Big McLarge Huge (Or how to improve the descriptive power in your writing)

(The headline is both a great description that lacks value and also a total excuse for me to include this clip from MST3K’s “Space Mutiny” where the actors mock actor David Ryder with multiple nicknames.)

Descriptions are often crucial in journalism, as your writing will be the only way in which your readers will experience something important. The ability to describe something well can help put the audience right next to you as you outline the excitement of a sporting event, the beauty of a sunset or the tension of a crime scene.

To improve description, we need to look for words that are both universally understood and yet specific in their purpose. We also need to avoid words that are vague, ill-defined or otherwise problematic. Here are a few places where we often fail and ways in which we can improve our efforts:

DESCRIPTORS THAT LACK COMPARISON: One of the easiest ways to describe one thing is to relate it to something familiar to the readers. That’s why metaphors and similes often work well in all forms of writing. Describing the face of an embarrassed person as being “red as a clown’s nose” or the torso of a stout person as “barrel-chested” work because we’re familiar with those items.

(Perhaps my favorite descriptor was a hyperbolic one in which Detroit Piston Rick Mahorn was said to be “the size of your average freeway overpass.”)

The descriptors that don’t work are the ones where we need some form of comparative and it’s not there. To make that point, I’ll ask a student who has used one of these comparatives how tall they are. It often goes like this:

Me: How tall are you?
Student: 5-foot-11
Me: Are you tall?
Student: Not really.
Me: Well, in a K-4 class, you’re a giant.
Student: OK, I guess I’m tall.
Me: But on an NBA basketball team?
Student: Yeah, I’m kind of short.

The point is with out a sense of comparison, I have no way of using the descriptor “tall” in a meaningful way. The same is true of “short” or “thin” or “fat” or “average” whatever else falls into that area.

Instead, find words that are more succinct or spend a few extra words to describe the person, place or thing in more detail.

DESCRIPTORS THAT ARE VAGUE: Specifics are often key to description, as this comparison shows:

VAGUE: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had a few bullets left.”
SPECIFIC: “He needed to kill four zombies and he had three bullets left.”

The vague one offers hope. The specific one says this guy is lunch.

Words like “many” or “some” or “few” lack value as do words like “enough” because they lack a concrete meaning for the people who are trying to understand what you want them to see. To improve this, find ways of using context, specific numbers or other similar means to give the readers a better sense of the situation.

VAGUE: Frank had a lot of bobbleheads.
SPECIFIC: Frank had 1,218 bobbleheads.

VAGUE: Jill had many friends attend her speech.
SPECIFIC: Jill’s friends packed the auditorium to hear her speak.

VAGUE: Jim didn’t have enough money.
SPECIFIC: Jim didn’t have the money to pay both his electric bill and his water bill this month.

Perhaps the greatest (or most pointless) word we use often is “very.” Grammarian Don Ranly was fond of telling students that if they wanted to use the word “very,” they should substitute the word “damn,” as it had exactly the same level of meaning:

“Bill was very lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”
“Bill was damn lucky the fall didn’t kill him.”

“Rashawn was very hungry before dinner.”
“Rashawn was damn hungry before dinner.”

DESCRIPTORS OF OPINION: As noted in previous posts, author Stephen King noted that “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I’m not sure about that, but it is true that adverbs and other similar opinionated descriptors can do more harm than good in some situations.

Adverbs often convey the writer’s assessment of a situation, something that readers  or sources might not necessarily agree with. Consider the following:

“He  sustained only minor injuries, including a broken arm.”
“Fortunately, the firefighters limited the spread of the fire to half of the home.”
“The team clearly outperformed its opponent.”

In each case, I’m sure there could be an argument brewing from folks reading this stuff. A broken arm doesn’t seem like an “only” level of an injury. (I remember reading that, in sports lingo, a minor injury is one that happens to someone else.)

Even though the firefighters limited the fire, I doubt people feel fortunate about watching half their stuff go up in flames.

Finally, it’s unclear how clear that performance was or how it was defined. It could be by the score, the level of effort or some other such thing. Even more, maybe fans of the opponent would argue, “No, they just got lucky.”

A good way to fix this is to go hunting for those -ly words in your copy during your first edit. See if those words adequately augment what you’re trying to describe or if they just add conjecture or cause other problems.

Most of the sports reporters condemning Adam Schefter for violating the basic tenets of journalism are adorable hypocrites

ESPN’s Adam Schefter found himself in hot water last week after journalists kept digging through emails procured during the Jon Gruden debacle and found that Schefter was a little too close for comfort with a source:

In one of them from July 2011, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter sent Allen the draft of an unpublished story that was published later the same day.

“Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked,” Schefter wrote. “Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am ….”

ESPN released the following statement in response to the correspondence: “Without sharing all the specifics of the reporter’s process for a story from 10 years ago during the NFL lockout, we believe that nothing is more important to Adam and ESPN than providing fans the most accurate, fair and complete story.”

Schefter released a statement Wednesday saying it was rare for him to send a story to a source in advance of publication and he did so because of the “complex nature of collective bargaining talks.” He added, “In no way did I, or would I, cede editorial control or hand over final say about a story to anyone, ever.”

The overwhelming consensus in Schefter situation is that sharing a complete story with a source is a violation of the most basic tenets of journalism, which should lead to some serious and tangible consequences for Schefter. Poynter’s Tom Jones makes it clear that what Schefter did is a rather a serious offense in the field of reporting itself:

Now, would it be all right to share just a sentence or brief passage to make sure specific language about a convoluted subject is accurate? Perhaps, but only in very rare, last-resort cases and only to confirm facts, not editorial tone. It’s also OK, in many cases, to verbally tell a source what you’re working on and allow them to share their thoughts, preferably on the record.

But a reporter should never share the entire story and should never invite the source to offer something be “added, changed or tweaked,” as Schefter put it.

Fellow sports journalists also took to their various platforms to slap Schefter around for this indiscretion that happened more than a decade ago.

Andrew Bucholz at Awful Announcing noted the lack of ethics this demonstrates, as Schefter would seem to be biased toward the owners in his work, trading inside favors for inside information. 

Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and currently of The Atlantic, stated that Schefter never should have done it, noting that in her 20 years in the field “I’ve never let a source proofread, preview or edit any story.” (In defending Schefter against this and similar claims, business/sports analyst Darren Rovell tweeted that “we’ve all done this in the name of accuracy,” a claim he walked back a bit later.)

Jane McManus, a legendary sports journalist, outlined the way Schefter operates outside of journalism tenets for Deadspin in a piece titled: “Don’t be mad at Adam Schefter, he’s not really a journalist anymore” in which she notes:

Schefter isn’t so much an insider as he is a liaison. He has broken massive news, but he doesn’t do investigative reporting on every piece of information he gets. He can’t afford to alienate league sources, and he needs all 32 NFL teams behind him if he wants to continue to break news across the league.

We also have Barry Petchesky of Defector giving the situation a strong once-over with his piece “Adam Schefter is Pathetic and ESPN is Gutless.” He notes that Schefter’s actions don’t just violate “some arcane, ivory-tower, j-school ethical holdover” but really create a serious problem for sports journalism:

The story in question was not the typical Schefter pap. It would be one thing if Schefter was asking someone to sign off on the sort of disposable, 300-word filler item he usually traffics in. Tom Brady, please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked in this story reporting that you still have “the will to win.” That wouldn’t be fine, exactly, but also who cares.

But this story was actual news. It was a story about CBA negotiations between the players and owners during the 2011 lockout. It was a labor battle, with both sides keen to get their spin on events in front of the public. It was a story with real implications for the livelihoods of the people involved. And Adam Schefter chose to let someone from the management side of the bargaining table have final say on how it was presented.

I could easily turn this into a content curation piece titled, “Hey, let’s take Adam Schefter out back and beat the crap out of him!” And I suppose I could just join the clucking chorus of people who find Schefter’s decision to be a terrible violation of journalistic ethics to grind out a simple post. (Truth be told, I DO think this editorial offer and the cozy relationship between Schefter and former WFT President Bruce Allen, clear in the language in this exchange, are seriously problematic for someone purporting to be an objective journalist.)

Instead, I’m laughing at the sheer chutzpah of some “sports journalists” who are treating Schefter like a he’s a whore in church while ignoring that a large wing of the building has been converted to a brothel. How else could you explain “journalist” Jay Glazer’s actions at the 2010 NFL Pro Bowl where he’s begging the coach to let him call a play during the game?

Let me get this straight: I’m not supposed to take a cup of coffee from a source, but this chucklehead gets to badger a source into letting him become part of the action at a professional sporting event? I somehow doubt I’d get away with yelling out during a city council meeting, “Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! Let me propose an amendment! Let me propose an amendment! C’mon….”

It’s not that I’m against sports or sports journalism. I love reading this stuff for info on my favorite teams and updates on my favorite players. I like to know more than who won or who lost, sure, and much of this field and many of my former students and colleagues have gone on to do a lot of good work in this area.

However, many people operating in the field of sports journalism long ago abandoned the “Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism” that so many of them are claiming to uphold in the wake of the Schefter revelation.

I’m not just talking about the way I can’t get a score in the first three paragraphs of a story because the writer has chosen to blather on about some random detail that they think gives them “insider cred.” Nor am I talking about every lousy rhetorical device and beat-a-dead-horse cliche that shows up in everything they write like rhetorical questions or “game of inches” mentions.

I’m not even talking about the way in which some of these self-professed austere authorities on journalistic writing can’t seem to find a period or a return key if their lives depend on it.

And yes, it still bugs me when reporters say that “Aaron Rodgers has thrown for over 300 yards, completing passes to eight different receivers.” No, he has thrown for MORE THAN 300 yards and of course the receivers are “different.” If we could have cloned Davante Adams, don’t you think we would have done that by now?

And don’t get me started on verbs of attribution…

I’ve given up on all of that ever changing, much in the way that I know nobody really goes the speed limit anymore and rolling stops are totally acceptable behavior unless a cop is nearby and really wants to put the screws to you.

I’m talking about how many of the supposedly vigilant journalists in this area of journalism violate significant journalistic norms on a frequent basis. Consider these areas of concern:

UNNAMED SOURCES: The rule in journalism is that we name our sources except in the most extreme cases. Those cases tend to be things like if the person’s life is in danger or the information is so explosive as to create serious consequences for the source. Think Deep Throat in Watergate, in which the information led Woodward and Bernstein to help bring down the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists makes the clear in two key points:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Sports journalists hand out anonymity like Halloween candy. If you think I’m overstating this, consider this set of stories at the top of an ESPN feed:

You have three journalists, covering three sports, all for ESPN, relying on a “source” or “sources.” And I just randomly grabbed this while trying to make this point on a random weekday in October, so it’s not like I had to work really hard to find an example of this approach. In going through the stories, none of the stories name that “source” or “sources,” so we have no idea who said these things, how likely they are to be true or what those individuals’ agendas might be in sharing this information.

I asked a former student of mine who shall remain nameless (since we’re doing that now, apparently) who covers professional sports about the lack of named sources in this part of the field. He said, “If we made these people put their names on this stuff, they wouldn’t tell us anything.”

OK, I get that it can be tough to get a source to put their name on a statement calling Tom Brady a pretentious dingleberry or something, but that’s something we ALL face in EVERY part of journalism.

The question we often have to ask ourselves in journalism is if the juice is worth the squeeze: Can we get this from another source? Is this material worth giving someone the cloak of anonymity? What will this do to future interactions I have with this and other sources who don’t want to talk on the record?

I would wager a pretty hefty amount that a good percentage of the pearl-clutching contingent that is castigating Schefter right now have at least a few “sources said” pieces in their portfolio.


OBJECTIVITY AND FAIRNESS: Most ethical codes surrounding journalism require journalists to adhere to the premise of objectivity and apply the principles of fairness. What that means can vary, but here are some thoughts from a few codes that govern the field:

For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

Ethical journalism resists false dichotomies – either/or, always/never, black/white thinking – and considers a range of alternatives between the extremes.

Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage…

So, be decent, fair, balanced and such, all of which don’t seem to be reflected in The Defector’s piece titled “Kirk Cousins Sucks:

If the proliferation of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines has done one thing for us, aside from providing life-saving protection against a deadly virus, it’s to reveal exactly what sorts of dickweeds have always been surrounding us in our daily lives. For example, before the vaccines existed, I always thought of Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as a corny, harmlessly dim guy who I would never want to hang out with, but who for the most part seemed decent enough. He was just a dude. But now, I know the truth: Kirk Cousins fucking sucks!

And let’s go to Deadspin, which is where several of my students have told me that they hope to work someday:

Kyrie is Kyrie’s greatest foe. He has an affinity for becoming the catalyst of hoopla and endless Twitter conversations due to his willful and stupid decisions. We’ve become an audience to a man that’s failing and succeeding on a public stage and every hit and miss — on or off the court — is a fascinating watch. And because of that, one thing has become clear: Kyrie Irving has no idea what the hell he’s doing.

These are a few of the more tame ones from a couple publications that shamed Schefter that I can toss up without truly watching the folks at SAGE explode “Scanners style.” Let’s just say these places aren’t exactly taking an evenhanded approach to content.

UNATTRIBUTED OPINION AND SELF-IMPORTANT GARBAGE: Author Stephen King has been quoted as saying, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I also seem to recall at least one editor telling me after I wrote that someone “luckily” escaped a fire, that “If they were lucky, the damned fire wouldn’t have happened at all.”

Maybe that’s a bit too restrictive for the world in which we currently live, but avoiding the inclusion of any opinion is definitely among the basic rules of journalism we supposedly all held near and dear as true bastions of the field. So let’s consider a few sports leads.

Here’s one about my beloved Badgers that ran over the weekend:

MADISON, Wis. — — The one big weakness of Wisconsin’s otherwise outstanding defense this season has been its inability to force turnovers.

(Side note: The Badgers gave up 41 and 38 points on consecutive weekends, so I’m not sure how outstanding that defense is, and no, holding Eastern Michigan to 7 points isn’t supportive evidence of that supposition.)

And here’s one about the Louisiana State game:

BATON ROUGE, La. — — LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price and the Tiger’s offensive line apparently have figured something out.

That could improve LSU’s prospects for the balance of what has been a turbulent season.

And here’s one about Georgia, the No. 1 team in the country:

ATHENS, Ga. — — The final seconds were meaningless.

Except to the Georgia defense.

If I were grading these leads, I’d be scrawling “SAYS WHO?” all over the place.

There’s nothing wrong with not leading with the score, although I’d argue that’s what most people would actually want to read, as opposed to whatever self-important tortured prose the writer feels necessary to impose upon us to inflate their ego. However, if you’re going to dive into this field of random concept leads, let’s do it in a way that actually works.

Find people who say that Wisconsin’s defense is awesome, but sucks at getting turnovers, that LSU is having more turbulence this year than the final scene of “Passenger 57” and that Georgia’s D cared about the final seconds. Then actually quote those people and make that your lead.

Even worse than that is when the journalists decide that it’s super-important to mention themselves in their work. Again, I’ve given up on the “Told ESPN” or “exclusively revealed to WXYZ” or other self-aggrandizing crap that masquerades as “branding” and “marketing.”

However, here’s the lead of Mike Florio’s piece on the latest shoe to drop in the WFT email scandal:

Well, now we know why NFL general counsel Jeff Pash declined a request to be interviewed by PFT.

In one sentence, he references his publication (Pro Football Talk), pats himself on the back for requesting an interview, weaves in first person and essentially writes in the language of “smirk.” Not bad for a guy who took  Schefter to task for not following standard operating procedures when it comes to real journalism. (And that was the best “smirk back” I could manage.)

In any case…

The bigger question of “Is all of this terrible?” deserves to be addressed here. If the people who publish this stuff are serving an audience, providing information and not harming others who don’t deserve it, OK, fine.

Go ahead and call someone a “dickweed” or spend six paragraphs explaining how a coach picking his nose was a profound moment that led to a 58-0 blowout win. Write opinion pieces that go on for about 7,000 words and include the word “doucheknuckle” or whatever.

But admit that’s what you are and stop trying to pretend you wouldn’t do anything outside of the restrictive tenets of journalism because its beneath the dignity of the field you hold in such high esteem. Be honest with yourself and your audience by saying something like, “No, it wasn’t smart what he did, but we’ve all bent a rule here or there and probably shouldn’t have.”

Or to put it in language these folks might understand:

“Let ye who is without an amazingly, viciously, painfully awkward personal or professional screw up look off the free safety and then use your laser-rocket arm to cast that first stone and put it right on the numbers when your team needs it the most.  Otherwise, dig deep into your bag of tricks and diagram a better response in your playbook.”

“Suicide grief is unlike any other.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: I try to keep the blog focused on stuff to do with the books, journalism, student media and more, following that 70-20-10 rule of blogging, with only 10 percent being some form of personal or promotional thing. In most cases when I do, I ask you to feel free to skip the post

But not this time.

Please read this. It’s probably more important than anything else I’ve posted.


His name was Tyler and he was a teenage boy. He and my daughter Zoe dated for a bit before deciding they’d just be good friends.

They were in the same classes, talked about the same things, had the same fears, pondered the same concerns.

Saturday morning, he messaged Zoe a picture of himself smiling.

She messaged him back, explaining she was rushing off to work after oversleeping.

“Good luck,” he wrote back. She later was told that was the last thing anyone would hear from him.

Later that day, he died by suicide.

Shock became grief. Grief became pain. Pain became regret. All of this washed over my kid. As a parent, I was at a total loss. All any parent wants to do is take away whatever is hurting our kids. I couldn’t do that.

What I could do was what I’ve always done as a journalist and educator: If I didn’t know something, I went looking for people who might.

Courtesy of Nicole Bogdas

Nicole Bogdas is a former journalism student of mine who has worked as a Crisis Intervention Specialist, answering calls for Lifeline, for four years. She has her master’s of social work from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

She also understands suicide prevention and the importance of speaking publicly about mental health issues in a distinctive way. When she wrote a newspaper article about a decade ago that detailed her own struggles, I found it to be one of the most courageous things I’ve ever seen.

I never knew she dealt with these issues, something that seems like an unfortunate par for the course in our society. I thought about last week’s post about the mental and emotional health issues students are facing these days as they try to navigate school, student media and life in general. I know that for every Claire Hao who is willing and able to say something, there are so many more people living on the edge of the worst of things, teetering into the point of no return.

I asked Nicole to write something for the blog today, not even knowing what to ask for. All I knew was that I was feeling hopelessly lost in all this and someone way smarter than I am needed to say something to help someone in some way. Seeing what this situation has done to our daughter is just devastating to Amy and I. I don’t imagine we are alone in this, nor can I imagine how much harder this is on Tyler’s family or the families of other people who have died in this way.

Below is Nicole’s post on this topic. At the end of it is contact information for several services that could save someone’s life. Please take the time to read her words. I hope they help you or someone you know.

I’ll be back next week, hopefully with more weird journalism and educational lessons to share.


Read the following word and think about how it makes you feel: Suicide.

It’s a scary thing to think about. It’s a scary thing to talk about. But there were more than double the amount of suicides than homicides in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It is also the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34.

You’ve read the word. Now say it out loud: Suicide.

How does that make you feel? Was it harder? It’s harder for a lot of people, but saying the word normalizes the word. Not the behavior, just the word. In fact, many suicidal people are relieved to hear the word as it brings the subject out into the open; the person suffering no longer has to do so in silence. So, get used to saying the word.

Another phrase to consider is “committed suicide.” It’s probably unconscious to most people, but that words implies a crime is happening; it creates shame. It’s why we need to use the word with people we care about. Use suicided, took their own life or died by suicide instead.

(For more on language and journalism related to suicide, visit Reporting on Suicide)

Changing your language is only one way help reduce the stigma surrounding suicidal ideation and mental health in general. Looking out for the warning signs of suicidality and starting a conversation with the person you are concerned about can be scary, but it’s also courageous. How do you know if someone is struggling?

Here are just a few of the behaviors that might be exhibited by someone who is having thoughts of suicide:

Withdrawing from loved ones and isolating. This is due both because many people who are suicidal feel like a burden on their loved ones. It also has to do with the aforementioned stigma, and relates directly back to the need use straightforward language.

Making preparations. This takes many forms. The most common is writing a suicide note. Don’t let that fool you, many “notes” are electronic now. Giving away possessions is another warning sign. Texts to friends, comments on various social media platforms. In adults, this could look like taking out a life insurance policy or drawing up a will. People having trouble sleeping and experiencing an increase in anxiety can also trigger or indicate thoughts of suicide.

Losing interest in things they once loved. Any significant shift in behavior or mood should be considered a red flag. You might ask yourself, “What if these changes are attention-seeking?” Or “Teens are so dramatic anyway!” Here is where you change language again, but also reframe the situation to better understand why those behaviors are happening.

Attention-seeking implies there is something wrong with the person who’s changed. You might begin to think they’re high maintenance. Or perhaps you feel like your child is just going through a phase. Forget attention-seeking. These people are SUPPORT-seeking. But there’s that pesky word no one wants to say again: Suicide.

Say it now. Say it to anyone you care about that you think is struggling.

Talking is a good start, what happens next?  Do what is called “removing access to lethal means.” What does that look like? Lock up your guns or give them to someone not in the home. If you do nothing else remove your firearms. The majority of suicides that result in death involve a gun. Men are more likely to attempt this way. Parents, kids are wily. You might think you’re the only one with the code to the gun safe, but are you sure? Securing ammunition and firearms in separate locked boxes is another step you can take.

Lock up all the medications. This is the most common way to attempt and most often used by women. Sharp objects, ropes and belts should also be removed.

How do you get your friend or family member help? If the risk is imminent, call the police. Ask for a CIT-trained officer. That stands for Crisis Intervention Team, and they are trained to respond to behavioral-health related calls. If you are in a different jurisdiction than the person at risk, you’ll have to look up and call their police non-emergency number as dialing 911 will only connect you to your police department.

Most counties have what are called Mobile Crisis Units. They provide medical care, safety and some kind of mental health care worker like a counselor. MCUs can do many things and it varies by jurisdiction. Usually they will talk to the person in crisis and work with everyone to assess the next best steps.

Mental heath urgent care centers are becoming more common. Some places will hold people for 24-hour stabilization. Some let you see a psychiatrist or a therapist upon arrival. If you do not have access to this, or the threat is imminent, but the person is safe with you, take them to the hospital. Just the regular emergency room. At that point there will be stabilization and discussion of whether inpatient care would be beneficial for your friend.

What will happen if they are admitted? Every hospital is different. In general, they will be stripped of all belongings that will be secured safely during their stay. The unit will most likely be locked. They will be assigned a psychiatrist and a social worker. The floor is probably staffed by nurses. There will be mental health programming via individual and group therapy throughout the day. Your loved one will have access to a phone.

If the crisis is not immediate, do what you can to help your loved one set up appointments or get connected to local services. You can do this by calling their insurance company or, for free and low-cost options, visit Do what you can to walk them through this process, they are likely exhausted and possibly could be having trouble with cognition.

What might be even harder to say than “suicide” is “my loved one died by suicide.” Suicide grief is unlike any other. When people age, we expect death. When people are in an accident, it’s just that: an accident. When people die by suicide it is not an accident and those left behind often shoulder a lot of self-imposed blame. You wonder if you could have done more. You wonder why they didn’t reach out to you.

But suicide is NEVER your fault.

And now you know what to watch for and how to start a conversation.

If you have more questions or need support in any way, you can call Lifeline: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You do not have to be suicidal to call. You should also make sure your loved one has the number saved in their phone. Soon, you will only need to dial three numbers to be connected.

Throwback Thursday- Writing 101: We’re still not using the right damned words…

I had to go back and find this post after I had a student note in a report that something “cone sided” with something else. Immediately, the j-nerds were off and running with their “all intensive purposes,” “youth in Asia,” “acid tape” and more.

With that in mind, here’s a look back at using the right damned words again…

Writing 101: We’re still not using the right damned words…

Journalism is about using the right word in the right way all of the time, a task we fail at far too often as we saw with last week’s “Throwback Thursday” post on using the right damned word. When this post first ran, some editors chimed in with a few of their favorite errors, but not much else happened.

This time, the post hit the academic circuit, where instructors of all kinds found themselves sharing the “greatest hits album” of errors as well, proving once again that it’s not just journalism where wordplay can turn ugly.

(One reader chastised me, noting that “learning disabilities make it hard for some people to recognize their errors,” and that I should think twice about posting such a list. I have taught hundreds of students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities over my decades in higher ed. I’ve also worked closely with the various offices that serve these students so I could assist my pupils and recognize signs that students may need this kind of assistance. I can assure you that I would never make fun of a student, or the student’s work, in such a case. I can also assure you that what we’re talking about here sure as hell ain’t that.)

So, with that out of the way and with all of this in mind, here’s an expanded list of word failures educators seem to be seeing more of these days:


ethnic: Related to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origin or background. “Leaders of ethnic communities met Thursday to discuss bias complaints against community police officers.”

ethic: A set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct. “People admired Stan for his strong work ethic.”


barely: By a small amount; almost not. “After that final exam, I barely passed statistics.”

barley: A hardy cereal plant that is used in various cooked dishes. “Ethel added barley to her beef soup to make it thicker and more delicious.”


(Speaking of cereal, the “c” version of this is meant to denote certain grains used in food or breakfast foods made, in part, from those grains. The “s” version, as in “serial,” means in an order or a pattern, like the sequential numbers on money or the specific way certain people kill. Thus, if you hear read the phrase “cereal killer,” it’s time to watch out for that damned leprechaun on your Lucky Charms box.)


insight: The ability to understand or comprehend something at a higher level than others can. “Because she studied royal protocol for years, YaVonda had a keen insight as to how to behave when she met the queen.”

incite: An attempt to get others to act in a violent or lawless fashion. “If Bobby goes down to that peaceful protest, he will incite the crowd to riot.”


Spainders: Not a damned word.

Spaniards: People from Spain.

Spaniels: A dog breed with long silky hair.


Coulda/Woulda/Shoulda: What your mother tells you after you screwed up.

Could of/Would of/Should of: Not damned word couplings.

Could have/Would have/Should have: What you could have, would have or should have written in your paper instead of the previous two sets of words.


highschool: Not a damned word, unless there’s a drug euphemism I can’t locate online. “Jimmy had trouble rolling a joint, but after Susie took him to highschool, he was a master of the Zig Zags.”

high school: Where kids in the U.S. go from ages 14-18 (or more) to learn stuff. “If I had paid attention in high school, I probably wouldn’t be making all these word-choice errors.”


trial: A court hearing in which people are found to be guilty or not guilty on charges brought against them. “Liam was found not guilty after his recent murder trial.”

trail: A path or roadway you hike on. “The cowboys agreed that after the cattle drive, they’d meet at the end of the Chisholm trail to camp for the night.”


manor: A place people live. “Batman’s Batcave was hidden under the stately Wayne Manor.”

manner: A way of being. “Jim’s off-putting manner made the women in his office feel awkward when they were near him.”


saleing: Despite what your marketing professor is trying to make happen, it’s not a damned word:

selling: What people are actually doing when other people are actively buying stuff the marketing people are promoting. “These Melon Patch Dolls are selling like hot cakes this holiday season!”

sailing: A boating activity that takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be… Just a dream and the wind to carry me…


Weeknd: Something that used to not be a damned word until Abel Makkonen Tesfaye came along and created some truly bangin’ music.

weekend: The time at the end of the week, in which some people who aren’t teachers or professors, get to relax and enjoy themselves. “I can’t wait for the weekend to get here so I can sleep late.”

weakened: Something that has deteriorated in some way from its previous position of strength. “Luis is worried about COVID-19 because he has a weakened immune system.”

(Side note: If anyone tells you they have a “weekend immune system,” they either a) have word-choice issues, b) need to spend Monday through Friday in a plastic bubble or c) are making some reference about their partying prowess like, “Don’t worry, bro… I can handle as much tequila as you can sling my way due to my weekend immune system!”)


thrown: Tossed, pitched or otherwise hurled. “The ball was thrown to the plate, but the runner was safe at home.”

throne: The thing kings and queens get to sit on. “The throne in Buckingham Palace is not as ornate as I would have imagined it to be.”

(Side note: “Game of Thrones” would be a lot different if it were “Game of Throwns.”)


customer: Person buying something. “The customer is always right, even if they’re being a total knob about it…”

costumer: A person or company that makes fanciful outfits for actors and actresses. “Janine spent five years on Broadway as a costumer for a prominent theater group.”


porpoise: An aquatic mammal that looks like a dolphin but is actually a small-toothed member of the whale family. “I wanted to go to Sea World so I could look at a porpoise.”

purpose: A reason for being. “I believe my purpose in life is to embarrass my kid in front of any boy, girl or creature she chooses to date.”


peak: The top level of an occurrence, or the highest elevation of a mountain. “Lamont ate four sandwiches before the race, so there’s no way he’ll reach peak performance.” OR “Alaina climbed to the peak of Mount Everest.”

peek: A quick glimpse of something. “I just needed to take a peek inside my kid’s room to realize the place was a disaster area.”

pique: Heighten or stimulate. “The package that came for her roommate served to pique Marlena’s curiosity.”


bizarre: Weird, strange, unexpected, abnormal. “When the superintendent jumped on the table and began to cluck like a chicken, the school board meeting took a bizarre turn.”

bazaar: A place in which goods are sold or traded, traditionally linked to Middle Eastern cultures. “To make money for his family, Abdul sold trinkets to tourists at the bazaar.”


ballot: A thing you use to cast a vote. “On her ballot, Maria selected ‘None of the Above’ for mayor.”

ballad: A slow, folksy song of a narrative nature. “Johnny Cash sang ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,’ on his ‘Bitter Tears’ album.”


Flamingo: A tall wading bird that is often pink. “I saw a flamingo while vacationing in Florida.”

Flamenco: A form of song and dance traditionally associated with cultures in southern Spain. “There are more than 50 types of Flamenco that experts have distinguished within the art form.”

Although I would like to say that there is no such thing as a “flamingo dance,”  it turns out that in one instance, it is the case. Enjoy:

Other than that, the story was perfect: Boulder Daily Camera retracts a 9/11 reflections piece due to lies, fictions and falsehoods

Even small errors in journalism, like getting a date wrong or misspelling a street name, can cost you a great amount of credibility with your readers. So, I’m wondering what the folks of Boulder, Colorado thought when they woke up Saturday to find their paper had retracted a story due to massive journalistic fraud:

The Camera is retracting an article that appeared in its Sept. 11 edition, headlined “Reflections on finding peace.” The newspaper has concluded the article substantially misrepresented the stories of its primary subjects — Mark Pfundstein, John Maynard and Danna Hirsch.

The Camera has determined that multiple statements attributed to these sources, including purported direct quotations, were fabricated.

What follows this embarrassing, but seemingly tame, opening is a list of at least 30 egregious errors and fabrications in a story The Boulder Daily Camera published for its 9/11 edition. The paper itself notes that “this list does not necessarily constitute every error in the article,” which at this point felt like the paper said, “Somebody found ANOTHER screw up? Oh, hell, we give up on this…”

It’s not always possible to fact check every quote, nor has every source who claimed “That’s not what I said,” been right about that statement, but this is beyond ridiculous. Of the errors listed, here are a couple that I think a semi-decent editor would have caught:

  • The headline’s labeling of the subjects of the story as “survivors of 9/11.” None were present at any of the attack locations.
  • The location of the Pentagon.
  • The timing of some events on 9/11.

The story is truly retracted, as in I couldn’t find it anywhere online and others who had been tracking it noted it “suddenly went ‘poof.'”

(UPDATE: Shout out to Ted Bridis who found the original story via press reader. You can see it here.)

The paper didn’t identify the writer or what “internal steps” the folks at the paper planned to take in this situation. However, journalist and educator Corey Hutchins took to Substack to fill in a few of these holes:

According to the bio on the paper’s website, Morganroth worked for the Prairie Mountain Media organization since December and has more than 20 years of experience in media:

(That said, her LinkedIn profile is a bit less aggrandizing and a bit messier in terms of jobs and a timeline, which includes a photo business that seems to have started when she was in third grade, so in the wake of a situation like this 9/11 story, I’d be really interested to see an objective and complete look at who she is and what she’s done.)

When it comes to situations like this one, the reason for blogging about it is to point out things that we can all learn from. In this case, I think there are multiple “teachable moments” related to all of the aspects of this debacle:

BE TRANSPARENT: The Daily Camera was about half right in its actions related to this mess. First, it retracted the story. Second, it tried to make amends to its sources and readers (kinda). Third, it promised to deal with the situation so it wouldn’t happen again.

Where it failed was in several key areas of transparency, such as killing the story from its archives entirely. Although several other major media outlet such as Rolling Stone have done similar things, the model the Atlantic used in regard to Ruth Shalit Barrett’s retracted piece on parents obsessed over niche sports seems to be the best. The magazine ran the entire correction/retraction under her byline and included a PDF of the original article for people to read so they could see what the editors initially saw.

In deleting the original, we all have no real idea what the editors saw or how truly egregious the content was. Sure we can guess from what they’ve told us, but the line about not being sure it caught all the errors doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in my ability to make a guess.

Second, the paper should have released the name of the reporter to the public, but not for the purpose of public shaming. I’m not a huge fan of burning people at the stake on Twitter because they used the wrong pronoun or they mumbled when accidentally combining two words in a way that sound to almost nobody but the highly offendable like a racial slur.

However, when we’re talking about someone who fabricated THIS MUCH stuff in ONE ARTICLE, it probably merits naming names so people can figure out what other stuff this person wrote and how seriously it should be taken.

Between that 9/11 article and her final listing on the publication’s website, Morganroth appears to have written at least five other pieces. How much of those are real? Do they contain errors that might need correcting? If they readers don’t know who faked the 9/11 story, how can they feel secure in the work ANYONE at the paper did?

Think about it like this: If you went home to eat some leftovers for dinner tonight, and your roommate said, “Hey, I ate some leftovers for lunch and I’ve been throwing up all day,” wouldn’t it be highly likely that you’d like to know what they ate? And if they DIDN’T tell you, what’s the likelihood you’d be calling for a pizza instead of touching anything in the fridge?

By explaining who did what, the paper could limit the credibility damage and support the people at the paper who continue to abide by the ethical standards of journalism.

START DIGGING: Every time something like this happens, I go back to what my friend Allison used to tell me about shady folks she covered her investigative reporting days: “They never did it just once.”

When Mike Ward of the Houston Chronicle was caught fabricating “regular people” and their quotes, it turned out he had done this multiple times across many years.

Stephen Glass fabricated entire stories at The New Republic, with an internal investigation finding 27 of his 41 pieces were either partially or completely made up. (Some suspected even more had falsehoods or fakery in them.)

When Jayson Blair was caught making up content in The New  York Times, researchers found he was faking things as far back as his time with The Diamondback student newspaper at Maryland.

When Glass did an interview with “60 Minutes” a few years after he was caught, he outlined the way in which he took a small step into the world of fraud with a single faked quote. After that, it was a few more of them until eventually, he was making up things out of whole cloth.

I could be wrong in my assumption here, but I’m guessing Morganroth probably followed a similar pattern. I can’t believe a journalist of with any longevity in the field would be Dudley Do Right for their entire career and then wake up one day and go to this level of fraud on a single story.

When a story emerges from a reporter and it’s found to have fakery in it, particularly in such an egregious fashion as the 9/11 story had, it’s like seeing a cockroach in your apartment: It’s not good  for anyone involved and that roach probably has more than a few friends you haven’t found yet.

To what degree folks at Morganroth’s former media outlets decide to dig into this remains to be seen, but given what we’ve seen here, they probably should start digging.

DON’T START: In terms of a lesson for beginning journalists, I guess the easiest one is “don’t try this at home.” I might be cynical here, but I’m guessing almost every reporter at some time or another thought about cutting a corner. As we saw with the Mike Ward situation, it was almost always in regard to those “salt-of-the-earth” people who were just in the story to add color to it.

(I always hated those stories, as I found that people viewed me with suspicion when I approached them and they never had anything amazing to say. Still, I went about my duty to ask them if they were really enjoying their ice cream cones on this wonderful sunny day at the beach.)

If you get lazy or frustrated or annoyed or whatever, it can be so easy to rationalize a bit of fakery:

Nobody’s going to know if the guy who liked corn dogs at the county fair really exists…

I’m sure there’s a fan out there who thinks the team could win it all this year…

Everybody loves a parade…

In looking at these examples, it can seem like an innocuous move that doesn’t hurt anyone. In looking at the Daily Camera story and the others listed here, you can see making this move leads nowhere good.

It’s never just one time. It’s never just the one hot-dog vendor or ride operator. It always gets bigger. Someone almost always finds out. Nothing will ever be the same for your career after it occurs.

The best way to avoid a situation like the one in Boulder is to not put yourself in it in the first place.

It’s not the students’ fault we professors got old (but here are 3 things we can do to bridge the generation gap)

A friend and colleague of mine from my student media days posted this on Facebook last week just to take the temperature in the academic room:

Three of my 32 first-year journalism majors had heard about Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas. That’s ____________.

What followed was the general “tsk tsking” from people in our age group, noting that this was sad, unacceptable or Exhibit A as to what’s wrong with kids today.

I went another direction, noting that this event happened about 12 years before these students were even born. I received a couple messages telling me essentially, “That’s not the point. They should know stuff like this. Shame on them.”

The implication I often get from youth-shaming posts is that by not knowing IMPORTANT THING X en masse based on events that happened more than a decade before they were a “twinkle in their daddy’s eye,” the students don’t value the lessons associated with it.

(In the case of Hill/Thomas I’d argue that they probably DO value those things (probably even more than the Senate did back in 1991, or 2001, or 2011…) but they have their own cultural touchstones like R. Kelly, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein to (unfortunately) name only a few.)

The truth of the matter is probably more about us than it is about them: We got old really fast and we really don’t like it.

Journalists and by extension journalism professors are storytellers. We use examples to help people understand things, often relying on the newsworthy events that are happening around us. We also tend to recall things that had an impact on us, thus allowing us to feel more connected to the example and better able to use that “for instance” in a meaningful way.

What happens, however, is the longer we use examples or the more often we rely on certain ones, the less relevant they become, because they are no longer at the forefront of everyone’s minds. What “just happened” in our world NEVER happened in theirs.

If you want to depress the hell out of yourself, follow me down this rabbit hole:

Let’s say you are a professor who has just gotten tenure and you are a real hard charger who has taken the most direct path to get there, so that was seven years of your life.

2021-7 = 2013 is when you started as a professor.

You had to do your Ph.D. and a master’s degree to get that job and you were lucky enough to get that job right away after graduation. In journalism, a Ph.D. can take between three and 817 years, but let’s just say it was four for the Ph.D. and two for the master’s.

2013-6 = 2007 is when you started your grad career.

You probably didn’t take the grad-school plunge until after you had been in the “real world” a while, doing jobs in the field. Let’s say you did the six-year approach of two three-year stops for jobs (a decent “stay-awhile, learn some stuff” couple of gigs.)

2007 – 6 = 2001 is when you graduated with your bachelor’s degree.

You were one of those miracle kids who got the four-year degree in four years, so…

2001-4 = 1997 is when you started your degree at age 18. That means you were born in 1979. Subtract 12 years from that and that year (1967) is exactly as relevant to your students as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings are to your students.

I  did the math for my life journey and landed on the 1962-1963 era, so around the time of the Kennedy assassination (which I would argue everyone gets taught at some point in school). Beyond that, here are things that I’m guessing the “Tsk, Tsk, Damned Kids,” people would expect me to know at age 18 based on what was big news or cool stuff at that time:

  • Barry Keenan’s trial
  • The quote: “If we’ve been telling lies, you’ve been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
  • Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs
  • The battle over the Poll Tax amendment
  • Mike Mansfield

Truth be told, I didn’t know ANY of those things (although I did recognize the song from Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs that held the number one spot on the pop charts the longest that year).

Not only do we get old, but what also happens is what I call “Wooderson Syndrome,” in terms of keeping track of who is in our classes. I don’t mean this in the creepy “alright, alright, alright” sense, but more in the “age-gap” sense:

I really started coming to grips with this about two years ago when I started to write an intro to mass com textbook. I was putting in references to things that seemed both new and relevant and my editor kept sending my chapters back with notes about needing to get “more current examples.”

At one point I got exasperated and asked how in the hell it wasn’t relevant to put references to media coverage about 9/11 in there. He responded, “Your readers weren’t born yet. You should think about the things your daughter would remember and stick with those for examples.”

Zoe? That’s ridiculous. I remember changing her diapers, teaching her how to read, taking her to kindergarten…

Annnnd when the book is set to publish, she’ll be exactly the same age as the kids taking a class that would assign the text…

Dammit. “Old” caught me.

I don’t like the fact that my students don’t get my references to the Miracle on Ice, “Reality Bites” or Duran Duran lyrics. I also don’t like that my music is now on the “oldies” channel, or worse yet, PLAYING ON (EXPLETIVE, EXPLETIVE, EXPLETIVE) AM RADIO STATIONS. I hate that I’m getting mail-order fliers for hearing aids and AARP memberships. I really dislike the fact that my attempts to remain “with it” are met with comments like this:

Me: I heard this “One Direction” song, and…

Student: Oh, Dr. Filak! It’s so cool that you like the oldies, too!

So, since we’re all here in comfortable “Dad jeans” or “maxi skirts” and we can’t fully explain the true magnitude what it meant to have a car with a cassette player in it when we turned 16, let’s work the problem. Here are a few simple ways to do it:

If something is important, explain it to them: Instead of being incredulous about what students know or don’t know, let’s work a little harder on telling them stuff and helping them understand why they should care. It’s easy to look for superiority high ground; it’s a lot harder to help other people climb up there with us.

Have a simple explanation in your pocket for when students stare at you with a look like, “Is this going to be on the test?” and give them the 30-second version of what happened. If you really want them to to hang onto it, feel free to touch on a few of the more memorable details. (I still find it amazing that somewhere in the congressional record, Orrin Hatch is quoted dropping the N-word multiple times and referring to porn star “Long Dong Silver,” thanks to the Hill/Thomas trial.)

Then, explain WHY it matters in regard to the class they’re taking or the situation they’re discussing. If they get the “why” aspect of something, they’ll remember it more often than not.

Case in point: I put a simple sentence diagram on the board at the beginning of my intro to media writing class. It’s the same thing the nuns used to torture me with that I had no real use for until much later in life. I explain how they can use this to improve sentence structure, find the main idea of their lead or generally make sure they keep a focus on what matters most to them. I’m often gratified when I find scrap paper after a midterm and that little diagram is scratched out with a few nouns and verbs surrounding it.

Look for better and newer examples: I get that not only is it more fun to recall things that mattered in my life than to try to learn new stuff, but it’s also something that feels as comfortable as well-worn shoes. However, nobody really likes slipping into someone else’s old, nasty sneakers, so let’s go shopping for some new things, OK?

Again, I don’t want to have to look at TikTok videos or learn what the hell BTS is:

(I mistakenly referred to this group as BTK once, which would have been a serious problem if the kids were old enough to remember who the hell BTK was. it was one of the few times, I’m glad they lacked historical perspective…)

That said, the whole point of journalism is reaching an audience with content that is relevant, useful and engaging, so I’ve gotta practice what I preach. There is literally no shortage of current examples of people behaving poorly, so dig around and see what you can find.

If you want to talk about sexual harassment and exploitation stuff like what happened in the Hill/Thomas case, there are more current examples of it in today’s world (unfortunately).

If you want to talk about lawsuits from famous people who feel “hurt” by jokes in the public eye, the Larry Flynt v. Jerry Falwell case is the gold standard, but why not talk about John Oliver and Bob Murray?

If you want to talk about sketchy behavior and pyramid schemes, Bernie Madoff is old news. Look at the leggings empire covered in this documentary.

If you can’t find something good, stick with the classics. There’s a reason James Bond always can carry off a dinner jacket. However, in most cases, you’ll find an example that’s newer and quite good.

Take it easy on the kids: I often refer to the Johnny Sain Axiom of Old Timers’ Day: “There sure is a lot of bullshit going on around here. The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” I’m quite certain that there were a few “Young Sheldon” types in my field, who scoured the newspapers, magazines and cable news shows to get full updates of every important thing at the age of 18 or 19.

However, most of us were probably more concerned about an upcoming test, if we had money in our meal account or whether that person we met at a party would “call us back.” (Yes, even that now is an ancient adage… Zoe: “You mean you would call girls you liked on the telephone? And they didn’t know who it was because call ID didn’t exist? Oh my GOD, Dad!”)

The person who posted the original item that started this rolling weighed in after we all had kicked in our two cents and it’s clear he gets this point better than most:

I don’t really expect them to know it. About the same number knew what Watergate was when I mentioned it a few weeks ago. I, personally——as both a journalism major and one of those all-A students——didn’t understand Watergate until I read All the President’s Men as a junior in college, and Watergate occurred about the same time I was born. I still don’t understand the Teapot Dome scandal, partly because it’s so dang complicated and partly because I’ve never seen it as being relevant in my life.
Part of the reason I use the Clarence Thomas example is so I can make connections to Kavanaugh and make the point that they need to understand history in order to be good journalists. Not seeing the Anita Hill situation as relevant for a profile shows a lack of news judgment to me. The fact that Anita Hill is all over the news because of her book tour also shows me that they need to be paying more attention to current news.
And, also, only about a quarter of them knew what NPR was. But they’re only 18. They’ll get there.
Especially with good folks like this guy teaching them.

Throwback Thursday: Learn from the worst! The 3 top tips for balancing college and journalism (and the ways I failed at them but still hung in there)

Today’s throwback post was inspired by the editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily, Claire Hao, who wrote an open letter to her readers that explained her need to take a couple weeks off from the job:

For one week starting today, I am taking a break from The Michigan Daily. I’ll be stepping back from the entirety of my job’s responsibilities, deleting all of my social media and staying away from any contact related to The Daily.

This is not a decision I make lightly. I wouldn’t be doing this unless absolutely necessary, because since my first day here I’ve cared about The Daily more than for myself.

But after almost going to the hospital when leaving The Daily’s office alone late Monday night, I refuse to keep allowing severe panic attacks as part of my day-to-day routine. I refuse to keep losing more hair, weight and blood and as nearly as much sleep.

Yesterday, I told a friend my work at The Daily is ever-so-rapidly destroying my physical, mental and emotional health, not to mention my interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships or my dedication to my academics. He replied this destroying can lead to a “violent and deeply entrenched burnout.”

The various things she describes in the piece resonate with me and probably do with many folks who spent any part of their collegiate career in the insane asylum we call a student newsroom. Back when I was in student media, we didn’t have conversations about mental health or key stressors or emotional exhaustion. We just were kind of told to suck it up. When other people did notice stuff like this, the response was basically, “God, that guy is being a total a–hole today. What the hell is his problem?” instead of “Gee, I wonder if they’re doing OK in terms of their mental health.”

Clearly, things are changing for the better in that regard.

I plan to dig into the concept of burnout and student journalism later in the month, but for now, enjoy my brief foray into the topic of what not to do if you want to feel less like a piece of journalistic toast.


Learn from the worst! The 3 top tips for balancing college and journalism (and the ways I failed at them but still hung in there)

The good folks at the Poynter Institute built a nice list of nine things to help you balance your college life with your journalism life. Of all the tips listed here, I would have to place my highest level of support on the last three:

Take care of yourself.

Learn to say no.

Do your best not to compare yourself.

These are also the three HARDEST ones to really accomplish, at least they were for me and the majority of students I have encountered over the last 20-plus years in higher education. As “Knish” said in “Rounders,” here’s a chance to learn from the bad beats I took in these areas:



Truth be told, I never really took care of myself in the way in which the Poynter piece explains. I often thought a balanced meal was a bag of Doritos in one hand and a can of Coke in the other. I would stock my desk drawers with protein bars and Girl Scout cookies so I wouldn’t starve while working on a deadline. I’d often get light-headed at certain points in the day, only to realize, I forgot to eat at all that day.

“Vegetable” was an obscenity and I only ran when I was being chased. I knew the guy who opened and closed the campus McDonald’s by name and he knew me by sight. After pulling an all-nighter, I’d head over there and wait for him to open up so I could get my two Egg McMuffins and hash browns, which always sounded so good at the time and yet wreaked havoc with my digestive system for the rest of the day. When Big Macs went on sale at 2 for $2, I bought four, eating one right away and metering out the other three throughout the day. I can’t think of anything as disgusting as a 16-hour-old, room-temperature Big Mac. Unless it was a 16-hour-old, 99-cent Whopper from the campus Burger King.

Sleep was what other people got while I was working on a story for the paper or trying to fix its finances. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I told people who asked why I looked like something out of a zombie movie. My friend Tony once replied, “That’ll be sooner than you think if you keep this (stuff) up.” It was also what a few of my fellow journalism students occasionally got in class, sawing logs loudly in the middle of lectures. There was nothing quite as embarrassing as the time a professor in a pit class asked me to “kindly wake the gentleman sitting next to you.”

There’s no “Behind the Music” story here, though. I made it through just fine. However, I know that I was sick a lot more often in those days and illnesses tended to linger more. I can blame my baldness on stress, but I’m sure hereditary issues played a major role as well. I will confess, however, that I was a raging a-hole during that time and the lack of sleep, good nutrition and stress reduction probably played a major role in that. I’m an awkwardly social human being to begin with, but I know I wasn’t making friends and influencing people with that kind of behavior.

Treating yourself better leads to feeling better and that helps you in acting better. In short, you become a much higher quality of human being and most people will appreciate that. At least, that’s what other people tell me…



The “Just Say No” phenomenon was a big deal when I was a kid. I said no to drugs, just like the First Lady told me to, but almost nothing else. To borrow another quote from the 1980s:

Between the standard Catholic guilt and the constant refrain of “this is going to look GREAT on a resume,” I think I participated in about 912 things, all at the same time. In addition, I couldn’t say no to the student newspaper when it needed a story written or a financial overhaul. I couldn’t say no when the State Journal offered an extra shift or an extra assignment. I wouldn’t say no to almost anything that looked like it would give me an inch up on the competition within the school, the job market or anything else.

Years later, I found out from a conversation with a hiring manager at a major sports website that most of those things probably didn’t matter all that much. (OK, the extra State Journal shifts kept me from going broke, but in terms of making me a Golden God of a candidate, none of my actions got me there.) The reason, he noted, was that most people in his position don’t care about what I did or how much of it I did. Rather, they cared about what I could do for their company or their organization.

In other words, working for work’s sake didn’t help a lot. What would have been better would have been a more strategic approach to doing certain things well that would have showcased my talents to the people who did the hiring.

I always felt like I gave my best effort each time I was trying to do something someone had asked of me. However, the more things I juggled, the lower the bar was for “my best” and I usually found myself hampered by a lack of focus or other impediments. I can’t even remember the number of times I was sick with a cold or something, but I took on an extra shift or agreed to stay late at work or something. I was practically mainlining DayQuil or whatever the cheap gas-station equivalent was to keep from hacking up a lung. My head felt like it was floating above my body and I was nowhere near “my best.”

At least once I answered the city desk phone at the State Journal in such a state and forgot where I was, only saying, “Uh… Hi?” to the person on the other end. My editor sent me home in one such situation and I panicked about how this would “look on my performance evaluation.”

The point is, even if you are awesome (which I wasn’t), you can only do so much. You might be able to do one or two or even three things at a top-notch level. However, once you get past that in terms of commitments, you’re going to slip here and there and nothing good is going to come of that.

On occasion, just say no.



If I could figure out a way to get all my students to abide by this rule, I could solve any other problem on Earth, including world hunger and how to avoid getting sucked into a “Real Housewives” marathon for no good reason.

Social comparisons happen all the time, so much so, there is literally a psychological theory based entirely around this concept. I remember reading about psych experiments where people were offered X dollars but if they took it, another person in the study would get Y dollars. What researchers found is that some people would take less money overall if it meant the gap between what they got and what the other person got was larger.

In other words, instead of taking something like $100 and letting the experimenter pay the other person $90, the subject would take $50 if the other person only got $5 or something. It makes no sense financially or logically, but it clearly demonstrates how people get locked into a comparative value struggle and do their best to “win” it.

I’ve seen this way, way, way too many times with my students over the years, particularly at some of the higher-ranked J-schools. If Bill got an internship at a top 50 marketing firm, Suzie felt the need to get an internship at a top 25 marketing firm. If Jayne got a job at a 100,000 circulation newspaper, Bobby felt the need to get a job at a 250,000 circulation publication.

It led some of my best students down the rabbit hole, going after jobs they hated or pursuing careers that didn’t fit their skills. I had a lot of sobbing seniors in my office, complaining about how someone else was clearly better because of a better internship or something. I had a lot of “quarter-life crisis” kids dropping by my office on random week days, asking me if they were wasting their lives.

I get that social comparison is a big deal, and I know it took me a while to figure that out as well. However, you should just do you to the best of your ability. The sooner you figure out that life isn’t perfect for your friends or peers, regardless of how often they self-aggrandize on FaceBook, you can relax and just enjoy the weirdness that is your own path through the jungle of life.


Life plus 345 years for the Capital Gazette newsroom killer

Good, but not good enough:

The man who stormed into the newsroom of a community newspaper chain in Maryland’s capital in 2018, killing five staff members, was sentenced on Tuesday to more than five life terms without the possibility of parole, according to prosecutors.

The man, Jarrod W. Ramos, 41, had pleaded guilty in October 2019 to 23 charges, including five counts of first-degree murder, for the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper offices in Annapolis on June 28, 2018, one of the deadliest attacks on American journalists.

The Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney’s Office announced the sentence after a two-hour hearing. The state’s attorney, Anne Colt Leitess, had asked for at least five life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The state’s attorney’s office said in a statement that the sentence included “one life sentence plus 345 years.” The sentences would run consecutively, it said.

Even though he’s moved on by now, I still think of Chase Cook every time I read about this. When we talked about Cook’s experiences as a staffer at the Capital Gazette during this horrific event, I realized that no matter what happened to Ramos, it wasn’t going to change what he had done, not just to those who died, but to those who lived:

In the days and weeks that followed, Cook said that he and other staff members have continued to work through their grief and their emotions in their own ways. Collectively, the paper continues to receive praise for the efforts they made that day, which Cook said has a bittersweet feeling to it.

“Most of us, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, but we’ve used this platform to talk about the importance of local journalism and the importance of safety in the newsroom…” he said. “That’s really the best we can do. And at the same time we internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be.”

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”

A Lame-Show Game Show: The good and the bad of “playing the ‘Feud” as a class exercise

I tried a new exercise with my freelancing class on Thursday. It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but there were a few things that I would have done differently that might help you if you wanted to take a shot at this.

The lesson was on what people who hire freelance writers across all disciplines say they MOST wanted from the freelancers they hire. I’d looked through a couple books and about two dozen of the “Top 5 things” listicles that populate the internet to see if I could find any themes. The stuff broke down into three basic categories:

  1. Stuff they wanted to see in the product itself.
  2. Personality traits or personal habits they wanted in people they hire.
  3. Work-product failures or personal habits that made people unworthy of hiring.

So, I built several lists of these, based on what was most common in the lists and books and turned it into a “Family Feud” -style game show. Answers were assigned point values. The team with the most points won 10 extra credit points.

Since we didn’t have a buzzer, we flipped a coin to see who would answer first and decide if they wanted to “play” or “pass.” When someone guessed something wrong, I gave them an “X” like in the show, but wrote it on the board to discuss later in the lesson. The other team could “steal” the bank as was the case in the show after three wrong answers.

As you can see in these photos, they were clearly thrilled to be doing this:

After the “show” was over, we did the lecture and some of what they picked ended up being right on the money, which meant that they had a general sense of what people expected of them as freelancers. The ones they missed seemed obvious to me, but I also was the one who made the questions.

In the post-hoc analysis of this event, here are some things that went right and some things that went wrong:


  1. I didn’t try to get cute: I did not do the weird, lecherous Richard Dawson thing of kissing everything that moved, the hyperactive impression of Ray Combs or try to impersonate Steve Harvey, lest I get sent to HR for sensitivity training. I just did “weird me” which was more than enough weird for them.
  2. I incentivized play: They got a little more into it when they realized they were playing for something of value.
  3. I had a singular theme for the event that matched the lesson: This wasn’t a game for a game’s sake. It blended nicely into the rest of what we were doing that day.


  1. The categories weren’t concrete enough: A number of times, students guessed answers that were valid in the broader sense (stuff people want) but didn’t fit the exact theme. For example, they guessed “deadline” multiple times, but it only fit in one of the categories. That told me I didn’t describe what I wanted to see clearly enough to make it work.
  2. We hadn’t touched on the theme yet: It’s hard to guess answers for something you don’t know anything about. Maybe next time, I’d have them scout around online before the class for things that people wanted or hated in regard to freelance hires so they’d have some grounding in this concept. In any case, they had a confusion about them that wasn’t normal in that class.
  3. Practice: I should have worked on my script more and practiced it a few times. I figured I could wing it. I was wrong.
  4. It was damned early: I teach almost exclusively 8 a.m. classes, meaning that in most cases, these people need a defibrillator to stay alive during my lectures. Trying to be  all “Up With People” on them first thing in the morning didn’t work out all that great. In the future, they politely suggested, I might want to do some lecture stuff from 8-9 and then after their usual break, do the game while they’ve had time to caffeinate and come to life.

In the end, it could have been worse, but I know it could have been better. If you have more questions on how I did this, feel free to reach out. If you have suggestions on how to improve it, I’m all ears.

Throwback Thursday: What journalists really mean when they say…

Because this week needs humor, I went into the Wayback Machine and pulled one of the earliest posts I built for the blog. I can’t remember exactly who was all in on this riff, but I still appreciate what we accomplished: Making a bunch of people laugh.



What journalists really mean when they say…

This week already feels 182 days long and I’m not in a flood zone, a hurricane path or a country that just had a missile fired over it. In an attempt to add a little relief for those feeling burnt to a crisp or who just need a laugh, here’s a post on the lighter side: A list of things journalists say and what they actually mean:


Recently: The reporter lost the press release

In recent memory: As far back as the reporter can remember or at least past last Tuesday.

Arguably: The reporter didn’t have time to look up the facts

Debatable: These people are clearly wrong but we need to look objective

“It has been said…” : Where the hell did I hear that from?

“Declined to comment,” : When contacted, person said, “I really want to talk but my lawyer said no. Please don’t hate me.”

“Refused to comment,” : When contacted, person acted like an ass before hanging up.

“Repeated attempts to reach the source were unsuccessful,”: That jerkweed is screening his calls.

Breaking news: We’re telling you about it at the same time everyone else is.

Gone viral: We just found out about something everyone else already knows about



Spry: Person over the age of 80 who doesn’t need portable oxygen

Feisty: Short, female.

Concerned citizens: Busybodies with nothing better to do than complain

Engaged citizens: People who lead the busybodies

An outsider: “Who the hell is this guy?”

Fake news: Anything that tells me something I don’t want to hear.

Repeatedly: (as in repeatedly declined or repeatedly defended) Person is sticking to his/her stupid position no matter how many times we ask.

Assured: Said more than once but only because the cameras were on; In reality, this won’t be happening.

 “An exciting new opportunity” or “A lifelong dream.” : The reason a public figure gives for leaving public life shortly before the lawsuits start rolling in.

“Trim the budget” : Cut stuff for other people but leave my stuff alone.

 “Devastating budget cuts” : They cut my stuff.



“All he does is win,” : His stats are bad.

“Can’t quantify his value,” : His stats are atrocious.

“A great clubhouse guy,” : He plays cards with the manager and hasn’t had an at bat since the Bush administration.

“He gave it a shot,” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it backfired.

“He went with his gut” : A coach defied all logic and common sense and it actually worked out for him.



Fortunately, Luckily: Somebody just got royally screwed but we’re trying to put a good face on it.

“The altercation escalated” : Somebody said something about somebody’s mama.

 “Sources say,” : I attended a press conference.

“Sources tell me,” : I made a phone call.

“Sources have confirmed,” : Somebody told me that what other people already reported was right.

“Sources exclusively tell me,” : I was trapped in an elevator for an hour with a source who was bored.

“It remains unclear,” : Everyone knows something but nobody’s telling me.

Destruction: Something a fire yields

Devastation: Something a hurricane or tornado yields

“The following images are disturbing…” : Holy crap! You’ve gotta see this!

An uncertain future: The guy is going to jail

If you liked these, the book “Journalese” by Paul Dickson and Bob Skole takes on a wider array of similar terms from a variety of perspectives.