Thursday, March 30, 2017

Are the News Media Biased?


Are the News Media Biased?

President Donald Trump has been criticized for "attacking" the media and accusing them of being biased. Are they? Let's take a closer look and see.

Caveats Against Bias in Reporting

A time-honored principle of journalists has been not to "editorialize" - i.e., inject any opinions into their news stories. For generations, newspaper stories were dry and dull. A Dragnet approach: "Just the facts, ma'am," was how proper news reporters were supposed to write their stories.

Opinion columns were reserved for a select few, and usually relegated to the editorial pages of the newspaper. They were clearly identified as opinion columns. Everything else in the newspaper that wasn't advertising was expected to be purely factual.

One of the definitions of "editorialize" in Merriam-Webster is, "to introduce an opinion into the reporting of facts." But the principle goes beyond how reporters write their stories. The Society of Professional Journalists has a code of ethics. It states that news reporters should, "remain free of associations or activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." Reporters are also supposed to refuse any "gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment" as these gifts may influence their objectivity in covering the news. This code of ethics urges journalists not to:
  • moonlight at any secondary job
  • become involved in any political campaign
  • run for public office
  • serve in any community organizations
All of these are viewed as activities that could compromise the journalist's integrity and objectivity.

In today's contentious society, we all seem to be obsessed with "FACTS" that have become more elusive than ever before. Who's really telling the truth? Is any given story "fake news" or is it true? And who is the ultimate arbiter of truth?

More importantly, why have we become so intolerant of those whose opinions differ from our own, and so quick to embrace as "real truth" any opinions that match our own? Let's examine how we got here.

Major Changes in the News Industry

Increasing competition in the news industry has caused a shift in the traditional approach to how news is written. As this shift occurred, editors who used to frown upon editorial opinions in news stories soon began viewing those opinions as "humanizing" stories to appeal to a wider audience.

There was a time when we used to get our news from either a daily newspaper, a brief radio station break, or a half-hour show on TV in the evenings. When we think of old-time TV newsmen like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, we think of serious, no-nonsense men who relentlessly pursued the truth and told us about it from our TV screens every night. They didn't blather on about their opinions on every story, just told us the facts of the story and moved on. There was no time in a half-hour broadcast for them to do much more.

In the print media, you may recall a reporter named Jayson Thomas Blair. He wrote for one of the nation's most respected newspapers, The New York Times, but was forced to resign after it was revealed that some of his stories were untrue. He'd merely made up the stories, fabricating "sources" that were mere figments of his imagination. Many of his stories that weren't made up had been plagiarized, outright stolen from other writers. What type of pressure would drive a journalist to do such things that completely betray the ethics of the profession? He certainly made a name for himself in the field, but it wasn't in a good way.

Even seasoned journalists, however, are not immune to such pressures. Dan Rather used to be a highly respected reporter, one who had covered the Vietnam War embedded with the troops. Families saw footage of him over the dinner table each night on the news. He was chosen in 1981 to succeed Cronkite as host of CBS's Evening News broadcast. Then his own bias caused him to use fabricated information as a source in a story about then-President George W. Bush. He didn't verify it as a journalist should do; he wanted so badly for the information in the document to be true that he used it without making sure it was. Suddenly a storied career was over.

What could cause someone so grounded in the traditions of responsible journalism to think he could get away with injecting such bias into his reporting? Was the competition that fierce, that he felt the need to make up a story?

The competition is certainly real. In recent years, we have far more options on where to turn for news...no longer are the daily newspapers and major TV networks the only people in control of the messages we hear. A few of these news industry changes bear closer examination.

The Rise of "Infotainment"

Traditional news is often referred to as "hard news" - the types of stories that would appear on the front page of a newspaper, lead the TV news broadcasts, or run first in an online news feed. These include major developments in the world, politics, crime, natural disasters, celebrity deaths, etc.

But there has always been "soft news" around - stories about things like sports, entertainment, home decorating, fashion, cooking, automobiles...these stories typically include more editorializing. They're viewed as human-interest stories that were never meant to be taken seriously as "news," even if they cover new developments in these areas.

Many soft news subjects are covered in magazines targeted specifically to an audience. As newspapers expanded into multiple sections, they also found their way into local newspapers. Weekly news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Life, and U.S. News and World Report would delve into more depth on hard news stories, sometimes crossing the line into editorializing.

Late-night TV talk shows as far back as the 1950s discussed issues of the day in a less-formal manner, usually with some humor injected. These led to the popularity of daytime TV talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show, which debuted in 1963. Celebrity guests and human-interest stories were fodder for these types of shows. They would occasionally interview controversial guests or meander into "hard news" areas. But their daily bread was their soft-news approach. Guests and the host would all comment on the stories, with no pretense of objectivity.

In 1981, a TV show called Entertainment Tonight debuted on CBS. It was billed as an "entertainment television newsmagazine" that covered goings-on in the Hollywood movie scene, as well as the music and TV industry. The stories they covered would rarely qualify as hard news. In fact, news insiders condescendingly referred to its genre as "infotainment" -- and while it contained some information, the emphasis was definitely on the entertainment portion of the storytelling. Its anchors became celebrities in their own right, and readily offered commentary on the stories they were covering.

The success of ET spawned several other infotainment shows such as Hard Copy and Inside Edition. Major TV news networks began airing news-magazine programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline that examined news stories in more depth and strayed into editorializing about them.

Then came the rise of comedy news sketches on Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, all of which used the germ of actual news stories to build satirical pieces. Many viewers of these sketches began to perceive these satirical stories as real news, even though the shows' producers, directors, and actors were not abiding by the professional journalist's code of ethics. They hadn't even studied journalism in college, so they knew nothing of the profession's policies. The comedy was in the commentary itself, so the two were inextricably woven together in these shows.

But changes in the news media were not limited to these...far from it.

The 24-Hour News Channels

The year before Entertainment Tonight first aired, an entrepreneur named Ted Turner launched his Cable News Network, a 24-hour news station based in Atlanta, Georgia. Americans accustomed to having to wait for the nightly news to hear a roundup of what happened that day could suddenly find out about it at any time, day or night!

Since impactful hard news is not something that goes on all the time, CNN was faced with the challenge of how to fill 24 hours of programming with news-like stories. Their coverage of events that may have been given less than 60 seconds of time on a half-hour news broadcast would drag on for hours and days. Anybody remember little Baby Jessica, who fell down into the well?

CNN's anchors became celebrities and started hosting their own talk shows on the network. The rise of single-interest TV networks grew as more homes moved from antennas to cable TV, where they had multiple channel offerings. Movie fans had their HBO, sports fans had their ESPN, kids had their Nickelodeon, and soon pop music fans had their MTV. Early viewers of any of those stations would hardly recognize them today.

CNN soon expanded to a second network that kept repeating the day's top headlines every 30 minutes, keeping the main CNN station for more in-depth and opinion stories. The line between fact and opinion began to blur more and more as the popularity of these shows increased. They dropped any pretense of objectivity and openly editorialized.

Not to be outdone, the old TV networks began launching their own all-news channels: NBC launched CNBC in 1989, then partnered with Microsoft to debut MSNBC in 1996, the same year FOX News began.

Each of the 24-hour news networks had its own editorial slant, to appeal to a specific audience. Most were leftward-leaning. FOX News built its reputation on being a voice of the right in a sea of leftist journalists who were regularly injecting their opinions into stories. While far from being "fair and balanced" as it claimed, FOX's conservative slant nevertheless did provide balance to the other news channels on cable TV.

With so many 24-hour news channels, they're all competing for viewers. Which stories get shared the most on social media to drive up numbers of viewers? The most controversial. Which stories are most controversial? Those that include bias.

News was never again to be what it once had been...but the changes continued. And there was a big reason for that.

Socialist Professors in Journalism Schools

In the second decade of the 20th Century, Russia underwent a Marxist revolution. The communist regime that rose to power at that time and became the Soviet Union ultimately killed tens of millions of their own country's citizens. America stood strong against communism as the world's most successful capitalist country.

As Facism rose in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s-40s, once again the United States emerged as one of the free world's greatest superpowers, quashing oppressive regimes in favor of free-market capitalism. Journalists of the day were unabashedly pro-American, and their bias was accepted as society's norm.

During these years, communists still existed within the United States. They tried to gain a foothold among labor unions, but those heavily depended on the success of capitalism to exist. Where could they turn for influence? They found a willing partner in higher education.

The Frankfurt School of philosophy, which incorporated the views of philosophers Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx into what has become the leftist/socialist views of today, moved from Germany to the U.S. during WW II. Gaining a foothold at Columbia University, its proponents soon moved into all the higher education institutions across the country. If you attended any U.S. university after about 1960, your outlook on the world has been influenced by professors espousing these views.

Major principles of the Frankfurt School included infiltrating every aspect of society -- its arts, educational system, clergy, and media -- to instill their beliefs. The values they injected into these institutions include anti-capitalism, political correctness, tolerance (but only of their beliefs, not of anyone else's), androgyny, and what they call "cultural pessimism." These values have been embraced by the Democrat party of today. What used to be known as the "working man's party" has evolved into quite something else.

Econ Journal Watch published a study in 2015 revealing that professors at major universities who were registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republican professors by 11.5 to 1. Is anyone naïve enough to believe that their own personal beliefs don't influence how they teach? There are many anecdotal reports of students being humiliated or otherwise punished for expressing a view contrary to their professor's.

The Media Research Center looked into the Columbia University School of Journalism and discovered that of its 40 full-time faculty members, 27 of them -- two thirds -- also worked for far-left-leaning news outlets. This violates one of the main imperatives of the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics...and these are the professors teaching the nation's journalists of the future.

As America's journalism schools turn out class after class of new journalists indoctrinated by left-leaning professors with no balance in the ideas they are being taught, their influence on society as a whole grows. And so it has been doing for at least the past half-century.

This goes far beyond journalists; popular culture does a lot to shape opinions in this country, as well. A 1994 study by S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman revealed that 93% of TV writers, producers, and executives never attended a church or synagogue, at a time when about 40% of Americans did. That reflected a fairly significant difference in values. And these people were the ones shaping the opinions of the nation's youth through their entertainment culture.

Now, if you embrace a leftist philosophy, you will undoubtedly view this section as having been biased. Of course it is; this is my blog, so in effect it's my own opinion column. But understand, as well, that our society today has been conditioned to view anybody whose opinions differ from our own as "biased" while seeing those who agree with our own biases to be "objective." Stay with me through this post, and you may find a new way to look at the world that is neither leftist nor rightist, but more objective than both.

The Centralization of News Reporting

While readership of daily print newspapers has declined sharply in recent years, a lot of people do still get at least some of their news from them. Millennials, who never do, may be the largest generation in American history, but subtract those 92 million people born after 1980 from the total population and you still have 138 million Americans who likely read a daily newspaper at least some of the time.

Many cities have lost their daily newspapers altogether. Most larger cities used to have separate morning and evening editions; these are also a thing of the past. As circulation of these print papers declined, advertising revenue also fell. And with it fell the budget to support a large staff of reporters to cover the news.

Each local reporter who used to cover a specific "beat" saw their territory greatly expanded, with less time available to cover any one area like they used to. Newspapers that had one reporter stationed in the state capital and perhaps another in Washington, D.C. to cover governmental affairs could no longer afford this.

Large media companies started buying more and more local newspapers, running a network of them across several states. Few were locally owned any more. The same consolidation was taking place among TV and radio stations. Most of these today are owned by huge corporations based in big cities, not by anyone local to their markets. This differed from past network affiliations with locally owned stations; this was outright ownership by a non-local entity.

At about this same time, USA Today arose as a "national" daily newspaper. It gained mainstream acceptance by giving away copies to hotels catering to business travelers. The newspaper relied more on colorful infographics to illustrate news concepts that did away with wordy explanations. These appealed to increasingly busy readers on the go, but often oversimplified complex issues, with plenty of bias thrown in.

Local newspapers had always carried national and international stories from the wire services - the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI). As their staff numbers declined, they were forced to rely more and more on these wire services for their stories on state, national, and international news. If there was bias in the wire service stories, that bias carried over into local newspapers, regardless of their owners' positions on issues. Without the staff to review and rewrite these stories to match the newspaper's own editorial slant, the wire stories were often run exactly as they came over.

And who are these wire services hiring to write their stories? Journalists turned out by the nation's finest universities...those same universities whose classes are run by Frankfurt School disciples espousing Marxist views. These students have been indoctrinated to believe that those views are "right" and that any others disagreeing with them are "wrong." Their bias leans almost exclusively to the left. Because they never hear any opinions differing from the biases they have been taught, they cannot perceive what they are writing as biased.

Busy readers who don't have time to fact-check every story they read must rely on openly biased news in their supposedly unbiased news sources. Local newspapers, however, are far from being the only source of news these days, even in their online versions. Yet more changes in the news media!


The Rise of Conservative Talk Radio

As Frankfurt School disciples had infiltrated all media outlets by the early 1980s, the bias they included in their stories may have gone unnoticed, but for one thing: the rise of conservative hosts on the radio.

Talk radio was nothing new; it had been around since the 1940s. Into the 1970s and '80s personalities like Paul Harvey regularly hosted brief commentaries, even on stations playing mostly music. Dr. Ruth Westheimer captured the public's imagination with her show that talked openly about sex. Call-in shows in the middle of the night became popular with insomniacs. Morning hosts like Howard Stern were syndicated across the nation.

Most all-talk formats were on low-power AM airwaves. But with the 1987 repeal of the "Fairness Doctrine" that required stations to allow equal air time for all sides of an issue, talk radio suddenly burst into the limelight as more and more people identified with the new conservative hosts on its airwaves. AM radio was revived, with many stations also broadcasting these shows concurrently on their sister FM stations.

Rush Limbaugh opened the door with his nationally syndicated show that began airing in 1988. He was the first to question the narrative being spun by most of the media. Ratings for his show soared. Within three years, he was the nation's top syndicated radio host. Limbaugh was quickly followed by other conservative show hosts: Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Schlesinger, Michael Medved, Mark Levin, and more.

Once people started hearing viewpoints that contrasted with what they were being told by other major media outlets, more and more noticed the bias in news stories. Suddenly things were not so black-and-white as before. Many gray areas on complex issues were now revealed.

The Shift to Digital Debate

As internet accessibility expanded, the power of individuals to express their own take on things expanded with it. Many writers with syndicated newspaper columns began writing blogs online. They were quickly joined by rising stars within the blogosphere, those who could turn a word well enough to gain a following. In an interesting departure from the print and broadcast journalism world, and likely a result of conservative media's success, in the digital world there were bloggers on both sides of the political aisle.

Social media, most especially Twitter and Facebook, have given people a quick way to react to stories when they may only have part of the story. Even reporters, who are supposed to always remain unbiased, have fallen prey to the temptation to post social media comments revealing their bias (contrary to their professional ethics code). And having a U.S. President who expresses his personal reactions to events in tweets only fans the flames of emotional reaction to brief impressions of news stories that few have read to completion. It seems that we're all ranting on, half-cocked and unaware of the real issues.

One of the main characteristics of blogging and social media is the ability for readers to respond to posts with their own comments. Debate can get heated here, as people sitting behind a computer keyboard think they can write things they'd never say to another person's face.

More and more, people are choosing to circulate in echo chambers of others who only agree with their particular point of view. Any contrary views are dismissed as "biased" or the latest buzz-phrase, "fake news." Anyone posting a different opinion must be a "troll," at least according to the mob-mentality judgment of the online community.

Political debate has always been heated, going all the way back to the dawn of democracy in Athens, Greece. Our second U.S. President, John Adams, was referred to as "His Rotundity" by his political opponents. There has been at least one incident of a congressional representative physically attacking a senator with a cane on the Senate floor. Some people in his time referred to Abraham Lincoln, now widely hailed as our greatest President, as a "gorilla." And who can forget the duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton? Heated contention is certainly nothing new.

The incivility of today's political debate likely seems worse because there's simply so much more of it. Having so many ways to interact with others we only know online gives us many more opportunities to snipe at each other. Thankfully, we're not dueling with pistols any more...for the most part.

It should be fairly obvious to anyone that there is much bias in news reporting, as well as there being bias within our own minds. Each side holds up certain media outlets as certified truthful, while others are pointed to as unreliable. Not surprisingly, lists from those on the left and those on the right do not match. And as history has shown us, reliable news outlets can still have individual reporters who fall short of the profession's ethical ideals.

So how do we identify bias in reporting, without our own biases getting in the way? First, we need to understand how bias is achieved.

Subtle Ways of Inserting Bias Into News

As a longtime writer, I've learned many tricks over the years. There are ways to say something without saying it...or simply by not saying it at all. Having a good command of the English language is key in sneakily including your opinion in a story that's supposedly neutral. The next sections go into more detail on a few of the ways it's possible for news outlets -- whatever their medium -- to inject bias into their reporting.

Bias Through What News is Covered/Omitted

The first way for a media outlet to inject bias is by determining which stories they cover. Ignoring certain news while playing up other news can whip an audience into a frenzy, over a completely manufactured premise not based on reality.

When I briefly toyed with going into journalism as a profession in college, one of the courses I took as a prerequisite was a philosophy course in Logic. This class taught us how to build logical arguments, and how to spot fallacious ones. ("Fallacious" is defined as "based on a mistaken belief.")

Back in the old days of unbiased journalism, it was important for journalists to know how to construct an argument that would lead to a logical conclusion based on facts. But if an argument never even gets to the table, it doesn't matter how factual it is. Some publications, news shows, and bloggers use their power of choosing which stories to cover as their way to inject their own bias into their coverage of the news.

Sadly, we don't always know what we don't know. If none of the major news outlets covers a news story and we hear about it from an online blogger as our only source, did it really happen? How can we find out? There have been several instances where news sources frowned upon as "tabloids" have actually broken actual major news stories ignored by the mainstream press. Several of the sites that supposedly tell us whether or not something is true have also been proven guilty of bias.

Many of the news stories coming out these days are unbelievable...but that doesn't mean that they're untrue. Say what you will about Trump, he's changed the paradigm for what's normal in American politics.

How to combat news omission bias: Get your news from a variety of sources, both online and off. And don't limit those sources to those that agree with your point of view. Mix it up to get news biased in both directions, knowing that the truth lies somewhere in between them. What facts do they have in common? Where do they differ? How many sources from differing viewpoints have similar nuggets of truth? What I try to do is keep an open mind and remember hearing certain things, but not put too much stock in any one news story. Even those often repeated can be based on untrue information. Sometimes it's best to wait and see what happens over time rather than rushing to judgment and flying off the handle when you only know part of the story.

Bias Through Placement of News Stories

Another way in which a media outlet can inject bias is by determining where to place a news story. In the old print-newspaper world, they could "bury" a story in an inside or "gutter" column on one of the obscure interior pages that frequently got overlooked by most readers. Stories they wanted to play up would be on the front page, ideally "above the fold."

In the online world, above the fold refers to the stories you can see without scrolling down on your computer or, increasingly, your phone. Whatever that top story is, it's going to be their biggest story. When nobody has the leisure time to sit down and read a whole newspaper any more, it's far easier to bury stories online. So a story's merely making it into "print" or onto a news site doesn't mean that anybody will ever see it.

TV news outlets can do this by covering what they deem less-important stories at times when not as many people are watching. The biggest news stories get covered at the top of the hour, with less important news at the end of the show. Most local TV news stations have several hours of news a day, with a morning show, sometimes a midday news show, and evening shows in the early and late evening hours. That's a lot of time to fill. And they have ratings figures for every hour they're on the air, so they can easily bury stories they don't want to emphasize by putting them during their least-watched time periods.

How to combat news placement bias: Try to read at least one print newspaper from cover to cover once or twice a week. Local newspapers from a decent-sized city are fine. Don't just read the front pages, look at those interior pages where news can often be buried. Scan for headlines that catch your eye; you'd be surprised how often a story that has great significance in world events can be buried on some of those back pages. Read the editorial pages, including the letters to the editor, to be exposed to different viewpoints. The business section may seem boring, but it can provide some good insights to what's going on with the economy.

Bias Through News Headline Writing

Reporters may write the news stories, but it's always been a print newspaper's editors who wrote the headlines. Whoever writes them these days, it's easy to spot bias in them. Here are a few news headlines written on actual stories, from both the left and right perspectives:

Left-leaning Headline
Subject of the Story
Right-leaning Headline
USDA gay-sensitivity training seeks larger audience
The USDA rolls out new gay-sensitivity training
Obama Bureaucrats Imposing Radical Homosexuality Sensitivity Training?
Israeli soldier sentenced to 18 months for killing a wounded Palestinian in a case that roiled the nation
An Israeli soldier was sentenced to 18 months in military prison for shooting a Palestinian who attacked him with a knife
Israeli soldier gets 18 months over shooting of Palestinian knife attack suspect
Michele Bachmann’s First Dude
A profile on the husband of then-presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann
The Left Launches Attack on Bachman’s Husband
Truck ploughs into pedestrians in Jerusalem ‘terrorist attack’
A truck rammed into a group of soldiers on foot in Jerusalem, injuring 15 of them and killing 4
Jerusalem attack: Four dead after lorry driver rams soldiers
Malaysia police slammed for cattle-branding women
Police in the northern region of Malaysia chained women charged with prostitution and marked their heads and chests with an X
Malaysian Muslims Cattle-Brand Prostitutes
Obama Bashers: Critics, or Crazies?
A 2011 story on the validity of documents presented to show President Barack Obama was born on American soil
Obama birth record ‘definitely fraudulent,’ Sheriff Joe Arapaio says
AP poll: Economic worries pose new snags for Obama
An Associated Press poll showing less than 50% of people favored the re-election of Barack Obama
AP: Obama Has a Big Problem With White Women
Donald Trump says Mexicans are ‘killing us’ in latest inflammatory speech
Comments made by Donald Trump in a speech that the government was “killing us” with their business policies
Crowd applauds Trump saying he loves the Mexican people
NY Officials Want Schools to Teach About Unwanted Baby Laws
A proposal in New York to include lessons in high school curriculum on what mothers can do if they give birth to a baby they don’t want
NYC Public Schools Teaching How to Abandon Your Baby?
Democrats, Students and Foreign Allies Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency
Donald Trump wins election as America’s 45th president
The Media Never Thought Trump Could Win – and They Were WRONG
Dollar Weakens, Treasuries Gain as U.S. GDP Growth Slows; Stocks Advance
A 2011 report on the state of the economy showed the value of the U.S. dollar falling on international monetary markets
U.S. Dollar Getting Murdered
Vaccination debate flares in GOP presidential race, alarming medical experts
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky made comments connecting vaccinations to autism
Media Bias Rears Ugly Head in Vaccine Controversy
Mandela asks to meet Michelle Obama
A surprise visit Michelle Obama paid to Nelson Mandela while on a tour of South Africa
Michelle Obama Snubbed in Africa, But Looking Forward to Private Safari

How to combat news headline bias: Headlines are like advertisements for the stories they're selling. Recognize them for that, and understand that they are often written just like "clickbait" is on social media posts: they want to get you to read the story. The more inflammatory they are, the more likely you are to at least begin exploring what the story says. Don't let them anger or excite you on their own, without finding out more.

Bias Through Emotional Wording in News Stories

A few of the above headlines are also guilty of this subtle way in which opinions are injected into news stories. Remember, journalists are not supposed to editorialize unless they are writing an opinion column. But inflammatory wording can do just that in a news story that is supposed to be impartial.

Here's an example of a sentence that opened a recent news story, as written by the Associated Press:

"After seven years of fervent promises to repeal and replace 'Obamacare,' President Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders buckled at a moment of truth Thursday, putting off a planned showdown vote in a stinging setback for the young administration."

Wow! Let's start with the adjectives used in that sentence: "fervent," "stinging," and "showdown" are all expressing judgments on the facts of the story. Those are opinions. They don't belong in a news story. The writer's choice of the verb "buckled" was also one that conveyed an opinion about the facts of the story, as did reference to the incident as a "moment of truth" and the choice to refer to the Affordable Care Act as Obamacare, put into quotation marks. Referring to the move as a "stinging setback for the young administration"is clearly an opinion, not an expression of news. Here's a sentence about the same event, written without bias:

"After seven years of promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, GOP congressional leaders withdrew the replacement bill prior to a vote."

Now, the raw news doesn't sound as exciting as the journalist's opinion, but news about politics is not supposed to "sound exciting," it's supposed to inform us of the facts so that we can formulate our own opinions. Do you want your opinions dictated to you by a news reporter? Of course not! But that's what has been happening for a long time when bias is allowed to intrude in the news.

Another way that journalists inject opinions into stories is by using quotes from others. But this is okay. It's an ethical way of influencing the opinions of readers in a story. A person being interviewed can express any type of opinion. What's not allowed, ethically, is for the journalist to offer his/her own opinions on the interviewee's comments, or on the story as a whole.

Here's how some of the opinions in the above sentence could technically have been ethically included in the sentence using the technique of attributing them to others:

"After seven years of promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, GOP congressional leaders withdrew the replacement bill prior to a vote, in a move some are calling a stinging setback for President Donald Trump's young administration."

Merely inserting that "some are calling" phrase shifts the focus off the reporter's opinions and puts them into the mouths of "others." The opinions are still there, but the reporter is not writing them as though they are facts, merely stating that some people think this. Without identifying who thinks it, the journalist has injected opinions into a raw news story to influence readers' opinions on the story.

Remember, the reporter should remain a cool outsider telling you about events observed. Here's an even more ethical way the reporter could have done that:

"After seven years of promises to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, GOP congressional leaders withdrew the replacement bill prior to a vote, in a move Democrat congressional leaders are calling a stinging setback for President Donald Trump's young administration."

With this version, those expressing the opinion are clearly identified, making the gist of the story clearer to readers: political parties in Congress are disagreeing, yet again.

This type of bias is extremely obvious...when you disagree with the opinions being presented. But if you agree with them, you're far more likely to view the story as unbiased.

In case you missed the bias in the above example because you agreed with it, here's another example that leans the opposite direction as the first one:

"North Carolina Republican lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said late Wednesday that they have agreed on legislation to resolve a standoff over the state's 'bathroom bill' through a replacement measure that still restricts LGBT nondiscrimination protections."

This one uses a double negative to cloud the issue at hand: if you "restrict nondiscrimination protections" aren't you allowing discrimination? Readers would have to stop and think about it for a moment to get that, but a journalist writing the sentence could realistically claim, "I never said that."

Reference to the law as the "bathroom bill" -- in quotation marks, just as "Obamacare" was put into them in the first example -- may be seen by some as inflammatory, since the law requiring people to use the restroom matching their gender at birth was the subject of much debate and protest from the time of its introduction. Identifying each side by their political party is technically accurate, but its usage when not really applicable to the story's lead sentence could be seen by some as fanning the flames of political divisiveness in the nation today. And the word "standoff" evokes the image of a wild west gunfight.

Here's a less biased version of the above sentence:

"North Carolina lawmakers have agreed with Governor Roy Cooper on legislation to replace the state's controversial bill restricting bathroom usage."

While the term "controversial" is an adjective, it is a factual one; everybody knows that this law has been controversial. It has sparked demonstrations and cost the state several convention bookings. All adjectives are not bad in news reporting, but any of them used by a reporter should express facts, not the writer's opinions.

How to combat emotional wording bias: Watch first for adjectives. Those are the quickest and most succinct way for a journalist to inject opinions into news stories. Next look for inflammatory verbs: these can come across as snarky. Or they may just sound like very colorful language. Then look at the nouns, specifically how things are identified in the story: are terms used by one side or the other in a heated debate used instead of more neutral language for them? Often, such terms are put into quotation marks, as if to question their validity.

In your mind, can you rewrite the story so that the bias is not in it? Or with bias to the other side? Once you start doing this, the bias in news stories becomes more and more apparent.

Remaining Alert to Bias in News Sources

Now that you're aware of bias in news reporting, it's up to you to maintain that awareness and look for it. Once your eyes are opened to it, you can't stop seeing it! Bias springs up at you from every story you see, no matter where you view it.

Rather than to provide a list of "unbiased" or "reputable" news sources, I think it's far healthier to assume that every news source has some bias, identify it, and then move beyond it to see the reality of the story behind that bias.

We each have bias within ourselves, as well, that colors our perception of the news stories we read. Everything we each read or write runs through that filter within ourselves. Unraveling bias within the news media forces us to examine our own biases. Why do we think this way? Where and when did it originate? What experiences of our own have shaped our opinions? Have we missed anything that indicates a need to broaden our horizons? Asking these questions of ourselves could make us like the guy in the Chik-Fil-A commercial who thinks he's in a groove, then finds out he's really in a rut!

To quote the old TV show The X-Files, "The truth is out there." Do we have it within us to look beyond our own and the news media's bias, to find that truth? While there are some truths that may never fully be revealed, we can all do a better job of looking at the news we encounter every day with a higher awareness and a sincere desire to get to that truth.

Monday, February 20, 2017

President's Day Thoughts on Donald Trump's Leadership


President's Day Thoughts on Donald Trump's Leadership

There has not been a U.S. president in my lifetime whose election has so clearly defined the divisions in our nation as Donald J. Trump. On this day, his first President's Day in office, there are Not-My-President anti-Trump rallies being held in several major cities around the country, as there have been almost every weekend since his inauguration.

Why all this hatred, most coming from the supposedly tolerant left? The same people going on about how "love trumps hate" seem filled with hatred for this man they refer to as a "Cheeto" or "the orange one." They want us to believe that his election was not "valid" and that he should be impeached, but can provide no legal evidence of actions for which he deserves impeachment. They belittle him in skits on Saturday Night Live, in comedy monologues at the opening of TV talk shows, and in subtle language choices when reporting on his actions in the news. Their vitriol is palpable.

Trump and his spokespeople have talked a lot about media bias, and it's one of those things that once you see it, you can't stop seeing it. The bias is obvious to anyone whose eyes are open.

Echoes of Another Leader

This hatred for Trump reminds me of that for another of our presidents, one who held the office over a century ago. That president is Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, that now-beloved leader who is the fourth face on Mount Rushmore was just as equally hated in his day as he was revered. The nation was similarly split over his boisterous, childish, egotistic personality. Remind you of anyone?

This clip from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle appeared just after Roosevelt's death in 1919. A quote from the story: "He was at once the most hated and the best loved man of his age." Again, remind you of anyone?

Roosevelt was the one who called the presidency a "bully pulpit" - not in the same sense that we use the term bully today, but as his day's version of the now-ubiquitous "awesome!" He was fond of using that term to express his admiration for something: "Bully!"

T.R. had a habit of using his own words for things, words that had not before been a part of the English lexicon. Sort of like Trump uses words like "bigly" in his speeches. We all know what they mean, but those who choose to view Trump as a cretin seize upon those words as evidence of their point...just as they did when Teddy would say, "Bully!"

Also a Republican, Roosevelt became unpopular with others in his party while serving as Governor of New York. They nominated him for Vice President to get him out of their way. This put him into position to move into the U.S. presidency when President McKinley was assassinated. So in his first term, T.R. had not won popular election to the office...just as Trump's detractors keep pointing to by championing the popular vote.

Encyclopedia.com refers to T.R.'s term as "the first modern presidency." His similarities to Trump are really quite astounding. Roosevelt's presidency was marked by these leadership traits:

  • using his position in the White House to set the social mood of the nation
  • deploying the U.S. military around the world without consulting Congress
  • issuing executive orders to initiate major policy changes
  • speaking with bravado: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."
  • working with an energy level unmatched by his predecessors
According to Ken Burns' biopic, The Roosevelts, a contemporary once described being around T.R. as "like being around a six-year-old child."

Sounds a lot like what they're saying about Trump, doesn't it?

Teddy Roosevelt, looking for all the world
like he's doing the "Gator chomp"!


What T.R. Accomplished

And yet this man so vilified in his own time gave us our first national park and created the first federal regulation of business.

The business climate in Roosevelt's day was quite different from that of today...and yet similar in many ways. A few large companies, built by outsiders from the old political ruling class, effectively controlled their industries and determined the course of the nation's economy. They were putting big profits into their owners' pockets, while the working class made far less for their contributions. It was more than they'd ever made before, but paled in comparison to the owners' profits from the companies.

These same companies were rapidly and clumsily depleting the nation's natural resources through unsustainable mining and forestry practices. Clear-cutting of forests and mining that highly polluted nearby water sources were commonplace. Because the new economic elite did not share the noblesse oblige of the previous ruling class, they saw no reason to consider the greater good of society over their own profit.

Certain nations of the world in Roosevelt's day had also become quite imperialistic, conquering smaller nations around the world to build their empires. The United States had traditionally pursued an isolationist policy in these matters. Previously "uncivilized" nations were viewed as being lifted up by these practices.

No U.S. president in Roosevelt's time had ever taken on any of these behemoths. And why should they? Politicians of the time had been cut in on the deal and were making lots of money from business as usual. It was not in their personal best interests to change the status quo.

Roosevelt spoke out about all of these issues, in an enthusiastic manner that was often out of place in his time, while in other ways right in line with commonly held views of the day. Fiercely patriotic, he certainly did not seem "presidential" to his detractors, most of whom were those self-made businessmen who had been running things.

Sounds a lot like what's going on today, doesn't it?

The Similarities Between Trump and Roosevelt

In both times, one man who saw these things and said, "Enough!" rose to the challenge. Theodore Roosevelt had overcome childhood infirmity to serve in some elected offices, embark on numerous adventures, writte some books, and experience failure as a rancher. But at the time he ran for president, he was enjoying life with his large family on their estate. Why should he give up that life for the presidency?

After two failed marriages and well into his third, Donald Trump was busy running his various businesses, writing books, and enjoying life with his family. He had a vast fortune and was doing what he loved. Why would he put it all on the line for the presidency?

While both men share the trait of tremendous ego that is often viewed as arrogance, there's more to their decision than that. There's a sense of injustice occurring in the nation, and the sense that they can help put things right. Indeed, a sense that they are the only person who can put things right.

When Trump talks about "making America great again" he's not referring to what his detractors like to view as a time of Jim Crow laws and worker oppression. Quite the opposite. He's talking about a time when our nation was a shining beacon on the hill to oppressed people around the globe: a vision of hope in a hopeless world. A land of opportunity where nobody is held back by their past, and anybody who is willing to work hard and invest of themselves can achieve greatness.

That idealistic view of this nation is shared by both sides of the political aisle. While they disagree on how to get there, pursuing it is nothing over which to vilify someone. The Encyclopedia.com article referenced above says this about T.R.:

"Very much in the fashion of his times, Roosevelt viewed the world in terms of struggle between good and evil, between the righteous and the unjust, between civilization and barbarism. For the righteous to shrink from power would be to yield the arena to the unworthy." 


What's Different Today

Had Twitter existed in T.R.'s time, you can bet your bottom dollar that he'd have been posting to it daily! His platform was the speaking podium, that "bully pulpit" as he referred to it. From there he made his points. Roosevelt's was a more leisurely age, when people had plenty of time to ruminate over sounding educated and presidential in their speeches. Quotes from the time bear up this point:

"To sit home, read one's favorite paper, and scoff at the misdeeds of the men who do things is easy, but it is markedly ineffective. It is what evil men count upon the good men's doing."

"Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave as be seen as a people with such responsibilities."

Today's ever-present social media, blogosphere, and paparazzi make any semblance of private life a pipe dream for public officials. Every blunder becomes ubiquitous in the public consciousness, always spun to the viewpoint of the reporter. We cannot turn away from the media sideshow without completely unplugging.

The public has no patience, either. Our gotta-have-it-now culture has made us restless and constantly seeking instant gratification. If an elected official doesn't solve the problems of the world after a week in office, he's deemed a failure. "We always knew it!" the detractors chant. "See? We were right about him all along!"

Time Will Tell

Over the past century, Teddy Roosevelt has become remembered for his positive accomplishments. We now view his personality as fun and eccentric, not abrasive and childish. He's considered one of America's greatest presidents, earning him that fourth spot on Mount Rushmore.

Only historians will determine how effective of a president Donald Trump will be. Those historians won't write that story until long after we're gone. One thing they will all agree on is his polarizing personality...just like Roosevelt's before him.









Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why Writers Love "Breaking Bad"

Why Writers Love "Breaking Bad"

It's not often enough that I post to this blog, as my workload of other tasks always seems to outrank it. But as we approach the final two episodes of "Breaking Bad" it seems a good time to take a look at the series from a writer's point of view.

BB has been called the greatest TV series ever. Fans ranking it on the Internet Movie Database gave the third-to-last episode entitled "Ozymandias" a perfect 10 score. Pretty much every magazine has written articles to analyze these final episodes, and there have been some fine comedy sketches written about the show as it escalates to the ultimate conclusion.

The accolades are well deserved. This show is excellent in every aspect, from the writing to the casting, acting, editing, soundtrack...even the locations are used to reinforce the messages of the series. But it all starts with the writing.

The Genius Behind The Show

Series creator Vince Gilligan will likely be most recognized in his career for BB but he's been in the business for many years. He worked extensively on "The X-Files" as a producer of various levels. Gilligan also wrote 29 X-Files episodes and directed two of them. 

He's worked on other, lesser-known TV series, too. Movies include Hancock with Will Smith and Charlize Theron, and Home Fries with Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. His earliest screen credit was as sole writer of the film Wilder Napalm in 1993. Don't remember it? The sci-fi love story starred Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger, but got panned by critics and didn't do well at the box office.

Those 20 years in the business (and who knows how many more before he got his first screen credit) have shaped Vince Gilligan's talents and given him the "mad skills" (as Jesse might say) to engineer a show like BB. It's his painstaking attention to detail that literary writers love. Gilligan likes to use references to his girlfriend, whose name happens to be Holly, in his work. (Sound familiar, BB fans?) We love looking for those little insider tricks of the trade that show up in every episode of this show.

The Team Approach

What's even more amazing for writers who work solo is that teams of writers put together these episodes. While credit is given to one main writer for each episode, the storyboarding and mapping out of each show is done by a team of writers. It's a considerable effort that doesn't just happen. 

And we appreciate this. No good piece of writing ever "just happens" -- they all come with a lot of planning, writing, rewriting, editing, and refining to get to the final product. Fellow writers recognize the quality of "Breaking Bad" because we know the amount of effort it took to get to the final version of each script...not to mention everything that comes after it, on the production side.

Just as actors love BB for the acting, cinematographers for the camera angles, and editors for the editing, which are also superb, writers appreciate it for the intense effort that goes into creating the storyline, dialog, camera angles, and other aspects of a script. We learn from watching well-written shows like this, and the lessons are glorious.

Respect the Literature

It's also the literary qualities of BB that appeal to us writers. The characters are developed beautifully into rich and complex people that are believable even when you know that they only exist to serve a certain purpose in the story (e.g., Saul). 

The plot line has more twists and turns than a road climbing a craggy mountain. Just when you think it's going to zig, it zags. I've lost count of the number of episode endings that left me sitting with my mouth hanging open, saying, "Whoa! I never saw that coming!"

Colors are used to give subtle hints about a character's nature or where they are in their descent into darkness. Who could miss Marie's obsession with purple, or the repeated use of pink in sometimes disturbing ways. Insiders tell us this is all intentional, and we as writers know and understand that.

There are wonderful moments of foreshadowing and clues to upcoming action placed in every scene. Viewers are always speculating about what's going to happen next based on these clues, and the writers delight in throwing us off course.

Even the extreme violence in BB serves a literary purpose. Yes, it's shocking, and it's meant to be. It grabs our attention and tells us to watch closely because something important is happening. When Walt kills people for the first time, he changes, taking his first step down that road to becoming Heisenberg. He justifies it by saying they were going to kill him, and that they probably deserved to die, much like Dexter justifies his serial killings by only targeting killers on his show. Wouldn't any character try to find some justifiable reason to have killed someone when that's not their nature? Those moments ring true because they're excellently crafted.

Looking In The Mirror

But there's still something more in BB that appeals to writers. The protagonist of the show, Walter White, started out as a meek, powerless nerd, a geeky high-school chemistry teacher and habitual doormat for his controlling wife. Plenty of writers, who are typically bookish types when growing up, can sympathize with that position. We've been bullied, too, by people just like the cruel high school kids making fun of Walt Jr. in an early episode, when they're in a store to buy pants for him for school. We feel for both Walt Jr. and Walt Sr. in that scene. It's also the first one in which we see a glimmer of the Heisenberg to come.

Walt wants more out of life, and the cancer diagnosis that comes at the beginning of the show gives him an excuse to seek it. He transforms himself into Heisenberg, peerless all-powerful drug lord who's respected and feared by his underlings. As Heisenberg, he uses his knowledge to become the best at what he does, just as an author uses skills honed over time to write a book that will hopefully sell well and earn that author respect and admiration. We seize power over life by writing, controlling all our characters' lives and outcomes. We are all-powerful in their world, just as Heisenberg is all-powerful in his.

All the elements of Heisenberg were always there in Walt. The cruelty, the chutzpah, the take-no-prisoners approach, are all aspects of his personality that he's been repressing as a teacher and family man. His covert meth business gives him license to let those parts of himself emerge. They're there in all of us humans, writers or not. BB is a story about the human condition, as is all great literature at its core.

That's also why it's so tough for us to completely hate Walt: even as he's telling off his wife on the phone and saying all the worst things a husband could ever say to a wife, he's doing it through the tears of a loving husband who's trying to absolve her of guilt. We can tell that it's hurting him to say these things as much as it's hurting Skyler to hear them. And make no mistake: even though she catches onto the fact that he's performing for the eavesdropping police, it still has to be hurting Skyler to hear her husband saying these things to her. There's still a glimmer of Walt in the character, the meek schoolteacher who loves his family and only wants to provide well for them. We empathize with his hurt at losing his family, at finally freeing them from what he's been up to.

We've watched Jesse go from a loser druggie with no direction in life to a successful underworld soldier. As his disillusionment with Walt has grown and his own conscience over their actions has developed, we've come to view him more sympathetically, as well. From a character that was originally supposed to be killed off at the end of the first season has emerged someone we can root for, even though Jesse's prospects of surviving until the end seem bleak. Jesse cares about people, truly cares, and will do whatever he has to do to keep them safe. We respect him for that. Does it redeem him for everything he's done? No, but he's probably become the most moral character on the show.

As Walt watched the fruits of what he set in motion play out in the desert, I'd like to think that he realized that his true nature was not so much as Heisenberg, but more as plain old Walter White. He cut his ties to the meth-empire life, albeit with great cruelty, and tried one last time to become that person he used to be again, but it was too late. He's now lost the one thing that supposedly turned him to his dark side. As he walks away from the family he still loves, we feel a sense of loss right along with him. Commanders of the worlds in our own work as writers, we are caught up in another writer's vision and carried along like so much flotsam and jetsam on its whitewater rapids.

Anticipation

We've seen in flashes forward that Walt is returning to Albuquerque to finish something, and we can tell that end is going to be violent. We'll continue to watch to the final scene, spellbound and disbelieving. 

Thanks, Vince Gilligan, for a great ride that's lasted five seasons spread out over six years. We'll miss all these characters and the world you and your excellent team have built for us. This show will be analyzed for years to come, just as have other critically acclaimed series. But this one rises above them all. We recognize good writing when we see it, and we tip our Heisenberg hats to you for this one.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Value of Good Copywriting

How Much is Your Work Worth?

I received an e-mail solicitation this week from a woman with a foreign-sounding name. She was not anyone I know or have met, and I'm not sure how she got my e-mail address. But her offer was this:
  • Article writing - 100 words @ 1USD
  • Blog writing - 100 words @1USD
  • Free article submissions to 10 unique PR article sites, 10 directories & 10 social bookmarks
You've probably read some of those articles written by non-native English speakers. They come up in my Google Alerts on various subjects from time to time, and they're always good for a laugh.

Anybody who's worked with copywriters before, or who has paid for quality copywriting, knows that you can't get it for $1. Good copywriting requires skills and knowledge. It takes time for research, development of target audience profiles, analysis of the product/service being promoted, and a certain amount of "gel time" as the thoughts percolate in the copywriter's brain. And that's all before you even write the first word of copy itself, which requires certain skills in wordsmithing to pull together all the background work into persuasive copy that sells. It could take several weeks, at best, to accomplish. And that copy could be worth millions of dollars to the company buying it...certainly worth every penny of the thousands of dollars it should have cost them to obtain it.

I replied to that hapless spam e-mailer, expressing the opinion that her offer cheapens our entire industry and hurts us all. It makes prospects think, "Well, if this company is offering copy for $1, why should I pay any more?" They don't understand the copywriting process, nor do they respect the amount of work or training that go into writing truly quality copy. If this company is doing it right, they can't possibly stay in business and offer copywriting for that price...even if the writers are all working in a sweatshop environment and writing in broken English.

Writers, if you're going to enter this business, do your due diligence first. Find out what rates you should be charging. Don't put yourself out there as offering the same product as someone with years of experience, then undercut their prices. We already have enough clients who don't respect what we do because they don't appreciate the effort and training it takes. They don't recognize the difference between good and bad copy. They want to pay us less than we can afford to live on. When you come into our industry and offer bargain-basement prices because you're just starting out and don't have a lot of experience, it reinforces their perception that what we do isn't worth much. This hurts the entire industry, along with your future earning potential as a copywriter.

Do your career and the industry a favor: before you go out on your own, get a job where you're writing for someone else. Work with different types of clients and learn what it takes to write successful copy. You don't learn it all in school, even with an advanced degree. Practical experience is essential. Develop some marketing skills beyond your writing skills so that you understand how to do audience and product research. Get involved in the local chapters of some industry organizations such as the American Marketing Association, International Association of Business Communicators, Public Relations Society of America, or the American Advertising Federation to develop your professional skills, and seek additional training whenever you can. While you're drawing a salary for that work, start building the nest egg you'll need to start your own copywriting business one day. Then you'll have what you need to delivery quality copy to your clients.

If you're considering becoming a professional, self-employed writer, my series of e-books, A Professional Writer's Ladder to Success, was designed to help you. It walks you through planning for, researching, and launching a successful business as a professional writer. Each "rung" of the ladder builds on those before it to help you prepare your very own Ladder to Success Action Plan. Whether you choose to pursue being a copywriter, a book writer, a publicist, or any number of other types of writer you can be, following such a course is an important step you can't overlook.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Show Me the Money!

New Referral Rewards Program for Client Leads!

Who could use a little extra cash? Pretty much everybody, these days.

So now, instead of having to be one of our creative professional partners to earn thank-you payments for sending a client lead to Thompson Writing & Editing, everybody can!

Here's the skinny: 

If you talk to someone who could benefit from any of our book ghostwriting, editing, or author marketing services, just e-mail Lynn with the information. She'll follow up with the prospect, discuss their needs, and see if we can help them. If they hire us, as soon as we get a retainer fee, we'll send you a check for 10% of that amount.

But the money for you doesn't stop there! For each subsequent payment from the client on that project, we'll also send you a check for 10% of the total amount. Most larger projects are billed in three similar-sized payments, so you should get a couple more checks similar to your first one.

Still want more cash? 

Here you go: if the same client hires TW&E for a second project, we'll also send you a residual referral bonus of 5% on that project's payments.

Not concerned with the cash? 

Here's another option for you: you can bank your referral rewards with TW&E, so that when you're ready to write, edit, or market your own book, your payments could be much lower! Refer enough clients to us and your fees could even shrink to $0! Just note in your e-mail to us when you refer the client that you'd like to bank your referrals instead of cashing in, and we'll keep a tab running and let you know how much you have in it.

So, there you have it. Surely you know someone who should be writing a book, or who has one written and needs it edited or marketed. Your boss, a client of yours, your Aunt Edna...

We've also just launched a beta test of our new website format; check it out here and give us your feedback! There's a page on it that talks about the new referral rewards program...or just click here to e-mail Lynn with your referral right now!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Owns Your Work?


This is a question that has plagued writers and other creative professionals for generations. If you've invested the time, money, and energy to hone your artistic skills, shouldn't you be fairly compensated for them, just as someone who's honed their skills as a physician, accountant, or attorney is compensated for theirs? Of course you should. But when you're selling an intangible product, the quality of the work becomes a factor in determining value, and how to measure that quality has largely been left up to whoever's paying for it.

Increasingly in recent years, writers who focus on magazine articles have been faced with contracts from major publishers demanding "all rights" to an article, or they won't do business with you. These include reprints, electronic versions, and any other way they want to use your work, effectively prohibiting you from selling the same article to other publications without major revisions.

Since no magazine publisher pays well enough to reimburse you for the many hours required to research and write a quality story, this was a major impediment to earning a living writing for magazines. The only way a writer could hope to earn a living writing articles was to resell the same article to multiple publications. But with these all-rights-or-nothing contracts, you couldn't even republish your own articles in book form without permission from the publisher that owned all rights to them! For magazines to use their muscle to bully writers in this way is, from the writer's point of view, wrong.

From the publisher's point of view, however, it was seen as a way to protect an asset for which they had paid. With e-publishing a necessity in today's online world and e-articles easy to copy and paste into other people's sites, publishers are increasingly looking for ways to protect their content from piracy. Writers who self-publish are facing the same thing. And since publishers typically have armies of lawyers to sue people, they've taken their fight into the courts. This has brought up the issue of "fair use" of published material, refining its interpretation under the law...or even provoking lawmakers in D.C. to propose new rules governing piracy -- you may have heard a lot recently about the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, currently under consideration.

One ongoing lawsuit was filed by publisher Righthaven against the Center for Intercultural Organizing, which republished an article from Righthaven's Las Vegas Review-Journal in its entirety, without obtaining permission or paying a royalty. A local judge found in favor of the CIO, and the case is currently being appealed to a higher court. Internet giants are weighing in on the case, as well as on SOPA, as these could have a drastic effect on their business. You can read about the Righthaven case here.

So what does constitute "fair use"? If you're a blogger, this could have an impact on you. Just how much of someone else's article can you republish in your blog without getting sued? Suppose someone else republishes one of your articles completely without giving you credit or paying you a royalty; should you sue them?

Interestingly, Google also comes into play in the answer to this. With the release of Google's Panda algorithms in 2011, duplicate content on a website is frowned upon. Google wants each site to offer something fresh, new, and unique. So if you blog, you may refer to another article you've read, as I did above. You may link to it, so people can read that article in its entirety. But reproducing it verbatim on your blog will actually hurt you in search results. Google has now become the Karma of the Internet.

If you want to read more about how the law views this topic, here's a link to the U.S. Copyright Office's page on fair use. Wikipedia also has a fair use entry, as well as one on SOPA, and there are numerous articles on fair use from various universities and legal organizations. Just do a search (using whichever search engine you prefer) on the terms "fair use" and "stop online piracy act" to find them. The conclusion? Definition of the term "fair use" is still pretty much up in the air. And, depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad for writers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Competing for Cash

Writer's Digest magazine is running several genre-specific contests in which the winners get $1,000 in cold, hard cash. Sound interesting? Better get that manuscript dusted off and sent in; the deadlines are all coming up in October!

Contests in the Young Adult, Sci-Fi and Thriller genres have an October 1 deadline. Romance is October 15. Crime is October 22, and Horror is October 31. (Yeah, Halloween. Clever, huh?)

For all genres, manuscripts need to be 4,000 words or less, which is short-story length. Each costs $20 to enter. No time for professional editing at this point, but if you want to have manuscripts ready for future contests, there's no time like the present for getting them ready. Visit TW&E's Editing page for information on submitting a sample for editing.

Best of luck in the competition(s) of your choice!