Monthly Archives: November 2013

Test your online journalism law: 1 – the food that should have been binned

All this week I am going to be publishing examples of legal dilemmas that a journalism student might face (Read my previous post on students being publishers, and the responsibilities that come with that for the background). I’ll be using the hashtag #ojblaw throughout and live tweeting a discussion on Friday 10-12 UK time.

I hope you can comment on what a student publisher might do – and why.

Here’s the first:

Case 1: major fast food outlet selling food it should have binned

It is 4am and you are sat with a friend in a fast food chain outlet. This is a well known, global brand – you can choose either McDonalds or Burger King, because these things matter.

Your friend works for the same company, in another city. She turns to you and says:

“That food should have been thrown away two hours ago.”

She knows because she can see the timestamps on the food packaging behind the counter.

The next day you prepare to write up a news article about this.

You find some useful background: the company has published its own policy on how long food should be kept out, for example. You also have the Food Standards Agency report for the outlet (it was satisfactory).

Your headline reports just what your friend said: that the particular outlet was serving food that was hours old, and breaking its own guidelines in the process.

You have a quote from your friend, who is named, and her position as an employee of the fast food chain is mentioned. She is fine with this.

You seek a reaction from both the outlet and the fast food chain’s central office. Both refuse to comment, and you have included that in your article.

The questions

  1. What are the legal issues here – and what tests need to be met for them to be an issue?
  2. What defence could you mount?
  3. How likely is it that legal action would result?
  4. Would you publish – and why?

‘Answers’ and discussion in the comments

How to: clean up spreadsheet headings that run across multiple rows using Open Refine

Something that infuriates me often with government datasets is the promiscuous heading. This is when a spreadsheet doesn’t just have its headings across one row, but instead splits them across two, three or more rows.

To make matters worse, there are often also extra rows before the headings explaining the spreadsheet more generally. Here’s just one offender from the ONS:

A spreadsheet with promiscuous headings

A spreadsheet with promiscuous headings

To clean this up in Excel takes several steps – but Open Refine (formerly Google Refine) does this much more quickly. In this post I’m going to walk through the five minute process there that can save you unnecessary effort in Excel. Continue reading

Guest post: Student journalists are not “journalists”, they are students #Jcarn

Martin Hirst has written a thoughtful response to my post on the ‘student journalist’ title which he also offered as a guest post. I’m happy to cross-publish it here. You can see my comments on Martin’s version.

A few days ago, my English colleague Paul Bradshaw wrote a piece “There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist’” on his Online Journalism blog. He argues that there should be no distinction between journalists or students of journalism (presumably training to be employed as journalists after graduation) because they are both publishers of information and the students carry out the actions of journalists — they are effectively “doing” journalism — while they learn the skills, technologies and attitudes of the profession.

Students are experiencing first hand the culture of journalism, the experience of journalism and the social consequences of what they do. Paul writes:

There is no such thing as a ‘student journalist’.

Students of journalism no longer practise their work in the seclusion of a classroom. They do not write solely for lecturers, or even for each other.

Any student on a course with some awareness of the modern media world publishes their own blogs; their student media isaccessible around the world. They contribute to networks, and build communities.

Even if their course provides no opportunities to do any of these things, they will have Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts.

All of which means that they are publishers.

I don’t disagree with this in principle. Certainly any journalism course worthy of the name would be requiring students to participate in what I like to call “live fire” news exercises. These are usually done under close supervision. However, writing a blog as part of coursework (and for many students it is an onerous requirement of their study, rather than something they enjoy or immediately see the benefits of) is not journalism. Blogging is not journalism and I thought that debate was settled years ago. Continue reading

We’re not just teaching journalists any more – we’re teaching citizens #Jcarn

Kathy Gill has written a rather wonderful post about the public service responsibilities of journalists educated with public money. It’s worth reading in full (that summary doesn’t do it justice) – and I wanted to add my own experiences around a change in journalism education which I only realised a few years ago.

It is often overlooked when people talk about journalism and media degrees that many students realise during the course of their studies that the journalism profession is not for them.

It might be the pay (it often is the pay), the culture, the conflict between perception and reality, or simply that they discover something else they enjoy even more.

For others, the decision is a forced one: circumstances take them into another career – often, again, because the pay in journalism is not enough, either to raise a family on, or to persuade them to switch from the job they got ‘until I break into the media industry’.

All of those people may not be professional journalists, but they remain citizens, and the skills they learned in their studies are there, waiting to be activated.

When they become parents, and they have concerns about the way their child’s school is governed.

When they or their loved ones become ill, and they want to ask why they were not treated with dignity.

When their local community is under threat from development – or the lack of it.

When they or their loved ones are subject to power exercised without responsibility.

It is easy as a lecturer to mentally write off students who ‘will never make it’ in journalism as a profession. But that ignores a broader responsibility: they will always be citizens.

As a society we rely on those people to tell us their stories, to scrutinise power, to suggest the questions that might be asked, and to raise the alarm.

Martin Hirst touches on these issues in his response to my own Carnival of Journalism post, and he’s right: the have a duty of care to teach not only journalists, but citizens too.

There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist’

Learner plate image by Michael Summers

Learner plate image by Michael Summers

The Carnival of Journalism is back, and this month is looking at student media. That gives me an excuse to talk about something I seem to find myself ranting every year: “You are not student journalists”.

It’s on Twitter profiles, blog ‘about’ pages, LinkedIn profiles and business cards. And it’s an anachronism.

There is no such thing as a ‘student journalist’.

Students of journalism no longer practise their work in the seclusion of a classroom. They do not write solely for lecturers, or even for each other.

Any student on a course with some awareness of the modern media world publishes their own blogs; their student media is accessible around the world. They contribute to networks, and build communities.

Even if their course provides no opportunities to do any of these things, they will have Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts.

All of which means that they are publishers.

Ignorance is bliss?

Describing yourself as a student journalist suggests that you haven’t noticed this.

But worse, it reinforces a similar ignorance in the people you talk to as you go about your business.

These are the press officers that say “We don’t deal with student journalists” and the election officers who stop you at the doors of the count – but also the sources who say “I didn’t realise what I said was going to be published.”

Journalism students need to be honest with the latter and forceful with the former. A large part of that means making a mental shift from ‘this is just an exercise’ to ‘this is a real story with real implications’. In other words that move from ‘I am a student’ to ‘I am a journalist-publisher’.

Not just an exercise

For a start, as a publisher you have to be aware of contempt of court, libel, and copyright. This is not an option – and the number one reason you can never think your work is ‘just an exercise’.

You also have to think about syndication: who you might supply your content to. I encourage my students to work as freelancers, and often put them in touch with different news organisations depending on the story.

I set up the Birmingham Datablog as just one way of facilitating that, but the ‘teaching hospital’ model of journalism schooling can be misleading: wherever students publish they are part of the same content ecosystem as traditional publishers.

So there is no such thing as a student journalist. There are only publishers, and non-publishers. Your story can be seen by a million people, or only one – but you should always prepare for the former. As should the press officers. And your sources.

So change that Twitter biography; that About page. And take your job seriously: because if you don’t, no one else will.

UPDATE: Martin Hirst replies in a guest cross-post here.

“In my view, if we do not acknowledge the student status of our students (no, that’s not a tautology), we are not being diligent in our duty of care (the pastoral role of all teachers at all levels) to ensure that we “first do no harm”. Yes, we have to, as Paul rightly points out, engage our students in the daily routines and socialisation of newsroom practice and we have to move beyond the newsroom model too; but in doing so, we have to be constantly mindful that our pupils must be kept safe.”


This prompted Victoria Baranetsky to publish a response of her own:

“Student journalists who are not afforded the rights of citizens nor the rights of journalists must be given some protection.  Thus, it is important we acknowledge their actions may transcend their status – whatever it may be.”