Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A Brief Note on Word Usage in Environmental Reporting

Environmental reporting is one subgroup of journalism that's especially prone to jargon because it relies on the three major purveyors of jargon - scientists, bureaucrats, and lawyers - as the beat's main sources. All those stories on PCBs and DDT and PBDEs and TMDLs begin to look like a bowl of alphabet soup, only less appetizing. But what's even worse than a reporter who uses technical words is a reporter who uses them incorrectly.

Specifically, I've noticed a tendency for newspapers to misuse the word "toxin" in environmental stories. They seem to be under the impression that "toxin" is synonymous with "poison." It is not. Webster's defines a toxin as "a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation."

Thus, toxins are things like snake venom, scorpion venom, bee venom, etc., not artificially produced chemicals like pesticides and flame retardants. This headline for a September 2004 story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer - "Study shows toxin in breast milk" - is an example of what not to do because the article is referring to a study showing that PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) were found in breast milk and PBDE is a toxic substance, not a toxin.

So please folks, let's try to improve the accuracy of our words and stop the sloppy usage of "toxin." Thank you.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Brief Review of Blogging Done By the Big Boys

Blogs written by members of the professional news media, at least the ones I read on cyberjournalist.net, seemed bland when compared to blogs written by people not affiliated with a news organization. Blogs by citizen journalists seemed fresher and more interesting, possibly because they are written by people who only owe allegiance to themselves and to speaking their minds.

The situation with journalist bloggers is different. Most professional news organizations are ultra-sensative about the appearance of bias in their reporters, and this was true even before the Internet and opinion blogging. News outlets would often institute house rules outlawing the display of campaign stickers and prohibiting reporters from appearing at or participating in public partisan gatherings (ex. pro-choice rallies). So it's no surprise that many papers have adopted new rules to deal with reporters who broadcast their opinions through blogging. For example, CNN pressured correspondent Kevin Sites to shut down his blog from Iraq, Time forced freelancer Joshua Kucera to terminate his personal blog, and the Hartford Courant pressured Denis Horgan, one of its columnists, to stop blogging.

Those journalists who blog with the approval of their papers usually avoid stating their opinions. Many of the professional blogs I looked at were devoted to a single lifestyle-related topic such as movies, music, television, sports, etc. For example, The Spokesman-Review has 22 blogs and only three of those are ones I would consider newsy with the opportunity to be opinionated.

I don't plan on becoming a regular reader of these professionally-written blogs. I prefer reading a blogger who lets it all hang out and isn't afraid to tell the world exactly what he/she thinks.

Friday, March 04, 2005

I came, I saw, I conquered RSS

Victory is mine! The chains of technological ignorance will hold me back no more for I have mastered the use of RSS news feeds.

Seriously though, it's too bad I don't actually have a newspaper job right now because NewsGator would be an excellent tool for keeping up-to-date on a beat. Newsgator allows you to pool together the current information on all the Web sites you'd normally look at one by one, which makes it easier, faster and more efficient, for reporters to keep tabs on news relating to their beats.

The only problem I encountered in using this service is the fact that not enough Web sites have RSS feeds on them, so I can't add them to my NewsGator account. I was especially disappointed that Poynter.org doesn't have an RSS feed. Way to be behind the times, Poynter.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Neat Trick to Redeem Myself

Aha! I may not be smart enough to install a blogroll on my page but I've discovered a different technological gimmick that'll restore my image as a hip blogger -- RSS news feeds. Even the name sounds cool and on the cutting edge! Basically, RSS is "a format for syndicating news and the content of news-like sites," kinda like the news alerts feature on Google. But, RSS goes a step further than Google because it can search weblogs while Google just searches news outlets.

Lucky for me, Mark Schaver has a super easy tutorial on how to create RSS news feeds on his blog CAR Report. He outlines step-by-step the procedure for setting up your own personal RSS news feeds and even provides pictures to help make the process as clear and simple as possible.

As soon as I get home today, I'm going to try using RSS myself. I'll keep you updated on whether I have any success.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Blogging the Tsunami

Mainstream news coverage of the South East Asian tsunami fails to convey the authentic voice of the victims of this tragedy. Their news accounts talk about the tsunami, the victims and the relief efforts, but don't convey a true, emotional telling of what people went through.

For information seekers who want to feel a closer connection to the people affected by this tragedy, I recommend seeking out first-hand accounts and information from the blogosphere, especially the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsumani Blog.

The SEA-EAT blog lists dozens of tsunami-related blogs, some written by journalists, some written by relief volunteers and some written by tsunami survivors themselves. One particular blog I recommend is Project Kasih.

Project Kasih is a platform for social workers and relief volunteers involved in the tsunami disaster to blog about what they experience and to post first-hand accounts of the problems faced by victims. Kasih tells the individual stories of the people who need help, posts their pictures so people can see the human faces of the tragedy, and tells people what these survivors need - clothes, prosthetic limbs, money for food, money for schooling, etc.

This site would be helpful to those who want to contribute to the tsunami relief efforts and also want to have a human connection with the survivors.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Too Stupid to Blogroll

Once again I have proven that I am technologically incompetent.

I've been reading a lot of other blogs lately and I noticed that many of them have a neat little list near their profile of all the blogs they read. I thought to myself, Wow, that's a cool idea, I should do that too now that I'm an official member of the blogging community. I bet I'll have no trouble figuring that out. So I registered with blogrolling.com to get my own little list and the site said that it was a simple, easy process of creating a list, adding your favorite blogs to it, downloading the code for your list from the Web site and pasting the code into your own blog.

I completed steps one through three without any problems and I was feeling supremely satisfied with myself when I opened up the template for my blog to paste my new code in. Blogrolling.com didn't specify that there was a specific place I needed to put the code, so I just stuck it in a blank space between some sections of code and republished my blog. Nothing happened. My blog looked exactly the same as before. I tried putting the code in several different spots in my template but nothing appeased the angry gods of technology and my perfectly crafted blogroll remained invisible.

So I've decided to embrace my existence as a technological dunce and simply post the blogs I like to read. Enjoy.

The Scoop
CAR Report
Oregon Commentator
I'm Not One to Blog, But . . .
Extra Extra!
Blue Oregon
Crossroads Dispatches
Dooce
About It All - Oregon
What She Said!
BlondeSense
Rude Pundit
Portland Communique

Friday, February 25, 2005

Florida Reporters Use CAR Skills to Show That Charter Schools Pay More for Administrative Costs Than Actual Student Instruction

Reporters for The Orlando Sentinel used audit records from Florida's charter schools to show that "management fees and other overhead costs are shortchanging students and bleeding the finances of Orlando-area charter schools."

Kudos to Vicki McClure and Tania deLuzuriaga for investigating and analyzing the audit documents of Florida's nearly 300 charter schools themselves, rather than waiting and reporting on state auditors' analysis and report, which is supposed to be presented to the Florida legislature later in the month.

My only criticism of this story is that it didn't include a "nerd box" detailing how the reporters went about analyzing the data, so I don't know how many records they looked at or what format the data was in or how they checked the records for dirty data or anything like that. Nerd boxes are critical for student journalists like myself who read the work of professionals and wonder, "How'd they do that?"

Still, if I get chosen for The Oregonian's spring internship program (God I hope so) and want to follow the Sentinel's lead, I think I could figure out how to tackle this story. Oregon charter schools are subject to public records laws and audit laws so I should be able to access the same type of information that McClure and deLuzuriaga looked at, and since Oregon only has 56 charter schools, I'll have a more manageable set of data to examine as well.