Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Beautiful Struggle”

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in a household of tough love. Living in West Baltimore in the ’80s, as a kid he was scared of his neighbors, and perhaps even more scared of his father. In Coates’ memoir ” The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood,” he tells the story of his youth, focusing on his transition from high school to college and the experiences his father taught him about becoming a man.

Coates’ story is a triumphant coming-of-age narrative. He writes fluidly and casually, befriending his audience and delivering a raw account of his experiences as a struggling black student. His father was a Black Panther, a Vietnam veteran, and Coates’ toughest critic. Coates’ recounts a violent altercation from when he was 9 years old; another boy at school took his first set of house keys and in turn he got a beating.

“He was standing in the living room, off from work, always off from work at the most awful times,” Coates writes. “House keys seem small, but to my father they embodied everything about me that could someday get me killed.”

Ultimately, Coates determines that his father “saw childhood as preparation for adulthood,”  and unfortunately used violence as a toughening method. Physical and verbal assault is a recurring theme of Coates’ memoir as he recalls instances of violence involving his brother Big Bill who had more or less adopted his father’s impulses. Involved in a shooting incident on Howard University’s campus over the possible infidelity of one of his friend’s girlfriends, Bill’s rage was a problem for both himself and his family.

Growing up around violence in an impoverished neighborhood, Coates’ first-hand experiences have shaped his knowledge of socioeconomics, and is in turn able to make some fascinating and important arguments about race and the history of violence within the black community and versus the white community. His award-winning piece “The Case for Reparations,” is a tremendously thorough analytical and anecdotal timeline of the struggles of the black community, and Coates’ educates his readers beautifully. He uses his story to relate to those with similar stories, and puts them together along with historical and statistical information to produce a truly groundbreaking, narratively encyclopedic analysis.

In discussing violence in the black community, Coates interviewed an activist in the Black Panther Party named Billy Lamar Brooks Sr. Brooks. Brooks works in North Lawndale, a neighborhood in Chicago which is 92 percent black and fourty-three percent below the poverty line. North Lawndale has triple the homicide rate and twice the infant-mortality rate than Chicago as a whole.

“If you got a nice house, you live in a nice neighborhood, then you are less prone to violence, because your space is not deprived,” Brooks said to Coates.

Further, Coates’ research led him to find that “black people with upper-middle-class incomes do not generally live in upper-middle-class neighborhoods.”

Coates’ writes to educate and he writes for change. In his memoir he may have written about himself, but he also had the entire black community and white community in mind. Education did not come easily to Coates, and the bad grades perpetuated as he grew more doubtful of his capabilities. His father’s harsh criticism looming over his head, the pressure drove him chaotic. He was a troublemaker, but he believed in knowledge and consciousness.

“I believed in the intellect of all of us,” he writes, “That mine was the the legacy that aligned pyramids and spotted the rings of distant planets with only the naked eye.”

Coates’ dreamy, almost artistic mind blossomed as he progressed into manhood, just as his father had hoped for. He pulled his grades up and attended Howard University, and became intensely passionate about the djembe drum. His brother, Bill, grew out of his violent impulses and settled into manhood, too. A “beautiful struggle” is quite the accurate phrase to summarize Coates’ early life, and as he works to help other black men attain beauty from their struggles, he inspires us all to persevere and fight for justice.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Beautiful Struggle”

How journalists failed while covering the Sandy Hook shooting

On December 14, 2012, my dad and I were driving home for Christmas vacation. We passed the exit for Newtown, Ct. and were silent. Earlier that morning, Adam Lanza had killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and it was all over the news. I felt a pit in my throat and got teary eyed, deeply sympathetic for the victims and deeply horrified by such pure evil. News outlets scrambled to be the first to identify the shooter, and in being rushed identified the wrong man. 24-year-old Ryan Lanza was misidentified, and details of the case were horribly wrong.

Hundreds of reporters flocked to Sandy Hook on December 14th, disrespectfully bombarding victims’ families in order to get to the truth. In a digital age where readers thirst for immediate information via social media sites, rash misreporting has become increasingly more common. From an ethical standpoint, journalists horribly broke the SPJ code of ethics, both failing to seek truth and report it, and to minimize harm.

In defense of the reporters, this was one of the most horrifying, unbelievable stories that America has endured, and had to be reported immediately. However, in an effort to keep up with this need for immediacy, journalists relied on unverified, speculative, raw notes. Discipline of verification was not met, and the exploitive, obtrusive behavior of news organizations affected the families so much that they asked reporters to visit their website, My Sandy Hook Family, instead of intruding on the lives of the families.

Reporters blamed Asperger’s, Sandy Hook was rumored a hoax, and reporters unethically attended funerals to get closer to the truth. News organizations must practice sensitivity when dealing with victims of vicious crimes, careful to do the story justice by reporting only the verified truth.

By shining a light on horrible instances of misreporting during breaking news stories, I will post an in-depth analysis of the coverage of the Sandy Hook Shootings and how this coverage relates to the ethical issues of modern journalism.

How journalists failed while covering the Sandy Hook shooting

Negative Comments

As a sensitive person, the risk of receiving nasty comments online would most likely prevent me from some further reporting. This, of course, is not a quality that I particularly enjoy about myself, but it is honest. That said, I would find it hard to allow comments on my stories unless they required real names and I could screen them before posting. On two occasions I have received less than satisfactory comments on my work, both of them on music related stories. In response to a negative music review I wrote about South African rap group Die Antwoord’s album Ten$ion, an real named commenter wrote:

“I absolutely loved this album. “Rap/dubstep mess” eh? The band is on the idea of merging the two, and in my opinion they do it well. To each their own I suppose, but as for “I just can’t imagine that it will work for anyone here in America” is a claim not worth keeping. I’ve shown this album to many of my friends, all which have received it fairly well and look forward to getting a copy themselves.

Also, this album holds no candle to Beat Boy by Die Antwoord in terms of “weirdness”. Which I think is part of their charm anyway.”

I actually found this comment particularly useful, and I agree with her points. Frankly, negative comments are embarrassing and make me feel pretty lousy, but at least when commenters allow their real names to be shown it is more constructive. On another occasion, when I submitted a playlist entitled “The Aphrodisiac Mixtape: Songs to increase your libido” an anonymous commenter named “Slick Rick” said: “Watch Her Disappear? Instant turn off. Weird.” This comment was really embarrassing, but in talking to my editor later he said that he really enjoyed the song and had been listening to it. I don’t particularly enjoy reading negative, anonymous comments, and I definitely don’t like to see them attached to my portfolio. Having said that, the real named commenter was more helpful in shining a light on what I need to work on.

Negative Comments

Mark Garfinkel talks Photojournalism Ethics

Mark Garfinkel of The Boston Herald takes his photographs as they come, and makes sure to get to know his subjects. He persists with his career despite the horrific events he must witness and capture because he wants to be moved, and he wants to move his readers. On the scene as Boston firefighter Mike Kennedy was killed in the line of duty, he snapped a photo of 6 fellow fighters surrounding Kennedy’s streche, caring for their own. Garfinkel believes that the public must be aware of tragedies happening in their own backyard and overseas, so he uses his photographs to educate. 

When Garkinfel started photographing over 20 years ago, publications featured violent, horrific photos on the front page. Nowadays, violent photos are rejected as to not offend certain readers; The Herald will even blur out the middle finger. In order to move the reader, in order to humanize a story and make it real, photographs must be a part of the experience. Having said that, photojournalists are expected to follow a code of ethics when photographing. No altering photos to make them better, no staging, and the journalists must treat their subjects with respect and sensitivity. Even the softest of subjects, a kid on a baseball field with his father with teammates jumping in unison in the background, is an example of a embarrassing staged photograph. Even if the subject is not as informative or influential as say a car crash, a war, or a suicide, photojournalists must always shoot with an ethical mind. Garfinkel actively practices this, but after many years of photographing with a caring personality, he takes each shot as it comes… Always having this code of ethics tucked away. Go ahead, snap the photo, but later on be smart about what you post. 

Check out Mark Garfinkel’s work here

Mark Garfinkel talks Photojournalism Ethics

The Journalist and the Murderer Review: Journalists as Morally Indefensible

A gruesome Manson-like triple homicide turned sadistic cover-up by the family’s “sociopathic” patriarch Jeffrey MacDonald made for a good story. For journalist Joe McGinniss, the mind of a pathological baby killer turned out to be a better story than the mind of a wrongly accused innocent. Despite McGinniss’s promise to write MacDonald as innocent, he betrayed his convicted subject and “friend” and painted him a cold-blooded, narcissistic sociopath in his book Fatal Vision. It does not matter whether or not MacDonald is innocent, or whether or not a book like Errol Morris’s A Wilderness of Error comes out three decades later to disprove his conviction, the best selling narrative Fatal Vision put MacDonald eternally behind bars.

In Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and The Murderer, she analyzes the aftermath of Fatal Vision, McGinniss’s $325,000 settlement paid to MacDonald following a hung jury suit prosecuting McGinniss for his libelous betrayal. Malcolm does not use The Journalist and The Murderer to take sides, and does not include a forensic breakdown of what happened the night of the murders in 1970. She speaks with lawyers, reporters, jurors, even one of MacDonald’s ex-lovers, to try to get a handle on the motivations and personalities of the two men individually and interpersonally.

Malcolm emphasizes that the suit is a First Amendment issue, and argues that if the jury had been made up of peers, colleagues, and anyone who understood a writer’s Constitutional rights, McGinniss would have had a better shot. Lucille Dillon, the only juror to side with McGinniss, was pushed out by the other jurors and eventually was the cause of the hung jury. However, there were some flaws in McGinniss’s defense which Dillon and the rest of the jury found skeptical.

“I eventually found myself in a position I didn’t want to be in, and that was agreeing that MacDonald had a cause for complaint. I had always felt that convicted murderers shouldn’t make money out of books and talk shows, and if they do it should be sent to the victims,” said Dillon in an interview with Malcolm. “So it wasn’t easy for me to see that there was some merit in MacDonald’s suit. Then we saw all those letters.”

These letters Dillon refers to are correspondences between McGinniss and MacDonald while MacDonald was in prison. Malcolm reveals these letters early in the book to portray McGinniss as the not-so ethical journalist. There is a slimy, manipulative undertone associated with McGinniss’s voice through these letters. In one, McGinniss is infuriated by Collette MacDonald’s stepfather Freddy Kassab who might have had his book published at the same time as Fatal Vision. At this point, McGinniss knew he would be condemning MacDonald in Fatal Vision in the same way Kassab’s book would, at yet made it seem to MacDonald that he would still portray him innocent.  “Can you imagine me going around the country on talk shows with that guy?”

Malcolm highlights arguments for and against MacDonald’s journalistic practices, but her underlying message rings true from her first line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.” Perhaps McGinniss was too stupid, too full of himself, to realize he was morally indefensible to this libel suit and to the betrayal of his subject.

William F. Buckley and Joseph Wambaugh were called during the trial to represent “experts on the author-subject relationship,” and discussed the journalistic difference between a lie and an untruth. They argued that a certain amount of nudging, a certain amount of “untruth” must be used in order to keep a source talking. Relating it to police work in an investigation, Wambaugh said that in order to solve a crime, an investigator will say anything. Journalists, unlike police officers, are bound by an ethical code. Police officers tell untruths all the time as part of the practice, and perhaps journalists should be allowed to as well. For McGinniss, his untruths were published as his opinions, and for police officers, their untruths are tactics to get the subject to tell the truth.

A lie is told with “ill will or in bad faith that is not true.” An untruth is “part of a device wherein one can get at the actual truth.” McGinniss may have gotten closer to the truth by telling untruths, but ultimately the issue lies in his fake, overstated assessment of MacDonald’s character. After Buckley and Wambaugh’s testimonies, McGinniss approached the stand and did not fess up to his betrayal. He did not address the letters, and he did not recount their friendship.

Michael Malley, a friend of both parties and a lawyer, remembers the relationship. Going running on the beach, sharing stories about girls, spending almost 5 hours a day together, Malley shares with Malcolm that there was never a hint that McGinniss disliked MacDonald, and although he didn’t think that McGinniss changed the story to be cynically spiteful,  he did find McGinniss to be particularly ingratiating. When Malcolm asked what was particularly outrageous about Fatal Vision, Malley responded:

“Primarily two things. One is his portrait of Jeff, which I believe to be wrong. I mean, just Jeff’s personality. And the other is the putting forward of a motive or a method by which Jeff would have done this – this drug-induced craziness, which, from everything I know, is so contrary to what the facts really are. And I consider that to be a serious, serious impediment to friendship,” said Malley.

The more time McGinniss spent with MacDonald, the more he realized that he would have to portray MacDonald as a cold-blooded drug-crazed sexual deviant in order to write a bestseller. He bended the rules of an untruth, and used untruths as a crutch. Malcolm writes that if journalists like McGinniss approach untruths as “unfortunate occupational hazards” rather than “virtuous necessities,” they could ethically get journalists closer to the truth.

The Journalist and the Murderer Review: Journalists as Morally Indefensible

Ethics of Quoting

“Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.” – Associated Press Stylebook

When using a singular quote, or perhaps two sentences, yes, this is imperative. When taking a lengthier transcript and cutting it down, as Janet Malcolm and William Zinsser describe as their ethical methods of quoting, cutting out some sentences to leave room for more compelling commentary is imperative, too. For instance, Janet Malcolm cut down a particular verbatim transcript from a description of the night Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two children were murdered down to a less overwhelming block quote. She eliminated the lofty details about how the potential intruders looked and acted to get to the meat of the passage, that these four intruders were actually the members of his family whom he may have massacred. If a subject goes off an extraneous details in the middle of their quote, I think that it is acceptable to cut these extraneous details as long as the main idea of the sentence is clear. If Malcolm had not included that the four intruders were actually MacDonald’s victims and not the “hedonistic” four intruders MacDonald claimed to have killed his family, then the meaning of the sentence would have been lost.

Ethics of Quoting

A Rape on Campus: How Rolling Stone failed

When Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s article “A Rape on Campus” was published in Rolling Stone and on their website, it gave a voice to college rape survivors that went viral. Female Facebook friends of mine from UVA were sharing the story to their pages, attaching invitations to anti-sexual violence events and group meetings around campus. I received text messages from friends: “Have you read this yet?” One woman’s Facebook status said she couldn’t get through the whole thing because it was so graphic and heartbreaking.

When I read it there was a pit in my throat, tears were welling in my eyes and there were times when I didn’t feel like I could finish it either. It was groundbreaking, it was horrifying, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was real. Just a few days later, I checked Twitter to find that Jackie’s account had been fake, and that editor Will Dana of Rolling Stone was putting her to blame. It was a travesty of journalism that would deeply affect all of those women who had exalted in the fact that this was a massive step for the fight against sexual violence. Rolling Stone had “misplaced” their trust in Jackie, putting yet another probable rape survivor back in their corner, silenced again.

There is no doubt that Jackie lied about the details of her rape; there was no “Drew’, there was no party that night, and there were no friends quoted to back up Jackie’s story. Erdely, a previously trustworthy freelancer who the editors must have valued enough to believe her faith in Jackie, made a complete mockery of the basic elements of journalism. She didn’t interview the friends who supposedly kept Jackie from going to the hospital or the police for fear of ruining their social reputation. Erdely didn’t find Drew, the sadistic frat-creep who conducted the gang rape, and she didn’t even get his real name. She didn’t check the facts… even the fact checkers were more careful than she was. Erdely was so caught up in Jackie’s extremely detailed and extremely horrific story that she probably trusted Jackie’s struggle and didn’t want to push her too far for fear of losing her, or worse, affecting Jackie’s emotional state.

Sexual violence is one of the hardest subjects for journalists to cover. Reporters walk on eggshells around rape survivors, choosing their questions carefully as to not affect their emotional state too far. Witnesses of sexual violence are hard to track down and hard to validate as one party will likely not own up to it, the other party will not be validated, and a third party will likely not be around to witness it occurring. Having said that, a rape at a crowded frat party should be easier to validate as there are more opportunities for witnesses, but in reality, the attendees are likely too impaired by substances to remember the event occurring… at least well enough to concisely articulate it to a reporter.

This is where the investigate reporting part should have come in. Erdely had everything. She had credibility, resources, time… but perhaps most of all, she had plenty of survivors to choose from. “One in four  college women REPORT surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime.” Although many of these are anonymous, if a reporter from Rolling Stone comes to UVA and approaches rape survivor and UVA staff member Emily Renda looking for a source, why was Jackie the only one? ONE in FOUR college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime. Renda works on sexual assault issues at UVA, so why did Erdely stop at Jackie? Why, as a reporter, did Erdely not realize that she simply could not use Jackie’s story to control the entire piece? One story, one gang rape, one horrifying account, should not define a nationwide epidemic. Jackie’s false account, which only happens 2-8% of the time, should not define the other 92-98% of the accusations that are true. How did Erdely not realize the importance of giving a voice to these women? Why did she stop at Jackie? Why did her editors not push her for more… for the sake of these rape survivors, for the sake of the parents of rape survivors, for the sake of the parents of potential rapists, for the rapists themselves?

Erdely’s complete lack of care for her subject is appalling, and is ironically indicative of the nationwide crisis. Erdely’s editors were completely careless, and completely ignorant of the importance of this story, of the potentially groundbreaking affect that this would have on everyone in this country.  She did not try, she did not care, and neither did her editors. Regardless of Jackie’s lie, I have no doubt that something happened to her, and that something similar happened to someone she knew. Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” could have been exactly what it was in the beginning, an inspiration to college rape survivors nationwide. Instead, Erdely did not do basic reporting, and she did not back out when red flags were raised. She did not push Jackie for a name of her rapist because she did not want to push her too hard, she “cared” for her, but in this way she did not care about her at all. Erdely was lazy, and her editors did not care. It is horribly tragic that rape survivors must continue to be silenced, and that rapes will still occur. It is tragic that a fraternity must sue a publication for libel when the brothers probably know of men at the same school who have committed sexual violence. It is tragic that Erdely stopped at Jackie, that she found the most sensational story and ran with it… without care for other rape survivors. It is tragic that she used only a brutal gang rape to stand for every woman who has been raped. Shame on Sean Woods, shame on Will Dana, and shame on Sabrina Erdely. I hope this is a journalistic and ethical lesson for them and I hope that sexual violence coverage in the future will be more thorough, and I hope this article will not hinder survivors from coming out and telling their story for the sake of the next woman.

A Rape on Campus: How Rolling Stone failed