Welcome to the field of journalism: Pen? Check. Recorder? Check. Bulletproof vest?

As I was working on book chapters Sunday and planning our move to a new house, a Facebook message from a former student brought me back to reality:

“Did you ever get around to putting that vest in the mail?”

Almost two years ago, I borrowed a bulletproof vest from him so that I could work on my First-Person Target series. I wore the vest everywhere for a week and then did some interviewing to help me understand the issues of guns, safety and fear in this country. I used the vest in November 2018, but I didn’t finish the series until January 2019. I hung onto it in case I needed a sequel or a follow-up piece.

Like the absent-minded professor I am, I eventually boxed it up, addressed it and managed to forget it in the basement for another year. He should get it back, no doubt, but I wondered why he thought about it on that given day. Was he OK?

“I’m doing fine, not covering riots…yet. I was thinking about it and watching the world burn last night and realized I had no idea where it was. But as long as you’re safe and don’t need it, that would be great.”

He lives in Florida, more than 1,500 miles from the rioting’s flashpoint of Minnesota, but the riots aren’t just in the Land of 10,000 Lakes (and for good reason). George Floyd died Monday in Minneapolis while police arrested him on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 to buy cigarettes. A video of the arrest shows a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, as Floyd pleads with him for minute after minute to let him breathe. Bystanders begged officer Derek Chauvin to stop as well. Instead, he continued his assault on Floyd. He has since been fired and charged with murder.

I don’t know if my former student will need to cover these spasms of violence, but I do worry his safety and that of so many others in the field who need to ply their trade during this unfathomable time in history.

Safety has always been a watchword within journalism, even as we learn how to go against our natural instincts when it comes to fear and security. Like many folks in other fields, we have to learn how to run TOWARD danger instead of running away from it. We need to learn how to see a house fire and think, “That looks dangerous. I need to go over there.” We develop a sense that says, “People are shooting at each other on Smith Street. I need to get out there.” The goal for good journalists isn’t gold and glory (clearly not the case, if you’ve been following the cuts, furloughs and bloodletting in the field these days).

The goal is to help the readers and viewers experience real life as it is unfolding, regardless of if that reality is safe or not.

I usually like to start each academic term on the blog with something inspirational, but it’s not easy to do that today. The people in our field are covering pandemics from their own homes. They are covering protesters who are begging… literally begging… for some level of accountability that will make it a little less likely that black people will be killed for the “crime” of being black.  They are covering violent clashes between rioters and police, often getting caught in the crossfire for their trouble.

CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was covering the events in Minnesota with a camera crew on Friday. He showed the police his press pass. He had a microphone and a camera that probably cost more than my first car, so there was no “confusion” over who he was and that he was a national reporter.

He was standing where police told him to stand. He was complying with the orders police had given him before he went out there. He repeatedly told the police he was more than willing to go wherever they wanted him to go and do whatever they wanted him to do.

Instead, this happened live on the air:

The governor issued an apology and the crew was released after a short time in jail, but none of this makes any sense. If one of my students had told me, “I need to cover this thing in Minnesota. What should I do to be safe?” I would have told that student to do EVERYTHING Jimenez did. It was the perfect example of how to be safe and not get hurt or arrested.

It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter for WAVE 3 News reporter Kaitlin Rust and photojournalist James Dobson either, who were covering protests in Kentucky. They had their gear, their press passes and they were LIVE ON AIR when an officer opened fire on them with “less lethal rounds.”

At first, Rust thought the police officer was actually shooting live rounds at her. She then noted they were “rubber bullets.” In responding to this situation, police officials stepped up and made something important abundantly clear:

It was previously reported that the officer was firing rubber bullets, but LMPD spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said the department’s officers do not use rubber bullets, and it was likely that was Rust and Dobson were hit with pepper balls.

Right. Because that’s the important thing. Semantics over exactly WHAT this chucklehead was shooting at two journalists from less than 20 feet away for no good reason. Glad we cleared that up…

Also, in case you are unfamiliar with pepper bullets, here’s the Pepperball company website. It promotes these types of items noting the following frightening statement:

With multiple payload options and a proprietary chemical irritant that’s proven more effective from even greater distances, PepperBall® projectiles offer the protection and versatility for any situation. Available in both round and VXR versions, PepperBall projectiles can be operated at virtually any temperature from as far away as 150 feet and with an area saturation of up to 50 meters.

In other words, this thing can drill you hard enough at 150 feet to deploy a giant pepper-spray bomb about the size of the Arc de Triomphe.  And this officer not only fired it at the journalists, but he or she reloaded and fired again. And again. And THEN told the crew to move back.

It was clear these people were journalists. They were not making any threatening moves or acting in a way that would indicate their desire to antagonize the police.

It didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Andrea Sahouri, of the Des Moines Register, after she repeatedly told police, “I’m press! I’m press! I’m press!” It didn’t matter to police who pepper sprayed Detroit Free Press reporter JC Reindl, who was showing his press credentials to an officer at the time. It didn’t matter to the dozens of other people who decided journalists were good targets for violence and anger.

It is impossible to explain to any sane individual why it is that journalists would put up with any of this, all while being called the “enemy of the people” by people in power. It makes no sense that they are risking their health and their lives to enter an area of total danger, just so other people could safely see what was happening around them. It makes even less sense when you realize that every day, they fear getting fired in a cost-cutting maneuver because some hedge fund manager will decide it’s time to tweak the company’s stock portfolio.

Those that remain will do more work, over longer hours and for insultingly meager pay.

Why?

Because these strong, brave and decent individuals know in their hearts that what they do provides a record of reality. Their work captures things that some people would like to wash away and forget happened. Their efforts add them to the fraternity of people who refuse to be cowed into submission or look the other way out of expedience.

What they do DOES matter.

Somehow. In some way. For someone.

And for that moment, that’s enough for them to press on.

Welcome to journalism.

Gone Fishin’: Safer-At-Home Edition

AtariFishing

Remember to keep a safe distance from other people while engaging in any activity, even virtual fishing. And watch out for that shark.

With the understatement of the year, I’d like to say that this has been a very different semester. (In doing so, my former manager Cliff is probably going to hunt me down, as “very” and “different” were among his least-favorite words to be included in the paper.)

I didn’t take a week off at spring break, as per usual, because there was no real spring break. I tended to write longer things and add more exercises to the blog because it had to happen. The normal things we get to do around this time of year (for me, rummage sales) aren’t around, so it doesn’t feel like we’re at the end or beginning of anything.

If I had a dollar for every time I asked Amy, “OK, what DAY is it?” I’d probably be set for life.

With the semester coming to a close, it’s time to take a short break from the blog before the summer session starts. The blog will go on hiatus until early June, when the summer session starts up for us. If anything “breaking” happens that needs some attention, I’ll post it as needed, so you aren’t entirely rid of me yet.

The Corona Hotline page is still active if you need any exercises and I’m happy to help anyone who needs it. Just hit me up on the contact page.

In the mean time, be safe and be well.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

Throwback Thursday: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox

In honor of this week’s random lottery of meaningless tragedy, I pulled this post from way back to talk about how people manage to screw things up.

Even as other people were reading my post on Emily Reise and laughing at the fact I misspelled her name, they were sharing their own screw ups over their careers. People declared dead when they weren’t, places listed for events that had no such events and even one marijuana raid that happened somewhere else, much to the befuddlement of neighbors in that area.

It’s never great to make a mistake, but it’s going to happen because, as Sam Kinison once noted, you’re not on a lunch box:

Filak-ism: You will screw up. You are not on a lunchbox.

Sam-Kinison
Who wouldn’t want this face on their third-grade lunchbox?

 

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.

The late shock-rock comedian Sam Kinison once had the misfortune of ticking off a major comedy figure on a slow news day. Kinison was slated to be the main guest on the “Joan Rivers Show,” but managed to blow it off, leaving Rivers with about 20 minutes of essentially dead air and shadow-puppet tricks. News stations picked this up and it became a pretty big, albeit overblown, deal.

In his posthumously released album, “Live From Hell,” Kinison reflected on the error, leaving me with one of my favorite Filak-isms. “I can (expletive) up. I’m not on a lunch box.” The point being that unlike the kiddie characters and perfect heroes who were marketed on lunchboxes through his youth, Kinison was never going to be perfect.

As a journalist, neither will you.

Trying to be perfect at journalism is your goal, but to quote the famous coach Vince Lombardi, you will never catch perfection. That said, in its pursuit, you will catch excellence and that’s usually good enough. Also during its pursuit, you are going to screw up in some pretty spectacular ways. We already detailed the “filthiest” screw up in all of sports journalism here (as well as one of mine that follows me to this day), but I asked the Hivemind folks for some of the biggest screw-ups they made and if they learned anything from them. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Getting a name wrong can feel like the worst thing in the world, especially after you realize, it’s impossible to make up for it. The most recent error was from an award-winning sports journalist, who managed to confuse an NFL Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer:

DIPpgArXgAAA3kI-566x447

The reason? The writer said he was in the middle of several stories when he caught the Kramer story and had to get it done immediately. When Jerry Kramer started listing off all the people who mattered to him, he mentioned both legendary Packers Jim Ringo and Bart Starr. In his notes, the writer wrote last names, leading to the Ringo Starr moment:

Now, after the initial shock and ensuing, hysterical laugh (trust me, I laughed about 10 minutes, full on tears and everything), a very reasonable question is how does someone write Ringo Starr instead of Jim Ringo? I’m not an idiot. I know who Jim freaking Ringo is. Seems like an impossible error to make, right?

Well, I don’t remember writing “Ringo Starr.” At the point I wrote it, I was typing to fast — between two word docs, remember — to grasp everything I was doing. (This is fairly normal for sports writers; usually we get away with it.) But I do remember Kramer going down the list of teammates he appreciated. “Fuzzy… Forrest… Ringo… Starr…” BAM!

Another longtime journalist had a similar switcharoo moment, confusing the man who played Ben Hur and Moses with one of the “Dirty Dozen:”

I once wrote Charles Bronson when I meant Charlton Heston while making a Soylent Green reference. Forgot to fix it on the page and it made it to print. The complaint letters were well deserved.

We both agreed “The Ten Commandments” would have been different if his mix-up had played out in real life:

It can be even worse if the person is local, in that I doubt Charles Bronson or Charlton Heston even read about the mix up. One writer talked about her experience highlighting the opening of a local business:

One that always sticks with me is when I used the wrong first name of a gentleman who had just opened up a restaurant with his wife. My editor told me that now he couldn’t frame and hang that article highlighting his accomplishment because of my error. He didn’t scream at me because he didn’t have to. I felt terrible when he put my screw-up into those terms.


I DIDN’T MEAN FOR THAT TO GO PUBLIC:

Whenever a student in the newsroom can’t figure out a headline and writes, “SCREW IT, I’LL PICK A HEADLINE LATER” (or in one case, just the F-bomb over and over again) in that space, I get hives. The student always says, “I’m not going to run that,” but that’s not always your choice. In text-based journalism, we always say you should never write something you wouldn’t want your grandmother to read, even if it’s just as a joke. In broadcast, the rule is to treat every microphone like it’s broadcasting or “hot,” something that is easier said than done. A radio journalist who also worked in PR shared this:

Didn’t realize my mic was hot and said “what the fuck?”

A photojournalist noted that the “I didn’t mean for that to go public” situation isn’t only for the word folks, as only a lucky save by the press operators kept this from getting ugly (or uglier):

This was my photo editor’s goof up. He was showing off to a cute intern one day when he Photoshopped an eye on the middle of a guy’s forehead. He apparently thought he had removed it, but the pressmen discovered it several hundred copies into the first run. They had to re-web the press–He was not fired but was skating on thin ice for a while…

DEATH BECOMES YOU (MAYBE):
Life and death issues are no joking matter. Making an error about someone being alive or dead can affect you as a writer for a really, really long time. (Trust me on that one.) One journalism instructor who worked in the field noted that his assumption about a source seemed to create a life-and-death situation:

I gave a guy cancer in a story (he never had cancer-just advocated for patients with it. Learned that just because you THINK you know someone’s story- double check it. And turn down interviews so close to deadline.

A longtime copy editor managed to “resurrect” a source after catching an error from one of the writers on her publication’s staff:

(I) once brought a man back from the dead: The writer was convinced that saying “the late mayor” was the same thing as “the former mayor.” I always tell my interns that fact-checking and careful editing can save lives.

JUST… OW…
Perhaps one of the most gifted and socially aware journalists and professors I have ever known got hit with perhaps one of the most unfortunate typos ever. Of all the people this could have happened to, it was so unfair this one happened to her, given her genuine understanding of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other sensitive issues:

I wrote a story about kids in a summer camp learning about the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American soldiers). Somehow a production error changed the word “counselor” to “coounselor” only in some editions. It was not in the edition I got at home or in the office. Imagine my surprise when a woman called me the next morning and started screaming at me that I was a racist and did I think that was funny? I didn’t know what had happened and had to apologize profusely.

The takeaway here is that nobody in journalism is perfect and we all have our moments of “Oh… God… Why?” When it came to the “Ringo Starr” screw up, the writer told me he laughed hysterically until he cried because there was nothing else he could do. Others said they grimaced and moved on. Some said it informs how they teach or what they do to help students avoid their screw ups.

For me, I go all the way back to the guy who gave my high school graduation’s valedictory address. The guy’s name was Willie Nelson (Really. He went by Willie.) and he told the story about how he once got annoyed by his sister and smacked her in the face with a baseball bat. When he was sent to his room as a punishment, his grandfather came and told him some invaluable advice:

“Boy, I hope you learned something today,” he said. “Everybody makes mistakes. It’s the stupid ones you gotta learn to avoid making twice.”

 

Learning from your own stupid mistakes: 4 things I need to remember about screwing things up that might help you, too

 

At least 60% of the stuff on this blog looks at something someone screwed up and how to make it better. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a hypocrite, so it’s confession time:

I screwed up Monday.

(I bolded this because I needed to emphasize this and I’m not supposed to curse on the blog, the publishers tell me. However, if there ever was a time for a necessary f-bomb, it would be here…)

In my post on Emily Reise, I was paying a lot of attention to certain details, like what her company does and where she had previously worked so I didn’t get her in trouble with her boss. In doing so, I messed up the most basic of details: Her name, which I spelled “ee” instead of “ei” in the original post.

Making this error even dumber, I included what she said about getting a failing grade for misspelling a name back in her first writing class and how it made a difference in the way she approaches her work now.

I shipped her a copy of the post to look over for mistakes and she quickly sent me this message:

ReisePost

Seeing this felt like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer.

I apologized and quickly reworked it as best I could to grab back every error-riddled version from every area of social media I could. Still, I couldn’t fix everything, so I deleted and reposted stuff to try to fix it. Shortly after I did this, she sent me another message:

EmilyPost2

Nope. I’m just an idiot.

The point of this blog has always been to turn dumb things into teachable moments. So with a lot of egg on my face, I’ll be enjoying a dinner of crow, with a side of humble pie. In the mean time, here are the things I have to remember that might help you all as well:

If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right: As God as my witness, I have no damned idea how I managed to screw this up. I was pulling pieces out of her interview, checking on several websites and doing everything I normally do. This just happened.

The one thing that should have tipped me off was that something didn’t feel right.

When I tried to pull up her LinkedIn profile, I was having trouble finding it. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) When I was looking at our conversation on LinkedIn that got this whole thing rolling, something didn’t look right. (Because I spelled her name wrong.) Even in looking for the original interview, I initially couldn’t find it when I went searching for it in my email. (Because I spelled her name wrong!!!)

I should have stopped and thought harder about it, but nothing has been feeling exactly normal these days, so I kind of blew off my own thoughts and just published.

Next time, when something doesn’t look right or feel right, I’m giving it another look until I figure out what it is.

Everyone needs an editor: One of the major downsides of running a one-man operation on this blog is that I don’t get a second set of eyes on my work until it’s too late. (Granted, I often have a conversation with all the voices in my head before I publish, but it’s not the same as having a good editor.)

Aside from catching the typos and the grammar errors, good editors make you widen your view and think harder about what it is you screwed up so you won’t do it again. This is why I will always want folks like my copy editor, Jim Kelly, to work with me on my books. He is the guy who not only keeps me from referring to something as a “pubic speech,” but he’s also the person who can show me what I didn’t do right and how to avoid it in the future. (He remains the only person on Earth to get me closer to understanding “affect/effect” in my writing.)

As much as I appreciate the post-hoc editing of folks out there, I’d like to avoid screwing up in the first place. Good editors make that happen.

Admit it, fix it, move on: Speaking of screwing up, I have to admit that this particular screw up caused me physical pain.

I’m serious. My chest hurt when I got that message because I was thinking, “Dammit, how am I supposed to tell people what to do in their work if I’m screwing up myself?”

Well, for starters, I’m not on a lunchbox, so I’m going to screw up. That’s not an excuse or a justification, but rather a statement of fact.

Could I have told Emily, “Aha! I was just testing you!” and then made the switch? Sure.

But then I’d be exactly the chucklehead I’m telling other people not to be. As my State Journal editor Teryl Franklin told me once after the worst mistake (to date, knock on wood) in my career, “If you don’t deal with this, how will you ever be able to teach students what to do when they make mistakes?”

She was right. It’s important to not only fix the mistakes but admit that you screwed up in the first place. Honesty matters.

The hardest thing for me, actually, is the last part: Move on.

When I was a reporter at the State Journal, I had something like six or seven corrections over three years. However, they were all bunched in clumps and surrounded by about a half-dozen “near misses” that a copy editor or designer caught before the paper pressed.

The reason was simple: I was so determined not to make THAT MISTAKE again, that I would become myopic about it and miss a half-dozen other stupid things I should have caught.

Moving on means being able to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time again when it comes to writing and editing. Keep an eye on everything, realize that you’re not going to catch everything and try to prevent the stupid stuff from burying you.

If I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know.

You learn more from your students than they do from you: Educators who keep an open mind always want to learn something new, and students provide that every day with their insights and experiences. Their inquisitive nature will get us to look at things in a different way than we normally do. They also have the ability to remind us of the things we told them that we need to remember more often.

Emily told me she keeps my textbook on her desk and that she uses her experiences in our journalism department every day that she plies her trade.

In the post, she also mentioned this: “Filak was right. You will always remember spelling that damn person’s last name wrong.”

Very true.

R-E-I-S-E.

Dammit.

Nursing, Social Media Experience and “Knowing I belonged:” How Emily Reise landed a digital marketing job during a pandemic

EmilyMugWith graduation drawing close, college students across the country are panicking even more than usual as they try to get a job in the middle of a pandemic. Even professionals with years of field experience are concerned about moving jobs or finding a career path as the coronavirus has made it difficult to find opportunities or stability.

Emily Reise a public relations and social media professional managed to navigate this new landscape amazingly well, landing her current position as a digital marketing coordinator for Nurses PRN in Appleton, Wisconsin about a month ago.

Reise majored in public relations and minored in environmental studies at UW-Oshkosh, all while undertaking four internships in her field. Upon graduation, she headed to St. Paul, Minnesota to work as a social media coordinator for Midwest Sign. After a year and a half, she was looking for a chance to come back home to the Fox River Valley, and found Nurses PRN.

According to its website, Nurses PRN is a staffing agency that connects clients and nurses “driven by the simple idea that better nursing care leads to better patient care.” The company notes that it has 500 active employees and fills approximately 6,000 shifts monthly for its clients.

Reise was nice enough to answer a few questions about what she learned as a student that she still uses and what she does in her new job:

 

You landed at Nurses PRN right in the middle of a pandemic and you are responsible for digital marketing content. I guess two questions that come off of that statement are a) What does your job normally entail? and b) What is life like dealing with this job now in the middle of this insanity?

“A normal day would consist of me taking leads from Facebook ads and ‘gifting’ them to recruiters in the company depending on the area they are staffing and the type of nurse they need. I am the main social media guru, so I make the content calendar, come up with content, strategize social media campaigns and monitor comments and messages. I also have my hands in email marketing, events, managing job boards, and helping edit and write website copy.

“Landing a job in the middle of a pandemic, especially in the nursing field, is chaotic to say the least! Everything is abnormal and changing which demands a ton of agility when approaching ads and job boards. Certain jobs are streaming in because of layoffs and furloughs that normally we never had an excess of. This floods the ads and gives us tons of leads we may need or not need depending on facility need. This forces me to jump in and start making decisions whether to shut off ads, make new ones, or edit the creative or copy. There is no ‘normal’ right now and no directions on how to adjust social media ads for nurses when there is a global pandemic.”

 

How did you land a job during this time of absolute uncertainty, given all the cuts to everything and how it seems like the economy is going to hell in a speedboat? What was it that drew you to this company and what was it that got them to find you as the perfect fit?

“I was looking for a new opportunity back home in the Fox Valley since I was living in the Twin Cities. I chose a day in March and interviewed with five different companies. Nurses PRN was the first company I interviewed with. By the end of the interview I remember telling them, ‘I am at a 10, I want this job- hire me today!” (They didn’t hire me that day.)

“I knew I belonged there because of how laid back and enthusiastic the marketing team was about their jobs. I clicked instantly with them. I found out later they were looking for an upbeat person who wasn’t afraid to express new ideas. Luckily, I can talk to a brick wall… I felt I connected well and after working for many companies, I now know that company culture and the people I work with is the most important factor for me.

“I got the job the next week and had to finish my current job. Two weeks after I put in my two weeks, though, the COVID-19 pandemic was heightened and I was worried they would move my start date back. Instead, they shipped a laptop, work phone, and training manuals right to my house so I could start remotely. Even though it’s not perfect, I’m so thankful to have a job during these uncertain times and working for a company who takes risks and cares enough to let me start on time.”

 

In your career to date, what are some of the most important things you learned in college in terms of being prepared to do this work? In other words, what “tools” were the most important things that college put into your “toolbox” for your career?

“Learning to write for blogs, website copy, and press releases has proved to be invaluable in my career. At my previous job, I wrote around 49 blogs in the year of 2019 alone. Now I mostly edit other people’s written work but taking Writing for the Media taught me to always comb through everything with an eye for detail.

(I still remember the day I got my assignment back from you and I went and cried in your office because I got an F since I spelled the lady’s last name in the story with an “a” instead of an “e.” You called that a major error and said I will always remember to double check details like that and never changed the grade. WELL, YOU WERE RIGHT! I STILL TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT!)”

 

Right about now, a ton of students are looking for jobs and there is always that fear of “Oh, dear Lord, what happens when I can’t get a job?” As someone who graduated not that long ago (and who I know had some of those jitters at certain times), what kinds of advice can you give the kids who are graduating and worried about what will be out there for them, especially given our current situation?

“One of the biggest chunks of advice I can give grads, especially during the pandemic, is to be open minded. I thought I was going to be working for a sustainability company doing public relations. Now I’m working for a nurse staffing company as a marketer.

“I realized that the largest factors in finding a job you love isn’t just about the industry you are in, but the work you are doing, the people you work with, and the overall company culture. Don’t be too picky, if you think you would like the job duties, apply for it!”

 

Cheap  (and kind of self-serving) question: If Emily “now” could go back in time and talk to the Emily who was just starting her degree (with a “Writing for the Media” class), what would you tell her?

“I would say, ‘You’re right, you won’t be a journalist, but you will use these skills every single day in your career.’ Writing is something all employers crave in marketing and PR employees.

“I had to do multiple tests during interview processes to prove to the employers I knew how to write a press release or blog. I write for the media daily whether that be for social media, website copy, press releases, or blogs.

“Also, Filak was right. You will always remember spelling that damn person’s last name wrong.”

Throwback Thursday: “He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

Given the number of people having to speak to the public these days about a crisis, it would seem to be a good time to look back at this post about how to avoid looking like an idiot.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman gave an interview to Anderson Cooper the other day, and her missives about opening casinos as the coronavirus continues to spread managed to befuddle the veteran newscaster. CNN even posted a story on “The 20 most bizarre lines” from it.

My favorite of the bunch? “We offered to be a controlled group.”

When an incredulous Cooper asked Goodman if she really was willing to make the citizens of Las Vegas a control group for the coronavirus by reopening everything and seeing what happened, Goodman admonished him not to put words in her mouth.

“I offered to be a control group and I was told by our statistician that we can’t do that,” she said.

I’m sure the citizens of Las Vegas will sleep better after that clarification…

In any case, here’s a post from a year or so ago that shows not only when interviews with the media go bad, but also how you can avoid these problems with some common sense and decent PR skills.

“He’s dying anyway.” (A primer on how not to do PR)

If I had a nickel for every stupid thing I ever said, I’d wouldn’t need to work anymore and I could probably eradicate world hunger. This is one of the many reasons I have a lot of respect for good public relations practitioners: They manage to keep on message, make key points clear and connect with an audience in some of the more difficult situations out there.

In discussing public relations with my buddy Pritch (a member of the College of Fellows and a decades-long PR professional and instructor) a number of years ago, he told me that one of the more underrated elements of PR is honest empathy. It’s hard to get across a message while still realizing that there are other forces at play, many of which can be painful for others. I translated this into “be humane” in one of the books and several lectures, and I think it sticks well.

I thought about this when this story broke about a White House staffer’s reaction to Sen. John McCain’s stand against confirming CIA nominee Gina Haspel:

“It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” press aide Kelly Sadler said about McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel at a meeting of White House communications staffers, according to an unnamed source cited by The Hill’s Jordan Fabian.

McCain is battling brain cancer and is unlikely to win that fight, according to all available information. As we noted in the book, the accuracy of a statement like “He’s dying anyway” isn’t the issue, but rather the fact it makes Sadler sound cold and calloused. Even worse from a PR perspective, she has now become the news and that news is clearly negative.

Consider the following thoughts as a short primer on the idea of keeping yourself out of trouble:

 

You are like plumbing: We talk in most of my classes about good media professionals being conduits of information, moving content from valuable sources to interested audiences. I often equate this to being like plumbing: The water exists at Point A and you want to drink it at Point B. You don’t really know how every single thing works, but you just want it to work.

Perhaps more to the point, the only time people notice plumbing any more is when something goes wrong. If the water in your tap comes out in a lovely shade of beige, like mine did in my first college apartment, you notice it. When a pipe breaks under the house and starts spraying water all over the crawl space, like it did when we lived in Indiana, you notice it. When it’s running fine? I don’t think, “Man, that toilet can FLUSH! So awesome!”

Get the information that matters from Point A to Point B in its best possible form and you’re doing the job well.

 

You aren’t the news: The 1980s show “The Fall Guy” follows the adventures of a TV and movie stuntman who moonlights as a bounty hunter, thus getting into all sorts of danger and wacky mishaps.

Perhaps the only enduring thing about this program was the theme song, in which the show’s star, Lee Majors, sings about life as an “Unknown Stuntman” with lyrics like:

I might fall from a tall building,
I might roll a brand new car.
‘Cause I’m the unknown stuntman that made Redford such a star.

If you do your job well, people behind the scenes will know your name, appreciate your professionalism and use the information you provide to them. However, you will never BE the news. Your clients may bask in the spotlight thanks to your hard work. Your organization might succeed because you did the dirty work. Your company may have a sterling image that you built, brick by brick. However, you are the unknown stuntperson who needs to make them look so fine.

 

Stop. Think. Then Speak: One of the hardest things in the 24/7 news cycle and the constant demand for information is the ability to pause before communicating without looking like a weasel. It often feels like if we don’t have an answer RIGHT NOW, we are clearly scrambling for some well-worn cliche or a bit of BS. However, once you open your mouth or send a release or do anything else, you can’t get it back, so it pays to be on top of your game.

Collect yourself before you speak on something. Think about who might hear what you have to say or share what you publish. Some PR professionals have told me when they have something they have to say, they imagine their grandmother was in the audience. I often tell students that there is no crime in not knowing something, so instead of going rogue, tell the people, “I don’t know the answer, but I will find it out for you.” As long as you live up to that promise (and it isn’t the answer to every question), you should be OK.

 

Stupid is eternal: Mardela Springs, Maryland is town of about 350 people in the western part of the state and the only reason I remember it is because of Norman Christopher, who was a town official in the early 1990s. Christopher famously brought attention to this tiny hamlet with his explanation as to why he couldn’t reach county officials on Martin Luther King Day:

He reportedly was explaining to other commission members why he could not reach county workers by telephone Jan. 20, the King holiday. “I forgot no one was working. Everyone had Buckwheat’s birthday off,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Times in Salisbury. Buckwheat was the stage name of a black child who starred in the “Our Gang” comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s.

It’s been more than a quarter century since he made that comment and I still remember it as a “What the hell was THAT?” moment when it became news. In a similar way, I will never forget Justine Sacco and her “hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet, that we feature in the book.

Sacco has managed to find work recently, as IAC brought her back on board for a separate venture. In looking back at all of this, she had a pretty decent observation for anyone involved in any form of media:

“Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life.”

Kelly Sadler worked on a number of projects before and will likely have many more years of professional work in the future, but this might hang around her neck like an albatross for a while. If you think about anything stupid you have ever said, imagine that being the one thing people remember about you and then act accordingly.

 

Corona Lite: A few strange and humorous media moments of the COVID crisis

Amid the doom and gloom associated with the coronavirus outbreak and its subsequent impacts, there have been some moments of levity, oddity and general head shaking emerge from the darkness.

Here are some of those moments:

THE PERILS OF WORKING FROM HOME, BROADCAST EDITION:

As many of us have found, it’s not easy working from home. Between slowed internet and a full house, finding ways to stay on task and get work done is tough. It can be even tougher for broadcasters, as they not only have to look professional, but they’re constantly live, regardless of what’s going on around them. A reporter from WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio, learned this the hard way, as his cat became part of a report on local businesses adapting to shelter-in-place protocols:

CatButt

As you can see in John Oliver’s weekly segment on “Last Week Tonight,” the cat spends the entire live shot making sure its butt is ready for its close up.

However, the winner for lack of situational awareness in broadcast news has to go to Melinda Meza of KCRA in California. During a segment on how to cut your own bangs that was shot in her bathroom, Meza captured a full frontal nude shot of her own husband in the mirror:

 

MezaShowerShot

The shot, blurred here for decency sake, almost broke the internet. To be fair, I didn’t know how many broadcast double entendres there were, until I saw the “best boy,” “key grip,” and “main package” jokes that flooded Twitter. If you don’t believe this actually aired, here’s a live clip in all its glory. Don’t say I didn’t warn you beforehand.

 

FIRST PURCHASE: COPY EDITORS

With print revenues taking an even heavier beating during the coronavirus outbreak, the corporations that own newspapers are slashing staff, even as the need for more writing, photography and editing surges. Nothing could be more instructive of this need than the plea for help that ran in the Green Bay Press-Gazette the other day:

NameHere

As Name Here clearly states, knowledge is essential to democracy. Careful editing is probably a close second…

 

I HOPE THEY HAD ACCESS TO AN APPROPRIATE TOILET PAPER SUPPLY:

Certain typos keep me up at night while I’m writing a book. The “public/pubic” one is always a bit harrowing, but after seeing this headline from Tennessee, I’m definitely removing the word “shift” from my vocabulary:

LegoShift

That’s got to be one impressive Number Two that Baby Yoda took to make that many visors. The Force is clearly strong with this one. As is his daily supply of soluble fiber…

 

IF IT’S NOT PURE IRONY, IT’S REALLY, REALLY CLOSE:

The debate over opening the country without a vaccine for the coronavirus has reached peak rage mode on social media. John W. McDaniel of Marion, Ohio, was among those who thought it was stupid to keep everything closed:

McDanielObit

A month later, he made the news:

An Ohio man who dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as a “political ploy” and ripped his state’s lockdown as “bulls–t,” has died of COVID-19, according to reports.

John W. McDaniel, 60, passed away last Wednesday in Columbus — exactly a month after reportedly firing off a series of angry messages about the contagion.

“Does anybody have the guts to say this COVID-19 is a political ploy? Asking for a friend. Prove me wrong,” he wrote on March 13, according to the Sun.

 

JACK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE JACK:

In reporting a story on Jack Allard, a 26-year-old two-time All-America lacrosse player, anchor Bill Ritter somberly intoned that Allard had succumbed to the illness and died. He then rolled the video in which New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proclaims Allard has survived and was released from the hospital. As Murphy made this proclamation, the video showed Allard walking out of the hospital to applause from a small gathering of people.

Ritter did the best he could to salvage that, noting “I feel horrible. Jack is very much alive. Jack, we love you.”

This is why I never would have made it in TV news, as my reaction probably would have been, “Oh… Well, Shit!”

 

AND FINALLY… MY DEEPEST REGRET

We had a department meeting earlier in the month, as it was clear things were not going back to normal any time soon. Several of our classes had to be canceled for the fall term, due to low enrollment. We had heard rumors of furloughs on our campus, which came to fruition this week. Other schools also dealt with similar cuts, freezes and layoffs.

We realized we’d be down one-fourth of our faculty for at least a year, due to retirements. Questions regarding the need to move maybe our entire program online for the fall or longer bounced around before my boss asked those of us gathered via Collaborate Ultra this question: What are you most worried about right now?

After a long pause, I broke the silence:

“Well, I really wish I hadn’t left that bag of baby carrots in my mini-fridge in the office. Those things are going to develop language skills before I get back there.”

 

“The dog ate my jump drive and gave it the coronavirus!” A professor’s plea for honesty in the age of COVID-19

Since the beginning of education, students have offered educators false reasons for missing assignment deadlines. “The dog ate my homework,” later became, “I ran out of loose leaf,” which begat “The printer ran out of ink,” which led to “My floppy disk/Zip disk/thumb drive got corrupted,” which came along with “My computer got a virus” and of course “I SWEAR I uploaded the right file…”

One tried and true excuse has been that of illness or death, which unfortunately hasn’t taken a break during this time of coron-apocalypse. A fellow educator asked this question in a “pandemic education” group:

Sorry if this has been posted by another….rcvd an email from a student asking for advice on how to handle their two roommates lying to profs about family members having the virus to get extensions on class work.

Is anyone asking their students for documentation? Or is it the honor system for the most part?

My initial question, naturally, was, “What the hell is wrong with people who would falsely claim this, especially now?”

During a regular school year, I get it: You’re hung over. You overslept. The Packer game went into OT on Monday Night Football. Claiming illness isn’t the end of the world.

In fact, when it comes to missing class, I don’t have an attendance policy. I’m like Planet Fitness: You paid your monthly dues to be here, but if you’re not here, I’m not losing any sleep over it. You get the results you deserve based on your efforts.

What I never understood was when a student would falsely claim something catastrophic to get out of a jam. That never sat well with me.

I vividly remember one encounter with a student who showed up in my office to tell me she was going to miss class later that week. She obviously had been crying and she was visibly shaken by something.

“My grandfather died…” she began, as she started to cry again. I found a few renegade napkins in my desk drawer and handed them over as she tried to compose herself. “I’m going home tomorrow for the funeral and I’ll be gone the rest of the week.”

I offered my condolences, told her to take as much time as she needed and that we’d catch her up when she was ready to return. What she said next blew me away:

Her: “When I get back, I’ll bring you a copy of his obituary.”
Me: “Why?”
Her: “To prove where I was. My other professor said he wouldn’t accept an absence without it.”

I couldn’t fathom that, not even having watched this scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” about 100 times. Asking for proof, something I would do as a matter of course as a journalist, seemed beyond the pale in this situation. I told her not only did I not need it, but that I didn’t want it.

“If you felt you had to lie to me about the death of your grandfather to get out of my class, you have problems that I can’t solve,” I said.

The idea that someone would lie on that grand of level for such an insignificant reason as my class just boggles my mind.

I think a large part of it is that I work in a field in which credibility is our stock and trade. If you throw away your credibility, it’s not like a boomerang. In fact, it’ll never come back. In trying to train students to be honest and clear with their sources and their editors, I’d like to think they learned how to be honest and clear with me.

Another part of it goes back to something I wrote a few years ago about why it’s a stupid idea to lie to your journalism professors. We’re like a mix of bloodhounds and pit bulls: We dig into something until we’re totally satisfied and if we find malfeasance, we’ll burn you so bad you will wish you had died as a child.

I’ve caught students lying to me (or lying in general) more times than I care to count. In most cases, they get in a jam and they try to cut a corner, figuring they’re doing something I’ll never manage to catch. Maybe that’s true, as I’m sure several former students are reading this and thinking, “You think you’re so smart, Filak, but I totally pulled one over on you…” However, I like to think I’ve got a pretty good batting average, and even if I don’t, lying this way is like passing a cop as part of a group of speeders: Even if he’s only going to get one of you, it totally sucks if it’s you.

Here’s the thing I think students need to understand: Your professors are all screwed up, too, right now.

We’re working from kitchen tables and basement work benches with makeshift equipment. We’re not on our regular schedule, either sleeping too much or not enough. We’re failing at various tasks, despite our best efforts.

(For some reason, I keep linking the wrong podcasts to the wrong days. The same kid gets there first each day and emails me about it, with a “Sorry to bother you again…” note. I tell him the same thing each time: “You’re never a bother and thank you for helping me find and fix this.”)

We’re watching the same news reports that terrify everyone else and we’re not above being scared of something ourselves. Friends and family are locked away from us. People we know are losing jobs and businesses. Our health, which a lot of people take for granted each day, is now a constant sense of fear, with every cough or sniffle leading us to retrace every step we took over the last two weeks.

We’re clinging to as much as we can that’s normal, and it feels like every day, more of that normalcy slips through our fingers.

And we have no idea when, or even if, that normalcy will return.

I can’t speak for all professors, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that we’d be much more willing to extend deadlines, offer help and do anything else students need in this time of crisis without anyone giving us a false sob story.

The truth is much more viable at this point in time:

“I had trouble getting online because there are five of us in the house, all trying to livestream a lecture at the same time.”

“I got called in to the grocery store and I had to work a double, because someone else was sick.”

“I’m trying not to worry about everything right now, so I played XBox until 3 a.m. and I overslept.”

“I haven’t seen my family in more than a month and it bothers me to the point of distraction.”

“I lost my job and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

“I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

Professors are as human as anyone else. We want to understand and help.

Just be honest.

Why being a “self-deceived animal” could make humans extinct this time

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel spent the better part of the weekend defending itself against allegations that it doctored a photo of an “Open Wisconsin Now” protest to include a Confederate battle flag. In doing so, the media outlet showcased the clear the primary problem citizens are having these days in dealing with a pandemic that doesn’t have to care about their opinions.

The Journal-Sentinel ran this shot from a protest in Brookfield on Saturday, in which more than 1,000 people gathered to protest the extension of a “Safer at Home” order until late May:

ConfederateFlag

A woman the paper didn’t identify posted this image along with a similar image her daughter shot in which a plaid-shirt-wearing guy in a baseball cap was holding a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, sans the Stars and Bars. This coupling of images quickly made the rounds on social media:

Even though the woman later deleted her Facebook post after realizing her assumption was incorrect, the images had already been shared by many, including Facebook user Ken Hadler.

Hadler shared the side-by-side images Sunday morning and accused the Journal Sentinel of doctoring its photo.

“Shame on you Milwaukee Journal Sentinel!” he wrote. “Taking a photo from the Open Wisconsin rally yesterday and photoshopping the Confederate flag in there?”

He refused to respond to messages providing proof the image was legitimate and had left his post up as of 8 p.m. Sunday; it had been shared 87 times.

As the paper demonstrated in its analysis, it turned out there were at least two flag-toting guys wearing flannel and jeans, one of whom was actually carrying the battle flag and one who was not:

DontTread

Even though the paper demonstrated in painstaking detail how this was not a fabrication, I would wager that a large swath of people will continue to believe it was. It would be easy to say this is a case of distrusting “the media,” but it goes well beyond our field and our concerns as journalists.

The problem comes from people having a constant desire to not actually be right, but rather to feel they are right. In a culture of personal affirmation, reality can be an inconvenient distraction to those who have become myopic in their world view.

As the folks from The Foundation for Critical Thinking noted, humans are the only “self-deceived animal.”

Author Tom Nichols, who wrote the book, “The Death of Expertise,” explained that the sense of how “we” know more than “those people,” can be extremely dangerous, especially now:

Nichols’ speech unwinds several key problems that bear examining:

  1. People don’t want to be told they are wrong.
  2. People don’t like thinking other people know more than they do.
  3. People have mistaken the need to have an opinion on a topic with the need to be informed on a topic before having an opinion.

These three things, taken together, create an environment in which insularity of thought and ego-protective measures drive our participation in social engagement. If you’re not tweeting or chatting or snapping or sharing something, you don’t exist. The more distinct or more vociferous we are in that participation, the more attention we get and with that attention comes support from people who also want to be seen and heard.

Taking time to become informed means other people are “getting there first” on whatever topic is trending this nanosecond. Stopping to think, “Maybe someone else knows more than I do,” is to limit one’s participation, thus losing out on likes, clicks, shares and more.

Being wrong? Not possible.

In most cases, the idea that a meme from “Aunt Rose in Schenectady” is full of crap doesn’t really matter. Whether she knows how much money we spend on foreign aid or if a Confederate flag got PhotoShopped into a protest picture won’t cause any real harm. Thus, she gets to feel superior and we get to enjoy the rest of the day without answering 27 emails with misspellings in them.

The problem comes in when expertise really does matter, people aren’t ready to hear it. Much like the child who never heard the word “No” from a parent, when “these insufferable know-it-alls,” as Nichols called them, face contrary information from an expert source, they freak out.

I remember having an unfortunate conversation with a former friend of mine that went this way and it bugs me to this day.

Josh was a guy who worked at the local auto parts store and had a lot of experience with vintage cars. He was an expert in this area and was a huge help to me in restoring the Mustang. When I wasn’t sure I could rebuild a carburetor, he actually paid for a rebuild kit out of his own pocket and then wrote down his phone number on the back of my receipt.

“Follow the directions, take your time and you’ll be fine,” he told me. “If you have a problem, call me at home and I’ll come over and help you.”

When I called him for help on the carb, as well as a dozen other things, he was always helpful and right as rain. He knew exactly what caused certain problems and exactly how to fix them. His expertise was invaluable.

However, during the 2016 presidential election, he had posted several completely fabricated stories about “the media.” I tried to explain to him how these things weren’t accurate. I found reliable media sources that clearly illustrated he was wrong. Each time, his response was some version, “No, you’re just getting snowed under. I know I’m right.”

Perhaps foolishly, I tried to explain that I had background in this. I went to school for this. I research these topics. I teach on these topics. I’m an expert on this thing. Trust me.

Each time, I was rebuffed and dismissed.

Finally, I tried to put it in terms he would understand: If you were trying to tell me how to fix my carburetor, because you are an expert, how would take it if I kept telling you, “No! Carburetors are just a myth! They are a lie told to you by the deep-state auto industry to keep you ignorant!” instead of accepting your expertise?

He prattled on about the media. I blocked and unfriended him. I still hate that it came to that.

The larger point is that there was no downside to his argument for him. If he was wrong, which in his mind was inconceivable, he could go on with life. If I was wrong with about the carburetor, I could set my car on fire, so I took his expertise to heart.

True experts don’t know everything about everything. They know everything about one thing. I wouldn’t ask Dr. Anthony Fauci how to set the timing on a mid-1960s Ford small block engine any more than I would ask Josh how to combat COVID-19.

Fauci knows viruses. Josh knows Fords.

This is why it can be maddening when non-experts on a topic get license to put forth their own plans and ideas as if they merit the same consideration of those plans outlined by experts. For example,  Tavern League of Wisconsin President Chris Marsicano recently proposed the “soft reopening” of local bars and restaurants in the state. The proposal included the following items:

  • Requiring all employees to wear masks and gloves
  • Practice social distancing of 6 feet
  • All tables 6 feet apart
  • No tables of more than 6 people
  • Reduce on-premise capacity by 50%
  • Outdoor eating and drinking with 6 feet distancing permitted
  • No salad bars or self-serve buffets
  • Eliminate paper menus
  • Eliminate all table condiments

On their face, if you want to see the restaurants reopened, these items appear reasonable. They rely on things health experts have noted to be valuable (masks, keeping 6 feet apart) and they look to eliminate shared contagion opportunities (buffets, table condiments).

In reading this, though, I started thinking about things like who would enforce the rule of the six people per table or what would happen at shared areas like bars. I thought about people who go out to eat with others they haven’t seen in months and then share a table. Shared appetizers or drinks would concern me.

Then again, I’m not a public health expert. However, neither is Marsicano.

His LinkedIn page shows that he has a high school education and 37 years of experience in running a supper club. Unless Delavan-Darien High had some sort of advanced communicable disease course I’m unaware of, I don’t know what would make this guy think he knows more than the scientists and health experts advising the governor.

To be fair to Marsicano, saying he’s not a medical expert doesn’t make him a bad person or otherwise worthless. If I wanted to open a restaurant or bar and run it well, I would strongly consider apprenticing with him, given his nearly four decades of success in the business.

The only way we’re going to make it through this pandemic, as well as whatever the future holds, is if we can find ways to push experts to the forefront of our coverage and to find ways to make people believe them. This may feel like trying to get the dog to take a pill, but it’s worth the effort.

 

Throwback Thursday: What you can learn from an “ecom Dude” who violated copyright and bitched about it

Based on yesterday’s post on copyright infringement, I thought it might be worth it to dig up this gem from the past and outline some of the key things pertaining to how copyright protects people from having their work stolen. One of the major concerns I had was that people would see the lawsuit from the post and think, “Hey, cool! Now I can take whatever I want from the internet without a problem!”

Um… No…

The Mashable case is a small sliver of what can happen in terms of copyright, so I wanted to make sure people had a better understanding of the majority of copyright law. (Or at least whatever majority I can bring to bear. I had, let’s call it, a somewhat “difficult” undergraduate law experience…)

The only thing that saddens me about this update from 2017 is that the original video of this guy talking about how horrible photographers are in claiming copyright is now deleted. I remember watching it the first time and thinking, “This is like watching a random frat guy who forgot his speech was due today trying to BS his way through a law school presentation.” Anyway, the main points still hold so enjoy.

What you can learn from an “ecom Dude” who violated copyright and bitched about it

I often tell my students that I learned more by screwing up than I ever did by doing things right and that no mistake is worthless if you learn something from it. It turns out that not everyone has that same experience with errors, often learning the wrong lesson from making a dumb decision.

Dan Dasilva is a “YouTube celebrity” and an “internet entrepreneur,” two terms that are pretty vague and meaningless. He also has a website called “eCom Dudes” where he operates “a collective group of individuals and coaches as well, that we come on and we share what’s working now.”  (Truth be told, I watched his intro video about four times and I still have no idea what he does or how it works. We’re bordering on the “Underpants Gnomes” model of commerce at this point.)

Dasilva took to YouTube recently to complain about a lawsuit that a photographer filed against him for copyright infringement. In most cases, people who violate copyright and are sued learn a valuable lesson: Don’t steal people’s stuff. Dasilva, however, seems to have learned something else entirely:

To put it into context, the reason I was sued was because I used a picture that I found on Google Images. Now, I should have known better, yes, in my position I should know better. But, again, I never really thought that there are malicious people out there that all they do and this is what I want to tell you is that there are people out there maliciously put pictures on the Internet.

They copyright pictures that they take and what they do is they’ll get like a copyright on it, and they’ll put it out on the Internet, and it’s freely available on the Internet if you run a Google search their image will appear… And they have a team they’ll have like three or four people who are searching the Internet for their image to find all the sites [that use the images without permission]…

His business model is taking photos and suing people for a settlement.

In other words, photographers create photographs. Other people then take those photographs and use them without permission, in violation of copyright law. The photographers then sue to protect their work and receive settlements based on those copyright violations. In Dasilva’s world, this is somehow a “malicious” racket that is meant to entrap people like him and bilk him of his hard earned cash. And what he apparently learned from all of this is that you have to be careful to avoid these “malicious” individuals and instead use “lesser quality” images from Creative Commons.

Dasilva didn’t name the “malicious” photographer with whom he settled the case, but other sites posting on this issue have done so. Nick Young, whose actual “business model” appears to be taking stock photos for a variety of uses, runs his photography business through nyphotographic.com. (I emailed Young and asked him for a short interview about all this. If he gets back to me, I’ll update and post it on the blog.)

Young’s website is upfront about his usage rules:

I allow some of my series of images to be used on a free basis in return for an attribution link back to my web site, I do this as it provides useful advertising for my business:

These images are offered under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license and if you want to use the images for free it is very important you follow the terms of the licence. Underneath each image are the details needed to fulfill the conditions of the license and also a link to the license so you can read for yourself the terms of the license.

Should you not wish to follow the terms of the license then please purchase a rights managed license through this site which does not require any attributions.

Many of the complaints surrounding Young’s quest to control his own work fall into two basic categories:

  1. He only charges small amounts of money for some of his photos (one poster noted a $9.95 rate), so suing over the use of these images for upwards of six figures is clearly a scam.
  2. He is shooting “generic” images of food, computers and other “stock” items, so it’s unfair that he can copyright these shots and make money off of people who just want to use them on their websites.

Let’s unpack the first premise in some other legal venues and see if this makes sense in any other way:

  1. It’s unfair that I had to pay a $1,000 ticket for stealing a $1 candy bar from the store. I mean, it was only a $1, so that fine shouldn’t be so high.
  2. It’s so mean that this guy who parks his 2004 Honda Civic in outside my office locks his car and takes his keys with him. I mean, there are TONS of cars around here, there’s nothing special about this and I just want to use it to get home in time to watch the Packer game.

First, the rate (the cost of the image or the candy bar) is based on you doing the right thing and paying for something you want up front. The fine (the lawsuit or the ticket) are in place to penalize you in a way that prevents you from doing the wrong thing again. That’s why tickets for speeding or illegal parking or other similar things are really high. If we dropped all speeding tickets to the price of a gallon of gas, the roads out near my house would look like “Death Race.” The penalty is supposed to teach you a lesson, something Dasilva clearly did not learn

Second, the guy OWNS the material. He paid for gear, studio time, the subject matter (fruit, eggs whatever) and other overhead to shoot that image. He also paid for an education that helped him become good at this. The whole reason people are taking his images is because they are GOOD PHOTOS. If you think the images aren’t worth paying for, you go try to shoot a bowl of fruit or a dozen eggs or whatever and make it look as good as Young can. It’s not that easy and therefore, you are paying for his TALENT not just the PHOTO. Just because you’re used to people letting you ignore the law, it shouldn’t become a stunner when someone catches you and penalizes you. It’s no more of a defense than telling the cop who pulled you over, “Officer, I know it’s only 25 mph out here, but nobody ever ticketed me for going 50 on this road before, so this is really unfair!”

One other thing that you should consider about copyright: It’s not always about money. The goal of copyright is to provide you with a legal right to control your work. Let’s say I take a photo of my kid (she’s really cute) and I register the copyright  (which you don’t have to do for it to be copyrighted, but it is essential if you want to ever sue over that right), I control how it’s used.

So, if a guy from a white supremacists website comes to me and wants to buy that photo for use on his blog, I have the right to say, “No.” Without copyright laws, and a means to enforce them, that photo could be used to promote child trafficking, white supremacy, gluten-free breakfast cereal and McDonald’s burgers (the last of which would really be horrifying to me). I don’t think that Young is worried about his photo of carrots will be used nefariously to promote a “master race,” but if he is, that’s his business.

Literally.