Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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From the Newsroom: News is a learning experience

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

They say you are never too old to learn. I think I have learned a couple of lessons this week:

  • Never go on a relaxing two-week vacation and then come back to work after you’ve given three of your editors the week off.
  • Never believe what you read on social media.

I got through the absences thanks to the help of Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop, Assistant News Editor Colleen Keller and others. But it’s been hectic compared with the relaxing two-week cruise through the Panama Canal that I completed Sunday in San Francisco.

The cruise was actually the subject of social media speculation and outright falsehoods. It was a great cruise. But there were a couple of issues. A few days into the cruise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved the ship, Caribbean Princess, from “yellow” to “orange” status, indicating an increase of COVID-19 cases onboard. Passengers received KN-95 masks in their cabins, with instructions to wear them indoors except when eating or drinking. (Masks had been optional and recommended in more crowded venues, such as the theater.) And there were some apparent plumbing problems, which didn’t strike me as unusual, because the purpose of the cruise was to take the 18-year-old ship to the repair yard for a two-week refit.

But social media soon had us at contagion level with COVID-19. One post, which cited no source, claimed several hundred passengers were sick. (Based on my observation, I strongly doubt that.) And there was more misinformation when the ship canceled a Vancouver, B.C., call in order to get to the Portland repair yard earlier, and several local cruise buffs photographed it in the Columbia River “passing Vancouver.”

I am always skeptical of social media, and what I read makes me even more so.

War coverage

I had hoped that while I was gone there would be some sort of cease-fire in the Russia-Ukraine war, but it just got worse. On Monday, when Russian troops began pulling out of the area around Kyiv, many graphic photographs emerged of dead civilians. They are important photographs, as they show the consequences of what to me seems like the evil decisions of a criminal mind. But do our print readers want to see them? Should they see them?

We talked about it as a group of editors. We wanted to convey the damage and despair. Finally, we decided on an image of a Bucha woman, on her knees, mourning the death of her husband. The secondary images included a dog walking through the ruins, and a third showed a street full of destroyed Russian tanks. None showed bodies, but I think they successfully conveyed the message of destruction.

It’s possible that we may show photos of dead bodies in future editions as the war rages. If we make that decision, it will be deliberate.

New technologies

Newspapers are probably the oldest mass communications technology still in use today. But we have some new things going on.

Next week, our web editor, Amy Libby, is leading a breakout discussion at a conference looking at how newspapers can leverage artificial intelligence to do time-consuming jobs, such as transcribing interviews. Although we are hardly a leader in AI, we’ve been taking part in a national study organized by the Associated Press. I think there is some promise in this line, though I hope computers never replace journalists.

We’re also part of an initiative led by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University that provides us with advanced analytical tools that can help us more effectively target new customers and retain existing subscribers. From the newsroom perspective, it’s interesting because we can tell what stories subscribers are reading and what stories make visitors to our site more likely to subscribe. We’re just getting started with this.

Once again, we don’t want software to do our work for us. We’ll use our best news judgment as we do our jobs. But if we can use technology to do them better, that benefits both me and you.

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