An Unprecedented List of Radical, Breaking News Items that Need to have their Ticket Punched to the Ash Heap of History

Every so often, we hit up the Hivemind here for words that are getting used way too frequently for no really good reason. Without further ado, here is the list that emerged from our most recent visit to cliche town:

Unprecedented: Between the pandemic, the Trump lawsuits and the trend of cooking chicken with Nyquil, we are the point where the bar for something receiving the “unprecedented” label is pretty high. At this point, it better be Jesus riding a unicorn while throwing tacos to his followers.

(And thanks to the AI artists program, we actually can check this one off our bucket list of “unprecedented” things.)

You’re welcome. Now, go find something else to use in place of this word…

Miracle (sports): I’m sure it was a great game or an incredible comeback, but unless the seas parted between third and home or loaves and fishes multiplied in the end zone, we can stop with this.

Radical (political ads): Did the candidate threaten to castrate guys with tin snips in the parking lot of an Aldi’s as part of their plan to limit the needs for abortions? THAT’S radical. The rest is just stuff you don’t like.

Squash (legal term): It is not. You quash a subpoena. You squash a bug. Or you plant a squash.

Agenda (political ads): I’ve yet to run into a politician who has a fully formed set of motives and efforts that they’ve outlined and subsequently enacted, which is the literal definition of an agenda. In most cases, it feels like this:

Punched their ticket to: Nobody punches tickets anymore. I can’t even get a paper ticket so I can keep the stub as a souvenir. I think if the bands you’re seeing are old enough to qualify for Social Security, the fans should be allowed to request paper tickets. And those will still remain unpunched.

Phone ring off the hook: Phones no longer have hooks. They rarely ring. I get that “Phone buzzing off the desk” doesn’t have the same feel, but maybe just take the next train out of Clicheville… I bet they’ll punch your ticket on the way out.

Weaponize (politics): If you accuse people of “weaponizing” race or gender, they’d better be able to launch a missile out of something. Same thing with anything else we “weaponize.”

Officer-involved shooting: Tell me the cop shot someone or that someone shot the cop. Active, not passive.

Breaking news: It’s not breaking just because you finally figured out about it. Also, it’s not breaking news just because you want to tell me something now. “Breaking news: I just started writing this blog post… More at 11…”

Parlay: By definition, it is, “a cumulative series of bets in which winnings accruing from each transaction are used as a stake for a further bet.” You did not “parlay initial success” of anything into anything else. Unless you could lose that success, stop it.

Brandish: It requires a waving with a flourish, usually in anger. The robber with the gun in his pocket didn’t brandish anything. Unless he broke out into show tunes with a dance number…

Parents’ worst nightmare: Really? We sure on that? I just finished watching the Netflix series on Jeffrey Dahmer, and I lived in Milwaukee during that whole time period, so I’ve got a pretty high “nightmare” threshold. I’m sure whatever happened sucked, but if you spent any time in my nightmares, you’d probably not be talking about a kid not answering a cell phone on time in that regard…

Iconic: A friend notes this article on Ben Affleck and a nap as the moment “iconic” jumped the shark. (Another phrase we should stop using, probably, unless this happens again…)

Unique: It means one of a kind. Unless it’s a snowflake or the Hope Diamond, find a different descriptor.

Ash Heap of History: Unless we really are burning the books, stop using this to describe things we stopped using.

Worth noting: Translation- “I don’t have this from a source, but I want to tell you something.”

Terrible tragedy: As opposed to what? Those fantastic tragedies that make us all happy to be here?

Incident (cop speak): “Police responded to an incident in which…” We know it’s an incident. Everything is an incident. Me typing right now is an incident…

 

Fun with Filak-isms that can improve your writing on a Throwback Thursday

A number of years back, it dawned on me that my mouth quite frequently overrides my brain’s veto when it comes to self-expression. It came to a head the other day when we were going over fire briefs in my writing class and a student had parroted a poorly written press release:

“The fire was deemed electrical in nature.”

As we picked through the content, I was trying to find a polite way of explaining the jargon in that sentence lacked value in telling the story. This is what fell out of my head:

“Electrical in nature? As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did the fire aspire to be a forest fire when it grew up, but when it attended fire college it couldn’t get past the science requirements? Y’know, so it went home and joined its dad’s electrical business, because people need electrical work, and it had always been in his nature to stay close to his fire family…”

This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, in that year after year, former students will tell me something I said that stuck with them like, “I’m at the third paragraph and I haven’t thrown up yet, so I think we’re good,” or “If you have a problem with anything, don’t be afraid to come see me. I’ve yet to stab anyone in the face with a pencil for asking a question, and I’m not looking to break that streak.”

My reaction is usually, “I don’t remember saying that, but knowing me as well as I do, I’m pretty sure you’re right.”

With that in mind, here are a collection of “Filak-isms” that I do remember using to help kids improve their writing. I hope these help:

 

 

“It’s an attribution. It’s not the front pocket of your suitcase.” (Fixing flubs in writing with Filak-isms)

Filak-ism: A random observation, borrowed idea from a movie/song/TV show/book, odd concept or weird phrase that has been warped in the mind of Dr. Vince Filak for broader application within journalism situations.

Today’s post marks the 150th blog entry since July 1. In recognition of this… um… achievement (?) I figured I’d celebrate with a few famous Filak-isms meant to help your writing. Hope I don’t break anybody’s brain with these…

Here we go:

“It’s an attribution. It’s not the front pocket on your suitcase.”

The idea behind an attribution it to tell people who said something in a direct or indirect quote. That’s the whole reason for its existence. However, for some reason, people try to do more stuff with it and make their copy almost unreadable:

“There are a lot of opportunities for officiating in our community,” explained physical education teacher Sean Stout, who will teach the class beginning next fall or next spring, depending on how many students sign up.

“People know Bach more than they might think,” said the Dutch singer Anne Horjus, who will perform Bach cantatas Saturday with his wife, Deanna Horjus-Lang, at Portage Center for the Arts.

“I can’t say enough about what AAU did for me when I was younger,” said Heise, who graduated from Lena in 2017. “It allowed me to really zone in on my skills and perform at a higher level, which helped me play at the top of my team in high school and then in college.”

The attribution isn’t supposed to be like that front pocket on your suitcase, where you cram all the crap you forgot you needed to pack in your bag. In each of the cases above, you could probably write an entire paragraph of paraphrase out of what these folks stuffed into the attribution. Doing so would have made the content more readable and less cumbersome.

 

“Says who?”

Journalists rely on sources to tell the reader things that are important. When opinions show up, they need to be attributed to a source. This is especially true when the opinion is something this weird:

“Some things just go together: a good restaurant on a good golf course.”

OK, it’s a review, so you get a bit of an “opinion pass,” but where did you get the “golf courses just scream great food” thing? Country club? Sure. The Par-3 muni track out near the lakefront? Yeah, you’re not even getting any Grey Poupon to put on your luke-warm wieners out there.

 

“Honey? I unexpectedly severed one of my blood-carrying vessels! Could you transport me to a nearby medical facility?”

I have two passions in life that can lead to a lot of unintended medical bills: I refinish and restore old furniture and I repair and restore my beloved 1968 Mustang Coupe. In the course of both of these hobbies, I have on various occasions, caught my hand in a running fan, dumped brake cleaner in my eyes, set fire to upper arm, cumulatively swallowed a quart or two of coolant, sanded off the top of my thumb, punched a hole in my index finger and cut my hand so deep my wife could see my thumb’s tendon.

And that’s all I can remember. That might have something to do with me smashing my head into a few things.

In all of those experiences, never once did I rely on jargon to express myself:

When the determination is made to proceed with an involuntary Baker Act, private medical transport services (i.e. American Medical Response or similar private medical vehicle transport services) can be used to transport younger students to the mental health receiving facility. In the case of a formerly violent/combative student (during the crisis) or a combative student, the private medical transport service can transport the student to the nearest mental health receiving facility.

 

In addition, EPA found Syngenta failed to provide both adequate decontamination supplies on-site and prompt transportation to a medical facility for workers exposed to the pesticide.

If you find yourself using words you would never actually use in real life, consider rephrasing your work so that you don’t sound like a person perceived to be lacking intelligence, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. (AKA an idiot)

 

“Congratulations. You just drafted a punter with the first pick in the draft.”

The idea of a good lead is to have information that is most important at the top of the story. The 5W’s and 1H give you some direction and the FOCII elements provide you with a good lens through which to view the who, what, when, where, why and how.

That said, the order of the elements in the lead matters as well.

I’ve explained to students before that you should look at your lead like it’s the first round of an NFL or NBA draft: The best players should be in that round and the best of the best should be at the front of the round while lesser great players are found near the end.

When you decide to lead with the “when” aspect of the story in the lead, you’re essentially wasting that first pick:

On Monday morning, paramedics from the Joliet Fire Department responded to a single-vehicle crash on the Des Plaines river bridge on I-80 eastbound and a four-car crash at I-80 westbound near Larkin Avenue.

 

A May 31 jury trial was scheduled for Renee L. Lange, 46, Oconto Falls, on charges of identity theft to avoid a penalty and identity theft to harm a reputation in connection with an incident that allegedly occurred Feb. 3, 2017.

 

One year ago, Will County hired Dr. Kathleen Burke as director of substance use initiatives.

If the most important thing you want to tell your readers in the most important sentence you are writing is a time element, you really need to go back through your story and rethink your whole approach.

 

“Take a normal human breath, not a ‘The Titanic is going under and I need to survive’ breath.”

A good way to determine if a sentence is too long or too involved is to take a breath and read it out loud. If you start feeling a tightness in your chest by the time you finish, it probably needs a trim. If you run out of air, you definitely need to go back through the sentence and do some serious cutting.

The point is to keep the sentences short, not to test the tensile strength of your lung tissue, like these sentences do:

The 17-year-old Portage High School junior, who won’t be old enough to vote until November, became the first high school student to be appointed to a city board or commission, when the Common Council voted 6-1, with one abstention, to appoint her and three others to the Historic Preservation Commission.

 

Following the backlash over images of a seven-year-old boy being placed in handcuffs, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools on Saturday unveiled changes to the district policy that dictates when teachers and other school staff can call police to deal with emotionally troubled students.

These sentences are 50 and 43 words, respectively and unless you have the lung capacity of a blue whale (or the student I had one year who swam distance for our university), you aren’t getting through them on one breath. That doesn’t mean take a bigger breath. That means go back and cut these down.

 

“Really? Did you check with every guy in Burundi?”

Burundi is a relatively small, landlocked African country of about 10 million people. I think I learned about it one night when my daughter, Zoe, was an infant and I had both a need to get up with her every two hours and a really lousy cable package. Not much on at 4 a.m., let me tell ya…

In any case, I think back to this place whenever I get sentences like this:

Several years ago, nobody thought a space transportation service could be a lucrative business.

 

President Trump himself entered the 2016 election as a long-shot candidate who nobody thought could win.

 

When the Bulls signed the moody Rondo in the summer of 2016, nobody thought he would evolve into the difference between winning and losing a first-round playoff series, yet Rondo’s injury against the Celtics, more than anything, shortened the playoff run.

Really? NOBODY thought any of these things? How do we know that none of these things was even an inkling in the mind of a visionary, a dream sequence on “Dallas” or the imagination of an autistic boy that kept us riveted for about six seasons of “St. Elsewhere?” Better yet, did you survey the entire nation of Burundi to make sure nobody thought about whatever it is you’re telling me with absolute certainty that nobody thought about?

Every time you think about using an absolute term (nobody, everybody, all, none), think about Burundi and reconsider it.

 

I’m sure if you took a class with me, you remember your own personal favorite Filak-ism, so feel free to hit me up and ask for an example. I’ll add them to future posts.

The Self-Interest Gap: Learning how to care less about what you want to write and more about what the audience wants to know

Self-interest is perhaps the one commonality humans share these days and it can be summed up in a simple question: “What’s in it for me?”

When you are on the “receiver” end of the process, it’s something we understand very easily. We know almost instinctively what is of value to us and what we care about right away. That said, when we put on the “sender” hat, we tend to focus more on what we want to tell people, forgetting that those people have their own set of interests we should be focused on.

Case in point, I asked the students to write a brief based on a press release about a fire. Here are the opening lines of a few of those briefs:

  • Firefighters responded to an engulfed single-story house shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday…
  • Boone County Firefighters responded to a call of a Sturgeon house fire…
  • Sunday evening, Boone County Firefighters responded to a call at 6pm on an electrical house fire…
  • A structure fire occurred at 520 S. Ogden in Sturgeon on the evening of Sunday…
  • Boone County Firefighters responded to a home engulfed in black smoke…

What we learn essentially in these things is either:

  1. Firefighters responded to a fire.
  2. A fire occurred somewhere.

If you were on the “receiver” end of the information, how much of this stuff would you care about? Of course the firefighters responded to the fire. That’s what they do. Also, fires occur everywhere from giant farm fields to the burn barrel in my yard. However, as a “sender” we tend to ignore that until we are forced to switch perspectives.

In thinking about this issue, I posed a question to the students meant to tap into that idea of self-interest: “Let’s say you get home after class and your roommate says, ‘Hey, your mom was trying to reach you. There was a fire at your house…’ What would be the first thing you would want to know?

Answers came quickly and easily:

  1. Is everyone OK?
  2. How bad was the fire?
  3. What happened out there?

In this case, a good response might be:

“The fire destroyed the house, but nobody got hurt.”

That’s the core of a good lead, with a strong focus on what matters most (big ticket item) and what people cared about most (answer to the first two sentences). When it’s your mom or your house, you have specific interests that a good source of information will attend to. If you can take that perspective and play on the audience’s self-interest, you can have a much sharper focus when it comes to telling the story directly and clearly.

An effective lead-building approach that incorporates the 5W’s and 1H

How best to write a lead has always been a matter of preference, so long as the key aspects of what matters most get into the first sentence of the news story. When it comes to boiling the lead down to the basics, we tend to lean on our favorite six items: The 5W’s and the 1H. For beginning writers, these elements provide a good set of guidelines for determining what matters most and how to put it into the lead.

The difficult part comes in two specific parts:

  1. Identifying the key aspects of what matters most in the lead
  2. Determining the proper order for them.

In most cases, students tend to like to write from front to back, giving themselves a little runway before getting into what matters and why. This is a symptom of years of writing to fill space (“You need to write a 5-page paper that describes…”) instead of learning to write from the core of what matters most.

Here’s a good way of helping students figure out how to build from the core out, by identifying the key elements of a story that can serve as the main part of the lead.

Begin with the idea that the 5W’s and 1H give you some sense of what needs to be in a decent, standard, beginner’s news lead:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

Then realize that if you write in the active voice in a direct fashion, you pretty much have the main part covered in noun-verb-object elements:

The key then is to figure out what best to put into those three spots (and, yes I know that that spot is normally for a direct object, not necessarily other objects like the object of a preposition. Sr. Mary Kenneth is long dead but her foreboding figure still haunts me…)

  • Packers beat Buccaneers
  • Guardians win division
  • Mayor vetoes bill

Once you nail that down, you’ve got the remaining 3W’s and 1H to play with and how include them or where you put them is dependent upon what you think matters most to your readers. Think about adding another “layer” to the core, with the more valuable element at the top of the layer and the lesser element at the bottom of the layer:

In this case, I went with “immediacy” leading me to including a “when” sooner rather than later, and I went with “how” because in the cases I selected, it seemed to matter to me as a reader more than the other elements.

See what you think when we add the pieces like this:

  • Tom Brady failed to complete a last-minute, two-point conversion, as the Green Bay Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 14-12, Sunday.
  • With a Chicago White Sox loss, the Cleveland Guardians clinched the AL Central division Sunday.
  • Relying on a little-used law from 1824, Mayor Sam Smith vetoed a bill Sunday that would have given city residents property-tax relief.

In all three cases, there was a pretty intriguing “how” element that added something that readers might want to know, so I put the “How” up front as a clause and kept the core where it was. It’s always possible to layer those “How” and “When” elements elsewhere,  but in these cases, it seemed like I could make a case involving value and clarity.

After that, you can layer on the remaining elements as you see fit:

In this case, the “Why” could be a “Why do I care?” for filling in the oddity factor, or a “Why” as in a “Why did this happen?” answering the question like we normally would expect in a lead:

  • Tom Brady failed to complete a last-minute, two-point conversion, as the Green Bay Packers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 14-12, Sunday at Raymond James Stadium…
    • WHY 1: giving Aaron Rodgers his second career win against a Brady-led team
    • WHY 2: keeping the Packers tied for first in the NFC Central
    • WHY 3: dealing the Buccaneers their first loss of the season
  • With a Chicago White Sox loss, the Cleveland Guardians clinched the AL Central division Sunday.
    • WHY 1: Securing a playoff spot for the youngest team in baseball this year.
    • WHY 2: for the 11th time since 1995
  • Relying on a little-used law from 1824, Mayor Sam Smith vetoed a bill Sunday that would have given city residents property-tax relief.
    • WHY 1: arguing that the city can’t afford the loss in revenue.
    • WHY 2: to demonstrate the need to clean up arcane laws on the city’s books.

As noted in the books, not every W and H will make the cut for a lead, nor should they. (You don’t want to ask Terry Francona, “Hey, why did you clinch the division like that?”) That said, this might be a neat way of helping students prioritize their ordering of elements and building leads from a solid foundation that focuses on what matters most.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

Today’s throwback post came to mind when I saw this bit of news regarding Infowars mogul Alex Jones and how he was back in court again this week:

Jones baselessly told his audience in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that the incident was staged. He has since acknowledged the shooting occurred, but only after the lawsuits were filed. He said in a 2019 sworn deposition that a “form of psychosis” caused him to make his false comments.

In the Connecticut case, where Jones is being sued by eight more Sandy Hook families, Judge Barbara Bellis issued a default judgment against the Infowars founder in November 2021 after he failed to comply with court orders.

Because the judge already ruled that Jones is liable, the jury is determining the amount in damages to award the plaintiffs. While the families have not specified a dollar figure, an attorney for the families asked jurors last week to “send a message” to the public with its decision.

I have yet to run into a student yet who told me they want to be Alex Jones when they grow up, but a number of them have told me how they don’t understand why people who are on talk radio (like Jones) or write on the web (like Jones) are allowed to say whatever they want without consequences. After all, the students note, professors like me are crawling all over them about adverbs because they MIGHT lead to a sense of opinion. Why do we in journalism classes get so nutsy about accuracy?

Well, here’s a good look at what can happen when you play fast and loose with reality and reality decides to fight back:

 

It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

During the 2020 presidential election, multiple people made claims that the voting systems had been rigged to favor Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Several of then-President Donald Trump’s allies and associates took to various media platforms to repeat these allegations, arguing that the voting systems had been compromised and that any outcome which did not place Trump back in the White House was a result of fraud.

Dominion Voting Systems, which produces many of the electronic voting machines used in the election, apparently isn’t too thrilled about this, as the folks there have filed several lawsuits regarding these claims. It’s gotten so bad that some media outlets are keeping track of who is being sued, for how much and for what reason, like ESPN tracking the movement of NFL free agents.

The most recent suit is one that is most likely of interest to the folks reading the blog, as Dominion filed a $1.6 billion suit Friday against Fox News, alleging the company knew it was allowing lies about the election to proliferate:

In the lawsuit, Dominion argued that Fox and several of its on-air personalities elevated baseless claims about the voting company rigging the 2020 election and allowed falsehoods by their guests to go unchecked, including a wild claim that the company’s machines were manufactured in “Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez” and that Dominion’s algorithm manipulated votes so that then-President Trump would lose.

“Fox engaged in this knowing and reckless propagation of these enormous falsehoods in order to profit off these lies,” reads the lawsuit. “Fox wanted to continue to protect its broadcast ratings, catering to an audience deeply loyal to President Trump.”

The lawsuit argues that there are actual damages to the company’s brand, but also to the workers who are just trying to make a living. The suit notes that Fox’s conduct not only will cost the company more than $600 million in the next eight years, but also that front-line workers have been threatened.

Fox has noted that it will defend itself, having already filed several motions to dismiss and that the company “is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

Here are a few things to take away from this and several other lawsuits filed in regard to the voting systems:

A FREE PRESS IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE-FREE PRESS: A lot of folks misinterpret the First Amendment to mean you are protected against all sorts of things when you publish content. The truth is that all the amendment guarantees is that the government shall not prevent you from publishing material. That’s basically it.

It doesn’t mean that other people can’t stop you, like the owner of a website where you post content, the publisher of a newspaper or a producer at a broadcast station. It also doesn’t mean you can get away with whatever you want without paying the price.

When you say something that is false and harmful, you can be in a lot of trouble, which is why professors push so hard on students to make ABSOLUTELY SURE on every fact in a story. It’s also why editors pick and pick and pick at stories with reporters, as to avoid any potential landmines.

If I get up on Fox News and tell the world that I have information supporting the notion that the chancellor of my university is running a cocaine ring out of the student union in exchange for getting away with a murder he committed in 1987, I’m going to be in a HECK of a lot of trouble because it’s not true and it’s going to harm him.

It also leads to the second point…

UNLIKELY, UNREAL AND COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT THINGS: One of the dumber defenses in a Dominion suit is that of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The company is suing her for $1.3 billion, arguing she knowingly spread a baseless claim that Dominion and another voting system company were working with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to rig the election.

Powell has argued in motions to dismiss that her claims were so outlandish that nobody in their right mind would believe them:

It was just conjecture. No reasonable person would conclude those allegations were true statements of fact. Besides, in heated political arguments, people tend to exaggerate. You should dismiss the lawsuit or at least move it to my home state.

That’s essentially the defense offered by Sidney Powell’s lawyers to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Denver-based voting Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. Dominion provides voting equipment to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in 28 states including Colorado.

We’ve talked about this kind of claim earlier this year when porn mogul Larry Flynt died. The “no reasonable person” defense was at the core of his Supreme Court appeal, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for publishing a spoof advertisement involving him. Flynt won the appeal with a unanimous decision, but before Powell pops open the champagne, I’d consider these issues:

  • Flynt was publishing a porn mag, known for all sorts of really outlandish stuff, including a photo of a woman being stuffed into a meat grinder. Powell was on nightly news outlets and other media platforms purporting to deliver truthful information gathered from inside sources.
  • Flynt’s ad claimed that the highly religious Falwell lost his virginity by having sex with his mother and a goat in an outhouse, which is almost the textbook definition of outlandish. Powell was claiming election fraud, something other countries had experienced and something that people within the government were also stating as fact.
  • Flynt was a strip-club owner who published pictures of naked people in magazines that had been banned in multiple cities. Powell had been a counselor to the president of the United States.

When it comes to the idea of hyperbole and satire, or otherwise outlandish things, you have a pretty high bar to clear if you want to be on safe side of that argument. Had Flynt claimed that Falwell stole money from his congregation, he would have likely been on much shakier ground, given that other high-profile preachers had been accused or convicted of such things. The same thing could be said had he claimed Falwell had slept with prostitutes or committed adultery, given the climate of the time. However, nobody reading the Campari spoof thought, “Wow! Reverend Jerry is a really kinky guy! Guess you learn something new every day…”

Powell’s defense in this case is that nobody could have believed a legal expert who worked with the president in regard to voting irregularities when she said the company responsible for voting reliability failed in its task. I’m really interested to see how that plays out, but more out of morbid curiosity to see if the judge can keep a straight face throughout the trial, not because it’ll set a new precedent.

THE MUDDLING OF OPINION AND FACT IS ALWAYS A CONCERN: When I teach basic media writing to students, one of the hardest things for them to figure out is what is an opinion and what is a fact. It often comes down to me scrawling “SAYS WHO?” on their paper 183 times before they understand what they can say and what they shouldn’t say. Occasionally, we would have the discussion of “You are wearing a black shirt. That is a fact. You are wearing a NICE black shirt. That is my opinion.”

Cable news organizations have long muddied the waters of what is opinion and what is fact, almost to the point where people either don’t know the difference or don’t care as long as it matches up with what they believe. I often wonder if a lot of high-profile people end up buying their own BS to the point that they themselves think, “If I believe it, it must be true.”

Journalism pushes harder on people to verify information, clarify where the information originated and remain rigorous in reporting only what we can prove. At least, that’s the goal we have in mind when it comes to separating opinion from fact.

To help us clarify the distinctions a bit better, the U.S. Court of Appeals offered a four-step examination as part of its ruling in Ollman v. Evans (1984) to help people see if a statement falls into the realm of fact or opinion:

Can the statement be proved true or false? Courts have held that factual statements can be proved true or false. A statement like “The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series championships” can be proved true or false by examining their records in the annals of baseball. The truth or falsity of a statement like “The New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever” cannot be determined, because it lacks several key elements for us to examine. In a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false, and this can be the case only if the material of a factual, as opposed to an opinion-based, nature.

What is the common or ordinary meaning of the words? People often use euphemistic language in their daily discourse. If you referred to a sloppy person as a pig, that person might be upset, but they can’t win a libel suit by demonstrating that they are not “an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.” The common meaning that the person has poor personal hygiene or fails to keep their home neat and clean is clearly the way in which most people would interpret that remark.

What is the journalistic context of the remark? Who is saying something and the way in which they are saying it matter greatly in determining if something is a fact or not. For example, if you’re telling a joke involving two men walking into a bar, people are clearly expecting something different than if you are testifying in front of Congress. Content published on the news pages of a legacy media outlet is contextually different from a series of blog posts on a goofball-based website that would make the staff at the National Enquirer roll their eyes. The statements made on air during a newscast are contextually different from those made on a “morning zoo” radio show.

What is the social context of the remark? Where we tend to see opinions and where we tend to see facts often help define which are which. For example, a lecture on the biology related to procreation is expected to be based in facts, while two groups of protesters confronting each other outside an abortion clinic will be a more heated and opinionated exchange.

 

 

“It’s the first time you caught her.”

Stories of journalistic malfeasance are not incredibly rare, but they always sting. The most recent publicly noted case occurred over the summer, in which USA Today pulled 23 articles from its archives after an audit revealed quotes and sources were likely fabricated. The journalist responsible for those stories, Gabriela Miranda, began working for the media outlet in 2021. During the audit, she resigned.

Whenever a situation like this comes up, I think back to the first episode of the Netflix show “Ozark” and the issue of how to deal with someone who has cheated. The main character is involved with a drug cartel in a money-laundering scheme out of Chicago.

Del, the connection south of the border, makes an unexpected visit, accusing the laundering crew of stealing from him. He tells a story about his father’s grocery store and how his dad spotted a loyal cashier (a woman so close to the family, you call her aunt, he remarks) stealing $5  from the till one day.

She begged for forgiveness, saying she needed the money for a child’s medicine and that she’d never do it again. Del then asks each of the four men in the operation what his father should have done. Three of the men say he should forgive her, give her a second chance. After all, one mistake after 15 years of loyalty? The three men are brutally killed shortly after that. The fourth, Marty, doesn’t answer, but he manages to worm his way out of getting killed.

Later, Del asks Marty question again:

As much as people want to believe something like this was just a one-off, it rarely turns out to be the case.  After someone pulls on the first loose thread on sweater, others began to do so as well, and we see everything unravel.

The Gainesville Times, where Miranda worked for three months as a freelancer and a reporter, published a piece on her USA Today situation and audited her work. The paper stated it pulled only one story just to be on the safe side, noting Miranda had produced “only a small volume of work” for the publication.

Her college paper, the Red and Black at the University of Georgia began conducting its own audit of Miranda’s work after the USA Today situation came to light. That paper flagged 14 articles of concern of the 121 articles associated with Miranda. The publication then made the appropriate corrections or clarifications to six articles that didn’t pass muster after they were reexamined.

(If anyone wants to see perhaps the best example of transparency, thoroughness and honesty in the face of a potential disaster, read this write up on the Red and Black’s website that details the work the staff went through to address the problem. These folks essentially wrote the book on how to self-audit in a situation like this.)

To ask “why” is a pointless exercise. Each time a journalistic fraud emerges, we get a different story, none of which excuse the actions of the individual or fully satisfy the readers. It also provides us with an undeserved sense of superiority, as if “we” could never be capable of such a thing.

We all are.

Some of us deal with pressure better. Some of us grew up with a guilt complex. Some of us have a pathological fear of getting caught that keeps “bad things” in check for the most part.

But rest assured, not one of us is any less capable of cutting a corner or fudging a source. We just haven’t done it. Yet.

For journalists, journalism teachers and students who want to keep that demon at bay, go to the Red and Black and USA Today websites and look up the stories Miranda wrote in her brief journalism career. They are powerful, engaging and interesting pieces that run the gamut of social justice explorations to fun news features.

Now, just do a Google search on “Gabriela Miranda.”

Almost every link comes back to a story about her journalistic transgressions.

The L.A. Unified School District rescinding the suspension of the Daniel Pearl Magnet High School student media adviser is good news (but 3 things are still concerning)

Adriana Chavira got the victory that the law, common sense and public sentiment demanded for her on Friday. After a short meeting, an official of the L.A. Unified School District rescinded the three-day unpaid suspension she received for refusing to censor her student media outlet, an action that would have violated both her ethical code and California law:

At the meeting, Chavira’s representative from United Teachers Los Angeles read a letter from union lawyers in her defense, much of which cited California Education Code 48907. The law protects public school students’ “right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press” and shields school employees from disciplinary action for protecting that right.

A district official considered the matter for a few minutes before rescinding the suspension without comment, Chavira said.

The situation has been covered multiple times here and here and here and here, so in case you missed it, feel free to wander through the nitty gritty of the stupidity the administration of Daniel Pearl Magnet High School employed in this situation. Given all of this, the conclusion brought Chavira the opportunity to exhale:

A big part of me is really happy for Chavira and her students because the right thing got done (eventually) and they’re now able to go about covering the news instead of being the news. That said, here are three things that remain of concern in this whole mess:

CHAVIRA IS STILL IN A DANGER ZONE: A number of people have asked me, “How the heck did this situation get THIS FAR, given the law, the bad press and common sense?” My answer is simple: “Have you ever MET a school administrator?” I’ve dealt with dozens of them over the years and I have been regaled with stories from my mother over her 50-year career in education. Some of them are quite good, but on the whole, I’ve found administrators to be power-drunk, self-centered dictatorial rulers. On the rare instance they get spanked for overstepping, they tend not to think, “Gee, maybe I should reexamine my entire approach to life right now…”

Administrators will often strike back in a case like this with vague concerns and trumped-up grievances about the “quality” of the publication or “constant errors” that aren’t really errors. It is damned easy to gin up a lot of complaints about student media if you really want to, and if it makes their lives easier, administrators want to.

As a smart, dedicated journalist and educator, Chavira knows this whole thing isn’t going to be a “let’s let bygones be bygones” situation:

Yeah, I wouldn’t trust this guy any farther than I can throw a cheese cake underwater, either.

SELF-CENSORSHIP IS A REAL THING: About a decade ago, I studied controversial topics and how student media outlets deal with them. The research is kind of dense, but the short version is that people have an inherent willingness to self-censor in certain situations. That means that even when they know they’re right or they know they should act, they sometimes shy away from addressing certain issues out of an internal struggle that aims to keep them silent.

A good analogy might be the baseball player who steps into the batter’s box and digs in deep, only to get drilled in the head by a runaway fastball. Even after that player has recovered physically, it’s a lot harder to get psyched up to dig back in and not flinch.

This is not to say Chavira would wilt in the face of another tough story (all evidence points to the contrary) or that her students might fold under pressure (she’s taught them well and walked the walk herself). However, the willingness to self-censor takes on a lot of subtleties that often go unnoticed unless someone is looking for them.

A person might ask not to be named and a reporter thinks, “Eh… It’s not worth arguing.” A story has the ability to really rock the hell out of an institution and an editor thinks, “I’m not sure we’ve got a bulletproof story yet…” A staff wants to protect an adviser, so they decide to stay away from anything that is really dangerous.

Even if the staff of the Pearl Post has the guts of a cat burglar, a few pangs of concern will likely scratch at the backs of staffers’ heads. That’s something they’re going to have to be aware of and deal with as they move forward.

THIS ISN’T A ONE-OFF: Even with those two previous concerns, I’m thrilled for Chavira and her kids in this case. She played the game right, and in the end she won. The problem here is that she’s not the only person getting a kick in the teeth these days in the student media realm.

If you take a look at the Student Press Law Center’s website, you’ll get a sense of how many advisers and editors are getting smacked around for simply exercising their Constitutional rights. Even worse, a lot of this is happening in states that don’t have laws like California’s, which was the bulletproof shield Chavira needed to finally end this debacle. Administrators are killing newspapers, attempting prior review and engaging in all sorts of other unsavory things. For every one case of the law getting it right and providing victory to student press, we have a half-dozen other cases of ham-handed chuckleheads who see the student press as kids “playing” journalists.

If there is one reassuring thing here and now, it’s that a lot of these cases end up on the radar of the SPLC, which has a track record of rallying the troops and fending off the stupidity. It’s also good in Chavira’s case that we’ll all be watching to see what happens with her kids and her review over the next year or so.

Diligent vigilance will need to be our resting pulse in the foreseeable future.

Maybe do a Google search before trying to sell me something? (A Throwback Thursday look at bad booksellers)

Today’s Throwback Thursday comes courtesy of an experience I had with a book rep this week. As noted earlier, I kind of got thrown into teaching Mass Com Law at the last minute, so I was working off of someone else’s book choices, class structure and so forth. About two days in, a student reached out to me with a panicked email about the e-code not working for her textbook.

I had no idea what she meant, so after about six false starts, I found out that the company who produced the book required me to set up an account with them and thus allow students to “attach” to me so they could read the book. The rep who got this done for me after a few of my own panicked emails was a nice enough guy, and he stopped by Tuesday to see how I was liking the book.

We chatted a bit about the text, the e-system and other items before the inevitable “sales question” hit for him:

Him: “So what else do you teach?”

Me: “Oh, a bunch of stuff. Writing for the media, reporting, editing, blogging…”

Him: “Hey, what book do you use for your reporting class? We’ve got a great one…”

He then went on to sing the praises of his company’s reporting book for a bit, while sitting directly across from this:

As we talked more about me needing a blogging book than a reporting book, he told me, “Oh, we don’t do stuff like that…” explaining that it doesn’t have a big enough niche to make it worthwhile.

That led to this:

Me: “Yeah, it takes a lot to make sure things are up to date for books.”

Him: “Uh huh… Books take a lot of work.”

Really?  Y’don’t say… as you are staring directly at this:

I’m not trying to pick on the guy for lack of situational awareness, but he did manage to notice at least a dozen specific bobbleheads in my collection that were RIGHT ON TOP of the things he failed to notice in those photos. Also, I’m not arrogant enough to think someone should know about me like I’m important or famous, but a simple Google search is the least you can do if you’re going somewhere to try to sell someone something.

In any case, here’s the look at the last time stuff got this socially awkward over my quest to write a textbook about everything on Earth…


 

So… No, then? (or why it’s important to research your readers before you pitch to them)

I understand this blog tends to skew more toward news than some folks might appreciate, given that my entire pitch for the “Dynamics of Media Writing” is that ALL disciplines of media (news, PR, Ad, marketing etc.) can get something of value out of it. The skew is due to trying to cover both the media-writing text and the news reporting and writing text in one spot. It also also comes from the idea that a lot of things people perceive as “news” things are actually valuable for all media, including skills like interviewing, research, inverted-pyramid writing and so forth. Finally, it seems that news folks tend to make more public mistakes than do some of the other disciplines, so I get more content there. (If you want me to hit on more topics in the PR/Ad/Marketing stuff, feel free to pitch me some thoughts. I’d love to do it.)

That said, occasionally there is a specific foul up in a specific part of the field that bears some analysis. Consider that when you look at this email I got the other day. I redacted the identifiers as best I could:

Dear Professor Filak,

​Greetings from (COMPANY NAME)! ​I hope this finds you well. In the coming months, (AUTHOR NAMES) will begin to revise the twelfth edition of their introductory journalism text, (REPORTING BOOK NAME). ​This text strives to give students the knowledge and skills they need to master the nuts and bolts of news stories, as well as guidance for landing a job in an evolving journalism industry.
Right now we are seeking instructors to review the twelfth edition of (REPORTING BOOK NAME) ​a​nd provide feedback. This input is invaluable to us, ​as it ​giv​es​ us a greater sense of how to best address both instructor and student needs. ​If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon, would you be interested in offering your feedback?
If you would like to review, please respond to this email and let me know if you will need a copy of the printed text. You should plan to submit your comments via TextReviews by 2/6/18. In return for your help, we would like to offer you (MONEY).
At your earliest convenience, kindly respond to this e-mail to let me know if you are available and interested in participating. ​Again, please let me know if you will need a copy of (REPORTING BOOK NAME)
I’m always happy to help people and I’m not averse to making a buck by pretending to know what I’m talking about, but this felt both awkward and ridiculous. One of the things both “Dynamics” books push a lot is the idea of making sure you know what you’re talking about before you ask a question. The books also push the idea of researching your audience members so you know how best to approach them. Either the person writing this email didn’t do that or just didn’t care.
Here’s how I know that: It’s called “Google.”
Had this person done even a basic search on me she would have learned several things:
  • I am teaching the courses they associate with this book. I teach nothing but these courses, as you can find on the UWO journalism department website. The line of “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” tells me I’m on a list somewhere and this is a form email at best.

 

  • I wrote several books, including one that is likely to be some form of competition for this book. (I’m not saying it will be as good or better or anything, but my title includes words like “news,” “reporting” and “writing,” so it’s a pretty safe bet we’re vying for the same students.) This was literally one of the top five items on the first page of my Google search. She also sent her message the same day I got this alert from Amazon:
  • NumberOne
(I have no idea how Amazon quantifies “#1 New Release in Journalism” but I’ll take it.)

The point is, it wasn’t a secret, so it appeared that she didn’t look me up and was like the guy at the bar telling me, “Hey, see that babe over there? I’m totally going to score with her!” and I’m like, “Uh, dude, that’s my wife…”
On the other hand, maybe she did look me up, found the book and asked anyway, which is like the even-worse guy at the bar who’s saying, “Hey man, your wife is pretty hot. Any chance you can give me some tips on how to score with her?”

Thinking about all of that for a moment, I did the polite thing and emailed back, explaining how I felt this would be a conflict of interest (it is), and that any advice I gave her would be likely be somewhat problematic as the author of a competing book (it is).  I also noted that I know the book she is pitching well (I do) and I know the authors well (I do), so this would also be a bit awkward for me (it really is). Here was her email back to me, which again made me think she wasn’t actually reading this:

Hi Professor Filak,

Thanks so much for letting me know. We will certainly keep you in mind for future projects!

So, again, the point of the blog isn’t to beat people up for doing things poorly but rather to offer advice on how to do things better. Here are a few basic tips:

  • Research first, then write: You don’t have to do an Ancestry.com profile on every person to whom you market or with whom you engage in outreach, but it’s not hard to Google someone. Most people put more social-media stalking effort into learning about the “new kid” at school than this person put into finding out about me. In marketing, you often have access to proprietary data as well, so you can find out if this person had any previous engagement with your organization. In my case, I used that book for more than a decade and still keep up with it, so that might have been something she could have found.
  • Personalize when possible: If you are sending out 100,000 requests for something like a survey and you are expecting a 10 percent response, you will not have the ability to personalize all of the information on everyone’s card or email. That makes sense. However, when you are microtargeting a group of people with a specific set of skills or interests and that group isn’t going to overwhelm a data center, work on personalizing your content. That line about “If you are currently teaching the introductory news reporting and writing course or will be teaching the course soon…” could have easily been tweaked to say something like, “I see you have taught writing and reporting courses at UW-Oshkosh…” and it wouldn’t have taken much. Making these minor tweaks shows that you have done your research. Engaging in some personalized communication shows your readers you care enough to see them as individuals as opposed to a wad of names on a spreadsheet.
  • Try not to screw up, but if you do, don’t ignore it: The one thing that stuck with me when I got that response email from her was that I didn’t think she figured out what she was actually asking me or why it was weird. I had that feeling that if I had written her back and said, “I’m sorry I can’t do this because I’ve just been placed in an intergalactic prison for the rest of my life for murdering a flock of Tribbles with a phaser I set to ‘kill’ instead of ‘stun,’” I would have gotten the exact same email back. The whole exchange really reminded me of this scene:
 The thing that is important to realize is that you are going into a field that has two important and scary things going for it:
  1. It’s small enough that you’re really about two degrees of separation from everyone else, so people know other people.
  2. People in the field love to talk.

If you end up screwing up because you didn’t do the first two things suggested above, don’t compound the problem.

I have no idea if I’ll ever get approached by this publisher to review anything, but I know I will always carry with me the memory of this interaction. Had it been a great interaction, that would have been good for the publisher. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The basics of crime reporting and writing (Part II)

(Editor’s Note: A journalism instructor asked for a primer on crime coverage, which led to the posts this week. Yesterday, we talked about the reporting/on-the-scene stuff. Today, we’ll close the loop with the work after the event and the writing process. If you ever need me to cover anything on the blog, just hit me up through the Contact page.)


WRITING A CRIME OR DISASTER STORY

Writing a crime story can feel like you’re trying to disarm a bomb in some cases. The trick is to make sure that you have a full understanding of what it is you’re trying to accomplish and where most of the danger zones are.

Leads: You want to almost always use an inverted pyramid lead, especially if you are new at this. Once you get better at it, you can always expand your range and approach. However,  you need to keep in mind that crime and disaster coverage isn’t something you want to get cute with. Someone has been victimized in this story. Somebody lost something or was hurt. Someone is accused of doing something that might turn out not to be true. The more direct you can be on this, the better off you are.

The lead is often the hardest part of this to build because you’re trying to cover the topic clearly and without libeling someone. You’re also trying to weave in key details that are going to grab someone’s attention without overloading the sentence and frustrating the readers.

Start with the noun-verb-object content, even if you have to write it in passive voice because you (and maybe even the authorities) don’t have a full set of information. In some cases things are easy because you can focus on that NVO structure without fear:

  • Fire damaged home
  • Flood displaces hundreds
  • Tornado kills three

In these cases, you’re not worrying so much that the fire’s mom or the flood’s cousin is going to call you up and scream at you about how they were “such a good act of nature.” You also don’t have to worry that the tornado is going to sue for libel. That’s easy. It’s harder in the cases of crime, particularly if you don’t know who did the deed

“The University Bookstore was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.”

Who did the robbing? Well, a robber, but we don’t know who it was and if someone were to be arrested, they still have some due process coming before we can say they actually did the deed.

Here’s another one:

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of threatening his neighbor’s dog with his pet King Cobra, police said.”

The noun is “police” here if we go NVO, with “Police arrest guy.” However, police almost ALWAYS arrest the people who get arrested, which is the same reason we don’t run headlines like “Voters elect Biden” for political stories. We can jazz it up by moving things around if we want:

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man threatened to use his King Cobra to kill his neighbor’s dog Sunday, police said.”

“A 43-year-old Oshkosh man, accused of threatening his neighbor’s dog with a King Cobra, was arrested Sunday, police said.”

In each case, you get something and you give something else up. You get an active-voice lead in the first one and you move up the snake thing. That said, you lose the arrest, which could come in the second paragraph. In the second one, you lose the active voice, but you move up the snake thing. You also end up with a dependent clause and three commas. In all three cases, however, you have an attribution, which matters a great deal.

Speaking of which…

Attribute the heck out of stuff: Several professional journalists told me that attributions are boring, get repetitive and are really falling out of fashion with writers. A bullet-proof vest isn’t fashionable either, but if I’m getting shot at, I want one.

Attributions can save your life. I’ve never heard of anyone being fired or sued for over attributing. However, there have been cases where people get into a lot of trouble for not attributing.

In the ESPN film “Judging Jewell,” Bert Roughton of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discussed several statements the paper made in print regarding Jewell, including one unattributed statement that said Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber.” Roughton said that the statement reflected the attitude of law enforcement officials the reporters had interviewed, but that without the attribution, this was something newspaper was reporting because it knew it to be true.

After 88 days of investigation, the FBI stated Jewell was no longer a suspect and in 2005, Eric Rudolph confessed to the bombing. The stigma of this intense scrutiny still stuck with Jewell for the rest of his life. It would be unfair to blame the lack of attribution for all of this, but it remains an example of a statement that demanded a “Says who?” answer.

 

Focus on the candy: What do people want to know most that they haven’t already heard should be the driving force of what goes up at the top of your stories. Look at the idea of what YOU would want to know most if you were being told this story. To that end, focus on things that matter most to your audience. Rely on the elements of newsvalue to drive your writing right up top. Don’t worry about what the police said was most important or what it is that happened first.

cartman whatever i do what i want - Focus on the Candy

Case in point: Let’s say you came home after class and your roommate said, “Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house.”

What is the FIRST THING you would want to know?

  • Is everyone OK?
  • How bad was the fire?
  • What the hell happened?

Now, read any fire department press release and see where that info is. In most cases, it’s at the bottom, because they tend to write chronologically. Also, they tend to focus on what THEY did because THEY are writing the press release. Imagine if your roommate started off with, “Well, the Boone County Fire Protection district dispatched Tanker Truck 12, Ladder 4 and Chief’s Car 1 to 212 S. Main St. on Sunday night in response to a 9-1-1 call regarding a fire. Firefighters deployed multiple hoses to attack the fire from both the north and west sides of the home…”

At what point are you grabbing your roommate by the neck and screaming, “JUST TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED!” Think about that when writing your piece.

Watch your words: If you are just starting in crime coverage, the terminology can be confusing. Before you use a word, make sure you know what that word means and that it actually fits what you’re talking about.

Not all homicides are murders. Burglaries are different than robberies. There is a difference between driving under the influence of intoxicants and drunk driving. If police say “alcohol was believed to be a factor in the crash” you don’t want to say a driver was drunk. If you don’t understand, ask for help, but don’t guess on your own.

That said, jargon in this area can be extremely awkward and problematic, so do your best to translate it into English. Here are a few examples:

  • Officer-involved shooting: What the heck does this mean? Did the cop shoot someone? Did they just load the gun for whoever shot someone else? Did they provide directions to someone’s house who was asking to be shot? Did they pack a lunch for the true “gunman?” This is one of the worst uses of soft language, so find out what happened. In most cases, it means the cop shot someone, so don’t be afraid to say it.
  • In nature: This is often added to the end of fire stories: “The fire was electrical in nature.” As opposed to what? In spirit? Did it want to grow up to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany at Fire University, so it joined its dad in the electrical fire trade?
  • Semi-automatic: This applies to guns, which is often stupid if you know what it means. The term refers to the idea that one bullet comes out each time the shooter pulls the trigger, without reloading the weapon or having to take additional actions. Unless the shooter was using a musket at the bank robbery, it’s a safe bet we had a semi-automatic weapon. If you want to include stuff about the gun, learn more about it.
  • “For:” Keep an eye on this one: “Smith was arrested for breaking into the home.” OK, you basically said, “He did this. Thank goodness we arrested him.” Sometimes, the longer version is better “Police said Smith broke into the home” or “Smith is accused of breaking into the home” or “Smith was charged with trespassing.”
  • Armed and dangerous: I’ll go back to Dennis Miller’s line on this one: “I think armed says it all for me. When are you ever armed and gregarious? Occasionally, you’ll bump into an Amish minister packing and uzi, but…”
  • Allegedly: This is just a thinly veiled accusation that gives people the sense that the person is basically guilty. I remember asking a friend of mine at the Student Press Law Center about this once and how much protection it provided you. None, he said before adding this:“The word “allegedly” is why libel lawyers can afford a second yacht.”

    You never want to convict someone in your story when they haven’t been convicted in court. Report what happened and attribute it: “suspected of doing X” or  “Police say he did X”  or “he was arrested Wednesday and will be charged with murder, police said.”

Also, when you write crime, you need to look out for  redundancies that make you look dumb. Things like “The armed gunman robbed the restaurant.” As opposed to what? The unarmed gunman? I would love to see someone report, “The double armed amputee entered the bank with a gun between his toes and demanded money…”

Same thing with “convicted murderer.” The only way you get to be a murderer (a legal term) is if you are convicted. “The body of a dead man” or my favorite “The corpse of a dead man.” If you aren’t dead, you’re not a body. You’re just a person.

Always go through and read your stuff out loud for any of these little pieces of joy.

And the last piece of advice I can give you…

BE AS CAREFUL AS YOU POSSIBLY CAN BE

A friend of mine was fond of saying that you can drown just as easily in 2 inches of water as you can in the Pacific Ocean. His point was that often people tend to pound out four-inch crime briefs without thinking through them and get themselves into a whole lot of trouble. It’s very rarely the huge investigative series about how your chancellor dresses up as a nun on the weekends and sells crack to grade schoolers that gets you into a lot of trouble. It’s almost ALWAYS the tiny crime briefs and the bad use of language that  lands you in hot water.

I often joke that paranoia is my best friend, but it really came from years on the cops beat. I look at every sentence I write and think, “How could this totally go wrong and screw me over?” If you approach crime writing like this, you’ll make more saves than you miss.

The basics of crime reporting and writing (Part I)

I got an “ask” from a journalism instructor to hit on a particular topic:

I was reaching out to see what guidance you could give me on teaching my students on how to cover crime stories.

As is the rule here, ask and ye shall receive. If anyone else has anything else you want me to cover, all you have to do is head to the Contact page and shoot me an email.

We’re going to do this in a two-parter because a) reporting crime and writing crime each involves a separate set of skills and b) I spent my entire journalism career covering crime, so I kind of geek out on it. I want to keep the posts tight (ish) so 10,000 or so words on crime is likely to crush your soul (or at least ruin breakfast and possibly lunch for you).

Truth be told, I always felt bad for my students because of my background. If they had a beat reporter in education, they’d learn about school board meetings, budgets and how to write features about first-grade kids making hand-print turkeys. If they had a business reporter, they’d learn about stocks, do profiles on industrialists and learn how to analyze budgets.

Instead, they get analogies that start with, “So there was this time that this drug dealer got shot to death on his porch…”

In any case, crime is important, even if we don’t always cover ourselves in glory while reporting on it. Let’s dig into the reporting elements of crime coverage and see where we go:


Covering crimes and disasters is an acquired taste, and doing it doesn’t come with a whole lot of guidelines. I’ve tried for years to “simulate” things for my students with police reports, mock press conferences, press releases and more, but it doesn’t really work. Until you’re on the scene of a shooting or you watch someone get pulled out of a farm thresher, you have no idea how you’re going to react.

Here are the two basic bits of advice that will help you the most in reporting on these things:

Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.

Focus on the task at hand by thinking about it like you’re picking up groceries off a list or like it’s any other event you’ve covered in your life. Don’t let the chaos throw you off. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and get the job done to the best of your ability.

Stay Safe: Police, fire and rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a crime or disaster. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.

Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

AT THE SCENE OF THE CRIME

At the scene of a disaster or a crime, what you get is always going to be a function of the incident itself and how much time you have to get it. If you are working for a traditional media platform, you may be pressed by a deadline for air or a print deadline.

If you’re using social media or a “web-first” model, you need to work through what you think, what you know and what you can prove before you start firing tweets into the atmosphere. In a lot of other stories, you can be a little off when it comes to your facts without being in a lot of trouble. Crime coverage isn’t one of those things. Say only what you know to be true and nothing more.

A great example of how this was done well came during the Waukesha Christmas Parade in 2021, when an SUV tore through the event, leaving six dead and another 60 injured. Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel business intern Kaylee Staral happened to be at the event, but jumped into reporter mode when the chaos began. Her tweets are a perfect example of what to do when all you know is what you can see:

She was able to tell people what she saw and heard, didn’t add in speculation and then passed her audience off to other people who were covering this more deeply. That might seem simple, but simple isn’t always easy when you’re dealing with a chaotic situation.

At the most basic level, here are the things you need to get at the scene of a crime or disaster:

Most important:

  1. Any death or severity of injury
  2. The identities of the people involved in the crime or disaster
  3. What happened? (Preferably this will come from the police. If not rely on corroborated witness statements. Don’t let the witnesses go rogue on you, though. More on this tomorrow.)
  4. Damage estimates (Again, from people in the know, if this is a fire, crash, flood or other similar incident.)

Secondary information:

  1. Witness accounts
  2. Biographic information on those involved (age, hometown etc.)
  3. Description of the scene based on your observations

WHERE YOU GET THIS STUFF:

Both in dealing with on-scene and after-the-scene reporting, you want to make sure that you are covering all your bases by reaching out to all potential sources. This is the duty to report, meaning you want to gather as much as you can from as many angles as you can. However, just because you GET certain bits of information, it doesn’t follow you HAVE TO publish that information. We’ll cover that tomorrow when we talk about editorial discretion.

In any case, here are some good sources for information in crime and disaster stories:

Officials (police/fire): Always start with any officials acting in an official capacity. Although journalism has become far more broad-based and opportunistic thanks to social media and citizen journalism, the law has not. Officials sources can often operate under absolute privilege, which transfers to you as “qualified privilege.” If you’ve taken law, you know that this means you can quote officials acting in that capacity without fear. (This doesn’t always apply to police or fire officials, depending on the laws of your state/city. Check this out to make sure on it.)

Even if they aren’t operating under privilege, these people have seen it all before and are more well equipped to tell you what happened in a clear and coherent manner. Witnesses are always happy to talk, but they are probably jacked up on adrenaline and are more likely to make mistakes or offer hyperbolic statements. What they say may make for more awesome quotes, but their words aren’t gospel and can hang you out to dry.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that these people can be wrong or they can obfuscate the truth in some cases. Just because it came from an official source, don’t treat it like it came via a burning bush from God. Gather info, verify it and THEN publish it. (More on that tomorrow.)

Assisting agencies (Red Cross/volunteers): Any time there’s a major disaster (fire, flood, famine) there are other agencies that assist the police, fire and National Guard. These people are great at adding information such as how wide spread the disaster was, how many people have been displaced or what the next steps will be for the victims. The degree to which they are “privileged” has been the cause of various discussions, so be careful and know the law where you work. Still, in most cases, they’re a good secondary source of information.

Witnesses: These people are a wild card because they were on the scene before the police or fire folks arrived, so they saw everything. They are also probably freaked out a bit or really excited that you want to talk to them. To that end, be exceptionally careful with them and make sure you aren’t allowing them to assign blame or cast aspersions. There’s a world of difference between a witness saying, “The car just sped around the corner and hit the house” and “It was clear that idiot was drunk or just didn’t care about anyone when he sped into the house.” The second quote is peppier, but it’s also potentially libelous.

Victims: This is something that can be a bit dicey and will vary a lot based on the type of disaster, the people involved and the amount of time between the disaster and the interview. In some cases, you don’t want anything to do with the victims because there are bigger issues involved. Don’t get in the way of the police who are trying to ascertain what happened or emergency personnel who are trying to administer medical care. Talking to victims, whether direct victims of crime or tangential ones (such as family members) isn’t easy.

I’ve had to approach the families of kids who have been killed, people who have been stabbed and folks who just lost everything the owned in a fire. It’s never fun and in many cases, you’re going to take the brunt of their anger. The key is to make sure you approach with caution and respect, present yourself to them in a professional manner and abide by their wishes if they tell you to leave. Don’t take it personally if they go off on you. They’re hurt and they probably just don’t know how to react, so they react like any other wounded creature: They lash out.

 

If there’s nothing else I can leave you with here, it’s that you need to remember you are human. In a lot of cases, we are emboldened by our job or powered by our adrenaline and we get way too dumb for our own good. If you find yourself getting pushy toward a victim or asking the stupid “How do you feel about that?” question, you’ve started to lose your humanity and that’s not a good thing. You need to make sure you are being decent to people while you do your job.

Of all the good things you might do, people who get you at your worst will only remember that about you.

 

TOMORROW: Writing crime and disasters while avoiding creating a second crime (libel) or disaster (corrections).