October 30, 2007

Good story but still missing the point

This is what we call a teaching moment.

Below is a story from Hong Kong about how the Hong Kong people are not getting fired up about hosting the 2008 equestrian Olympic events. (Hong Kong has better health standards than China so the Olympic Committee forced China to put the horse events in Hong Kong.)

Everyone figured that because Hong Kong people like horse racing so much they would love to have the Olympic equestrian events. (FYI: More money is wagered on the races during a busy Sunday in Hong Kong than is wagered all year at the US tracks.)

Everything in the story is accurate. But the reporter misses the essential point: The Hong Kong people like the horse races because they can lay bets on the event.

No betting. No interest.

As I keep telling my students, CONTEXT! Get the background and the events that make the news understandable.

This reporter missed the key aspect of gambling that would have made the story more understandable.

Hong Kong's Olympic spirit lacking for horse events
by Lynne O'Donnell
Mon Oct 29, 10:58 PM ET

As one of the world's premier racing cities, Hong Kong knows a thing or two about horses but is struggling to generate interest in the equestrian events it will host as part of the 2008 Beijing Games.

With fewer than 300 days to go before the equestrian world's elite descend on the city for 12 days of competition, there is little sign that the Olympic spirit is taking hold.

"I really have no interest in the Olympic horse events," said a taxi driver surnamed Chan, adding he preferred mahjong.

Throw in concerns over summer heat and the city's choking pollution, and it is clear that organisers have a job on their hands to stoke up some enthusiasm.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), which is bankrolling preparations for the events, marked the 300-day countdown on October 13 with cocktails for city grandees, a harbourside fireworks display and a light show at its Happy Valley headquarters - all of which rated little mention in local newspapers.

Legislator Tommy Cheung Yu-yan has expressed concern about the "lukewarm" response to the Games generally, while Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing said public education campaigns are planned.

A recent series of international horse shows at newly completed facilities in the rural New
Territories have been sparsely attended despite free entry.

Between August 9-20 next year, six equestrian events will be staged - team and individual events in dressage, jumping and eventing, which is an integrated competition of dressage, jumping and cross-country riding.

Christopher Yip, media manager of the local division of the Beijing Organising Committee of the

Olympic Games (BOCOG), said 225 horses and contingents including riders, grooms and vets totalling around 2,000 people were expected.

Organisers were planning for a total of 18,000 spectators per day, he added.

But Yip said it had become evident that organisers need to generate public interest in equestrianism in a city where a tiny fraction of the population regularly ride, and where only the very wealthy can afford the staggering overheads.

Of Hong Kong's seven million population, the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation estimates there are just 1,000-1,500 riders.

"Perhaps if I understood how it all worked, then I'd be interested," said an office worker in the downtown Wanchai district.

"Like volleyball, if I know the rules then I can follow the game. But with the horse events, I don't. No one does."

Hong Kong may have a challenge on its hands but it is in a better position than Beijing to host the events.

China's lack of a quarantine protocol and the prevalence of more than a dozen equine diseases meant BOCOG had little choice but to outsource the equestrian events, said John Ridley, HKJC's head of racing operations.

However, with little tradition of equestrian sports outside of horse racing, Hong Kong had no facilities for hosting the Games events when it was asked by Beijing to take them on.

As one of the world's richest and most powerful thoroughbred racing clubs, the HKJC could handle logistical demands of bringing in hundreds of top-grade horses, but was "going from kindergarten to doing a PhD" in making the leap to hosting Olympic events, he said.

The club stumped up 800 million Hong Kong dollars (100 million US) to renovate existing venues and build new ones, Ridley said, adding that most will revert to HKJC control after the Games to the delight of local trainers.

A trial event in August, involving 17 international and 20 local competitors - described by Ridley as "two-star riders and horses" - uncovered problems which have raised concerns among some potential participants.

Chief among concerns are the searing sub-tropical heat of a Hong Kong August, with temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity of up to 90 percent, plus the thick pollution that drifts over the border from southern China's manufacturing belt.

"It's like going into a sauna with your clothes on and then being asked to ride a horse that's sweating up like it has got a jumper on its back," Britain's Daily Mail newspaper quoted Paralympic rider Lee Pearson as telling Zara Phillips, reigning three day event world champion and granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

"Why do they pick these places?" Phillips, who is expected to compete next year, was quoted as responding. "It's the same for the athletes as well. I mean, why do they do it?"

Ridley said no horses became "distressed" because of the heat during the trial event - which was delayed a day by a typhoon - but plans have been modified to ensure the animals are properly cooled during the Olympics.

October 25, 2007

Census Bureau database demonstration - Thurs, Nov. 1

Thursday, Nov. 1 I have a statistician coming in from the Census Bureau to show my 370 Feature Writing students how to mine the depths of the bureau’s web site.

This will be a hands-on presentation with the classroom computers.

I have a few available seats – maybe 8 or so – for visiting students/faculty.

The session will begin about 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 1 in Innovation Hall, room 328.

Please let me know at dkubiske@gmu.edu if you or your students are interested in attending.

Last year I had a Census guy in and his dog and pony show was spectacular. The students learned a whole lot more about how to get information for stories in that one hour than I could have told/showed them.

October 17, 2007

Short sighted Florida paper shuts down foreign reporting

I am trying to think of all the ways to curse and condemn the publisher of the Sun-Sentinel of south Florida.

In a move of extreme stupidity and sand-in-the-head thinking, the publisher closed the entire international/foreign desk operations of his paper.

The link below is from a blog at the free area paper.


At a time when our political, economic, and social structure is becoming more and more linked with the rest of the world, this publisher is sticking his head in the sand and asking his readers to join him.

The issue has never been "Americans don't care about reporting from other countries." Rather it has been "Americans don't understand why something happening in another country is relevant."

Finding relevance and context to stories is the job of journalists.

It is not hard to find links between political or economic developments in other countries and the States. (And I mean something other than wars, revolutions, migration and natural disasters.)

For the first quarter of this year Florida exports were worth $10.5 billion. Last year's exports were at $38 billion.

I guess this large percentage of the Florida economy doesn't count.

I do not argue that every newspaper needs to have foreign bureaus but they should have an editor who looks out for the international news and how it relates to the local audience.

The Sun-Sentinel is making the same mistake so many others who pull back from international reporting make. It's not that people don't like to read news from overseas, it's that they don't like to read poorly written stories that have no relevance to them.

Just dropping in an AP or Reuters story about a mudslide in Colombia means nothing to most readers in the States. But the expropriation by a government of the property of a company with headquarters in the area should -- and does -- mean something to local readers.

Too bad the readers of the Sun-Sentinel will never know what is going on in the world if they stay with just that paper.

October 5, 2007

How do you get to things online?

A new study eeports that online users are increasingly using search engines to find things rather than going through the front door of websites.
Also, social recommendations continue to grow in importance.
According to the sudy, more than 85 percent of people polled use the "most popular" links on sites to decide what to look at -- that sounds like collective gatekeepers replacing traditional gatekeepers -- and more than 55 percent make purchase decisions based on user reviews.

October 1, 2007

How's that objectivity thing work again?

Great piece on keeping opinions out of stories despite personal preferences or beliefs.


Loosening those lips

Tips from the Committee of Concerned Journalists on interviewing.


I am posting this on my class web page.


Define "secure"

Secure the Building
Robert L. Bateman, CCJ Contributing Writer, September 12, 2007

Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Bateman is currently stationed in Washington, D.C. He was a Military Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and has authored two books: "Digital War, A View from the Front Lines" [1] (Presidio: 1999) and "No Gun Ri, A Military History of the Korean War Incident" [2] (Stackpole, 2002). These opinions are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Government or the Armed Forces.

Although it is not easy to tell, there is a significant difference between a translator and an interpreter. In Iraq, those differences are crucial, though I cede that our troops use the words interchangeably. The real difference is that while both types of people speak two languages, one of them is fluent in two cultures as well. Thus, a translator can convert your English words into Iraqi Arabic, but because he may not quite understand either your unstated sub-text, or the historical and cultural context of the listener, your precisely translated words may unintentionally send exactly the wrong message.

An interpreter, on the other hand, is a jewel. He knows you, he knows American culture and history, but he is also intimately familiar with the host country. He understands that when you make a reference to, say, our main heavy artillery piece (which is called the “Paladin”) that he better not use the direct Arabic translation of that word, which might as well be a synonym for “Holy Christian Crusader,” because that would send exactly the wrong message. Instead, he interprets what you mean to say, and puts that in the proper context. He does the same in reverse for you. A good interpreter is worth his weight in gold.

For all intents and purposes, it may be better for journalists to consider themselves “interpreters” rather than reporters. A good journalist does not merely transcribe, he understands the broader context of what he is seeing and hearing and explains that in the context proper for his audience to understand what happened. Local reporters and editors do this all the time, using the AP feed to develop a story for their local audiences. But even then the process is not simple, though the best of you make it look that way. It is even more difficult the more dissimilar the two groups, those being written about and those who will read the story, are from each other. It is nearly an impossible task to accomplish well if the journalist is not even aware that there is a difference in cultures at play.

Now every self-selecting profession has a special language all its own. Physicians and surgeons, lawyers and police, all are specialized and most periodically get frustrated when a journalist gets the details wrong. The normal journalistic response, and I have heard this dozens of times over the years, is generally dismissive. Along the lines of “all specialists complain when you get the slightest little detail wrong, but they’re missing the big picture, the story overall was about X...”

In my profession, of course, bad reporting, even of those details, can have somewhat more serious consequences. When one misreports a story of a new medical procedure for gall-bladder operations, you might annoy the subject of the story and lose some credibility with the handful of physicians who can spot the mistakes. When one misreports a story on the military, the results can be much more traumatic. Moreover, there are an estimated 27 million veterans in the U.S., who will usually find the "Snafu." Which brings us back to cultures, sub-cultures, and the importance of knowing what you are seeing.

The military is not monolithic. Just as there are in Al Anbar province, Iraq, in the U.S. military there are major tribes, sub-tribes, and even sub-sub tribes. Each has a culture which generally adheres to the outlines of the larger culture, but which is still unique. Doing journalism with multiple tribes means understanding those differences. If one does not, they run the risk of misinterpreting what they are seeing and hearing. The simplest way to explain this is in the form of a joke, the idea of which depends upon the idea that each of the services hears the word “secure” to mean different things.

If you tell a Marine officer to “secure the building,” but give him no more instruction, he will plan an assault. His troops will come in from two perpendicular directions, preceded by mortar and artillery fire, with F-18s flying close air support overhead. They will rain destruction on the structure, and then under the concealment of smoke, move into the building with two platoons, clearing each room of the building with grenades and bursts of small arms fire. When every room has been cleared they will go to the roof and raise a flag. Then the Marine officer will return and declare that the building has been secured.

If you tell an Army officer to “secure the building,” he will lead his men to the building, they will enter it and start knocking out the windows. Filling each opening with sandbags, they will surround the structure with barbed wire and claymores (these are directional command detonated mines). He will personally emplace his machineguns in the best locations to cover the “likely avenues of enemy approach,” and after 24 hours the structure will be fit to hold off an attack from a force three times the size of the Army unit inside. He will then report that the building has been secured.

If you tell a Navy officer to “secure the building,” he shuts down the computers, spins the dial on the lock of the file cabinet, turns off the lights and locks the front door.

If you tell an Air Force officer to “secure the building,” he looks it up on Google Maps, gets his contracting agent, and heads down to the local real estate agent where he takes out a 20 year lease with an option to buy.

(Somewhat obviously, this joke is retold mostly by the Army and Marines.)

The differences, subtle and not-so-subtle, take some time to discern. Experience is the only obvious corrective, though CCJ contributor Ed Offley has published a book which goes a long way towards helping the interested journalist navigate the pinnacles and pitfalls of covering the military. His 2001 book Pen and Sword, A Journalist’s Guide to Covering the Military is a de facto “How To” manual which is about the best single source for a journalist just starting on the military beat, or even one assigned to a single military story.