Today, on Coffee with a Journalist, we sit down with Erika Wheless of Digiday. At…
Our conversation today marks the 50th episode of both seasons of the Coffee with a Journalist podcast. In this episode, host, Beck Bamberger, sits down with Caroline Haskins of BuzzFeed News. At BuzzFeed News, Caroline serves as a technology reporter covering technology’s impact on society, culture, and politics. During their conversation, Caroline elaborates on her coverage of tech’s impact on recent social movements, finding story inspiration from other journalists’ work, and the importance of diversity for the future world of journalism.
Click below to listen to the full conversation and read below for highlights from the interview:
Her Work Inbox
Beck Bamberger: Got it. Oh. As I like to tell my team, I dig my own grave, so sometimes that’s what happens. Okay. Do you have a filing system of some sort with your inbox, or how does that go? How do you keep the craze at bay?
Caroline Haskins: A very recent development as of about two weeks ago is that I do unread first. That’s pretty much the only system I have. Before, I do have like a promotions tab, but when you do unread first, that’s not visible. But yeah, I think that it’s definitely helpful in terms of just seeing things in terms of priority. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. I don’t know why I didn’t do this years ago.
BB: Oh. So you mean you just see… That’s how I do it, by the way. I just see, okay, what are the… I’m looking at my inbox right now. Okay. 39. You have 39 unread. That’s all I care about. Like, boom, there it is. And you just navigate from there.
CH: Yeah. The nice thing that I’d like to… I don’t really delete emails really, but I’ll just go to all the ones that look like nothing and I’ll just mark it as read and then it just disappears into the abyss.
BB: That’s what I do too. We have similar uses, but people are not pitching me, so that’s good. Is there anything that you love when it comes to a subject line of a pitch that makes you go like, “Wow, yes, I want to read this pitch. This is going to be good”?
CH: Hard to say. I’ll just say I don’t like it when my name is included. It just feels a little weird.
BB: Oh, in the subject line, you mean?
CH: Yeah. Like, “Caroline,” comma. It’s like, “Oh, you don’t know me.” You know?
BB: It’s very salesy.
CH: I don’t know. Just something that’s extremely to the point, hard to break it down to a formula though. Honestly, the amount of pitches that have turned into actual stories. I mean, the last time I could think of one is when I got a press release from Mobilewalla about a report that they did where they basically tried to estimate the demographic profiles of people at Black Lives Matter protests using cellular data being collected. And for some reason, no one had reported on it.
It was an interesting story, obviously, because these people who were marching didn’t know that their data was going to be used in this way, but no one had reported on this study and then it just landed in my inbox. So I guess that shows the importance of reading your emails.”
BB: Yes. Huh. And you pursued that story. Did you end up getting it out there?
CH: I did. It did end up getting out there. And then Elizabeth Warren and a group of legislators ended up launching an investigation into the company. I don’t think anything major has come out of it yet, but it’s good to at least know that people’s data might be used in this way. I think that some protest leaders are now telling people that if you’re not among the leaders who are supposed to be posting on social media, it might be smart to turn your phone off or put it on airplane mode and just make sure that people know where you are.
How She Writes Stories
BB: And for people who don’t know, you did do this story on October 30th, and it’s titled DHS authorities are buying moment by moment geolocation cell phone data to track people.
CH: That was actually a follow-up one.
BB: That’s a follow-up. Okay. Because I don’t see the whole entire list of stuff, but yeah, there’s the Department of Homeland Security. Okay. So this is tumbled into then multiple stories.
CH: Yeah. That’s another one, the geolocation. This one, we discussed the Venntel in it. Venntel is a company and they basically sell these subscriptions to agencies within DHS. Sometimes they’ve been used by immigration authorities to sort of organize raids and look after ports and such. And they argue that it doesn’t violate the fourth amendment because when people… I mean, obviously, a lot of places make this argument that it’s built into the terms of service when you use a weather app or you use a game and you implicitly agree to any possible use with that data. But obviously, if you download… I’m not going to name a real game. If you download like Candy Horses Building Mansions 50,000 and you really like that game, I don’t think you’re necessarily going to think that federal authorities are going to be buying that data, but it’s happening.
BB: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Wow. You’ve had quite a year. We’re recording this in the end of December here. I know this will be out a couple months later. But man, if you want to look down the list of stuff, which is police, protests, everything you’ve covered this year, it’s been quite the year. Speaking of, so you touched on it just a second ago about pitches and the use of them, and okay, maybe you don’t want to miss a good pitch because that could be that super interesting story. But when you’re looking at creating and crafting a story, how do those story ideas come to you? Some people have said, for example, “Oh, I’m kind of on a walk and I’m thinking about something.” Or some people are like, “Oh, I got a tip.” Or, “Oh, of course, I got an assignment.” But for this one that you just got on with the Los Angeles Police just banning the use of commercial facial recognition, how does that come to you? Inbox pitch, story tip? What happens for those?
CH: The one about the Los Angeles Police banning the use of facial recognition, that’s come out of some reporting and investigating about Clearview AI. So we basically just asked the police department for comment about their use of the software. And for people that aren’t familiar, it’s a facial recognition tool and it’s kind of gotten a lot of use around the country because they offer free trials to police departments. A lot of times higher ups don’t know about it. The tool uses images that were scraped from social media. So Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, all these places. So if you were tagged in a college dorm party 15 years ago, it’s possible that that could be used to match you an image from somewhere. But anyway, so we’ve been reporting on Clearview AI for, I guess, about a year now.
BB: They’ve only been around since 2017 too. I’m looking at their page. So it’s a young company.
CH: Funnily enough, it actually didn’t start as a company that was marketing itself to our police departments. It was really selling itself as the private sector. So stadiums and such, types of security for banks and everything. But then it’s sort of expanded into the law enforcement sphere in like 2018. Then one of the founders was pretty well-connected within the law enforcement community because he used to be involved with the Rudy Giuliani administration. So that sort of enabled them to expand their reach into that specific type of group.
BB: These are the rabbit holes you go down, I think, that is so fascinating. Is there ever a time that you’ve been able to just… You’re just brainstorming or you had two friends tell you something, do stories ever happen like that for you?
CH: For sure. There’s definitely stories that start from just curiosity. I mean, for instance, a lot of the times I feel like stories come out of reading an article by somebody else or checking my Google alerts and seeing something, having additional questions, and then either reporting it out using traditional methods or filing a public record request.
I’m a big fan of like FOIAs and FOILs, which means like state and federal level public record requests, because that’s a great way to really get the raw material, which is pretty exciting and cool.”
BB: Oh. How long do those take by the way, if you request one? Is that like a 24-hour turnaround?
CH: Oh no. No. It depends. One story that I published at the end of September about the LAPD, those were actually… The documents that came into that story, I’ve requested those like more than a year earlier, but the key is to just kind of keep filing things. A lot of times things on the surveillance feed are like… Yeah, it’s like ongoing things. So by the time you get stuff back, there’s often just kind of like, if you file enough, then you can kind of get a flow of documents that come in every two days or every two weeks.
BB: That’s a great technique. You just inundate them. Very smart.
Her Thoughts on the Future of Journalism
BB: Oh, well those were good, Caroline. Thank you for those. I’m going to be looking up that documentary. Okay. Now, the future of journalism. Actually, before I even get into that, you’re a relatively new-ish journalist. You haven’t been doing this for 20 years. So I will say sometimes answers seem to depend on length of a stint in the industry, but what do you think the future of journalism is?
CH: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard to say what it is, but I will say the things that concern me the most. Mainly the fact that people of color and women seem to not have much representation and higher-paying or leadership roles. This is something that is really across different publications. What really concerns me is when you get especially people of color into positions and companies say, “Well, this marks our effort into diversity.” But sometimes these are dead-end roles where there’s not really an opportunity for promotion or you’re in these roles… It doesn’t really mean anything if you’re in a role but editors aren’t listening to you or they’re trying to make your ideas more palatable for like a white audience, but audiences aren’t white. I mean, we’re seeing this, especially with… I mean, I’m thinking about the reckoning that Bon Appetit had lately. Really reckonings that a lot of publications have had with how they’ve treated Black and Brown people, especially women and non-binary writers.
I don’t think that’s going to be something that’s going to change tomorrow. But I think if we’re thinking about the future of journalism… I mean, it’s hard to say.
I could pontificate about newsletters and all this other thing, but really at the end of the day, when we’re talking about what the actual content of it is, who’s getting representation, and who is actually getting an opportunity to contribute here and make this landscape better, I mean, I think that’s probably the most important thing we should be thinking about.”
The media industry is only one of the many places where diversity efforts are needed. Check out our article, 5 Voices to Amplify on Twitter: Tech Founder Edition, to learn about 5 impactful leaders breaking down barriers and laying the foundation for a more diverse and equitable tech landscape.
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