Tag Archives: Journalism

A low-key return to blogging

It’s been an embarrassingly long hiatus, from which I had intended to return on several occasions. Alas! The unforgiving demands of adulthood always found ways to rain down on the blogging parade.

Exactly a month ago, I left the chaos and unpredictability of New York city to return to the hot, clammy tropical oven that is Singapore – where, fifteen years on, I am still worse off than a bright-eyed, just-off-the-plane tourist when it comes to directions. In that sense, I miss Manhattan’s orderliness of numbered streets and avenues; it was much easier to acquaint myself with my surrounding by searching for the street and avenue markers at the corner of every block. As for the climate, I have enough grievances about Singapore’s tropical humidity versus Manhattan’s “cray cray” weather to fill up an encyclopedia. I mean it snowed on the first day of Spring for goodness sake!

On the first day of Spring, it snowed for six hours straight.

On the first day of Spring, it snowed for six hours straight.

Like every other survivor of academia, emerging from graduate school with puffy eyebags, sleeplessness, and an insatiable caffeine addiction, there was a need to find gainful employment. Through a few wonderful contacts, things fell into place with ease and I started my real-life newsroom adventures at CNBC International at the start of this month.

The graduation ceremony was quite the spectacle!

The graduation ceremony at Columbia was quite the spectacle!

Fitting in nearly 30,000 people comprising graduating students, parents, family members, & faculty in the Low Plaza was quite the feat.

Fitting in nearly 30,000 people comprising graduating students, parents, family members, & faculty in the Low Plaza was quite the feat.

In honour of the graduating class at Columbia, the Empire State Building turns their lights blue every year. The best viewing sites include roof top bars like this one.

In honour of the graduating class at Columbia, the Empire State Building turns their lights blue every year. The best viewing sites include roof top bars like this one.

At Columbia’s famed journalism school, founded by Joseph Pulitzer, where the highly prestigious Pulitzer prizes are given out, the faculty prepared us for many things – such as writing breaking news, interviewing laconic newsmakers, lugging heavy video equipment in sub-zero temperature, or navigating the bureaucratic juggernauts that are government agencies among others. But nothing prepared me for the experience of being part of the news team that puts out a 3-hour live show every Monday to Friday, which happen to be a flagship program for CNBC. Or the fact that I go to office in the dead of the night and finish the day’s work by lunchtime.

Nothing was more beautiful than experiencing the first sun rise back home.

Nothing was more beautiful than experiencing the first sun rise back home.

Though I will terribly miss the beautiful view from my dorm room on 109th and Riverside Drive; overlooking the New Jersey, the Hudson River, and the George Washington bridge.

Though I will terribly miss the beautiful view from my dorm room on 109th and Riverside Drive; overlooking the New Jersey, the Hudson River, and the George Washington bridge.

In the one month I’ve spent here, I learned more about honing news judgement senses, working with 12th hour deadlines (read: less than five minutes before a video story is scheduled to air), and paying close attention to detail than in the 10 months at Columbia. That is not to say graduate school was a bust – far from it, Columbia was a lengthy exercise in personal and professional development to understand our calling better.

Speaking of personal development, there is a list of blogging topics which I have put on my to-do list with, perhaps, naive determination; one could hope at least two of the entries, one of which comprises doling praises to Chris “no longer the chubby guy from Parks & Recs” Pratt and the entire cast of Jurassic World, will get written and posted. Jury’s still out though.

A cheat sheet to dealing with polls and surveys

Journalists receive frequent emails, as many as hundred a day, from sources, PR folks, and the likes, each pitching what it claims to be the latest innovation that will change the world. A good portion of them is fluff, veiled in curated language to validate their legitimacy.

Information about the newest polls and surveys is a routine part of the unsolicited emails journalists receive. Some surveys provide excellent and in-depth insight into a particular trend or movement happening in a market. For example, the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a monthly employment report that looks at how the jobs market in the United States performed in the month prior. It also gives background on the performance of the jobs market in the last three months for comparison purposes. The role of the journalist is to look at these surveys, digest the information, and translate them into easily understandable text for readers and the general public.

Not all surveys, however, reveal insights into markets and some are purposely geared towards a specific outcome. Recently, the New York Times and CBS were criticized by the American Association for Public Opinion Research for publishing a poll on the Senate race in the country. The criticism leveled at the Times and CBS was that the survey used an unproven methodology and was not transparent.

Wrongful use of polls and survey results by journalists not only misleads readers but also affects lives and damages reputations. The internet has made polling an easier task than in the past and many companies and organizations, especially technology companies, now rely on polls for publicity. To avoid errors when working with survey results, here are 10 questions all journalists should ask before starting to delve into the findings. A general rule of thumb is that if the results appear too good to be true, they probably aren’t.

1. Always ask for the raw data file
When given survey results by an organization, journalists should always request for the raw data file in .xls or .csv. This way, they can look at the findings themselves, run charts and analysis using Excel or other database manager, and present results that are most relevant to their readership, instead of what appears in the press release.

2. Look at the methodology
Surveys can be conducted by a variety of means; over the telephone, via the Internet, in-person, through the mail, and even on street corners. Different methods of conducting a survey reveal a lot about the demographic that was surveyed. For example, if a survey was conducted solely over the internet, that means it included only those with computer access and an Internet connection and who were sufficiently computer literate to participate.  Knowing the methodology helps journalists determine if the final results and findings are skewed towards a specific outcome.

3. What is the sample size
The sample size in any given survey is crucial. For a large sample size of about 1,000 people, the margin of error will be comparatively less than a small sample size of 100 respondents. Margin of error determines how reliable the findings of a survey are in relaying information about a specific demographic.

4. Demographic matters
The demographic of a survey is important because it determines the diversity within the sample size. If too many people belonging to the same demographic is surveyed for a national survey, the results may not be fully representative, especially to the under-represented groups. For example, if a survey on the state of public schools in New York surveyed 100 people from Manhattan, 10 from Bronx, 10 from Brooklyn, 10 from Queens, and none from Staten Island, then the results will be skewed towards the schooling experiences of public school students residing in Manhattan.

5. Who paid for the survey?
A survey that is paid for by an organization will likely have a skewed message that looks to promote and publicize the brand’s image. The PR spins for such surveys are usually called “thought leadership” and many technology companies engage in conducting such surveys. For example, cloud technology vendors like SAP and Ovum regularly conduct surveys to provide insights on how the cloud market is performing; these results can be useful in a story but it should always be disclosed to the readers that the survey is sponsored by a vendor with a specific interest in that market.

6. Clarity of the questions
Clarity is important because the way a question is phrased can affect how a person responds to it. The wordings can connote different meaning and context for participants, and hence the final outcome may not be representative of those polled.

7. Cross examine what’s already available
With more polls being conducted today, it is possible a similar study has already been conducted by multiple sources. Journalists need to do their research and find out what each of those surveys has been saying about a specific issue and compare it with the one on hand. If the results are drastically different, they should go back to points 2, 3, 4, and 7 to find out why.

8. Always call an expert
Journalists are not expert pollsters. They may have had experiences in dealing with polls and surveys but it is always a fail-safe method to call experts who are paid to deal with polls regularly. They can provide an insight into how the survey might have been conducted and whether the results are legitimate enough to be published.

9. Re-check your analysis
Even if a survey is found to be authentic, there might be instances when a journalist’s own error results in the publication of misleading information. This is particularly true if journalists obtain the raw survey results to tinker around and do analysis on. These raw databases are huge and frequently can run up to 100,000 samples to parse through; a single error can affect the entire analysis. Being methodical and having a proper procedure can go a long way in ensuring accuracy.

10. Timeliness of the results
Always factor into account when the survey was done, when the results were released, and when those results will go to print. If sufficient time has passed between the first and the third instances, it is likely that people’s opinion may have changed over the course and thus the results would not be authentic.

The reality facing war correspondents

1Dean Steve Coll held a panel discussion yesterday at the J-School on what it means to be a journalist in a world where we are becoming targets. This came in the aftermath of the gruesome murders of Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff by ISIS. The panel members comprised correspondents who regularly cover, or have previously covered, conflict zones stretching from Bosnia to Mali to Iraq and Syria. They were David Rohde from Reuters; Rohde was captured by the Taliban in 2008 and, after seven months in captivity, he found a way to escape. Rukmini Callimachi, from the New York Times, covers Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa. Nicole Tung, a freelance war photographer, covers the Middle East; she was a friend of Jim Foley and was the first to know when he went missing. Lastly, there was Phil Balboni, the CEO of GlobalPost and Foley’s former boss.

There was an alarming statistic that was shared at the start of the discussion, which was bound to raise questions about when did journalists, traditionally considered the neutral party in any war-torn area, become the target? In the last two years, 144 journalists were killed and over 400 imprisoned in the same time period. Of them, about a third were freelancers.

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The number of freelancers in the industry have grown over the years, because of a number of reasons: availability of new technology to report, package, and file stories in real time, budget cuts leading to lean, understaffed international bureaus, and the decrease in the number of full-time war correspondents. Freelancers, as the panelists all agreed, lack the training, expertise, and experience that staffers in news organizations have. They lack the backing of their employers to get them out should things go awry; most staff journalists in conflict zones have security around them to get them to safety.

Nicole Tung, the youngest on the panel, said when she first made her trip to Syria, she was entirely unprepared. Her advice to aspiring war correspondents in our batch was to first have insurance in anticipation of things taking a turn for the worst; next, to have appropriate equipment like satellite phones, flak jackets, first aid kits, and sufficient money to make quick exits if need be; and lastly to have proper training and experience. For women, the dangers of covering a warzone  is magnified. Both Callimachi and Tung briefly hinted at the subject of women correspondents often being at risk of being sexually assaulted and killed in conflict zones, particularly in Syria and Iraq where belligerent forces see them appropriate for only sex. Callimachi also added that it was important to write a letter to your loved ones, expressly stating what you want done in the event you were kidnapped; that included stating whether you wanted ransom to be paid and assigning responsibility to a friend or a loved one to deal with the government in facilitating rescue efforts.

Everyone in the panel agreed that for youngsters still trying to find a footing in this industry, going to unstable places like Syria and Iraq would be tremendously unwise. There are many conflict zones around the world where journalists are not seen as a commodity and their kidnappings as a viable business model by belligerent forces. In fact, other journalists also share the same sentiments elsewhere – Colin Freeman wrote recently wrote a piece for The Telegraph outlining what lessons freelancers can learn from the recent tragedies of Foley and Sotloff.

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The panel discussion also touched upon the growing disparity in how countries handle kidnappings. While the United States and the UK absolutely refuse to negotiate with kidnappers, many countries in Europe continue to pay ransoms to rescue their citizens. This makes kidnappings a business model for terror groups to fund themselves. Until a unified response tactics to ransom kidnappings is reached and adhered to, the panel reckoned US and UK journalists would always be targeted more – because, as one of them though I cannot remember who, terrorists continue to be under the impression that both countries negotiate and pay ransoms.

Being a war correspondent has been misrepresented and has become a glamorized role – in part due to Hollywood and its almost romantic interpretation of what it’s like to throw oneself into a war torn area in search of stories. The continuous struggle to stay alive and out of harm’s way while chasing stories, knowing as a freelancer the journalist is expendable to the organization that’s paying to buy his/her work, makes this a much undervalued profession in the world. A large percentage of news organizations now rely on freelance war reporters in Syria and Iraq for stories while their own staff report from relatively safe and well guarded environments. One of the panelists said, and this resonates well with me, freelancers always stay the longest. Even when they are being shot at, being kidnapped, and killed, they stay and that is what makes this job so undervalued.