My interview with the reporter, David Abel, whom I’ve been blogging about this semester.

By Rebecca Ballard

“Sometimes you have to tell a story that’s an important story,” David Abel said, referring to sources he worked with in Cuba who came forward despite risks to their lives. Some people were concerned about having their names published, but others felt free to talk about what was going on. Some of them faced repercussions for that too.

Abel worked in Cuba in 1998, “writing about the regime’s flirtation with capitalism, budding dissident movements and the limits of free expression, and the many ironies 40 years after the revolution, including the regime promoting golf and welcoming u.s. tourists” according to his blog.

Currently though, Abel has moved on to potentially less dangerous territory, but often equally important issues; he covers local news for the Boston Globe, covering issues like “global warming, immigration, homelessness, marriage, labor negotiations, sexual abuse and gun control” (Abel’s Boston Globe Bio).

As a young child, Abel said, he was pretty sure the first thing he ever wanted to be was an airplane. After a brief period of adjustment after learning he could not, in fact, grow up to be an inanimate object, he said he couldn’t decide what he really wanted to do. By college though, he realized being a reporter was his calling—he liked writing, and he wanted to be someone who could hold officials accountable for their actions.

After reporting in Cuba, Abel spent some time working with the military. He was writing for several different papers as he lived in Washington DC, “covering exercises aboard aircraft carriers, the controversy surrounding the navy’s testing range just off Puerto Rico, and arcane issues including problems with submarine warfare and missile defense, the nation’s war strategy, and everything from pork in the defense budget to fraud by contractors” (Military Stories).

This led to him going with troops for 78 days in the spring of 1999 with military troops into the Kosovo War. He said among the challenges he faced was working in a foreign language; he had to worry about whether the information was being translated correctly, or even whether the interpreter might be lying. While the military is notorious in journalism as not being eager to give access, in Kosovo Abel found the American military to be quite helpful and accommodating.

When I asked him how he managed to separate his emotions from his work (considering he was covering the plight of many refugees) he said it was just important to know that while you cared (after all, that’s why you were covering it), it was important to do your best to fully understand the situation and to represent it from a neutral angle in order to be fair (and more effective).

I wondered if he was ever scared, or found himself to be in the sort of danger that made his job as a reporter difficult or even impossible, but while he was in a war zone, Abel said he never felt directly threatened. Except for maybe this one time a train was bombed the week after he’d taken it.

After learning about his international work, and the circumstances if often occurred under, I wondered how he managed to get the sources he did. Naturally, it depended on the source and the story.

Abel told me that it is always important to try to identify where the information comes from, to prove to your readers that it is true. On the other hand, depending on the importance of the information to the article, Abel recommended trying to confirm what you have learned through another source, and then only going ahead with using an anonymous source when necessary.


Windmills of Cuttyhunk Island

December 11, 2009

By Rebecca Ballard

David Abel recently covered the latest development in wind energy debates in New England with his article On Cuttyhunk Island, it’s yes in my backyard.

What I found most interesting of this article was that by simple juxtaposing the opposing viewpoints (when coming from the two different islands), Abel managed to make the residents of the Vineyard who opposed the windmills look like fairly arrogant, self-centered people.

He simply quotes what the two sides say, and describes their situations, however, so really, they do it to themselves. As the reader reads, they are first introduced to the residents of the Vineyard who are for the windmills–while grudgingly admitting it will ruin their view (“they can live with a windfarm”) they also acknowledge that wind energy is necessary and will be beneficial.

Next the reader is introduced to those on the Vineyard who oppose the wind farms. A woman named Barbara Basset states, “If you are successful in barging ahead with this project, you will have managed to destroy one of the few beautiful places left in Massachusetts. Certainly you can find a more appropriate place to locate this project.”

Directly before this statement, a Vineyard resident who is for the windmills has said that while they would prefer not to look at them, they understand that you can’t simply say “not in my backyard” because that just puts it in someone else’s. The quotes in this order make Barbara look self centered because she has just essentially said “let someone else deal with it.”

Finally, the reader meets the residents of Cuttyhunk and learns that could sorely use the financial benefits of a wind farm. When one man states that many Cuttyhunk residents can’t even afford to turn on their air conditioning or heat, this implies that residents of the Vineyard who are against the windmills are so selfish that they would rather “preserve” their view and deprive the Cuttyhunk residents of basic comforts, than have the wind farm.

Personally, I liked the way this article was written, because I think my merely stating the facts, the reader is able to get to the truth of the matter. While I have written that the order leads the reader along in this direction, I believe that ordered another way, similar conclusions could still be deduced, just possibly less efficiently. But maybe that’s just how I read it.

By Rebecca Ballard

The other week, David Abel covered the Thanksgiving rush at a local bakery in his article From Verrill Farm ovens, bounty of season’s delights. It was a cute story (and somewhat uplifting, too, which is a nice break from normal news coverage), and it definitely made me want pie, but it didn’t hit issues it could have.

For instance, on the topic of the Thanksgiving holiday I would have liked to see something about the celebrated consumption of turkey. Very little coverage is given to factory farming these days (as if it ever has been) which is unfortunate because in that aspect I think the media is not doing it’s job–spreading awareness about a dangerous issue to the public. Animal rights aside, factory farming presents a huge health risk. Because the animals are kept in such cramped, crowded, and filthy conditions conducive to disease, they have to be consistently and constantly medicated.

According to American Medical News, in 1999 the United States was producing fifty million pounds of antibiotics annually. Of that, “twenty million pounds are given to animals, of which 80% (16 million pounds) is used on livestock merely to promote more rapid growth. The remaining 20% is used to help control the multitude of diseases that occur under such tightly confined conditions, including anemia, influenza, intestinal diseases, mastitis, metritis, orthostasis, and pneumonia.”

When diseases are repeatedly and unnecessarily exposed to antibiotics, they become resistant and the antibiotics cease to be effective. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases reported the same year that “the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has estimated the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. at $30 billion.”

For instance, this can be seen with outbreaks of E.coli. The pH of a cows stomach is neutral–when they graze on their natural diet of grass. However, today to increase how fast a cow grows while decreasing the amount of space they need, cows are raised in cramped dirt feed lots and fed primarily corn (this is also cheap as corn is subsidized by the U.S. government).

Because corn is not natural for cows to eat in mass quantities, their stomach becomes acidic (on a side note, the cows then develop stomach ulcers for which they must be treated with antibiotics). E.coli was origionally only able to survive in neutral stomachs–however, as cows began to consistently have acidic stomachs, E.coli adapted. Thus, the acidic human stomach no longer killed the bacteria and instead we became sickened from eating meat contaminated with it.

While I understand a cow is far from a turkey, the issues created by factory farming on a whole are huge and interconnected–and here with this, I’ve just begun to scrape the surface of one facet (health risk) of the issue (there’s the massive amount of environmental damage, the abuse of factory farm workers, the inhumane treatment of animals such as toe removal and debeaking without anesthesia, the fact that the animals grow so fat so fast their bodies break under them and they can’t walk on their own, etc).

I am also aware that an article about pies being baked is perhaps more appealing to the general public. I just feel that Thanksgiving would have been a good opportunity to raise awareness about factory farming through turkeys and that the mainstream news outlets, or at least the Globe, missed it.

If the animal cruelty side of the state of farming today peaks your interest, I’ve assembled media below that will provide some insight.

Below are just a few images that I have gathered of factory farming conditions (feel free to simply google image “factory farming” or to google that with a certain species to learn more about how your food is raised.

This is an undercover video taken on a dairy farm. While this particular one supplied to Land O’ Lakes, the practices seen in it are absolutely common (again, simply search the internet for plenty more). Just a warning that the below is graphic:

Back to turkeys, the following is an undercover video taken at a hatchery:

Curious what happens when those chicks grow up? An undercover video filmed on one of the World’s largest turkey farms:

By Rebecca Ballard

It makes sense, when you think about it, that a post-incarceration sex offender might have trouble integrating into society. Besides the common negative reactions from adults and parents in the communities into which they intend to move into, many states (including Massachusetts) have placed restrictions on how close they can be to schools, parks, day-care centers, playgrounds, and nursing homes.

Currently, Massachusetts is looking at passing a law that would ban Level 3, or high risk, sex offenders from staying in homeless shelters. According to the Massachusetts government website, a Level 3 offender is someone for whom “the risk of reoffense is high and the degree of dangerousness posed to the public is such that a substantial public safety interest is served by active dissemination.”

David Abel covered reactions for and against the law in his article “Sex offender ban sought for homeless shelters” that ran in the Boston Glove last week.

The law seems to be met with relief throughout the article from those in charge of homeless shelters, as they explain that they don’t have the resources to deal with dangerous sex offenders, especially now with the bad economy. One person contended that they could be blamed and shut down, should a sex offender who stayed in their shelter commit a crime.

On the other side, people like Tracy Velazquez argued that such a law would simply make sex offenders more dangerous–with no permanent residence, they would be harder to track by law enforcement, in addition to making it harder for the offenders to integrate into society by meeting their basic needs.

Jill Levenson walked a middle ground by saying that it was understandable to ban dangerous sex offenders from woman and children’s shelters, but not all shelters, and that if the law passed sex offenders should be given another social service as a replacement. However, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 1 in 33 men, or 3%, have been raped in their lifetime. While this number is much lower than the 1 in 6 statistic for women that is listed on their site, that does not discredit the fact that men too can be victims of sexual abuse.

After the budget cuts however (Abel On Budget Cuts to Homeless Shelters), the shelter officials say they “shouldn’t be stuck with a problem that stems from inadequate state services for sex offenders.”

By Rebecca Ballard

Although the moderator of the Ainsley and Baron talk prefaced things with a statement saying that this would not be a talk about the uncertain future of journalism, and in particular newspapers, the questions often ended up taking the speakers in that direction.

This however, came as little surprise as the two speakers both hold high positions in one of Boston’s two larger newspapers, the Boston Globe, Steven Ainsley being the publisher and Marty Baron the editor. One of the first questions the moderator asked them was what was the hardest decision each had faced individually in the past year.

It turned out that it was a problem they had both faced together, stemming from the economic difficulties the paper faced. As a publisher, Ainsley’s job focuses on the business aspect on running a newspaper. Ainsley said that in the beginning of April, after several months of planning, he set into a motion a plan they believed would reduce loss effectively and quickly, in order to keep the paper from going under.

First they met with the labor unions, who according to Ainsley represented about 75% of their employees, in order to reopen contracts and concessions. Here, Baron stepped in saying that they’d had to lay off 12% of the newsroom in order to avoid closing the newsroom entirely due to financial difficulty. According to Baron, employees’ pay was also cut by 23%.

“It was extraordinarily difficult having to stand in from of people who care very much about the paper and tell them that if we didn’t make the kind of progress that we needed to make that this newspaper…might cease to be,” said Ainsley.

Ainsley then explained that they brought in outside consultants to help them figure out how to cut down costs and keep the paper from sinking. He said that this decision was one that caused some dismay because the consultants were not journalists.

Baron agreed that this was exactly why, stating that he was “not a fan” of the consultants because it concerned him to measure, on the editorial side of things, what they did in metrics. He stated that other newspapers where people had been cut in that manner had in his opinion, decreased in quality.

Ainsley admitted that they strayed from their task several times but still in the end contributed significantly to the successful strategy that the Globe then developed. At the same time, he praised the newsroom for working with the consultants, and also for “drawing lines where they needed to be drawn.”

The fact that these speakers came from a specific newspaper, and one who had a story of recovery no less (as the New York Times has decided in the last month to take them off the market) gave them an upbeat view. Baron pointed out that through the internet and other media they can now engage viewers and readers in ways they never could before.

“The readership of journalism everywhere is greater than it ever was,” Baron said, bringing up the fact that when the Boston Globe broke the investigation into sex abuse crimes in the Catholic Church, people around the world were following the story.

Towards the end of the question and answer session, Ainsley said that a lot of newspapers had made the mistake of dumbing down the argument for their readers in an effort to make their content more accessible. I understood why this was done, as well as why this was a problem, so once the speakers were done I approached them with a question; how do you make people care when they don’t?

I was thinking in the context of stories that have either been covered for an extensive length of time (for example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) or that covers a topic people have been generally overloaded with previously (for example, war, famine, genocide, and disease in Africa).

Baron responded that as a journalist, one might chose to write about what was important to them, but a subject being important wasn’t enough to make a reader care. What you had to do, he told me, was make an important story interesting by showing a reader why it was relevant, or finding a way to connect them to who or what it involved. I found this advice very practical, honest, and helpful.

When asked what their “bionic” journalist of the future would be, Baron quipped that such a journalist would in fact be human, not bionic.

“To be a good journalist you have to have a soul and a heart, and a conviction and a determination,” Baron said. He also showed interesting insight into the future of journalists when he said that traditionally journalists worked their way up the ladder but in the future, journalists would likely be able to leapfrog over veterans based on skill and ability. Future journalists, Baron stated, would have to operate on their own.

By Rebecca Ballard

On November 11th, the last Brigham’s in Boston closed its doors for a final time. Given only a week’s notice, the staff said goodbye to many customers who’d set aside the time to say goodbye. In his article “Last serving, to go,” David Abel covered the last day at the restaurant, as well as spoke to staff and customers.

In the article he states that the closing was fairly abrupt, and that Luke Cooper, the CEO of Deal Metrics (the restaurant’s new owner) declined to comment “on the outstanding rent, the lack of health insurance, or what led to the restaurant’s closing.” He then wordily states that macroeconomic and financial factors are affecting the sales.

This is interesting to contrast to the waitress who states to regularly make $150 in tips and all of the praise the customers are quoted giving the restaurant (especially since many say they eat there daily).

Googling the restaurant’s demise led me to several other articles that all turned up and confirmed the same information (that the restaurant was well loved, that the employees’ were not receiving health insurance but were still having money for it deducted from their paychecks, and that the CEO refused to give any sort of an actual explanation.

I thought the use of video in the online version of Abel’s article was a good idea–often it seems that unless a reader can specifically and personally relate to a situation, they may not be able to sympathize. However, actually seeing the sadness of the staff and customers, as well as hearing them speak about the sudden closing, makes the story more interesting and relatable.

By Rebecca Ballard

Abel’s recent article, Budget trims lead to homeless shelters across Mass. to cut services and beds,” covers the anticipated effects of the budget cuts on homeless programs across the state.

While the article is brief relative to the subject matter, Abel manages to present and explain the story from several angles; Massachusetts state housing officials, city officials, and advocates for the homeless. It is easy for the reader’s sympathy to instantly lie with those who will be directly and negatively affected by the budget cuts (advocates for the homeless and the homeless themselves).

However, by quoting the associate director of the division of housing stabilization at the State Department of Housing and Community Development, Bob Pulster, the reader is shown that the homeless programs have been spared before (although it is worth questioning what exactly Pulster means by “held harmless”). They are also reminded that there are cuts being made everywhere due to the economy.

By also using a quote from the St. Francis house executive director Karen LaFrazia in which she said, “I don’t know what the governor is supposed to do with a $600 million budget shortfall,” the reader is again reminded later in the article that the cuts are being done for a reason (whether or not they agree with it is a different matter). This quote was a good choice for the article as she continues on to say, “but I know what he shouldn’t do,” which then reinforces the counter-argument.

Abel’s use of figures and percentages also worked well in the article–sometimes using statistics can just come out like empty numbers on a page, but because of how they are tied into the article, the reader can understand they represent real people. When he writes about the amount of money being cut from programs he then follows with an explanation of what that means in hard facts for the shelter (such as a loss of meals, loss of a day program, loss of security, loss of beds, etc).

I also thought it was appropriate that at the end of the article, Abel covers the progress that has been made reducing homelessness in Boston (“the city has reduced the number of single homeless adults by 500 people, or nearly 30 percent, over the past five years”) but juxtaposes this with reminders from homeless advocates that the budget cuts will potentially reduce their ability to be as effective.

In a time in which much of what we hear about the economy is focused on other areas, it’s important that the homeless are not forgotten–through budget cuts or in the media. Abel’s article does a good job to raise awareness about the issue of what happens to “people who have nothing” in a time when everyone is struggling.

By Rebecca Ballard

I am a junior at Emerson College in Boston, MA. This semester, I am beginning a minor in journalism and am currently enrolled in an Introduction to Journalism class.

Over the next couple months I will be covering the Boston Globe reporter David Abel. From what I’ve read of his past articles, and on his Boston Globe bio page, Abel covers local news and social issues. According the the Globe, he’s written about “global warming, immigration, homelessness, marriage, labor negotiations, sexual abuse and gun control” as well as covered issues dealing with high education in Boston (David Abel’s Boston Globe Bio).

During the following semester, I will be updating this blog once a week with a post covering Abel’s recently published articles, focusing both on the subject matter of the articles and on Abel’s coverage of the subject matter. In addition to the general public’s interest in the latest issues that Abel covers, I hope that readers may also gain something from my own coverage of both the issues and of journalism and reporting on a whole.

By Rebecca Ballard

“The way we change the world is by telling the truth,” said Alex Jones, a veteran reporter, early on during his speech on the future of journalism. It was a statement that carried on through the rest of what he had to say.

Jones explained that it was the ability for businesses to be able to exist and make a profit from news that had allowed the free press to come about. The old economic model, he said, was one in which companies paid for advertisement space and people paid for the news. Newspapers on serious and important subjects were not what the people were interested in, but with them came the comic strips, the crossword puzzles, and the celebrity stories.

The purchase by the people of such entertainment news, in addition to the corporate purchases of advertisement space, supported the newspapers in their reporting on and printing of real news. However, Jones pointed out, the digital revolution caused the old economic model to fail—with the arrival of the internet, it became possible for people to publish anything they wanted anywhere at any time.

With this, the traditional news began to struggle. The web, Jones stated, valued speed over accuracy, edge and voice over fairness, and above all else, entertainment. “The web can do journalism more brilliantly with more depth and elements,” he said, but it “can also create more confusion, more lies, and more hatred.”

Jones explained that he thought the internet had vast potential, and that bloggers could do great things, but that at the same time journalists were still very necessary. He then went on to point out that in Iraq, it had been reporters who swung people’s opinions about the war. The Bush administration had given the people lies, Jones said, and then the reporters had given the people truth. Bloggers would not be capable of this because the reporters had the funding from the papers to go to Iraq and to do the stories, as well as to risk their lives to get them.

After making the case for journalism, Jones then went on to explain just what needs to be done to preserve it. “Saving the business is not enough,” Jones stated, “because just saving the business will not do the thing journalism has been so remarkably able to do.” What also needed to be saved, he argued, were the ethics of journalism, the most important of which being objectivity.

Objectivity, Jones said, is not about the perfect truth, nor is it about the reporters themselves being objective; it is that the methods of their reporting are objective. Being objective, he said, was the one thing that could get people to change their minds, because objective journalism cuts both ways and gives a reporter credibility.

Jones said that somehow, some way, the values of journalism and its search for truth had to be preserved. When asked what could be done about the fact that people often simply were not interested in so-called “bad news” he responded that the people wanted the powers observed and kept in check even if they didn’t want to take the time to do it personally. He pointed out that the first amendment was a fragile thing, even though it was often not thought of that way, and that the values now associated it had only come about relatively recently.

While Jones emphasized that he couldn’t know where the future of journalism was headed, he did give his own prediction. The culture of the web, Jones said, would split into two segments.

The first would be composed of news organizations such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, who would continue to report real news. The second would be composed of other news organizations who saw reporting more as a game, focusing on whatever they believed would provide entertainment for the people. The internet would also allow for some people to ignore the news entirely and live in their own alternate realities.

Along with this the papers would possibly become more dependant on one or two foundations, rather than multiple corporations, which he pointed out could become a dangerous thing. Foundations have points of view he said, and could potentially bend newspapers to their will over these issues. “If you lose your enterprise, you lose everything,” Alex Jones said. “If you become a whore, someone who can be intimidated, you lose your soul.”