Tag Archives: journalism

Will Iran Reforms and Reformer Last?

Media access and government transparency is vital to a country’s people, I believe.

So this reported turn of events in Iran is not only a positive one, but is of great personal interest to me, given that I was living in Tehran when the curtain rose on  the Islamic Revolution in that country and, in fact, was evacuated with my three children because of it.

Iran’s president-elect calls for new media freedoms


My Iranian experience provided the epiphany that launched my journalism career, which led to my work with the Los Angeles Superior Court and ultimately resulted in the publication of Anatomy of a Trial, which is now available in e-format.

As I read this story about Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rohani, which includes this quote, “A strong government does not mean a government that interferes and intervenes in all affairs. It is not a government that limits the lives of people. This is not a strong government.” and knowing the iron jaws in which Islamic clergy gripped Iranians ever since that revolution, I will watch with great interest to see if Mr. Rohani remains in office and if his reforms endure.


News Story Needs a Markup

As city editor at the Pasadena Star News many years ago, I earned some reporters’ resentment and, eventually, enmity with my daily markups of each day’s edition. I used a red pen and posted the pages on a partition that separated the bay where I worked from the rest of the newsroom.

In hindsight, I might have found a more artful way to point out reporters’ and copy editors’ mistakes and problems with stories.

Reading a Star News story this morning about last Friday’s mass shooting in Santa Monica that left five people dead, however, it’s clear that someone at that newspaper should find some way — artful or otherwise — to point out errors and mucked-up editing, better before stories go to press or get posted on a website than as a marked-up published tear sheet. Here’s the headline on the story and a link to it:

Law enforcement officials, neighbor say suspected gunman was troubled by parents’ divorce


Here are some of the problems:

After naming John Zawahri as the shooter — information not provided or confirmed by law enforcement — and saying his parents had divorced, came this sentence:

“After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother.”

Chris Zawahri? Who is that?

Yorkshire Avenue address? What’s there?

At this point in the story, no one — not John Zawahri’s mother or father or any other family member — has been named. Neither has “the Yorkshire Avenue address” been identified as the house where the family lived before John’s parents divorced.

That leaves readers to assume that the family had lived at “the Yorkshire Avenue address” and that Chris Zawahri was either John’s brother, half-brother or step brother. Brother and not a sister only because the male pronoun “his” is used in that sentence. Even so, we don’t know if he’s younger or older than John.

Although very late in the story, Chris Zawahri, is said to have been 25 and was the older brother of John, nowhere in the story is John’s age given. The only reference to John’s age — and vague at that — is in the first paragraph, which says that John was a juvenile in 2006. But being a juvenile in 2006 means only that he was under 18, which could put him anywhere up to 25 years old last Friday.

Nine paragraphs into the story is this:

“SWAT team officers searched the mother’s Los Angeles apartment Friday night and officers interviewed neighbors about the son who lived with her, said Beverly Meadows who lives in the adjoining unit. Public records indicate Abdou, 54, lives at that address.”

Abdou? Who is that?

It isn’t until three paragraphs further down in the story that readers — at least those who have managed to get that far — find out:

“Public records indicate the house was bought in the mid-1990s by Samir S. Zawahri and Randa Abdou, and then Abdou’s ownership was sold to Zawahri in 2003 — apparently the result of the couple’s divorce.”

That problem could have been easily avoided by adding Randa’s name in the sixth paragraph of the story — three paragraphs earlier than what is the first, and incomplete, reference of her. So that “After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother” reads “After the parents divorced, Chris Zawahri moved out of the Yorkshire Avenue address and into a Los Angeles apartment with his mother, Randa Abdou.”

Then when readers get to “Public records indicate Abdou, 54, lives at that address” they know who Abdou is.

Even with that, readers must assume that Randa Abdou is Samir’s wife as she is not identified as such anywhere in the story.

The paragraph following the on saying that Abdou lives at the Los Angeles apartment with Chris Abdou, comes this:

“Back on Kansas Avenue, neighbors milled around snapped pictures of the burned home with their phones and recounted the shocking tragedy that rocked this tree-lined neighborhood.”

Kansas Avenue? What’s on Kansas Avenue? The house John Zawahri and his father, Samir, lived in was on Yorkshire Avenue. To this point, the story has made no mention of Kansas Avenue, so how does that street fit into this story?

Again, it isn’t until much later in the story that readers are enlightened.

“[A Yorkshire Avenue house neighbor] also saw the shooter commandeer a car and speed off west on Kansas Avenue away from the intersection of Kansas and Yorkshire avenues where Friday’s carnage began.”

Commandeered a car? A car parked on the street? A passing by? Did Zawahri kick the driver out? Get in the passenger seat and force the driver at gunpoint to take him where he wanted to go?

That sentence is preceded with the revelation that the neighbor, Tim O’Rourke, “watched the shooter fire on Debra Fine, a 50-year-old woman injured in the shooting rampage.”

Where was Debra Fine? Standing or walking on the street? In the yard or doorway of a house on the street? Driving by in a car? In the car John Zawahri commandeered? Did he push her out and shoot her before “speeding off”?

More nit-picky is use of the wrong word in the first paragraph in which the Santa Monica police chief is quoted as saying the shooting suspect was a “cowardly murder.” The news report should have said ‘murderer’ not ‘murder’. (‘Oh, well, you know what we meant’ doesn’t cut it in my book.)

If I had trouble wading through this story, I can image how confused readers who never made a living trying to ensure that news reports made sense must have been.

Perhaps I take issue with such sloppy journalism because I had a foot in two different camps at one time or another. One camp was the world of journalism, which is charged with providing clear, accurate and objectively reported news stories to the public. The other camp was the judicial, which relied on — and at times was at the mercy of — clear, accurate and objectively reported news stories to the public.

If ‘you know what we meant’ doesn’t cut it in my book, it most certainly doesn’t for those who have both feet in the legal world. Accuracy, word choice and meaning is paramount in the law and play a major part in how judges and lawyers do their jobs.

So am saying I’ve never made mistakes? Not at all. And chagrined as I feel when I learn that I have erred, I do hope to learn from it. Likewise, so can the news media learn from their less than excellent work, should they recognize or acknowledge that sometimes theirs isn’t.

Making a Right Out of a Wrong

One of the biggest bug-a-boos for journalists and people they cover is mistakes. Although I strove mightily to avoid making them during my years as a newspaper reporter and editor. They did on rare occasion creep in, despite my efforts and diligence.

Or were they really all that rare?

I thought they were and, based on response–or lack of–from subjects of my reports or of those whose stories I edited.

After I left the newspaper business for a position with the Los Angeles Superior Court as its information officer and media liaison, I was stunned by the number of errors that routinely showed up in news stories about the court, its judges and staff, court programs and cases in the court.

The lesson, I decided was that we all probably make a lot more mistakes than we realize and that unless they’re a big deal or really egregious most people don’t call attention to them.

They still stick in the craw of those who see or hear them and they diminish the credibility of the news organization.

A bill introduced in Texas a few days ago, however, not only offers a great opportunity to increase the chances that errors will be corrected, but that promises to reduce the number of lawsuits errors might spark.

Texas House Bill 1759 (HB 1759), would require a prospective plaintiff to give a publisher an opportunity to correct, clarify, or withdraw false content before filing a defamation lawsuit. http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/03/a-proposed-texas-law-would-promote-correcting-incorrect-news-online-and-off/

The request would have to be made “within a year of the publication and within 90 days of the plaintiff becoming aware of the publication,” according to a story on the Nieman Journalism Lab website.

Should the bill become law, the story goes on to say, “It will encourage subjects to contact publishers who may have gotten something wrong, encourage publishers to listen to and engage with subjects complaining of inaccuracies, and lead to corrections or clarifications in cases where a publisher determines one is necessary, which will provide the public more accurate information.”

This is a great step in the right direction, particularly given that the law would require that if a request for a correction is granted and done prominently and in a way to reasonably reach pretty much the same audience as the erroneous material, punitive damages can’t be awarded a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit.

“Argo” Essay on Public Radio

Wow! A blurb about my Iranian-experience essay tops the WUWM website news page today.
Essay: An ‘Argo’ Flashback
With ‘Argo’ poised to win Oscars, an essayist recounts her own Argo-like story.”
The essay airs today and again tomorrow at 3 p.m. on WUWM (89.7 FM and streamed on the radio station’s website — click on “Listen”) http://www.wuwm.com/

My time in, and evacuation from, Iran was a catalyst to my career in journalism and eventually writing my book “Anatomy of a Trial”. (See previous “Great Leap” blog post.)


L.A. Doings — Leno, “The Soloist” and More

Getting my book “Anatomy of a Trial” on people’s radar is taking some doing — sort of like walking around the world — one step at a time.

One step out here in Los Angeles got a pleasant boost when an NBC staffer I met after one of my presentations at my alma mater, California State University, Fullerton, on Monday asked if we (hubby’s here with me) planned to go to Jay Leno’s show. We thought that would be fun, we said. She could arrange it, she said. I told her I had sent Leno a signed copy of my book — in which he’s mentioned — a couple of months ago in appreciation for his generousity during the Simpson murder trial. He had performed a private show — monologue, band, the works — for the jurors after learning that we had to scrap the idea of having the jurors, who were sequestered, attend his show in Burbank because his production crew couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t be shown on TV. (California prohibits photographing and televising jurors.)

When the NBC staffer emailed me about the date and time she had arranged for us to attend the show, she said that after the taping we could meet Leno and give him a copy of my book.

The news yesterday that Leno had checked himself into the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well was certainly disturbing enough and we were wishing the best for him. This morning’s news that he’s OK and will be back at work was doubly good. He’s not seriously ill, number one. But it means our visit scheduled for Tuesday (28th) is still on. Tune in. Who knows, a camera sweep of the audience my catch our happy Cheesehead faces!

So the trip so far has included three presentations to university journalism media law classes — about 300 students and a number of faculty, and speaking to half-a-dozen service clubs and a journalism class at UCLA. I’ll do a couple more talks — a USC jounalism class and another service club — and do a radio interview before winging home to South Milwaukee next Thursday.

We’re also taking time for a little fun. In addition to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno next Tuesday, we’re hitting the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA on Sunday. I couldn’t cough up the $1,000 display book fee for “Anatomy” so we’re wearing our “Anatomy” tshirts and taking a supply of “Anatomy” bookmarks to give anyone we strike up a conversation with and attending a panel discussion on the “Packaging Fear: The Art of Persuasion” that includes former Cal State Fullerton jounalism professor, Nancy Snow, who is now on faculty at Syracuse University. It’ll be great to see her again. A friend here is hosting a small book-signing party Sunday evening. We’re hanging out with our son, Chapen, at a shoot of a TV program he’s working on as editor, and going to his kickball game on Monday night.

A highlight, though, was yesterday. We took the subway — yes, Los Angeles has a subway! — from where we’re staying in Hollywood Hills, to the Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown — catty-cornered, in fact, from the County Courthouse where I worked for more than a decade. I watched this fantastic Frank Gehrey creation go up — with its unique stainless steel tulip petal-shaped facades — mystified over where in the world the auditoruim would be located. (Turns out that’s literally a concrete box that was plopped own in the space provided in the middle of the structure.) Despite numerous trips to L.A. after we moved to South Milwaukee seven years ago, I had never toured the WD Concert Hall.

While on our guided tour yesterday, which consisted of four of us — Hib, me, a screenwriter who lives in Palos Verdes and our guide — our guide suddenly whispered, “Oh, do you know who that is?” We were outside in a gardened courtyard viewing a tulip petal-shaped projection and three people were approaching from the opposite direction. We said, no.

“It’s the soloist!” she said. “Nathaniel Ayres. The movie about him opens tomorrow night.”

Next thing we knew, she spoke to the man. She was so smooth, so low key. Then the four of us fell into conversation with him and his two companions, who turned out to be relatives visiting from Ohio. “He wanted to show us his city,” the woman, who was his sister-in-law, said.

The movie, “The Soloist,” is about Ayres, a classically trained musician who, because of mental illness, ended up homeless in Los Angeles where a Los Angeles Times columnist encountered him and began to write about him.

Ayres is no longer homeless. He’s living in an apartment, he said, with a leaky faucet. He told us about meeting Jamie Foxx who plays him in the movie, his reaction when he attended the premier (he wore a blindfold he said, which enabled him to focus on the music and other audio, and, he said, “it absorbed my tears.” Although he didn’t say specifically, it was obvious that the tears were of joy.

So a beneficial trip so far. Most gratifying is the reaction of the journalism students who were assigned “Anatomy of a Trial” as required reading and said it was a fascinating book, and members of service clubs where I’ve spoken who said they wished to program could have been longer.


Building …

Given a choice of journalism students to speak to, University of Nevada, Reno, has got to be right up there. Las Vegas courts information officer Michael Sommermeyer and I held forth about “Simpson Then and Now” at the university’s Journalism Week. Michael summed it up pretty well when said, the 1995 trial in Los Angeles was the trial of the century, the 2008 trial in Las Vegas was the hangover. Thanks to the UNR IT folks and Reynolds National Center for Courts and Media Director Gary Hengstler, the session was a pretty high-tech affair. It was streamed live onto the Web, it was professionally videotaped for uploading onto the University’s website, Michael Twittered about it and posted an email on the Conference of Court Public Information Officers listserv. And the journalists in training asked great questions. After high-fiving each other, Michael and I decided to take our act on the road. Now to find a sugar daddy to underwrite the show.

And therein lies the misconception of what happens when a book is published. It’s pretty frigging expensive — for the author. And I’m not talking about the self-published author. Permissions fees in the hundreds of dollars, for photographs and other copyrighted material, website development and maintenance, gift copies for people who agreed to be interviewed, book tour expenses, ads and other promotional costs? All funded by the author. In fact, given the costs, there’s little likelihood of ever even breaking even, much less ending up on the black side of the ledger. So why do it? Perhaps my fellow Missouri Press author Roy Harris whose seminal work on the Pulitzer Prize for puhlic service, Pulitizer’s Gold, was published last year, has the right attitude. The goal is to get the word out about the book.