I’m pleased (if belated) to announce that two of my photos have been on display in the Behind the Lens photography exhibit in Ellisville, Mo. for the last few days.
I’m not sure how much longer the exhibit continues, so if you’re in the area, you might check before stopping by. (No, I didn’t win the contest.)
Gator Stare was taken toward the end of the shoot at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Smiley here was waiting for me and perfectly reflected in the stillness of the water around him. I thought this one turned out remarkably well considering I had to adjust for shooting through glass, a task at which I am not always successful.
(What, actually get that close to an alligator, no matter how small? I love y’all, but no. I like my hands more.)
I’m not sure why I was in an animal mood when I submitted to Behind the Lens, but somehow I ended up picking my few animal shots. This pigeon accompanied me to the top of the Empire State Building in 2013, when I was on a whirlwind tour of New York City with my dear friend Keith DeCandido and his wife Wrenn. This is the view from the top of the Empire State looking toward Central Park, and for some reason, it really wanted to be in black and white.
My friend the pigeon seemed to follow me around, as if showing off his city. Yes, tourist, this is my town. I only had 24 hours in New York on the Furlough Tour for my one signing, but I’ve always meant to go back when I could spend some more time.
For more of my photography, please visit elizabethdonaldphotography.com. Most images can be custom-ordered in any print size or style, except some of the images shot for news photography. Also: I will have a selection of prints available at the Melting Pot festival in Granite City, Ill. this Saturday.
Note: I have finally remembered to update my Contently site with more samples of my work. I try to keep it at no more than 100 clips, a sampling of my various nonfiction works. Click the link to see more.
There are so many things wrong with the phrase above, and we see it constantly in coverage of sexual assault cases… but only sexual assault cases.
It’s been one of my pet peeves for many years, but it came to mind today because of a Boston Globe piece about the ongoing Kevin Spacey investigation. The latest story digs into court filings on Spacey’s indecent assault charges, alleging he fondled a then-18-year-old busboy against his will.
The piece was already questionable, since it detailed every. single. text. sent by this teenage boy to his girlfriend during the incident. The context of the texts will likely be debated in court, but I’m not sure that we needed the entire conversation as a recounting of every move during the incident. The Spacey case is important because the actor is a public figure and because the allegations against him blew up the #metoo discussion and highlighted the fact that sexual harassment and assault isn’t just something that men do to women.
The writer has gone to great lengths to avoid naming the young man – as is appropriate – and then listed family connections that ostensibly identify him anyway. That essentially defeats the purpose of shielding victims, as recommended in the SPJ Code of Ethics.
A tweet circulating this morning alleged that one of the young man’s texts was actually published as a dancing GIF. I do not see that in the current version, and if it was created by the newspaper, that would be wholly inappropriate.
But my real issue is with the phrase “alleged victim,” which is constantly used by all branches of the news business and needs to die. The initial filing of this story included the phrase multiple times, and in the time it took me to write this blog entry, it has now been edited to change the phrasing to “accuser.” We’re still going to talk about it.
First: “alleged” is a coverall term we slap onto anything we think might get us sued. It’s useful, to be sure, but why is it that only sexual assault victims are “alleged victims”? No one is an alleged burglary victim, for example. The presumption is that the crime occurred for every other personal crime except sexual assault, where the burden of proof inexplicably falls on the victim.
In our effort to create a phrase that shields the victim’s identity while not presuming guilt, we have created a phrase that does exactly the opposite.
I’m hardly the first to say this. The late great Steve Buttry wrote about it in 2012, and his essay is now linked to this issue on the SPJ Code of Ethics as he details far better than I the linguistic issues with “alleged victim” as a “blame the victim” term that needed to go away. He made the excellent point that it’s lawyers telling us to say “alleged victim” out of terror of lawsuits if the trial ends with a not guilty. But there are other ways to cover our collective rear ends without casting doubt on the allegations before they even take the stand.
The word “victim” is problematic as well. In interviewing many people who have been subject to sexual violence, “victim” is generally an unpopular word that removes their agency. I have generally found that they prefer the term survivor, which is appropriate for a piece written after verdict. But then there’s that pesky presumption of innocence. I’m not overly fond of “the accuser,” although it is technically accurate and Buttry prefers it; it carries a presumption of vindictiveness on the part of the subject, and of skepticism on the part of the writer.
What’s the solution? Quit being lazy and rewrite your story. Restructure the sentence, kick out the words “alleged” and “victim” both. “The young man told the court that the phone has been misplaced,” beats the hell out of “The alleged victim said he lost the phone.” See how the latter changes the entire meaning of the sentence to sound as though he’s lying?
These are tricky issues and difficult stories to write, and I’m sorry to spotlight one story by the Boston Globe when this particular sin is so widespread. In fact, for this specific story, it appears in the headlines of the Chicago Tribune, ABC and Vanity Fair. CNN, Fox News and USA Today went with “accuser.”
Buttry made the best point of all: “Don’t start whining ‘political correctness’ about this. That’s a name-calling phrase people use in an attempt to shut down discussion and skew arguments in their favor. This is about accuracy and if you don’t care about accuracy, I don’t care what you have to say.”
As I have told my students many times and will continue to shout until they haul me away: more than any other profession, journalists must recognize the immense power of words. Language is the most powerful tool we have, and we must never use it lightly. The words we use form the public’s impression of the issue we cover and the people whose lives hang in the balance, and that is a responsibility we cannot shirk, no matter how tight the deadline.
One of the weird things about being a freelancer is that you never quite know when your work will run, and when it does, you aren’t always able to snag a link. However, as you know, I’m working for a lot of local, regional and national publications as a reporter, editor and photographer (and available for more!).
On the Patreon: a photo essay on the Sauer Castle in Kansas City, which I shot several months ago; and a short essay titled “Full Circle” about returning to student journalism after 22 years as a pro. Subscribe!
It was an experiment, and I think it was profoundly successful.
In January, I covered my office door in Magnetic Poetry. These are the little word magnets you’ve seen many times online and never bought. I received a few for Christmas – “Coffee,” “Book Lover,” “Photographer” and “Nasty Woman.” One of my fellow grad students said it looked like a shotgun blast of words.
And then I left them there.
My office door is on the lower level of the building, which houses mass communications, music and theater students. Many of them walk past my door to leave the building, especially those escaping the music practice rooms and the radio station.
All semester, random poems would appear on my door. The students (and teachers and staff, most likely) would rearrange the words on my door to create the most interesting, bizarre and unusual conglomerations of language.
I was warned it would backfire, that immature idiots would put up dirty limericks and someone would make me take it down. I put my faith in the kids, and for the most part, I was right. (I did remove a couple of words from the “Nasty Woman” set to avoid temptation.)
Each week, I collected the best samples and shared them with my Patreon. (See, I keep telling you the best stuff is on the Patreon. You should subscribe!) But here are a few highlights from this semester, as we move into the quiet of summer.
It was the highlight of my day each time I came to my office and saw a new poem left for me by the Door Poets. I intend to keep adding to my word-shotgun and exploring what else they might have for me.
There’s a wry variation on Martin Niemoller’s famous poem circulating: “First they came for the journalists, and I did not speak up, because I was not a journalist. We don’t know what happened after that.”
It’s not a fair analogy, of course. But it underscores the point: the only reason anyone knows what really happened today is because someone covered it. Without acts of journalism, you have only to rely on government press releases to know what’s happening and why. That goes for big things like “going to war,” and little things like, “my water rates are going up.”
If you’re reading this, I hope I don’t have to convince you of the importance of journalism. If, however, you still have doubts, I hope you will look just at the list of Pulitzer finalists released earlier this week, and click the links through to see some of the amazing and powerful work being done by journalists today.
So today is the SPJ Day of Giving, and I have personally donated. Usually I direct my donation to the Terry Harper Scholarship Fund, which funded my attendance at the 2010 Excellence in Journalism Conference. By the end of that conference, I had been nominated to the national Ethics Committee, and I continue to serve today. It is one of the greatest privileges of my career to serve the committee and SPJ, and it would not have been possible without the Harper Fellowship.
Today, however, I directed my donation to be used for whatever the Society’s most crucial need might be. The folks working at national are coping with staggering issues in our profession, from vast changes in infrastructure and methods that continually create new challenges for working journalists, to mass layoffs that erode confidence among the survivors and a shrinking membership, to an increasingly hostile public that seems to believe we are its enemy. I can’t imagine which of its many missions is most in need of support right now, so I hope they use my meager donation for the best cause.
Things that make me #SPJProud:
The sheer number of scholarships, fellowships, internships and other financial support offered to students and members.
The Legal Defense Fund provides direct assistance to small news organizations, freelancers and others in their efforts to fight government encroachment on the First Amendment and for open records and transparency.
The training and webinars provide much-needed skills development and reinforcement for members who are increasingly being left without training by their newsrooms.
The support, practical and otherwise, for journalists who have been laid off and must now find work and/or retraining.
The advocacy in Washington and elsewhere to defend the profession against increasingly virulent threats, whether that is in discourse, in the courtroom, or in danger of physical harm.
The accountability for our own profession, for advocating diversity in the newsroom and combating sexual harassment and unethical behavior, even when pointing out those transgressions could damage the rest of us.
And so, so much more. SPJ has given me so many opportunities for my career, far beyond that which I could have achieved alone. I have met some of the finest journalists in the country through SPJ, and I am proud to call them colleagues. I am proud to serve as president of St. Louis Pro, and to help my local colleagues through all the crises they face covering our fine city and region. I am proud to be a journalist, and to stand up for what it represents: voice to the voiceless, a challenge to the powerful.
I hope that if you are a journalist, you will consider joining SPJ, if you have not already done so. Give us a year to figure out if our resources are of use to you, and tell us what we aren’t offering so we can address it.
And I hope that if you support the First Amendment and want to see independent news informing you of what’s happening in your community and the nation and the world, you will consider donating to SPJ, either for the defense fund or the SDX advocacy funds such as Legal Defense.
It’s awards season in journalism-land, and I’m delighted to announce that one of the last major pieces I wrote at the Belleville News-Democrat has won a significant award.
Co-written with Alexis Cortes, the story was a year-long examination of mental health and suicide prevention among teenagers. It actually began life as a rumor that teen suicide had skyrocketed at a local school district, and after close examination, it turned out that wasn’t statistically true. But it sparked our interest in a subject often swept under the rug because of the massive misconceptions and stigma attached to mental illness, particularly among young people.
Around that time the TV series 13 Reasons Why came out, with a great deal of controversy about how the subject was handled. As we spoke to experts, it seems the people creating that series asked mental health professionals and advocates how to carefully and sensibly handle the issue of teen suicide… and basically did exactly the opposite of what psychologists recommend.
So we decided to look at the issue itself, and do it right, though I don’t think we realized it would take until the second season’s premiere to publish.
I think it’s fair to say that Alexis and I spent nearly as much time figuring out how to report this subject as we did actually reporting it. We interviewed survivors, family members, teachers, psychologists, social workers, school officials… and at the end of every interview, we asked them, “How do you recommend we cover this subject without causing harm?” We studied the language choices recommended by psychologists to be respectful and responsible without engaging in hyperbole or romanticizing the subject.
Suicide contagion is a real thing, and both Alexis and I were committed that we would rather not cover the story at all than do it wrong and tip someone over the edge.
We wrote a main story that began with a survivor’s narrative, focusing on her recovery and a look insider her mind. This was a deliberate choice after talking with psychologists: focus on survivors rather than the grieving, distraught families of those who died by suicide. The former approach helps those in crisis see that there is a way back; the latter tends to push them off the edge.
We covered national and local stats, efforts by schools to help teens in crisis, the controversy around the show, social stigmas, treatment options, what makes depression different in teens and young people, warning signs for parents and educators, and more.
We also did a sidebar listing all the mental health options in our coverage counties, from counseling clinics to inpatient facilities; a list of myths debunked and symptoms for which to watch; and a narrative of a day-long seminar in addressing mental illness in the classroom for area educators. I sat with them all day, taking the same training they took.
During that time there was a reorganization at the newspaper, and I was shifted to a new beat. This was part of the long delay in publishing, as well as the general crazy of daily news that tends to shove major projects to the back burner. However, I was permitted to stay on the project, for which I remain exceedingly grateful.
We also created an internal plan for how to handle the release, which we developed in concert with the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the SPJ Ethics Committee members and ReportingOnSuicide.org, a cooperative effort of nine journalism organizations to maintain and improve best practices in reporting and writing about mental illness.
Every story included paragraphs reminding readers that help was available and offering the national suicide prevention hotline. As per the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the first comment on each part of the package was another post of the hotline, and the staff was instructed to carefully monitor the comments in case someone in crisis was posting.
I can’t speak for Alexis, but I think I was never so nervous about any story I’ve reported than this one, including physically-dangerous situations or controversial investigations. It’s not often that the words you choose and the approach you take could literally kill someone. We both poured over every word before we even sent it over to the editors, who also treated it with great caution. It needed to be done right, or not at all.
It was a difficult but rewarding experience, and I remain exceedingly proud of the final product. I was doing mostly crime and spot news by that point, so unless my memory fails me, it was the last major story I wrote at the BND. It ran in May 2018; I left in July.
So it was with no small delight that I received a message from my former partner last week informing me that we had won first place for community service journalism from the Illinois Press Association. In fact, the News-Democrat swept that category, winning all four awards.
Nobody does the job for awards – or, if you do, it’s time to hang it up, because you have forgotten that we are first and foremost servants of the public. And, to be honest, I was more often a toiler in the vineyard, shoveling fuel into the furnace of daily news and not often on those extensive, major projects that tend to catch the eye of the major awards.
But the real value in awards attention is to encourage this kind of in-depth reporting that is too easy to hand-wave in the era of clicks. There are ways to feed the daily beast and also do serious, intensive work, but it takes the dedication of capable staff and the commitment of responsible editors, with an eye to ethics and experts. It’s what we should be doing, and if it wins an award, maybe it will encourage others to give that kind of coverage a try.
I am happy to report that the annual edition of the River Bluff Review has been published, which includes one of my photographs.
My photography has been sold many times to individual people, won minor awards, licensed as book covers, and provides the context of essays and travelogues for my Patreon. But this is the first time it’s been chosen for publication by a literary journal. The program is managed by students at SIUE, and is very selective; the short story I submitted was not selected, even though my photograph was.
The photo they chose is titled “Silent Cell,” and I shot it while visiting the Missouri State Penitentiary in Missouri. Somehow I seem to have forgotten to write up this visit, and I could have sworn I did so, but cannot find a sign of it in any of my various blogs. It was an interesting experience, full of history and more than a little darkness – the penitentiary was one of the few places where executions were carried out, and the gas chamber is part of the tour. It is also the place where James Earl Ray was incarcerated before he escaped, and while on the lam, he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King.
I took a great number of photos, trying to compensate for very difficult lighting. This is the one River Bluff Review chose:
I am honored to be in fine company, and hope the annual edition does well. The River Bluff Review is not available online as far as I know, but I think it can be purchased through the English Department of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.