As 2014 comes to a close, it’s time to turn inward and reflect on the year that has passed and its influences on what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we’ll rewind the year, looking not just at what happened in the news, but also what’s happened and what’s ahead for Beyond Bylines.
Some of the most compelling news stories of 2014 were about the very industry we rely on to report the news – the media. This year brought controversy and conflict in journalism, including allegations of plagiarism, the implications of drone journalism, and the dangers freelancers face covering conflicts in foreign lands.
Allegations of plagiarism by BuzzFeed politics writer/editor Benny Johnson were undoubtedly one of the biggest stories in the media world.
It all happened so quickly. In the span of a week in July, a pair of Twitter users @blippoblappo and @crushingbort of ourbadmedia.wordpress.com “broke the story” and within a few days, BuzzFeed conducted its own high-speed investigation where it discovered 41 instances of plagiarism. The company fired Johnson by week’s end and issued an apology to readers.
In the apology, BuzzFeed addressed the site’s evolution into a globally recognized news source now subject to higher standards of reporting.
“BuzzFeed started seven years ago as a laboratory for content,” wrote BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith. “Our writers didn’t have journalistic backgrounds and weren’t held to traditional journalistic standards, because we weren’t doing journalism. But that started changing a long time ago.”
While BuzzFeed may feel it’s closed this chapter, the ordeal raised other questions about challenges editors face in spotting plagiarism, be it traditional or non-traditional outlets.
For instance, did you know there are different types of plagiarism? Poynter provides tips to help identify them here: poynter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/IsitPlagiarism.pdf. The Online News Association’s #ONA14 blog also shares advice on how to avoid plagiarizing someone’s work.
Meanwhile, the ironies of the BuzzFeed story don’t end there. Johnson was hired by National Review as its first social media editor. National Review is cited as one of the publications Johnson lifted from.
DRONES IN THE AIR AND ON OUR MIND
Yep, the same drones that Amazon’s proposing to deliver packages, some news outlets want to use to take pictures and videotape areas hit by natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes.
NPR’s All Tech Considered reported in May how Little Rock, Arkansas ABC affiliate, KATV was able to capture tornado damage from 150 feet in the air using a drone with a camera attached to it. And, researchers at the Drone Journalism Lab (yes, there is such a place) have been testing how drones can be used to collect news. The lab was established at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications in Nov. 2011.
Earlier this year, the idea of using drones or “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) for newsgathering purposes gained momentum when First Amendment questions were raised after the FAA banned news orgs from using a UAS without authorization.
Several major news organizations, including the Associated Press, New York Times, and others have banded together to stand up against the FAA’s ban in the form of a brief filed with the National Traffic and Safety Board that says the use of drones in newsgathering efforts should be distinguished from commercial use of drones and therefore, deserves First Amendment protection.
Newsrooms nationwide anxiously are awaiting the FAA’s decision. To help the process along, CNN and Georgia Tech have joined forces to examine and “better understand the opportunities unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) present for media organizations, and to explore the access and safety issues that need to be addressed as part of any new regulatory framework.”
Congress has required the FAA to integrate drones into U.S. airspace by fall of next year. We’ll keep an eye on the story and provide updates on new developments in the new year (read about the FAA’s Dec. 10 ruling on Reuters.com). For now, one thing is clear – drone journalism is not going away.
The tragic deaths of freelance journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic militants in Syria last summer was both a profoundly sad and scary turn of events. Their deaths reignited fears freelancers face covering the Syrian conflict and similar danger zones.
“Syria has been the most dangerous country in the world for journalists for more than two years,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), adding that “at least 70 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, including some who died over the border in Lebanon and Turkey.”
CPJ is calling for media organizations to acknowledge the risk these journalists face and step up their efforts to protect them.
“And it’s also time for those news organizations that for financial and liability reasons want a strictly arm’s-length relationship with stringers to recognize they have a duty of care toward those they send or encourage to go to the front lines,” the agency says.
So what steps can journalists take to protect themselves in high-risk situations, specifically freelancers who are pretty much on their own reporting stories in unsafe parts of the world?
PBS’s MediaShift says a communications plan is essential and outlines the crucial elements that should be a part of the plan – a reliable contact person, detailed contact information, and an established check-in schedule. A well-thought out plan could save a life.
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Brett Simon is senior manager of PR Newswire’s media relations team. Follow her @savsimon.