks, we will be taking a closer look at the summer internships held by students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program and the Duke Reporters’ Lab. The students below are working in a range of fields, from investigative reporting to data analysis and political communications. (Catch up on Part 1 of this series.)

Drew Johnson – NBC News

Drew Johnson is on the front line of the future of journalism. Johnson is interning in the Digital Strategy and Operations department at NBC News, helping the TV network explore new business models.

Johnson’s projects range from analyzing readership and advertising trends to developing strategies to monetize news content.

“My biggest project so far has involved analyzing two social media feeds under the NBC News umbrella to see how they are similar and different,” Johnson said. “In the coming weeks, I will be creating an analysis of NBC News’ push alerts to see how they can be used most effectively, while also working on a project that looks at how NBC News can best target younger audiences — a demographic that legacy media companies have traditionally struggled to capture.”

At Duke, Johnson is a Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate student and has been an associate editor for the Duke Chronicle. His experience on both the editorial and business sides of news give him a broad perspective, he said.

Johnson said he has been surprised at the level of interdepartmental collaboration his projects have required.

“Very rarely have I completed projects without working together with members of other NBC News departments,” Johnson said. “The collaboration also means that when a project is finally done, it is full-bodied, wide-ranging and includes input from many different parts of the company.”

He recently presented his work to senior NBC News executives, which he said was an important milestone at the internship.

“I know I have a unique opportunity whenever I get face time with the decision-makers, and it’s great to know that the work I’m doing informs choices that executives are making with respect to the company’s vision and how NBC News uses its resources,” Johnson said. “It’s a great feeling when you have worked hard on a project and become an expert on a specific topic and can pass that information onto people who are genuinely interested in — and have the power to act on — what I have discovered.”

Ben Leonard – Center for Investigative Reporting

During his summer internship at the Center for Investigative Reporting, Ben Leonard has enjoyed producing journalism that makes a difference.

The center publishes its work on a website called Reveal, which is also the name of the center’s public radio program and podcast. Leonard promotes the center through social media and does research and writing to help with investigative projects.

“Day-to-day, that entails a lot of searching for stories, crafting tweets and Facebook posts that tell stories fairly, and finding groups, influencers and journalists and reaching out to them with our stories,” Leonard said. “I tend to get that done early in the day, and have most of the day free to work on research for investigations when I’m not in meetings.”

Leonard said he has enjoyed working alongside seasoned reporters.

“Sitting in on editorial meetings has been extremely fulfilling because I get to see how a newsroom really works,” he said. “I’ve learned so much from just experiencing that process and getting to know our reporters. Investigative journalism sounds intimidating, but all you need to get started is an Internet connection.”

Riley Griffin – Precision Strategies

As a political affairs and strategy intern at Precision Strategies, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, Riley Griffin helps to craft communications approaches that have an impact.

“I’ve written op-eds, media advisories and various research reports on upcoming legislation, social media trends and corporate responsibility initiatives,” Griffin said. “Because I’m assigned to many clients, every day feels different and is subject to the political whims of the moment.”

Precision Strategies has done work for clients such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Planned Parenthood. It is headed by veterans of President Obama’s campaigns.

Griffin recently went to Capitol Hill to interview protesters demonstrating against the Senate Republicans’ health care bill. She also helped with a project that examined the growing population of incarcerated women.

She collaborates with coworkers who have a variety of backgrounds, from political campaigns to data analysis and crisis management. For Griffin, a student in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program and the Huffington Post Campus Editor-At-Large for Duke, the experience has given her some helpful insights into journalism.

“I now understand the process by which many articles about government, nonprofits, and corporations get pitched and ultimately published,” Griffin said.

Claire Ballentine – Bloomberg News

Claire Ballentine is spending the summer in Detroit writing about the future of the automobile industry. She says the city is a surprisingly upbeat place.

Ballentine is interning in the Bloomberg News Detroit bureau, where she is covering industry trends and the Big Three car companies – General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler. For someone who had little to no knowledge of the auto industry before this summer, she’s had a steep learning curve but has found the work fulfilling. As the only intern in the office, she has been able to work closely with veteran reporters.

In addition to her reports on the auto industry — one of which gave her an opportunity to ride in driverless cars — Ballentine has also helped with stories ranging from Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods to the ongoing water crisis in Flint.

“The main Bloomberg office in New York will contact reporters at different bureaus in different cities when they need information from other parts of the country,” Ballentine said. “When Amazon took over Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago, they sent me out to a Whole Foods to interview customers. I went to Flint, Michigan last week, and I interviewed people about the water crisis two years on.”

Ballentine said her experience at the Duke Chronicle, where she served as editor-in-chief during the 2016/17 academic year, has been vital for her.

“A lot of journalism is about critical thinking, and having a certain skepticism about the world,” Ballentine said. “Duke is a place where, journalistically, you can really foster that.”

Matthew Riley – NBC News

Russian hacking and collusion in the U.S. elections. Health care fraud in the opioid crisis. Cellphone smuggling into state prisons. The range of projects Matthew Riley has been working on this summer at NBC News has introduced him to the hard-hitting world of government and business corruption.

As an intern in the investigative news unit at NBC News, Riley researches, writes and helps produce investigative stories shown on programs such as Nightly News with Lester Holt and Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly. On a day-to-day basis, Riley is contacting public information officers at state and federal government departments, providing database and background research, crafting stories and occasionally assisting with production shoots of interviews.

Riley, a rising senior and public policy major, has previously written investigative stories for the Duke Chronicle, one of which debunked a Duke security guard’s claims of having been a war veteran and 9/11 responder. In the last two months, Riley has been able to develop his newswriting and research skills.

“I’ve gained a new intellectual understanding of policy, stakeholders and media-government relations,” Riley said. “I’ve learned practical skills to get the information I need. Knowing which government office to call and when to call it, how to conduct an interview most effectively and how to request hidden information that is public record are valuable skills that I practice daily.”

As a journalist, Riley said he seeks to tell stories that can change people’s lives for the better. His first byline covered the story of George Herscu, one of many Romanian Holocaust survivors who were recently recognized and compensated by the German government.

Riley has found the work of investigative journalism to be both engaging and fulfilling.

“I show up at work excited and curious about what I will discover,” Riley said. “Every day I learn something new that someone doesn’t want me to know. I get a rush out of digging into a story, unearthing information that is difficult to obtain and then using that information to fuel action and policy change through journalism. It is invigorating to know that my work can have a direct and positive impact on millions of people.”

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Duke Reporters' Lab students

What we did on our summer vacation — Part 1

Students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program are holding a variety of summer internships

By Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi – July 18, 2017 | Print this article

During the next several weeks, we will be taking a closer look at the summer internships held by students in the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate program and the Duke Reporters’ Lab. The students below are all working at journalism internships, but others are exploring fields such as political consulting and speechwriting. (Continue with Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.)

Asa Royal – Tampa Bay Times

In his first two months at the Tampa Bay Times, Asa Royal has written about local politics, a cemetery and an 800-pound fish. His article on a goliath grouper harassing local fishermen even made it on the front page of the print edition.

Royal is interning as a general assignment reporter at the St. Petersburg, Fla., newspaper, which means every day he may need to explore a completely new topic.

“Day-to-day, I’m pursuing pitches I’ve gotten from editors, cold-calling officials and figuring out ways to convert a notebook full of information I think is interesting into a story that readers will think is interesting,” Royal said.

Royal, a computer science major and the previous co-chair of the Duke Chronicle editorial board, had limited experience in news reporting when he began the internship. His classes for the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate had taught him the basics, but the immersive experience of day-to-day reporting has given him a much richer understanding of what journalism is like. He also has enjoyed the characters and issues about which he has written.

He closely follows national politics, so the experience of reporting on local news has been eye-opening. His most memorable story involved a black socialist party’s mayoral endorsement ceremony. Royal was struck by how local politics is different.

What matters in a mayoral race are issues such as the success of a certain school or the design of certain neighborhood infrastructure, he discovered.

Royal has been energized by the questions that the local issues raise.

“Every day, I sit next to reporters who can answer those questions,” Royal said. “They know more about their beats than I will ever know in my lifetime. So it’s been a humbling and incredible experience to spend time with them and see for myself that, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t know that much.”

Mitchell Gladstone – Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia

Mitchell Gladstone is taking the plunge into the fanatical world of Philadelphia sports. A regular workday might find him covering a Phillies game, an Eagles training camp, or even the 76ers’ NBA draft preparations.

Working as a digital media writing intern for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, Gladstone reports on all four of the city’s major professional sports teams: the Phillies the Eagles, the Flyers, and the 76ers. He also covers a variety of other college and local sports.

As the incoming sports managing editor for the Duke Chronicle, Gladstone is excited to use this summer’s experience to reimagine the Chronicle’s online platforms. He said he has been amazed to learn of the intricate operations involved in running an effective news website.

“At CSN, a web producer is not only writing and editing, but constantly moving stories around on the main and team pages,” Gladstone said. “There’s also the tasks of constantly changing the main block with stories and photos, as well as setting the streams for live baseball games and other newsworthy events. It’s also critical to get out immediate breaking news tweets and app alerts, all things that I’m not used to in my daily work at school.”

Of the stories Gladstone has covered, interviewing pinch-hitter Ty Kelly after his game-winning hit for the Phillies against the Boston Red Sox ranks among his most entertaining experiences. Kelly, who had only joined the Phillies’ roster two months previously, was himself startled by his unlikely but decisive play. Gladstone is looking forward to profiling outfielder Mickey Moniak, the team’s No. 1 overall pick from the 2016 MLB draft.

Above all, Gladstone said he has enjoyed the simple pleasures of writing for a large audience.

“When you look up on the wall and see how many people are looking at your story, there’s a sense of pride knowing that you can hang with those who are doing this as a full-time, salaried job,” he said. “It reminds you that you can do whatever you love so long as you give it the passion and energy it deserves.”

Katherine Berko – ARLNow

From the visa issues of pool lifeguards to up-and-coming startups and county government decisions, Katherine Berko is focusing on community news.

Berko is interning at ARLNow, the flagship of Local News Now, a company that delivers online local news in the Washington suburbs.

“I write about everything,” Berko said. “I’ve covered events like the opening of a new tattoo shop to local leaders’ reactions to Trump’s climate decisions to a meal kit startup to homelessness in the area to a short piece about a stick of deodorant that was on top of the bus stop for over a week. Now that was funny!”

Berko, a student seeking the Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate, has taken courses in newswriting and local news during her time at Duke. She was introduced to the inner workings of local government in a class called The Durham City Beat, while another class, News as a Moral Battleground, enabled her to develop an ethical lens into journalism. Both classes have given her valuable and practical insights into her current reporting.

For Berko, covering a community is a great way to get an in-depth understanding of the people and their local government. Berko’s most memorable story covered a recently-opened homeless shelter, an experience that allowed her to relate to the county’s progress in reducing homelessness. She is also working on a long-term project investigating the gender imbalance in the website’s readership.

High levels of online engagement have impressed on Berko the weight of a journalist’s responsibility in reporting news. Her piece on Trump drew more than 130 reader comments.

“The most fulfilling aspect of my internship is knowing that my boss trusts me enough to tell stories and give them the attention they deserve every time I’m assigned a new beat,” Berko said. “It’s daunting because I want to ensure I don’t miss anything in the story, but incredibly rewarding when I feel that I have taught my readers something. It’s truly an honor to know that each person reading my article is trusting my ethics, reporting capabilities and accuracy.”

Amelia Cheatham – The Orlando Sentinel

The headlines on Amelia Cheatham’s stories at the Orlando Sentinel illustrate the wide range of crime and mayhem she gets to cover every day: Polk County inmate dies while in custody. Clerk thwarts robbery at Orlando 7-Eleven. Man wanted in 2013 murder case arrested in Dominican Republic.

Following leads on law enforcement logs and social media, Cheatham’s role is to keep readers informed of news as it’s happening. Most of her stories cover local crime and law enforcement, though she has also written on the rehabilitation of turtles and Florida’s “Donut Boy.” Though she expected the newsroom to be fast-paced, the sheer velocity of breaking news still surprised her.

Covering breaking news makes her appreciate all the work that it takes to write a story.

“Previously, when I scrolled through headlines in my Facebook feed, I never truly considered the minutes, hours and days of effort someone, somewhere devoted to creating that content,” Cheatham said. “I certainly appreciated journalism as a challenging endeavor; however, I didn’t begin to understand just how tough it can be until I spent a few weeks in a metaphorical reporter’s hat.”

Cheatham, a global health major at Duke, has also been able to find opportunities at the Sentinel to fuse her interests in health and journalism. With the help of her direct editor, Janet Reddick, and the newspaper’s health reporter, Naseem Miller, she has interviewed survivors, a politician, and researchers for a piece on preeclampsia.

Ultimately, the interpersonal aspects of interviewing and reporting on subjects are what she relishes the most.

“I’ve spoken with people in the midst of several emotionally difficult situations, from the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting to the traumatic death of a close friend or relative,” Cheatham said. “It’s gratifying to know that through my journalism, I’m helping to ensure that event or individual is not as easily erased from the public consciousness. I strive to recognize the humanity behind the names on a sheriff’s office press release.”

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Trump-Clinton debate

Duke students track the facts in this debate ‘live slog’

Journalism class monitors claims as the candidates face off during Wednesday's presidential showdown in Las Vegas.

By Mark Stencel – October 19, 2016 | Print this article

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.)

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Why he did it: Jayson Blair opens up about his plagiarism and fabrication at the New York Times

The former New York Times reporter spoke with Duke students about his mistakes, his bipolar disorder and how he found a new career in mental health.

By Isabella Kwai – April 12, 2016 | Print this article

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.

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What’s your plan for the Oakville Acorn?

For the final paper in my freshman seminar, students must describe their plans for the Oakville Acorn.

By Bill Adair – December 2, 2015 | Print this article

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).

The Oakville Acorn is well-respected for its local journalism. Now you get to reinvent it for the digital age.
The Oakville Acorn is well-respected for its local journalism. Now you get to reinvent the paper for the digital age.

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.

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Elevator pitches for the Digital Revolution and the Future of News

The winning journalism projects covered everything from lobbying to transparency in Missouri.

By Bill Adair – November 9, 2015 | Print this article

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.

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Duke students find skimpy, superficial coverage of Congress

Gerrymandering not only creates safe partisan districts, it leads to less scrutiny by the news media.

By Bill Adair – February 28, 2015 | Print this article

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.”

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