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Fast and too furious?

In the weeks following the tragic Boston bombings, the American public has had time to reflect on the mainstream media’s coverage of the crisis.

Several news outlets have been criticized for their inaccurate reporting of critical details. Lucy Dalglish, Dean of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland argues that because in the current media climate there are a multitude of sources available to update the public during crisis, established news outlets have an even greater responsibility to “get the facts straight” in order to maintain credibility.

Boston Marathon runner Ken Thomson, of Alpharetta, Ga, is interviewed by television reporters as he arrives at Hartsfield-Jackson airport after running in the Boston Marathon, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Atlanta. Photo: AP/ David Goldman

“As a journalist, you should always be mortified when you make a mistake,” she said.

The implications of inaccurate reporting have been well documented over the past few decades. Ken Burns’ most recent film, The Central Park 5, explores the lives of five African-American and Latino teenagers who were wrongly accused of rape. The accused spent close to a decade in prison and were publicly ostracized by the mainstream media.

Jami Floyd, a national television news correspondent, knows that journalists can also face severe repercussions when they report incorrect statements during breaking news coverage, especially when there are suspected criminals involved. For nearly 20 years she has been on the scene conducting crisis reporting.

“The Boston bombings triggered my memory of reporting during the 1996 attacks on the Olympic Games. Richard Jewell was a security guard on site in Atlanta and was initially heralded for his efforts in evacuating the area after the explosion,” she said.

“However, the police later listed him as a suspect and the mainstream media subsequently targeted Jewel as a prime person of interest. After enduring months of public ridicule and condemnation, the police found he had no connection to the bombing. Many years later Jewel filed a law suit against several major media outlets that wrongly accused him and he won a large settlement.”

Floyd argues that the temptation for reporters to neglect thorough fact-checking in the race to uncover breaking news has always been present in journalism. She remembers one story which fueled this temptation from her time covering the immediate aftermath of 9.11.

“We heard a story that a Marine had single-handedly rescued two Port Authority police officers that were trapped under the rubble for two days. We interviewed him, as well as the survivors in the hospital and had the story from the original sources. But we wanted to check these characters out; the story just didn’t seem plausible. Therefore, we withheld the package from the prime time slot and broadcast it later that night once we received all the necessary information.”

Peter Laufer, a journalist who also teaches at the University of Oregon, said the demand for to-the-minute news coverage during a crisis comes directly from news consumers who want near-immediate information.

“We are all susceptible to the technology that makes us feel as if we can know anything immediately and we can’t. We have to make decisions about what we need to know, when,” he said.

Laufer warns consumers to avoid the trap of following unfolding crimes and tragedies moment by moment. He is in the process of authoring the slow news manifesto, which advises “news junkies” to withdraw from the addiction to instantaneous information and appreciate news developed through thorough investigative journalism.

News outlets have increasingly used Twitter as a medium to update their respective audiences on breaking stories, but the desire to break news quickly can often get in the way of journalistic judgment. “My issue isn’t with Twitter or social media platforms themselves, but how they are used,” Laufer said.

Dean Dalglish tells her students that they should treat Twitter as they would any other news medium. “Use the same reporting tools and skepticism on a tweet that you would use on any story.” Floyd sees potential in Twitter being used as a newswire in the future — playing a similar role to the A.P. wire service.

Some journalists have shifted to a new model of breaking news coverage. Hillary Sargent, known as “Chart Girl”, has taken a holistic approach to informing her audience about complex breaking news stories. Her website features a series of flow charts which break down a chain of events and “cast of characters” that comprise our understanding of, for example, Tamerlan Tsarnev or the David Petreas scandal. In a phone interview she told Need to Know about her methodology to create charts.

“When a story breaks that really interests me, I’ll first research everything there is to know about the subject. My brain then naturally finds all the complex connections within the details of the story. Therefore, the final chart is a physical manifestation of what’s going on in my head.”

Sargent takes a somewhat comedic approach to her reporting, as exemplified in her chart of the media coverage of the Boston bombing case. However, she argued the accuracy and credibility of her charts are not compromised by her illustrations. Reuter’s journalist Jack Shaefer profiled Sargent’s work and in his article suggested that her “tiny dose of wit” opens up readers to arguments they may otherwise shirk from.

What’s your take on speed, accuracy and media? Can they co-exist? Do they?

A history of taboo topics

The current battle in Tucson Arizona over Mexican-American course work necessarily brings us to a long-standing question: What should or should not be taught in America’s public schools?

According to Eduardo Duarte, an adjunct professor of Philosophy and Education at Colombia’s Teacher’s College and Philosophy Professor at Hofstra University, the ongoing Tucson saga is “just another flashpoint in America’s ongoing culture wars.”

To better understand the controversies of today, Need to Know looked back on a few of the taboo topics of the past and their current state in the battleground of Duarte’s “culture wars.” Read All »

NRA video slams Obama

A new video uploaded to the National Rifle Association’s NRANews YouTube page on Tuesday criticizes President Barack Obama for his lack of support for a proposal to arm guards at schools across the nation.

The video begins: Are the President’s kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools, when his kids are protected by armed guards at their schools?

According to Michael D. Shear of the New York Times,

The N.R.A. video is a reference to Mr. Obama’s stated skepticism about the group’s idea to prevent school massacres by posting armed guards at every one of the nation’s schools.

“I am skeptical that the only answer is putting more guns in schools,” Mr. Obama said during a recent interview on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” “And I think the vast majority of the American people are skeptical that that somehow is going to solve our problem.”

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney decried the ads, noting that “Most Americans agree that a president’s children should not be used as pawns in a political fight.”

What do you think of the N.R.A’s new YouTube video? Share your views on the comments below or join the debate on Facebook.

Debunking the denial

By Phil Plait, Slate | Jan. 14, 2013

The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it’s wrong and how things really are.

This is coupled with how sticky bunk can be. Once uttered, it’s out there, bootstrapping its own reality, getting repeated by the usual suspects.

Case in point: The claim that there’s been no global warming for the past 16 years. This is blatantly untrue, a ridiculous and obviously false statement. But I see it over and again online, in Op Eds, and in comments to climate change posts.

The good news is, John Cook from Skeptical Science has created a nice, short video showing just why this claim is such a whopper.

I like this: clear, to the point, and easy to understand. The bottom line is that temperatures continue to rise, and that human-caused greenhouse gas forcing of the climate has not even slowed, let alone stopped.

I’ll note that climate change deniers are still going on about climate scientists manipulating data. They’re even trying to cast doubt on the measurements showing 2012 is the hottest year on record in the US! Which it was. The irony is rich; it’s a common tactic for deniers to accuse actual scientists of the very tactics the denialists use. It’s a level of chutzpah so high that even Yiddish can’t do it justice.

You want to hear about real manipulation? Media Matters reports that for the past four years, not once was a scientist on a Sunday morning news show to talk climate change. Those discussions were dominated by politicians or a media people. Sauce for the goose: Media Matters found that every politician interviewed was a Republican. And since I’m at it, please, don’t bother with false equivalencies.

By the way, Lamar Smith (R-Tex) is a climate change denier. And he’s taking over the Congressional House Science Committee.

It’s more than incredible; it makes Orwell look like a piker.

And in the meantime, we saw Arctic sea ice at record low levels in 2012. West Antarctica and Greenland are melting. It is getting so hot in Australia right now that weather forecasters had to add a new color to the weather maps to indicate temperatures above 54° Celsius—that’s 130° Fahrenheit. The heat wave has literally set fire to Australia. And for me (and astronomers around the world) it’s personal; we almost lost a major observatory to Australian wildfires over the weekend.

And instead of doing something about it, we have to tie up all our time fighting denialist propaganda. It’s shameful.

So let this be clear: There is no scientific controversy over this. Climate change denial is purely, 100 percent made-up political and corporate-sponsored crap. When the loudest voices are fossil-fuel funded think tanks, when they don’t publish in science journals but instead write error-laden op-eds in partisan venues, when they have to manipulate the data to support their point, then what they’re doing isn’t science.

This article first appeared in Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

We want to know, what’s your take on climate change across the globe? Do you feel the science is exaggerated? Or, are you concerned that not enough is being done in response to irrefutable facts?

After Arizona and Aurora, will more guns make us safer?

This post was originally published on July 24, 2012.

We’ve resurfaced this piece following the news of a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut this morning.

NBC News reports 26 have been killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 children. Watch live as the events unfold.

In July 20 in Aurora, Colorado, 24-year-old James E. Holmes entered a sold-out midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” armed with an extensive cache of weapons and ammunition.

Donning body armor and a gas mask, Holmes carried a semiautomatic assault rifle, at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and a 12-gauge shotgun into the theater.

Weapons confiscated by police on display prior to a news conference in City Hall addressing the proliferation of illegal guns in Philadelphia. AP Photo/Mark Stehle

The roomful of moviegoers eagerly awaiting the highly-anticipated Batman sequel quickly degenerated into a nightmarish scene, as Holmes opened fire and began shooting indiscriminately, killing a dozen and wounding 58 others, many of whom remain in critical condition.

As the nation begins to grapple with this seemingly senseless act of violence, both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have avoided calls for new gun laws.

A long-time proponent of more stringent firearm regulations, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg admonished both the President and Governor Romney on the John Gambling show. “Soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it,” he said. “There are so many murders with guns every day; it’s just got to stop.” Read All »

Video: Texas takes on family planning

Historically in Texas, legislators saw family planning programs as a fiscally responsible solution to growing state costs stemming from unplanned pregnancies.

But by the state’s last legislative session, conservative thinking in the Lone Star State had shifted.

Emily Ramshaw speaks to Need to Know correspondent Mona Iskander about the history of family planning legislation in Texas. Video by Elisabeth Ponsot.

In an exclusive web interview with Need to Know in August, Emily Ramshaw, Editor of the Texas Tribune, spoke about how conservative lawmakers had begun equating family planning programs and women’s health clinics like Planned Parenthood with abortion in the United States.

“The concern among Republican lawmakers is that Planned Parenthood is an affiliate of abortion providers,” Ramshaw said. “While Planned Parenthood clinics that get state or federal money cannot perform abortions in Texas, Republican lawmakers fear that the line is not clear enough. They worry that any state or federal dollars that go to Planned Parenthood can, in some way, fund abortions.”

In turn, Texas lawmakers cut the family planning budget by two-thirds over the last legislative session, forcing many clinics across the state — particularly those serving rural and minority populations — to close their doors.

Now, state legislators may be rethinking that course of action.

In today’s Texas Tribune, Ramshaw writes that lawmakers are now reconsidering last session’s budget cuts to family planning after projections show unplanned pregnancies are slated to cost taxpayers as much as $273 million.

The latest Health and Human Services Commission projections being circulated among Texas lawmakers indicate that during the 2014-15 biennium, poor women will deliver an estimated 23,760 more babies than they would have, as a result of their reduced access to state-subsidized birth control.

The additional cost to taxpayers is expected to be as much as $273 million — $103 million to $108 million to the state’s general revenue budget alone — and the bulk of it is the cost of caring for those infants under Medicaid.

What do you think? Is family planning a smart economic move to reduce unplanned pregnancies? Or, are conservative lawmakers correct to associate family planning with abortion?

Gay marriage wins in Maine

Ellie MacCallum, left to right, Jennifer Hoopes, Ellen Martel and Susan Matteson, celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage Tuesday Nov. 6, 2012 in Portland, Maine. Martel and Matteson plan to marry in the future. Photo: AP Photo/Joel Page

While some groups — including the National Organization for Marriage — claim otherwise, much of the data available points to a significant shift in American public opinion on gay and lesbian marriage since 2001.

According to Pew Research Center reports from this year, growing support for same-sex marriage is no longer limited to card-carrying liberals. Nationwide, 48 percent of Americans approve of gay marriage, including half of Hispanics, 44 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of women.

The country’s evolving views were on full display November 6, when progressives won same-sex marriage victories in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota.

Prior to the votes cast in the 2012 election, same-sex marriage had lost 31 times at the ballot box since the question was first posted to an electorate in 1998, when Hawaiians voted in favor of a gay marriage ban.

But despite this year’s results, regional gaps in public support for gay marriage underline how shifting opinions on the subject do not extend to all corners of the country. Read All »

Third-party candidates offer alternative platforms

Photo: Connie Ma/flickr

As supporters of the Obama and Romney tickets hold their breath through tomorrow’s election, another subset of individuals — often forgotten by the mainstream media — are also bracing for the results.

Third-party candidates — heralded by some as encouraging debate and criticized by others as “delusional” — are set on influencing the national conversation about a litany of issues, from taxes to immigration to the environment.

In Ohio, the hotly-contested swing state that many say may decide the outcome of the 2012 election, there are five candidates on the ballot for president other than Obama and Romney, including Libertarian Gary Johnson, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party.

Johnson, Stein and Goode as well as Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson all participated in the Third-Party Presidential debate on October 23, moderated by Larry King and hosted by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation (see video below). Read All »

Video: Swing state Florida has toughest ex-felon voting rules in the nation

In this election cycle, one in ten Florida adults — and nearly one in four African Americans — will be unable to vote because of a prior felony conviction.

Vikki Hankins, released from federal prison in 2008, cannot vote under Florida law. Hankins wrote a book about her experience in prison and launched Fine Success Magazine following her release. Video by Alexandra Nikolchev.

In 1990, two years after her mother’s suicide, 21-year-old Vikki Hankins was arrested on drug charges in Orlando.

At the time, federal law required that individuals arrested with cocaine base, known commonly as crack cocaine, be penalized more severely than those found with powder by a ratio of 100:1. Under these terms, distribution of just five grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum sentence of five years.

Hankins was found with less than 50 grams, an amount she likens to “almost the size of a chocolate chip cookie.” She was convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute as well as possession of a controlled substance, and was sentenced to 23 years and four months in federal prison. She served over 18 years, and was released in March, 2008, at the age of 39. Read All »