Guest blogging: Helpful dictionaries and resources for anyone writing on LGBTQ issues and the recent federal discussion of “defining gender.”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Pat Garvin a visual journalist at The Boston Globe and the publisher of the LGBTQ+ Experiment newsletter.

The issue of “defining gender” hit the news this week, with President Donald Trump announcing he is seeking a legal definition of the term, which would be based solely on “genitalia at birth.” As writing on this subject is likely to require some deeper understanding of sex, gender and other similar topics, I asked Garvin if he had any suggestions on where reporters can go to become more well versed on these issues.

Garvin was nice enough to provide a roster of dictionaries and resources he uses to more fully understand the terms used in covering LGBTQ topics and explain why he thinks each one has merit. It’s also worth noting that even experts in a field understand they need to look things up occasionally (or more), so in my book, he also serves as a good example for all reporters. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

When coming across a term I don’t know, I’m often tempted to Google it to learn its meaning and etymology.

Here are some of the glossaries I’ve returned to most often, and why:

  • GLAAD Media Reference Guide
    This is aimed at journalists and other people who work in media-related positions, but is illuminating for anyone who wants to understand terminology.
  • National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) Stylebook
    The NLGJA is “an organization of journalists, media professionals, educators and students working from within the news industry to foster fair and accurate coverage of LGBTQ issues.” Like GLAAD’s Reference Guide, the NLGJA’s style guide has an exhaustive glossary of terms, explaining the context in which these terms should — and should not — be used.
  • The Human Rights Campaign
    The HRC is the largest LGBTQ+ organization in the US, and has a straightforward glossary.
  • Trans Student Education Resources
    This list of definitions is especially helpful in its attention to detail on terms related to the transgender community.
  • The LGBTQIA+ Resource Center at UC Davis
    This is a staggering and even daunting collection of terms that deal not only with gender and orientation, but also race and disabilities.
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information’s glossary
    The National Center for Biotechnology Information is a division of the National Library of Medicine, and thus, the glossary has some medical terminology that’s not in some of the other resources.
  • The National LGBT Health Education Center
    The National LGBT Health Education Center “provides educational programs, resources, and consultation to health care organizations with the goal of optimizing quality, cost-effective health care for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.” Its glossary offers a robust list of terms associated with the LGBTQ+ people’s health and medical treatments.
  • The Trevor Project
    The Trevor Project aims to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth, and this guide not only defines terms, but links to resources about specific topics.
  • CBS News: The gender identity terms you need to know
    Some of the above resources might seem technical to some readers, but this CBS News article explains things in a straightforward way that isn’t academic.
  • The New York Times: The ABCs of LGBTQIA+
    Similar to the CBS News piece, this explains terms simply, and explains the historical concepts for some of the terms.

I intentionally use each of them so that I can soak up the nuances and different ways they explain terminologies. Each one takes a slightly different approach to wording, and I feel it’s helpful to soak that in as I’m trying to learn new terms. It’s helpful to see a couple different definitions for the same terms, because I’m able to catch more of the nuances of some terms if I’m able to read multiple explanations.

NYT TV critic James Poniewozik bashes Axios CEO Jim VandeHei for his view on social media usage (and four things that explain why that’s beside the point.)

Jim VandeHei came to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, this weekend to help celebrate the department of journalism’s 50th anniversary. A co-founder of Axios and Politico, VandeHei could easily make the cut as one of the department’s most famous graduates and probably even one of the university’s top ten most successful grads.

(My money for the top UWO grad, however, is Craig Culver, the namesake of the custard-driven restaurant chain. Food fame will always trump political or media fame.)

VandeHei gave several speeches over the course of the weekend, focusing on everything from his time at UWO to the issue of fake news. The latter topic became a post on his company’s website and a featured point for Axios’ Mike Allen when he put out his “Axios AM: Mike’s Big 6” column:

VandeHei offered four fairly provocative ideas — one each for politicians, social media, reporters and individuals. Here’s the gist, adapted for Axios …

  • Politicians: Stop using the term “fake news.” The worst thing for a country is having people believe lies, or trust nothing. One day soon, something bad will happen, and it will take faith in information to fix it. You erode trust at our collective peril.
  • Media: News organizations should ban their reporters from doing anything on social media — especially Twitter — beyond sharing stories. Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics.
  • Social media companies: Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers. One thing is for sure: The current self-policing isn’t cutting it.
  • You: We all want to fault others, but each of us is very much to blame. Quit sharing stories without even reading them. Quit tweeting your every outrage. Quit clicking on garbage. Spend a few minutes to verify the trustworthiness of what you read.

Be smart … Remember: If your Facebook feed is filled with garbage, it means you were reading garbage in the first place. The algorithm simply gives you more of what you crave.

P.S. The Axios social media policy, which applies to all our colleagues, prohibits the sharing of political views or derogatory snark online: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.”

Before we dig into the guts of this, a couple key things are worth noting:

  • VandeHei gave at least three speeches/panel presentations that day and I was at most of them. This is one part of a larger discussion and it’s also boiled down a lot more, based on Axios’ “Smart Brevity” approach. Keep in this in mind when we get to the deeper discussion.
  • The audience for most of these presentations was students at UWO and recent graduates from UWO. Faculty (like me) and other folks (less-recent alumni, spouses of visitors etc.) were listening as well, but the this was mostly targeted at journalism students who were either really green or relatively green.
  • Full disclosure: I fanboyed out in meeting VandeHei, as I did with several other people there. I wanted to meet him and thank him for his generosity and assistance in supporting the student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, when we were in the middle of a $50,000 challenge grant to pay off a five-figure debt the paper sustained over the years. I admire the fact this guy built not one, but two successful media organizations in a time in which media itself is taking a beating and it seems like nobody is making money in journalism. It doesn’t mean I’m a shill for this guy or that I can’t think for myself on any of the points he made.
  • I was these events as a faculty member who was trying to help keep things running smoothly, not as an impartial media member, determined to write on this. I also geeked out meeting Cliff Christl, the longtime Green Bay Packers reporter and Packer historian. Same deal with getting to see Paige Bonanno of ABC Disney and others. Photos of me are floating around out there with these people.

Given that most of the media world couldn’t find Oshkosh with a map and a compass, it never dawned on me that anyone would hear anything about VandeHei’s speech, let alone take umbrage with his comments.

Shows what I know:

PoniTweet1PoniTweet2

(In case you don’t know who he is, James Poniewozik is the TV critic for the New York Times, a job he has held since 2015. Prior to that, he spent 16 years as a TV and media critic at Time. He has a degree in English from the University of Michigan and has studied creative writing at NYU.)

Poniewozik wasn’t the only critic of VandeHei’s position, but he was among the most prominent and he captured the majority of what I saw out there in terms of disagreement. Rather than trying to sort through all of Twitter, it seemed most germane to analyze this issue based on these seven tweets and try to incorporate additional information where I can.

Consider these four key thoughts:

 

Freak out if you want, but not on Poniewozik’s point:

I’m really stunned that the thing that didn’t REALLY freak people out was Vandehei’s third point: “Radically self-regulate, or allow government regulation to stanch, the flow of disinformation or made-up news. Maybe it takes a new FCC of social media to force the same standards as expected from TV stations and newspapers.”

The question of “Who decides?” will always be a concern when it comes to the regulation of speech or press. We live in a world in which First Amendment “goes too far” according to at least a quarter of the country, should be undercut by the “opening of libel laws” and the concept of what is “made-up news” seems to be in the eye of the politician.

A media person like VandeHei expressing an opinion on how to fight fake news (keep in mind, that’s the narrow window through which VandeHei is talking about these issues) is interesting. A fellow media person like Poniewozik arguing his opinion against VandeHei’s opinion is interesting, although starting to border on the “media talks about media” inside baseball I hate. The rest of the internet choosing sides on this is what the internet does until someone starts talking about “libtards” or someone else drags Trump and the Russians into it, at which point most of us go back to looking for cute micro-pig videos. I can take or leave that.

However, the last thing I would want at this point in time is some sort of “agency” to essentially engage in prior review and/or prior restraint either actively (through censorship) or passively (through policy that limits specific content). Of everything VandeHei said Friday, that was the one thing that really had the feeling of a truly awful idea. That said…

 

Absolutism is dumb…:

One of the easier ways to get in trouble as a writer is through absolutism. Whenever I read that something has “never” happened or that “everyone” thinks something or “it always” works that way, my internal BS detector kicks into high gear. Sure, there are a few firsts, lasts and onlies out there in a variety of fields, which is why Oddity is one of the five interest elements we espouse in the book. However, the odds of something being declared an absolute and something actually being an absolute are similar to the odds of winning the lottery.

Therefore, I’m not a huge fan of the line regarding the banning of reporters from doing anything on social media other than promoting stories. For my money, the P.S. at the bottom of the post espouses a much saner version of a social media policy: “Don’t say anything on the internet that you wouldn’t publish under your byline or say on TV.” This is a policy that places responsibility on the journalists and it also provides a much smarter way to look at this topic.

I can’t tell you how many times I practically broke out in hives when someone at one of the student media outlets I advised would say, “Oh, that photo/story/graphic is way too bloody/inaccurate/naked to run in the paper! Just stick it on the website…” The mentality seemed to be that journalistic standards of quality only applied to the dead-tree publications (and the over-the-airwaves broadcasts), but the web was this fun, scrappy kind of place where you could drop F-bombs and innuendo all day.

Media outlets that want people to take them seriously should establish more of a platform-neutral set of standards for content as opposed to thinking something you wouldn’t say on one platform is completely legitimate on another. Either way, a lock-down mentality of “never, never, never” is a bad idea and likely to lead to more harm than good.

 

…But uninformed ranting is dumber:

I love Axios’ concept of “Smart Brevity,” but it can lead to rabbit-hole criticism like Poniewozik’s tweets on the topic of tweeting an opinion. The whole post involved the idea of how to combat fake news, which got lost immediately upon conversion to Tweet-fighting. The line “Snark, jokes and blatant opinion are showing your hand, and it always seems to be the left one. This makes it impossible to win back the skeptics” becomes the flashpoint of the argument where Poniewozik equates VandeHei’s line to the concept of never publicly stating any opinion.

He then pushes the point, noting that never publicly stating an opinion is either a heinous form of concealment that treats the readers in a negative way or the inability of the journalists to form an opinion and thus idiocy on the part of the writers. Thus we get idiots, phonies and so forth.

Let’s unpack this a bit:

  •  Vandehei made it clear in his presentations that he stringently opposes news journalists using social media to express opinions that taint the readers’ ability to trust them.
    An example he used related to a city council meeting in which a reporter stated that some proposal was about to be debated and that people should stay tuned to his live tweets to figure out if two reps were going to screw people over (or words to that effect). In other words, if you are expecting a story based on the facts about some local content and the reporter is already calling a couple people involved chuckleheads, how can you trust that reporter on anything else he or she writes?

 

  • Journalists have ALWAYS developed, maintained and expressed opinions on the people they cover. I thought some sources I knew were honest while others I wouldn’t trust any farther than I could throw a cheesecake in a swimming pool. Some people were complete jerkwads while others bordered on handsy in their desperate need for my adulation. I had opinions on all of them.
    However, there’s a difference between going to the bar after work and telling your coworkers what a dipstick a county commissioner was during an interview and publicly issuing a “ready-to-go-viral” tirade about that person.
    I have often told students that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. A similar view on social media might be valuable: The duty to form an opinion is not the same as the duty to share it with the whole world in 280 characters or less.

 

  • Many differences exist among the positions of having an opinion, expressing an opinion, not developing any opinionated thought and the “snark, jokes and blatant opinion” elements outlined in the Axios post.
    Consider this spectrum of items you can use in expression:

    Fact (an indisputable element): Jim VandeHei spoke Friday at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh about fake news.

    Personal opinion (statement made to indicate personal belief): I think James Poniewozik raised interesting points, but was off base in his criticism of Jim VandeHei’s speech.

    Blatant opinion (A personal belief stated as fact): “This is dumb and treats Axios readers as if they are dumb.” OR “People don’t want you to be a robot. They want you to be FAIR.”

    Jokes (in this case, I’m guessing attempts at humor in an attempt to degrade or undermine an opposing source or the source’s position): Q: How do you get a University of Michigan graduate off your porch?  A: You pay for the pizza. OR Q: How many TV critics does it take to change a light bulb?  A: None, they just sit in the dark and write a scathing column about how illumination devices used to be so much better.

    Snark (probably closest to sarcasm or other biting comments intended on undercutting a position without relying on the joke format): James, if I need an analysis of “Cop Rock” or a creatively written haiku, I’ll give you a call. Otherwise, I’ll probably rely on the guy who actually has a journalism degree and runs a news organization to come up with some standards for the news media.

    There are levels to this and if I had to make a policy for pairing news journalists and social media, it would be a lot closer to the “stick to the facts for the most part, occasionally use the personal opinion when you can support it with facts and don’t do jokes, snark or blatant opinions.” But that’s my personal opinion.

 

  • Multiple people spoke on this topic and several of them agreed with VandeHei’s underlying premise: News journalists now are saying stuff on social media that would be way out of bounds in their traditional publications and that needs to stop. One of those people was Paul Anger, another UWO grad, who retired in 2015 as the editor and publisher of the Detroit Free-Press.  I’m not sure if he held to Axios’ absolutism policy regarding social media, but it was clear that his previous publications had specific standards and those included how people should act on social media. It’s not just VandeHei, although in being out front and at a major national political outlet, he’s going to get the most attention.

 

Consider the Audience

I frequently write about why it is important to understand your audience in crafting your message. To understand VandeHei’s statements, it’s important to keep that concept in mind.

Not to belabor the point, but he was speaking to students, student journalists and recent journalism grads (for the most part). As someone who often speaks to these students, I can tell you three immutable truths:

  1. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between fact and opinion when they see it in the media and when they write for the media.
  2. They don’t always see that they’re playing with live ammunition when they post things on social media.
  3. They are still learning how to work as journalists.

If this were a speech or panel at an SPJ or NAB or some other professional conference, the tone, nuance and depth might have differed here. Sure, the policy at Axios is still going to be the same, but there might be some additional discussion that merited digging into the gray areas. That’s not the case here as I had students in that audience who are still trying to figure out how to write a lead (or lede if you prefer).

Folks like Jim VandeHei and James Poniewozik have earned the fungus on their shower shoes, so maybe expressing opinions or using social media as they see fit makes sense for them. My students? Not so much, so slapping a few safety devices on these tools is probably a good idea. When they get to the stage of becoming experts on topics and they have opinions that are supported, well-reasoned and likely to benefit readers, it’s the perfect time for them to take to Twitter and share them. However, until that point, it’s probably best to hammer home the idea of playing it safe.

Also, being a professional media practitioner, or simply being educated, doesn’t mean you’re not going to fall on your keys on social media. Or, as Tweet 6 would note, come across as a “got-damn idiot.”

The “Junk Drawer:” Some things just go without saying (but journalists end up writing them down anyway)

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need. Today’s edition of the JD gives you a look at some moments of writing that kind of left me shaking my head or pondering my own sense of sanity. Consider some of these items:

 

From the “Sometimes The Lead Just Writes Itself” Department:

You can overwrite a lead when you try to put too much of your own polish on it or you try to oversell it. Fortunately, some stories just walk up and say, “Here’s your lead” like this one did:

BRISTOL, Tenn. – A man who police say was run over with a lawn mower while trying to kill his son with a chain saw has had to have his leg amputated.

I figured this was going to be the best lead of the week when it came to this concept. I was clearly wrong, thanks to a head’s up from Steven Chappell.

Dennis Hof, the flamboyant pimp, reality television star and Republican nominee who was expected to win a seat in the Nevada Assembly next month, was found dead at his Nye County, Nev., brothel Tuesday morning by a male porn star, authorities said.

 

In other “junk drawer” news…

I’d call this a “safe bet” statement from the sheriff:

A Wisconsin teenager who has been missing since her parents were found dead in their home isn’t a runaway and investigators believe she’s in danger, a sheriff said Tuesday.

 

File this under the “Because I SAID SO” arguments you will some day make to your kids:

Vote No

 

Question for the group: At what point is something too ridiculous to be news?

Answer: When you can write this headline and the word “witch” doesn’t make it into the first three paragraphs.

‘It is a scary time,’ Trump backer Amy Kremer tells MSNBC. Witches ‘are placing a hex on Brett Kavanaugh.’

Although I take no political stands on this blog, it is worth mentioning that the Republicans started the “witch” thing first:

 

In “Are we not doing ‘phrasing’ anymore?” news:

This Facebook post clearly needs context and emergency punctuation:

Legal

 

Don’t hide in the gray areas, judge. Tell us how you really feel:

Judge to man found guilty of killing 4-year-old girl: “You should die in a locked closet”

 

And he’s probably not going to be “Johnny Sheen,” “Johnny Chaplin” or “Johnny Brown” either…

“Obviously I’m not going to change, I’m not the type of player that’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle,’ and run down the line and slide to first base and … you know, whatever can happen. That’s just not my personality, that’s not my cup of tea, that’s not who I am.

I think he meant “Charlie Hustle” (a Pete Rose reference) or at least I hope so…

And finally… When it comes to giving great advice, leave it to your law-enforcement officials:

“If someone is beating you with a metal rod, you have every right to defend yourself,” Sheriff Grady Judd offered. “But if that person hits you and runs away, call 911. Don’t try to run him down with your truck. It’s not only nuts, it’s illegal. It’s attempted murder.”

 

How “weasel voice” helped the New York Times build a 3,000-word narrative about a sexual con job in the “sugar dating” realm (and 3 reasons you should avoid the paper’s approach to this in your writing).

The basic rule of journalism that states, “Just tell me what happened and why I should care as a reader,” is often undermined when journalists rely on soft language and euphemisms. We talked about this at length in the discussion of “weasel voice” in writing and in terms of how writers get a bad rap for their linguistic gymnastics.

However, the following story was something weasel-riffic, thanks to an odd confluence of the story topic and the overwriting common to the New York Times. In the most basic terms, you could boil this story down to a simple sentence:

A woman using a borderline legal implied-sex-for-cash website got conned by a guy who claimed to be rich but wasn’t, thus leaving her stuck with a hotel bill after a three-way.

That sentence is 31 words, but the Times took a bit more time to tell this story. More than 3,000 words and one really awkward correction later, the Times’ had finished its clinic on euphemistic weasel voice. Consider some of the following descriptions and how you can practically see the writer using “air quotes” to the point of developing carpal tunnel syndrome:

  • The headline starts with the term “sugar date,” to describe the arrangement between young women and older men looking for an implied-sex-for-cash hook up.
  • A subhead refers to this concept as “Escorting 2.0,” like it’s some sort of software upgrade.
  • This chunk of text: Last winter, a friend told her about the concept of “sugar-dating”: a “sugar baby” (most often a woman or a gay man) connecting with a “sugar daddy” (a man) in a relationship that offers financial support in exchange for companionship and possibly sex. Accelerated by the anonymity of the internet, sugar-dating is a variation on “escorting,” that practice formerly advertised at the back of New York magazine and the now-defunct Village Voice newspaper. (When you need four sets of euphemism quotes and two parentheticals to get a concept across to your readers, you’re probably having a bad writing day.)
  • It refers to SeekingArrangements.com as “a website that helps people interested in monetized dating find each other.” I found it odd that the term “monetized dating” didn’t get quote marks, but it fits the bill of every other euphemism here for prostitution.
  • It uses the term “hypergamy” to refer to the concept of marrying for money.
  • It refers to the website’s founder’s other hookup site for married people who want to have sex with other people as part of an “ethical cheating” movement. This reminds me of other oxymorons like “jumbo shrimp” and “real artificial butter.”
  • This sentence officially lost me when it came to what gets the air quotes and what doesn’t: There, some 200 attendees, many silkily coifed young women, paid $50 apiece for admission to panels on topics like styling, personal branding and “financial literacy.” Why is “financial literacy” in quotes? What the heck could that possibly be euphemistic for?

By this point I “officially” ran out of “the overwhelming desire” to find the “air-quoted material” in this “story” about “sugar dating.” (I almost needed to buy a loot box full of air quotes for this post…)

This isn’t to pick on this particular writer or this particular topic, but it does raise some questions about what makes for a story, how you should tell the story and what is an acceptable amount of “weasel voice.” Consider the following points:

 

When you dig into a story that isn’t a story, consider Filak’s First Rule of Holes:

In reading this story, I found that there were about three or four directions this could have gone that would have been valuable to readers. It could have been a look at how the “sugar industry” works. It could have been about the dangers associated with “monetized dating.” It could have been about the legal issues surrounding these sites. It could have been about the long con this guy (and I’m sure others) are pulling on cash-strapped women who apply to the sites. I’m sure I’m missing other “deep digs” it could have hit.

Instead, it kind of talked about each of these in passing all while telling this one story about this person who was taken advantage of by one guy at one point in time. If she had been a narrative thread for any of these larger concerns, this might have been worth 3,000+ words. However, she was the whole point, which made this feel… perplexing. I found myself like “The Bobs” in this “Office Space” interview:

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to write, so when you find that a story isn’t really doing a whole heck of a lot, you might want to reconsider your approach, your sources or your sense that this is a story at all. Follow Filak’s First Rule of Holes: When you find your self in one, stop digging.

 

A Feature Approach Doesn’t Mean You Aren’t Doing Journalism

When I first taught feature writing, I had a full class of 15 students and at least that many on the waiting list. They came with the idea that the class fell somewhere between creative writing and a haiku seminar. By the time they figured out how I ran the class, I think I was down to eight students and nobody on the waiting listed wanted to join in the fun.

Features require observation, depth and clarity that couple with strong reporting and valuable content. The observation part was there, almost to a fault, in that I felt like I was reading one of George R.R. Martin’s descriptions of meals in the “Game of Thrones” series or Bret Easton Ellis’ “label-dropping” in the first chapter of “American Psycho.” (I had to Google some make-up and hair-do terminology as well as find out what made certain hotels worth name-dropping…)

However, the story failed to measure up in terms of meeting journalistic rigor for reporting and storytelling standards. If this guy really is conning multiple women on this site, why is he not being reported to some form of authority? If the site is doing a “caveat emptor” approach, that’s one big story. If the police don’t have a tool for stopping this, that’s another big story. (And possibly a call for some legislative discussion as there was to establish punishment for revenge porn and up-skirt photography.)

At the very least, if he’s a scummy weasel, as the author seemed to confirm, why did this guy get away without being named? That was a confusing choice.

Why is this a story now? Even features need a time peg. Is the site changing its approach? Is “Ron/Jay/Mr. Mystery” back on the prowl again? Is there a new law or a new rule that makes this relevant? This isn’t a case of “She should have come forward earlier,” as people can tell their stories at any point they so choose. That said, the writer needs to make it clear why we’re hearing it now and why it should matter to the readers now.

At least a half dozen other holes emerge in the reporting here and there, often brushed over with a weak parenthetical explanation. The writer owes the readers value and clarity. Neither seem prominent here.

 

Avoid Words That Obscure Reality

When you find yourself using jargon, euphemism or other code words in your writing, you aren’t helping your readers understand your story. This tends to happen when technical topics overwhelm reporters or when PR professionals use terms common to their field but that other people don’t understand.

This isn’t to say that you should blunt the language to the point of distraction, but there has to be a limit as to how much “air quoting” or euphemistic writing you should do. The chunk of weasel voice outlined above clearly demonstrates this, but here’s a paragraph with one term that still has me puzzled:

He said that he looked for women on SeekingArrangement and advertised himself on Tinder as a “sugar daddy” — his profile urged women to “swipe right if looking to be spoiled” — solely because he thought it was a good way to meet women for non-transactional hookups.

I’m uncertain as to the pairing of “non-transactional” and “hookup” in that sentence or if it means what the guy, the writer or what I thought it meant. (Another Google search led me down the path of software engineering… I think… before I found the “do’s” and “don’t’s” of being “an aspiring sugar baby” at the Thought Catalog site. It made me want to beg my wife to never leave me, for fear of what’s in the dating pool out there, and then it made me want to take a potato peeler to my eyeballs.)

Since you can’t use terms like “money for sex” or more direct terms without running afoul of the law, the author here (and others as well) refer to this as “transactional relationships.” A “non-transactional” relationship, thus would appear to be one that lacked a quid-pro-quo approach to the interaction. Or, as you would normally call it, a “relationship.”

When the author refers to this guy running his game on the site in this way, it sounds like he’s saying he puts himself out there as a rich guy because he figured he’d attract women even though he never had any intention of paying them.

If that’s the case, say that. As a reader, I would then be able to say, “Wait a minute, isn’t that fraud? I think I saw a ‘Law & Order: SVU’ episode on that topic at one point…” If that’s not what he meant, make it clearer what he was saying. It’s not a direct quote, so the euphemism is that of the writer. As it stands, I have no idea what I’m seeing.

And that’s the larger point about this article and the writing style: Euphemism and jargon kill it under the guise of a feature format and the effort to make this appear less shady than it is.

I’m not making a moral argument here. You want to hook up with people for any reason whatsoever, go for it. You want to write about those people, that’s fine, too. I’ve read news stories that would make John Waters blush and a Billy Goat puke. That’s not the issue. It’s the lack of directness that limits good writing and quality journalism.

It’s why news obituaries use the term “died” instead of “passed away,” “expired” or “spun from the mortal coil.” It’s also why we avoid phrases like “now singing with the angels” or “resting safely in the arms of Jesus.” (I’ve seen all of these at one point or another.) They obscure reality and make life difficult on the readers.

The fact of the matter is these terms like “sugar baby” and “sugar daddy” and “monetized dating” are easy enough to translate from weasel voice into more direct language. In not doing so, the author harmed the story, irritated the readers and provided little to the sum of human knowledge. If you face situations where people try to obscure reality by telling you they “depopulated an area with an explosive aerial assault” (bombed a village) or “engaged in disinformation” (lied) or “exchanged angry hand gestures” (raised their middle fingers), you need to cut through the obfuscation and give your readers a clear sense of reality.

In short, just tell me what happened and why I care in a clear, concise and coherent way.

“Here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage:” 3 things you can learn from an award-winning journalist’s fight to keep his work public.

As a reporter for Great 98 in Mayville, Wisconsin, Alex Crowe found himself digging into allegations of corruption and special treatment in the city’s police department. His work looked into a Department of Justice investigation that revealed the department helped cover up a drug-related offense at the request of an officer. Tom Poellot, the officer accused of trying to cover for his son, denied that he was involved in any alterations to that police report, even though that information was included in a criminal complaint filed against former Mayville Police Chief Christopher MacNeill.

Crowe’s efforts garnered a lot of attention for the station’s news operation and earned him a first-place award from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association in the category of Best Significant Community Impact in 2017.

A year or so later, everything went to hell in a speedboat.

Poellot’s lawyer contacted the station and demanded the station pull down the articles, claiming Crowe broke the law in his reporting.

“He claims we violated Wisconsin Statutes Section 938.396(1)(b)(1)  which says you cannot identify a minor involved in a crime,” Crowe wrote in an email. “I wrote that Poellot’s son had been caught at school, but never identified the kid. All word-for-word form DOJ criminal complaint against MacNeill.”

Crowe said the attorney had been extremely aggressive in his approach and Crowe’s superiors at the station were concerned enough to consider pulling the stories off line and scrubbing them from all social media. The costs associated with a protracted legal fight were also potentially prohibitive, Crowe was told.

To better understand the legal issues associated with his stories, Crowe contacted the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a non-profit group that “provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.”

“I sent an email late one night, and received a call back literally minutes later from a lawyer in D.C. who was furious with the way we were being treated,” Crowe wrote. “She put me in contact with a lawyer in Madison who works with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association as well as the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. He was able to cite specific Wisconsin State Statutes that provide protections for the press, as well as refute the chief/lawyer’s claims that we were in violation of a different set of statutes. We told the other side that we had been in contact with multiple lawyers who helped us put together a response, and have not heard back from the lawyer representing the chief in Cudahy for weeks. Hopefully, the matter has been resolved.”

(The stories are still available on the Great 98 website here and here and you, so feel free to read them. They’re truly great bits of quality local journalism. If you want to hear what Crowe said about them for this blog when they first came out, you can click here and here.)

I asked Crowe what he learned from this experience and he had a few tips. Below are some of his thoughts (in quotes) and three things I think you can take away from this experience:

 

Pair intuition and research before you respond.

When I worked as a journalist, a student newspaper adviser, and even as a professor, I would hear about ridiculously absurd statements people would make about the intersection of law and the media. Stuff like:

  • “You can’t publish the name of a criminal because the person could sue us.”
  • “We don’t have to release that document (to the media) because we don’t feel you are entitled to it.”
  • “We know we released that document, but we sent you the wrong one and we’re relying on your ethical integrity as a journalist to destroy it and let us send you a new one.”
  • “You published my son’s name in the paper! I’m suing you for making him look bad.” (The “son” had been arrested after participating in a violent, public altercation. I imagine THAT might have made him look bad, but what do I know?)

My favorite one was a response to an open records request in which we were denied access to a set of evaluations that a search committee had inadvertently made public. The responding records keeper stated that the documents were available under some arcane part of Indiana law in which they weren’t public, but rather more like interoffice memos meant to be shared only among about 30,000 students, faculty and staff on the campus. Just not for publication in the student newspaper, with its circulation of about 10,000.

When it came to Crowe’s situation, it felt like bullying to me. The use of a lawyer and a specific state statute can scare the hell out of anyone who isn’t a legal expert. The phrase, “Do X or we’re going to sue you” coming from a lawyer can make you want to cower in a corner and say, “Please don’t hurt me!” Instead, find your own ringer in this game and see what he or she can do to balance the playing field.

Whenever someone threatens to sue you or withholds a document from you or does anything else like that, take a few moments and start processing what you have heard in a logical fashion. Once you do this a few times (and take a decent com law class), you can develop a pretty good BS detector. Let intuition guide you, and then do some research, call some experts and figure out how accurate this information actually is.

“I would encourage any student to read up on the laws/statutes in their state that regard to reporting and publishing of information, because we really needed to know what the law said and who it protected before crafting a response,” Crowe said.

The more you know, the better off you are.

 

You’re not in this alone. Use your network to find help.

When Crowe first was told he would have to take down the stories, he reached out to me and I helped direct him to the RCFP. How did I know to do this? I didn’t, so I asked a couple of the legal eagles I knew, who had seen this kind of thing before and they pointed me toward that group.

When we talk about “networking” in college classes, this is the kind of thing we’re trying to get across. People you meet and connect with can help you. If those people don’t have the answers, chances are pretty good they’ll know someone who does have the answers.

“I would HIGHLY encourage students to get informed about resources available to them, such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Crowe said. “If I wasn’t able to get professional assistance from that organization, I would have been forced to pull the story and it would have been erased from online archives as well.”

For students, the Student Press Law Center is a great resource and the folks there can help with free legal advice when your attempt to do journalism runs into someone else’s desire for you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing.

The ability to say, “Oh, you think you’re going to back me into a corner? That’s not going to happen because I have a lawyer, too” must feel so good. I know it’s probably nothing like this, but I always loved this line from Andrew Garfield in “The Social Network.”

 

Figure out if this is the hill you are willing to die on and if the juice is worth the squeeze. Then act accordingly.

I just managed to merge two of my favorite Filak-isms into one subhead, so it’s a good day for me. The point is that you need to figure out if it’s worth it to fight back and how far you are willing to go to defend that position. In some cases, the ask is minimal and the degree to which they are a pain in your keester is maximum, so you do it, even though you could stand your ground on an issue.

In this case, however, Crowe saw a much bigger picture and a much more important issue:

“Honestly, it was mostly about the principle of the matter,” Crowe stated. “We did absolutely nothing wrong in our reporting, yet here is someone who has power and money trying to bully us into taking down negative coverage that he doesn’t like while hiding behind his son as a means to try and get the story taken down. I didn’t like the fact that I was being asked to take my very legitimate reporting down just because the subject didn’t like what was written.

“We took our information directly from the DOJ/DCI report, along with other pillars of good reporting (including) interviews and in-person courtroom coverage…” he added. “It was important to keep the work published because, in my mind, if we have to take one story down after a bogus legal threat, that just opens the door for others to follow suit.”

The idea of opening Pandora’s Box or creating a “slippery slope” can occasionally be much ado about nothing. In this case, however, if he backed down, he might have found himself having to back off repeatedly, as his station would have established a problematic precedent: If we punch you hard enough in the nose (legally speaking), you will hide important news we don’t want people to see.

“I’ve learned that there are people who will do whatever it takes to try and get negative coverage erased from the internet,” he said. “This went way beyond someone trying to scrub their image. This is the first time I have had someone really come after me personally for something I reported on, and no matter how legit the reporting was, the lawyers kept coming.”

When you face a situation like this, you’ll be put to the test and you’ll need to determine how far you are willing to go to do what you think is right. Then, you’ll have to be willing to deal with the fall out. In either case, you’ll need to know that you can live with yourself after you make that choice and take your stand.

You might not win every time, but you’ll sleep better at night.

 

 

 

Guest Blogging: 8 simple rules for getting a journalism internship

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Steven Chappell, the director of student media at Northwest Missouri State University. He has been a working journalist for various publications since 1985 and today he will outline eight tips that will help you get an internship, or at least help you avoid embarrassing yourself in the application process. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

The months of October and November are busy ones for students actively looking for internships in the coming spring and summer. The vast majority of “major” internships students covet have deadlines in October and early November. While internships are available year-round, these two months see the bulk of deadlines for the “big ones.”

As the publisher of the Twitter feed @comminternships, I talk to media managers almost daily who are looking to hire students for either internships or entry-level jobs, and I regularly question them about the skills they are seeking, but more importantly, about what students who are applying for these jobs are doing right and doing wrong.

Right now, a page on The Poynter Institute website has more than 100 internships listed at national media organizations; the majority of the deadlines are between now and Nov. 2, so time is running out if you want to snag a coveted position at The Washington Post or with Dow Jones. But if you want to put yourself front and center, you have to make certain your cover letter and application set you apart from the rest. Put those templates away and listen to the advice I’ve collected over the years from numerous hiring managers.

 

No. 1: Your resume isn’t about you; it’s about me (the hiring manager).

That means your resume better be tailored specifically to the job description posted, and it needs to use the terminology posted in the description as well. In today’s technologically driven world, many companies now use computer algorithms to screen uploaded files, particularly when as many as 50,000 applications might roll in for a single position. If the application’s content doesn’t match the search parameters, that application will get kicked out, regardless of how qualified you might be. In the end, the ultimate question it should answer is “Why should I hire you?”

 

No. 2: Follow the instructions.

Whatever the employer has asked you to do, do it. Don’t expect to receive any special treatment. I remain amazed at the stories I get from hiring managers about student applicants who think they can finish submitting documents days or weeks after the deadline simply because they started the application process by the deadline. The real world doesn’t work that way. You can’t play a potential employer the same way you might be able to play a sympathetic professor.

 

No. 3: Make the resume one page.

As much as you think that time bagging groceries at your local high school grocery store is a part of your experience, it’s not that relevant to the job for which you are applying. This is where the wheat is separated from the chaff, so to speak. Make certain the experience you are listing for this job is relevant to the description.

 

No. 4: Make more than one resume.

Each job is unique. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter resume or cover letter anymore. Each one should be tailored specifically for the job to which you are applying. Templates are out. Forget about them. They will do you no good.

 

No. 5: Keep the design basic.

Fancy designs don’t impress anyone, even for a graphic design job. That’s what your portfolio is for, if you make it that far in the process. The resume should be a clear, clean, precise explanation of your skills, accomplishments and qualifications. It should also be submitted as a PDF, unless another format is requested. Finally, it should be in black and white. You never know how many copies may be printed to be circulated among the hiring committee. Most companies won’t waste money on color copies, and color never prints well in black and white.

 

No. 6: What you did isn’t that important.

What you accomplished in the role is far more vital. I’m from the Show-Me State, so show, don’t tell, your potential employer what your skills are. Give an example of those skills, and if you have them, the data to back it up.

 

No. 7: Your cover letter is not a copy of the resume.

I have the resume. I don’t need to re-read it in the cover letter. Why would anyone want to read the same thing twice? The cover letter is your sales pitch. What’s missing from the resume that you can expound upon here to set yourself apart from all those other applicants.

 

No. 8: Find someone who knows grammar and AP Style to proofread it for you.

You are applying for media jobs, so make certain everything you submit is in AP Style. It also has to be grammatically perfect. Hiring manager after hiring manager tells me that the No. 1 screening process is mistakes in the resume or cover letter. If you aren’t paying attention to detail in your application, you won’t pay attention to detail on the job, so you aren’t worth their time.

 

If you are looking for a spring or summer internship, take a look at these links:

https://www.poynter.org/news/here-are-more-100-journalism-internships-and-fellowships

http://www.splc.org/article/2017/09/2017-internship-opportunities

http://www.profkrg.com/jobs-2

https://twitter.com/comminternships

Courageously Perfect: The best story I ever read

Ryan Wood covers a football team whose legendary coach once famously told his players, “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly pursue perfection. We will not catch it, because no one is perfect, but we will capture excellence in our attempts and that will be enough.”

Long before he was the beat writer for the Green Bay Packers, Ryan knew what it was like to work for a demanding pain in the ass like Vince Lombardi. He was a sportswriter and a sports editor for me with the Daily News at Ball State University. Although you’re not allowed to pick favorites as an instructor or adviser, I can honestly say I broke that rule when it came to Ryan.

Even as he grew from the freshman who was scared to death about an open-records story about a recalcitrant basketball coach to an award-winning writer who covered an NFL team, he remained trapped in my head as a college kid. He rarely shaved in those days and made some “questionable clothing choices,” like the Mets jersey he practically had glued to his torso every time he was in the newsroom.

(I once got a phone call from an athletic director who asked me to talk to “that kid” about dressing appropriately in the press box for football games. Seems a pair of ratty cargo shorts Ryan donned for a big MAC game had a rip in the crotch, which several professional beat reporters made a note of. We managed to get him some “work attire” at a local thrift store so he could look the part without going broke.)

I always admired his writing, as I followed his work from small-town papers in the south to the Press-Gazette in Green Bay. He had a knack for finding flecks of gold within a game and shining a verbal light upon them. He managed to gain trust from people who reticently dole out confidences in paltry amounts.

From time to time over the last decade, we’d touch base about a story or an idea or even a word choice in a story. He had long outgrown a need for me, but for him it seemed that my confirmation of his choices provided him with solace. For my part, reading anything Ryan wrote felt like slipping into a favorite worn flannel shirt: It was familiar and welcome, reassuring and comfortable.

None of those things was true of this story he published yesterday, where he unveiled his family’s multi-year struggle with mental health problems. And it was by far the best thing I’ve ever read. Ryan and his wife, Kelly, provided an inside look at her  bipolar, borderline personality disorder, severe depression and severe anxiety, which nearly cost Kelly her life on multiple occasions.

In a blog post she wrote about this story, Kelly noted that she wasn’t a fan of the term “brave” in relation to the struggle to work through and discuss mental illness. If that’s the case, perhaps “courageous” would be an apt substitute here: “having the mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” That seems to capture my sense of who they are and what they faced, something Ryan showed me with an incomparable writing prowess.

I read the piece from start to finish, top to bottom multiple times and each time, the emotions it evokes are indescribable. I can feel my throat tighten, my eyes well with tears and my lips purse as I follow along word by painstaking word.

I always tell my students that a good description in a story would let me see the scene in my mind’s eye and would place me next to the writer in the scene itself. In this piece, I can see the tubes weaving into Kelly, as she lay in her hospital bed after an overdose. I can hear the screams Ryan emits and feel the tears on his face to the point that I literally want to grab him and hold him and tell him it’ll be OK. I can sense in every raw nerve in my body the tentative rebuilding of their life after each problematic episode.

The stunning helplessness… The blind desperation… The words envelop me and sink into every pore. I can feel this story in every tightening breath and moment of ache.

This isn’t a case of a sad story creating impact, as I’ve read and written pieces about death and damage. It isn’t a case of knowing the people involved, either, as I have helped write eulogies and obituaries for some of my closest family members and friends.

It is the rare confluence of writer and story, told in a way that defies all expectations, that allows every element of people, places, things and ideas to align in a way that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. The honesty and emotion pair with a structured narrative about a wildly unstructured series of events. I can’t think of another story I have read in 20-plus years of teaching that ever did this for me in the way Ryan and Kelly did.

I would consider it, and them, to be courageously perfect.

 

“I don’t think there is ever an easy way to go about covering sexual assault:” Reflections on and Advice for Reporting on Sexual Assault in Student Media (Part II)

Today, we have the second part of our Q and A with Harley Harrison, the former news editor at Ferris State University’s student newspaper, The Torch. Harrison, who graduated in 2018 with a degree in technical/professional writing and Spanish, served as the news editor at the paper and helped shepherd some extensive and in-depth looks at sexual assault issues on the campus.

For a look back at Part I, click here.

As a journalist, and as a Title IX-affiliated individual, what advice can you give to student journalists who want to get started on a piece about sexual assault, but don’t know where to start or are worried about what might happen if they do? How did you get started and how did you avoid creating problems for yourself and your sources in your work?

I love this question because I don’t think there is ever an easy way to go about covering sexual assault. But first, I think student journalists need to realize that there are many, many basis to cover.

When we talk about campus sexual assault, we often think about victim vs. campus administration vs. accused (especially after stories like Nassar). But in reality, it is more like a web of communication. You not only have administration, but you also have housing, campus police, advocacy groups, women’s shelters in the area, and hospitals. All of these organizations can impact a case or how cases are generally handled.

For example, the hospital in Big Rapids didn’t always have nurses on staff who could conduct rape kits, so survivors had to go all the way to Grand Rapids to get testing. This meant that a lot of survivors weren’t getting tested in time and, therefore, there was a lack of evidence. Another example is that the women’s shelter started collecting clothing donations so that survivors wouldn’t have to return to the dorms from the hospital in hospital gowns or scrubs (clothes are collected as evidence). These organizations all function together to support students, but when one organization isn’t helping survivors, it can lead to the mishandling of the situation.

The other aspect that student journalists have to realize is that the way a story about sexual assault is conveyed could have negative impacts on other survivors. For example, a story that accuses the Title IX Office of not believing survivors is going to discourage other survivors from seeking the Office as a resource. You really have to contemplate if it’s worth it. You have to ask yourself if the story will do more harm than good.

 

What suggestions would you have for student journalists who want to talk to victims of sexual assault without doing more harm than good? My great fear as a reporter would be (and probably still would be now) that I’d fumble over myself too much or that I’d ask a question that I shouldn’t be asking/a question that would really hurt the person. What advice do you have here?

I think my experience as a survivor is going to be more influential for my advice than my experience as a journalist. I naturally knew how to talk to survivors because I am a survivor. Some aspects are really simple and standard across the board for all survivors.

For example, don’t use the term “victim” when speaking to them. Always use the term “survivor” because that’s what they are. Using the term “victim” only victimizes them further and can be construed in so many ways. For legal reasons, you may have to write in the article “accuser”, depending on the story, but don’t blatantly interview a survivor only to remind them that they are a victim.

Another example of a broad standard is that reporters should not blame the survivor while asking them questions.  A common question that survivors get asked is “Were you drinking?” or “What were you wearing?” But the truth is, it doesn’t matter because what happened to them is still wrong.

Sexual assault is the only crime where the victim of the crime is also the one accused. You wouldn’t ask those questions to someone who just had their laptop stolen, so don’t ask those questions to someone who has been sexually assaulted. As a journalist, you want them to feel empowered to speak freely with you, rather than feeling ashamed of their story.

Yet, there are also a lot of aspects about interviewing survivors that are quite complex because every survivor is different. The majority of survivors experience a type of PTSD and sharing their story can be extremely traumatizing for them, but it varies for each survivor.

For example, writing is always very personal for me, so it’s a lot harder for me to write my story than to share it face-to-face. But I have met survivors who can’t fathom the idea of verbally sharing their story and they would prefer to write it. It can be really hard as a journalist to determine what is going to be triggering for a survivor so it’s important to keep all options open.

You have to be really patient and soft when asking questions. Allow the survivor to share their story at their own pace and to make decisions about how the interview will be conducted.. Ask only open ended questions and stray away from putting words in their mouth. If they need a break, give them a break. If they need a friend there to hold their hand, allow it. Most importantly, be prepared to hear details that are very difficult to hear.

 

What would you most want to tell people about your experiences with these pieces and what would you most want to have student journalists know if they had an interest in going after this topic on their campuses? Any words of wisdom?

My general advice, which coincides with any topic a journalist is covering, is to do your research first. There are many resources out there that have statistics about sexual assault on campus that can provide great credibility to your story. Fortunately, there is probably a consent-driven or bystander group on campus that has a lot of experience with talking to survivors that can coach a journalist more thoroughly.

Most campuses also have at least one medical professional who is trained to speak with a survivor, and they may also have tips on what kinds of questions to ask. Don’t forget the importance of including resources in the article because roughly 25 percent of the women who read the article are survivors and many of them may need help.

 

Anything you think I missed or anything you’d like to say beyond what I covered?

I think the most humbling idea to keep in mind is that approximately one in four women and one in ten men (even more for transgender and non-gender conforming individuals) have been sexually assaulted in the United States.

If you (the journalist) are not a survivor, keep in mind that someone you love, someone you sit next to in class, or even someone on your staff is a survivor – even if they haven’t told you. How you write the article will have a major impact on how that individual trusts you.

“We couldn’t miss the opportunity to cover a shift in campus culture:” Reflections on and Advice for Reporting on Sexual Assault in Student Media (Part I)

One of the most difficult and yet relevant coverage topics for college media outlets is sexual assault. From deep data dives to survivors’ stories, collegiate journalists must find a way to approach this topic with a sense of determination and yet maintaining a delicate nature.

The Torch, the student newspaper at Ferris State University in Michigan, developed some of the broadest coverage I have seen on this topic, and not just in the wake of #metoo or the Kavanaugh hearings. Advisers Steven Fox tipped me off to the work of his staff and the “strong voice” of his former news editor Harley Harrison.

Harrison worked at the Torch during her time at Ferris, serving as a news reporter in 2016-17 and a news editor during her final year on campus. You can find some of her favorite pieces here and here. Additional coverage, such as the look at the Title IX department itself and the process of reporting sexual assault, demonstrated the paper’s wider view of the issue itself.

During her time in school, Harrison also worked as a writing consultant at the campus writing center and as a student assistant in the Title IX office. She graduated May 2018 with a double major in technical/professional writing and Spanish and now works as a technical writer at Centria Healthcare Autism Services in Novi, Michigan.

A journalist, an advocate and a sexual assault survivor, Harrison has a distinctive perspective on the topic at hand, and she was willing to share her thoughts the subject in an email interview. Below is a Q and A with minor edits for clarity and focus:

 

What kind of drove you and the staff to look into this topic? Was it the national trend of statistics or was something happening on your campus at that point that got you involved in this area? What made it important to you to cover at this point and in this time?

I think that I was always naturally drawn to the topic of sexual assault because I am a survivor myself. It didn’t start to influence my work at the Torch until I started working at the Title IX Office with other survivors who inspired me to raise awareness. When I became News Editor, I started having my reporters write more and more about sexual assault. Everything I have written is mainly opinion pieces and editorials because I feared that my work at the Title IX Office would make me biased towards sexual assault coverage. I also outsourced a lot of the coverage to my reporters and my EIC, Angie Graf, to maintain unbiased coverage.

That being said, I think the Me Too movement really launched our coverage into the next gear because, for the first time, everyone around us actually wanted to talk about a topic that is usually shunned and private. We realized that we couldn’t miss the opportunity to cover a shift in campus culture.

In January, I had a survivor reach out to me because her case was mishandled by the school and she wanted to make it public. I had to outsource the story to the EIC and one of my reporters because I knew too much from the Title IX standpoint. Due to an open-records issue, it never ended up being published before my graduation, but it was the first time we actively interviewed survivors and their supporters. Finally, by the spring, the Larry Nassar case was a huge topic that we tried to cover.

It put me in a very difficult position because the Title IX Office became a critical topic and I couldn’t share any confidential details with my staff at the Torch. I also knew that it had to be covered because I knew many survivors at Ferris would see everything happening at MSU and wonder if the same thing would happen at Ferris.

Bringing awareness to sexual assault became a constant goal in every aspect of my life. It was natural for me to find it essential to be covered at the Torch.

 

How hard were these stories to do and which ones were more or less difficult to do? I’m asking because in some cases, the difficulty comes from administrators who don’t want the “numbers to get out” and have people think of the campus as unsafe. In other cases, it’s victims who want to come forward and make people aware, but the trauma is so difficult, they just can’t speak to journalists at all. How tough was this to do for you, the staff and the campus as a whole?

 

I’ve actually experienced difficulties with both administration and survivors, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that one is more difficult than the other. The Title IX Office at Ferris has always been open to sharing numbers and the Campus Climate Survey was public for anyone to see. In fact, the Title IX Office was very transparent up until the Larry Nassar case. At this point, administrators asked that the Title IX Office only communicate with the media through a spokesperson.

It was quite the struggle for me because I knew the Title IX Office had good intentions, but they came across as if they were hiding something because of the new lack of transparency. I’ll never forget sending my reporters from the paper to speak with my superiors at the Title IX Office and have them being turned away.

As for speaking with survivors, I wouldn’t use the term “difficult.” While it is traumatic for survivors to share their stories, they usually want to if they are coming forward to the press. We weren’t seeking them out. They were coming to us. We also had a lot of survivors on staff, so I think everyone was quite sensitive to how interviews and confidentiality were to be handled. Because of my work at the Title IX Office, I never interviewed survivors for the Torch, however, I did coach my reporters to do so with sensitivity.

 

What was the reaction to your publication of these pieces? Was there some sort of increased awareness? Did people tell you to knock it off? Was the school more attuned to the issue after your work or did everything kind of go on as business as usual?

We had really inspiring reactions to the publication of our pieces. I even had survivors come up to me and confide in me after we published. I like to think that our work at the Torch is partially why more students reported sexual assaults that year in a higher rate than ever before and why more students were open about taking the Campus Climate Survey. For the first time, students were having open conversations about assault and they were learning about how to access the resources they needed.

No Laughing Matter: The real-life impacts of student media

Student media is no joke.

That’s (at least) one of the take-aways you should get from the recent coverage of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The Senate confirmed Kavanaugh on Saturday, 50-48, which was the narrowest approval margin of a Supreme Court justice in modern U.S. history. In the middle of the discussions on sexual assault, mental acuity and the degree to which beer is to be enjoyed, sits this image of Kavanaugh from his high school yearbook:

KavanaughYearbook

Never in my life, let alone in my high school days, would I imagine whatever I wrote in my senior yearbook being dissected like conspiracy theorists going over the Zapruder film. I’m sure Kavanaugh feels the same way right about now, as students in most of America’s senior classes are now rethinking whatever they told “that geek from the yearbook staff” to run next to their picture.

(SIDE NOTE: Prior to writing this post, I dug out the dusty volumes from Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, wondering what the heck I  might have done or said at that point. Fortunately for me, my school pictures appeared to have caught me between mullets and the senior quote was something I ripped off of the inside of a Rolling Stones album I was way too into that year. At worst, my club choices could be questioned (computer gaming, debate, Young Republicans, forensics, chess), but no “boof” or “ralph club” entries, thankfully.)

Kavanaugh wasn’t the only judge to have people questioning some “back in the day” student media content. During her 2016 run for the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, Judge Rebecca Bradley’s college writing came to the forefront, specifically a 1992 piece in which she referred to gay people as “queers” and AIDS patients “degenerates.” Bradley apologized for the pieces and later went on to win reelection.

It’s not just judges who recently had some student media content called on the carpet. Other people in political and public life have found their writings from early adulthood

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) had a column he wrote in 1992 for his student newspaper at Stanford come to light, in which he discusses an ill-conceived attempt at “stealing second” with a less-than-willing date. The column had come up multiple times throughout the years, but a recent Washington Post article brought it back into the public consciousness during the Kavanaugh hearings. Booker stated in the column it was his interaction on that date that helped him realize the toxicity of masculinity that drove men to aggressively pursue sexual conquests. Others have argued it’s still a case of sexual assault, regardless of his revelations.

Public statements as a student can come back to haunt you, so it’s vital to think before you publish anything, even if it’s not formally part of student media. A few quick angry tweets from her college days cost Taylor Palmisano, then 23, a job with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s reelection campaign. Palmisano cursed about wanting to “choke that illegal mex cleaning in the library” in one tweet and then disparaged “#illegalaliens” who wouldn’t control their children on a bus she was riding to Las Vegas.

There have to be dozens of other examples of people writing things, tweeting things, posting things or sharing content during their early adult years that came back to be less-than-pleasing to the eyes currently. In some cases, these things are like bad fashion, as I’m sure the guy who got the Tim Tebow as a centaur tattoo is clearly regretting earlier life choices. (I, on the other hand, would gladly take back my “mega-mullet” in a heartbeat if it meant I could have a full head of hair again.)

In other cases, these things are like the stench of a dead fish that got wedged under the front seat of your car for a month in the middle of August: It’s godawful and it’s never going away.

With that in mind, the lesson here is a simple one: Before you publish content, think really hard about how important it is for this to stick with you for a lifetime.