Pajama ethics: bear in mind these 4 principles when doing desktop-based reporting
Copyright 2022 by Online Journalism Blog
“Pajama Journalism”—reports you can do in nightclothes on a computer, without going anywhere or talking to anyone—should not define online news, but the practice is widespread. In a special guest post, Michael Bugeja argues that following just four basic principles of reporting can help improve this form of journalism.
The Internet greatly enhances the ability to assemble a story in record time, using information from social media, blogs and databanks. But while this expansion of access has opened up new prospects for reporting, and increased productivity — it also brings risks to credibility.
The rise of “PJ Journalism” is due to multiple factors. Reporters work in downsized newsrooms with scant travel budgets, if any, and are evaluated by productivity levels. Recently isolation due to COVID-19 has added a further reason for remaining indoors rather than onsite.
This is not to say that “PJ Journalism” is inherently bad, if you view the digital world as having its own reality apart from the physical world. Stories about the Dark Web would be one extreme example of this, but you could also argue that newsworthy statements and discussions which would have previously taken place in the physical world now increasingly take place entirely on social media and other virtual spaces.
I teach media ethics at Iowa State University and decided last month to do a session on “PJ Journalism” to illustrate shortcomings in rushed reports — and how to avoid those.
There are four key dangers that the pajama journalist faces:
- Linking issues, failing to cite source content or point to original documents.
- Missed opportunities, failing to contact sources for additional information.
- Due diligence, failing to note if officials or organizations had been contacted to respond to content.
- False impressions, implying the writer was onsite at an incident or event.
Here’s how those dangers can be avoided — demonstrated through deconstructing a CNN article by Theresa Waldrop, titled “Washington State head football coach ousted after refusing Covid-19 vaccine”. It concerns the firing of WSU’s head football coach, Nick Rolovich, and four assistant coaches who failed to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
1: Link to your sources – or risk misleading the reader
If you are going to use a computer to assemble content, you owe it to viewers to provide links to original content.
This digital standard was missing in a few instances in our example article.
The lead and following paragraphs use the attribution “said” in reference to a news release, rather than “stated” or “noted” — the preferred terms when you cite an inanimate object, such as an athletic department or news release.
Worse, no link was provided to the news release.
No links are provided either for “a statement” (fifth paragraph), Rolovich’s hiring on Jan. 14, 2020 (accessible here), and while a link is included in the sentence “Earlier Monday, the National Hockey League announced that Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks has been suspended,” that link opens to another CNN report, not the NHL announcement, which I found here.
The article does include some links: a link is provided for Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation requiring full vaccinations for state employees. And a link was provided for his salary.
But here’s where we hit the second item on our checklist…
2: Missed opportunities for contact
The reporter might have contacted the governor for a quote about Rolovich’s firing. But she leaves it at that.
There’s another missed opportunity for contact when the article references a Twitter statement by Rolovich in which he states that he is not getting the vaccine for “private” reasons.
It ends, “I will not comment further on my decision” – but things change, and a good reporter should check if the person is still refusing to comment or if they have new things to say — as turns out to be the case in this story…
3: Due diligence
He posted that statement on Twitter on July 21, 2021. And he would comment further—initially not whether he got the vaccine—but about his decision not to comment, as in this article in the Spokesman-Review.
Rolovich did confirm why he is not getting the vaccine—a fact omitted from Waldrop’s post. USA Today reported on Oct. 9 that he was seeking a religious exemption.
That disclosure would have made the Waldrop report more substantive. So would have a quote from a lawyer or theologian.
4: Avoid false impressions
A more serious omission comes in the last five paragraphs, featuring quotes from Rolovich about his situation: no link is provided, implying the reporter was at the postgame interview where those comments were made.
This is an unintentional oversight, but everyday viewers might not realize that.
You can hear the Rolovich quotes in this YouTube video of that news conference.
Embedding the video would have not only avoided this — it would have provided a more valuable and engaging article, potentially increasing the amount of time readers spent on the story.
All too often these lapses are found in reports by cable news sites disseminated by wire services and reaching multitudes. Little is added by way of context—including whether additional information might be forthcoming—and then updating accordingly. Quotations are lifted from news conferences or on-site interviews without reference to source material, as if the writer was at the scene.
Basic standards that make reporting better
It’s important to note that Waldrop’s piece does contain information that viewers would have considered newsworthy. Again, my intent is to show how attention to basic standards—linking, additional information, updates and context—could have enhanced her article.
That used to be the task of copyeditors, eliminated in typical newsrooms. The onus now is on the reporter, which makes this discussion particularly vital.
Instant digital access allows reporters to keep pace with rapidly occurring developments. But the danger here is relying too much on access without the reporting. Eventually, that affects credibility—not only of the outlet but of the platform itself.
In a recent piece for Poynter, I wrote how Americans can’t tell the difference between fact and factoid, assigning political labels to news outlets based on columnists rather than reporters.
I argued for new standards to label opinion and, in some cases, require subscribers to opt-in to get them in newsletters.
Online editors and producers need to rethink what is becoming conventional practice—hurried reports without substantive context or updated information—that parades as quality journalism and is re-distributed as such.
Keep in mind that viewers (not to mention the competition) also question such reports, especially if content seems political, divisive or controversial. That’s when posts can be called out, often by what they omit as opposed to what they state.
We can apply higher standards with links to original content; additional quotations via phone, email or text; notations about whether new information is forthcoming and when; and transparency, attribution and links to actual conversations, without any semblance that a reporter was on the spot.
These simple practices will build trust and add value, especially since links to original content help SEO for an outlet. Moreover, updated information will be re-tweeted and shared, again enhancing credibility.
In the end, standards aside, rushed journalism is still news to many. But we are advocating here for reports that have an extra dimension. A few hours to contact sources via text, email or phone call is not too much to ask. Neither is a bit more effort to verify data or add context.
The public deserves better, and we can easily provide it with online tools.