More words of wisdom from Dad on his birthday (A Throwback Post).

You might think, “Gee, Vince, it seems like the only reason you do these odes to your Dad on his birthday is to feature his really bad fashion choices of the 1970s…” Well, you wouldn’t be ENTIRELY wrong about that…

My reporting class inspired me to dig up these words of wisdom from my dad today on his actual birthday.

About six or seven weeks ago, we discussed open records and launched our “Fun with FOIA” assignment, which was relatively simple:

  • Come up with a story that is predicated on public records of any kind
  • Create and file an open-records request with the agency responsible for those records
  • Write a two-page, double-spaced story that incorporates the info you got back and at least two human sources who can discuss the topic in a meaningful way.

This isn’t rocket science and I wasn’t looking for a Watergate story. Find the budget of the student government, figure out what they spend money on and ask the leaders some questions. Pull the contracts used to hire speakers for campus events and see who got paid what and if anything was hinky. Get the total number of parking tickets given on campus, see where the most/least tickets were given and talk to parking services folks about it.

That said, I told them about 832 times that the only truly problematic thing would be if they waited too long to file their open-records request. That would limit the time people on the other end would have to look at your stuff, find the records and get back to you. “Yeah… Yeah… We know…” was the general attitude as they left class that day.

Today, drafts are due and I’m getting emails that start like this:

So, this is honestly my own fault, but I submitted my open records request to the University Police on Monday and for some odd reason I thought they could get to me by Thursday, but they just got back to me today saying they’re so busy with open record requests, so he won’t have done for another 10 days.

And thus came forth advice my father constantly gave me that I then shared with them: “Dammit, you should have done it right away…”

Dad believed in the idea that if we got stuff done when it came up, we wouldn’t end up forgetting about it or getting painted into a corner by circumstance. It’s why we always pack the car for card shows the night before, print off an itinerary for a trip immediately (even if the trip is six months away) and make damned sure to file our taxes right away.

It’s why when I get asked to judge a contest, I try my best to nail it down as soon as I get the assignments. It’s why I respond to emails right after I open them. It’s also why nothing irritates me more than if something slips past me and then I’m behind on it.

Today’s throwback post brings back Dad’s maxims I put together on his birthday a few years back. These still fit perfectly in everything I teach. I also wanted to add these two items that I find myself coming back to every, single day as a journalist and a professor:

Learn to haggle: If there is one life skill students desperately need, it’s to understand how to appropriately value things and negotiate. I learned this when I was about 7 years old at a baseball card show.

I wanted a 1973 Roberto Clemente card, and one dealer had a whole bunch of them for sale. When Dad asked the guy how much one would cost, the dealer pulled out a price guide, and said they were $25 each.

“I’ll give you $10 for one,” Dad replied.

“Look at the book,” the guy said, pushing the guide toward Dad. “They’re booking at $25.”

“Well, I’ll give you $10 for whichever one you want to sell,” Dad replied.

The guy sighed, and said, “Pick whichever one you want. It’s a deal.”

I still couldn’t understand how that all worked, but I waited until we got in the car to ask Dad about it. I mean, the BOOK SAID the card was worth $25. That’s got to be how much you pay, right? It was at that point, Dad said something that sticks with me until this day:

“Something isn’t worth what somebody says it is. It’s worth what someone’s willing to give you for it.”

Not only was that good advice when it came to garage sales, flea markets, baseball cards and auto purchases, it was phenomenal advice when it came to negotiating debts, getting info from sources and prying documents loose from wary record keepers.

Even more, it’s the skill I teach students the most when they get job offers: Here’s how you ask for a better salary, better hours, specific computer systems, more vacation, extra 401K matches and more. Haggling can feel awkward until you get used to it, which is why it’s important to understand how to do it well and to get plenty of practice at it with small stuff.

Like baseball cards.

Live up to your word: The best and worst moments of my life came from this maxim, in that Dad did what he said.

When I was 8, I asked to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game. Dad agreed to take me on the day I had asked, not quite realizing that it was Free Bat Day, and that the team was in the middle of a pennant race. The place would be packed, the traffic would be awful and who knows if they had enough bats to satisfy every kid.

Still, Dad said yes, so we went. It was a heck of a game and I still have that bat somewhere.

Conversely, when I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, Dad told me, “If you get a speeding ticket, you’re done. I don’t want any (bovine excrement). You get a ticket and you give me your keys.”

About a year later, I was flying down a stretch of road notorious for speed traps when I got clocked at 17 over. No warning and no mercy from the officer. I got the ticket.

Dad was making dinner and he asked, “Where the hell were you?” I didn’t say a word. I just put the ticket on the kitchen table, dropped the keys on top of it and that was that for a while. (Eventually, I got my driving privileges back but 32 years later, I’m still smarting from that to the point Amy accuses me of being an elderly woman behind the wheel.)

Dad always said, “If I said yes, it was yes. If I said no, it’s no. A ‘maybe’ means ‘maybe.'”

I try to live by that with my own kid and with my career as well. If I commit to something, whether it’s as pathologically stupid as writing three books at the same time or as easy as keeping my door open during office hours, I do it.

As my reporting class learned this morning when they asked, “Can’t we move the deadline for the FOIA story?”

Nope. It is what it is.

So, on Dad’s birthday, here’s a look back at his previous words of wisdom and what I hope students can learn from them.


Happy Birthday, Dad: 4 valuable things I learned from my father that might help you, too


It might be hard to believe that a guy who dressed like this could have valuable advice, but trust me, he always does.

As my daughter was going stir-crazy the other day, whining loudly about missing her friends, her extracurricular activities and even in-school classes, I told her the one truism I hoped would keep her sane:

“You can’t focus on the things you can’t do because of social distancing. You have to focus on the things you DO get to do. Otherwise, you’ll go batty.”

For me, an introvert with a long-standing aversion to social situations, this has been an easy adage to espouse and obey.

Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.

Like everyone else in this country, Dad is stuck at home with limited contact to the outside world, for fear of contracting a virus that is decimating people at an incredible rate. While this “wait this out at home” rule is rough on a lot of people, it has to be killing my dad, who earned the family nickname of “No-Line Frank” for his disdain of waiting in line for anything. (It probably isn’t any great shakes for my mom, either, as she’s isolated in the house with him like this for at least another month.)

I wish with all my heart I could jet down I-41 and give him a big hug (and a nice bottle of Drambuie) today. The fact I can’t saddens me to the point of distraction. That said, he would be the first one to tell me it’s fine, not to worry and that I should get back to work.

My parents were and still are instrumental in who I am and what I do in life. In honor of dad’s 76th birthday, here are four “Filak-isms” he taught me that helped make me who I am and likely will help me make it through this pandemic unscathed:

HUSTLE WHILE YOU WAIT: I can’t remember when he first said it to me, but I rely on it almost daily: “The best things in life come to he who hustles while he waits.”

Although Dad later told me he heard this in a Credit Union seminar or something, I still attribute it to him because he not only said it, but he lives it. I often joke that I’m a “human twitch” when it comes to keeping busy, constantly writing books, teaching classes, refinishing furniture and doing almost anything else anybody asks of me.

Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him watch a whole ballgame or TV show without getting up and looking for something to do. He might be cleaning out the junk drawer in the dining room or sorting some baseball cards or looking for something in the basement, but he’s constantly on the move. Seeing this always inspired me to find more stuff to do and to keep looking for new opportunities to make the most of my time.

If you’re always hustling, the good things will come your way.


DON’T BRING SHAME ON THE FAMILY: I know I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating. Dad told me this when I went off to college and decades later, it still rings true. “When you go out there, have fun,” he said. ” But, don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

The sheer tonnage of stupid things I avoided doing in college, simply based on that bit of advice, could stop a speeding locomotive from moving another inch forward. Even now, when I considered doing something, I would imagine the headline “UWO Professor Arrested for (Fill in whatever stupid thing I thought about doing)” and immediately decided against doing that stupid thing.

Whether it was being a success or just avoiding failure, the goal was pretty simple: When Dad saw someone he knew at the grocery store, it would be great if the person didn’t start the conversation with, “Hey, yeah… Heard about your son… Geez… That’s not good…”


YOU ARE NOT AVERAGE: In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card, much to the dismay of my parents. Dad was less than pleased that I wasn’t living up to my potential, whatever that was, and he pretty much knew full well that I fell short because I wasn’t giving a crap.

We were in the middle of a “silent supper,” thanks to my transgressions, when I finally broke the silence with what I thought would be a pretty good argument for my folks to not be so upset: “I read the report card, and it says that a C is average, so-”

Dad cut me off in a firm tone, “You are NOT average.”

I got the point. I could do better. And I knew it.

From that moment, I didn’t get another C on a report card until I hit my freshman year of college. In that case, it was more of a scheduling mistake than a lack of effort, because I took an introductory zoology course that served as the “weed-out” class for the veterinary medicine program at the U.

It’s always easy to take it easy, but that’s not the right way to do things. I was lucky enough to get a set of tools and the ability to use them in a way that matters. I was also lucky as hell to have parents who wouldn’t let me slide because I was good enough to get by or because other people’s kids were doing something worse.

Once that got stuck in my head, I realized that it’s important to always push beyond average whenever possible.


FINISH THE WORK FIRST, DRINK BEER LATER: Dad always believed in the separation of work and relaxation. He once told me about my grandfather and how he liked to do part of a job and then relax a bit and then go back and do more of it. Dad fell into the mode that my great-grandfather espoused: Finish the work first, drink the beer later.

What I learned from this was not only the importance of a strong work ethic but also the idea that I could find joy in completion of work. Seeing things get checked off a list or looking at a well-done job brought me happiness that could far exceed the joy of a brief respite and the knowledge that I had to do more work.

Even more, the beer always tasted better when I knew I was done for the day.

Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.





A handy guide for navigating gender terminology via the Washington Post

Although it’s about a year old now, the Washington Post’s guide to gender, LGBTQ issues and other similar topics has started making the rounds again. The Post’s approach is both educational and explanatory, outlining what it is doing and why it thought publishing this would be helpful:

Depending on one’s life experiences, it can be challenging to navigate some of the terms of the debate. Informed by the guidance of a number of organizations, including GLAAD, the Trans Journalists Association, InterAct, the American Medical Association and the Association of LGBTQ Journalists, The Washington Post has compiled a glossary of the terms and concepts that show up in our coverage.

The glossary below is not comprehensive, and there is ongoing conversation about which language is most appropriate and accurate. This guide is intended to be a clear and accurate starting point to help readers better understand gender issues.

The organizations that the Post listed have provided guidance to the media over the years with style guides that have defined similar terms, made specific requests for eschewing certain words and generally provided journalists with ways to speak more inclusively and intelligently on these topics.

The Post’s effort is helpful in providing additional context to its readers regarding specific terms they might have seen in the paper’s coverage. It also provides that mainstream voice that can convince other publications to make similar decisions in terms, explanations and approaches. As much as journalists tend to think of themselves as ahead of the curve on what’s happening around them, a lot of us tend to stick to our own tried-and-true approach until “the big dogs” make a move. (This is why we tend to cling to our AP style books.)

For a full look at the Post’s ongoing efforts and the glossary itself, here’s the link.

Hope it helps.

Gone Fishin’: What I mean is… Edition

It’s officially spring break here in the Great State of Cheese and Beer, and I’m looking forward to a week of getting back to those things I kept putting off until spring break. And by “looking forward to” I mean, “Let’s get this damned thing done so the emails that begin, ‘Hey, remember when I asked you to do…’ will finally stop.”

The blog is going on its annual weekly spring hiatus, and by “spring” I mean, “that time of year in Wisconsin where it snows six inches one day and then melts by the end of that day and then the slush freezes to your driveway in an impenetrable shell until it melts the next day.”

See you all in after spring break, and by “spring break,” I mean “the shortest time period of the year that precedes the longest seven weeks of the year.”


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

Simple solutions for frequent writing problems: How and where to attribute

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a mix of previous content as well as some updated material that hits on the topic at hand. It’s not that I worry about self-plagiarizing, but if you’re anything like me at this point in the semester, being reassured that you’re not actually losing your mind and that you might have seen this before is pretty helpful. — VFF)

In an attempt to help writers fix simple problems that have tended to crop up in the pieces I’ve been grading lately, we’re going to spend this week giving each one a quick look with some examples of things that went wrong and some simple solutions.

Today’s menu item: Attributions

The purpose of an attribution is to attach a source to a statement so the reader can figure out who said it and how much credence to lend that statement. Without attributions, the readers could assume the material is coming from the journalists themselves, and thus lead to all sorts of concerns about opinions and bias.

Let’s jump into this:

WHEN TO ATTRIBUTE: I often tell students I’ve never seen anyone get fired because they attributed too much. That said, there are plenty of instances out there where failing to attribute landed a writer in hot water. (My favorite is the Richard Jewell situation, which we’ve covered here before.)

In short, attribute almost everything. Here are a few exceptions:

  • The content is a fact, at the level of “water is wet.” (“Wisconsin is a state,” is the kind of statement you don’t need to attribute to an atlas or Google Maps. “Wisconsin is the BEST state,” will require an answer to “says who?”)
  • You witnessed the actions yourself and are reporting those observations. I tell my kids that if a former student walked into our classroom and beat the hell out of me and they saw it happen, they could write everything they saw without attribution for the student newspaper. That said, if a reporter from the paper showed up after I was beaten bloody and asked, “What happened?” that reporter would need to attribute that information to whomever did the explaining.

ATTRIBUTION STRUCTURE AND PLACEMENT: I’m a massive pain in the keester when it comes to this in my classes and I attribute that to the ancient nuns who taught me grammar with a passion for sentence diagrams. (It also helped that they backed up their play with steel-ruler discipline.)

Attributions should be structured in a noun-verb format:

  • Mayor Jane Smith said.
  • Johnson said.
  • he said.

NOT verb-noun

  • said Mayor Jane Smith.
  • said Johnson.
  • said he.

I get into arguments over this on occasion, including one with a former faculty member that evolved into a tenure-battle/land-war situation. Like most things, I try to explain WHY this is the way it is and it usually works on the kids. (That former faculty member is another story that can’t be told without alcohol and a non-disclosure agreement…)

Here’s my logic:

It’s grammatically sound: In the basic writing courses, we teach students the inherent value of active voice and why it provides advantages over passive voice. “Bill hit Bob” is tighter, stronger and shorter than “Bob was hit by Bill.”

Attributions are basically just tiny sentences, so this same approach applies. What an attribution says in active voice is “Smith said WORDS” while a passive-voice attribution says “These words were said by Smith.”

When you have a choice to go with grammar or run counter to grammar, it’s usually better to go with grammar, unless there is a compelling reason. (Example: Grammar dictates that you use “whom” with the objective case and that you not end a sentence with a preposition, as that leaves it “dangling.” That said, you wouldn’t ever get in a bar fight and yell, “DO YOU KNOW WITH WHOM YOU ARE MESSING?”)

It’s structurally logical: This addresses that previous kind of example, in that you want things to sound normal. For reasons past my understanding, some writers think “said Smith” sounds normal, even though they wouldn’t use that same structure if the attribution required a pronoun instead. (said she or said he)

Also, we don’t do this with other verbs, as it would sound flat-out goofy:

  • Ran I to the store to pick up a gallon of milk.
  • Won we first place at the track and field finals.
  • Proposed he to his girlfriend.

The minute I see that approach taking hold, I’ll buy into “said Smith” and then quickly descend into an underground bunker for the rest of eternity.

It only has one purpose: The point of an attribution is to answer “who says?” That’s it.

The argument I’ve seen over the years is, “Well, if I reverse the noun and the verb, I can add a bunch of information to the attribution, like ‘said Smith, who graduated from Notre Dame in 1949.’ This adds value.”

First of all, it’s an attribution, not the front pocket on your suitcase where you cram all the other crap you forgot to put elsewhere. Second, by stuffing the material in there, your readers might miss it, as we’ve trained them over the years to mentally skip past the attribution and simply acknowledge it’s there.

If you want to put additional content into your story, add it to the paraphrase that introduces the quote and let the attribution just do its simple job.

In terms of where to put the attribution, it’s a pretty simple set of guidelines:

  • For your paragraphs of paraphrase, put the attribution at the front if the “who” is more important than what they’re saying. If the “what” is more important than the “who,” do the opposite.
  • For single-sentence direct quotes, follow the same basic rule. For multi-sentence quotes, put the attribution after the first full sentence. This will allow the readers to engage with the quote, but it will tell them who said the information quickly enough to know how much weight they should give that quote.

VERBS OF ATTRIBUTION: As far as verbs of attribution go, not much can compete with “said,” even though it seems every student I have taught has a burning desire to find something else to use. As much as I don’t like blaming educators at other levels for anything (Hell, I’m not going to teach ninth graders without combat pay and a morphine drip…), I remember seeing a poster like this in a classroom while judging a forensics contest and almost immediately broke out in hives:


The rationale behind this approach is that “said is boring, so let’s do something different.” I might also point out that riding inside a car that is driving down the proper side of the street is boring, but that doesn’t mean you should try roof surfing on your roommate’s Kia Sorento while driving 80 mph the wrong way on the interstate just because it’s different.

If you want to write fiction, feel free to give any of verbs things a shot; Nobody’s going to argue with you about an orc “warning” a wizard about something. However, in journalism,  you actually have to prove things happened, which is why “said” works wonders.

“Said” has four things going for it:

  1. It is provable: You can demonstrate that someone opened up his or her mouth and let those words fall out of his or her head. You don’t know if that person believes them or feels a certain way about them. You can prove the person said them, especially if you record that person.
  2. It is neutral: If one person “yelled” something and the other person “said” something, one person might appear angry or irrational while the other person appears calm and rational. It shifts the balance of power ever so slightly to that calmer source and thus creates an unintended bias. We have enough trouble in the field these days with people accusing us of being biased without avoiding it in the simplest of ways.
  3. It answers the “says who?” question: Attributions are crucial to helping your readers understand who is making what points within your story. It allows readers to figure out how much weight to give to something within your piece. Simply telling someone who “said” it helps the readers make some decisions in their own minds.
  4. You’re damned right it’s boring: Name the last time that you heard anyone actively discussing verbs of attribution within a story outside of a journalism class or some weird grammar-nerd drum circle. Exactly. “Said” just does the job and goes on with its work. Verbs of attribution are like offensive linemen in football: If they’re doing their job, you don’t notice them at all. When they do something wrong, that’s when they gain attention. “Said” is boring and it is supposed to be. Don’t draw attention to your attributions. Their job isn’t to dazzle the readers.
    (The one I’ll never forget was one someone wrote for a yearbook story about a student with a mobility issue: “Bascom Hill is a challenge for anyone,” laughed Geoff Kettling, his dark eyes a’sparklin’. It was quickly switched to “Geoff Kettling said.“)

Let’s look at the three verbs most students tend to use instead of “said” and outline what makes them dicey:

Thinks: This is a pretty common one, in that most people being interviewed are asked to express their opinions on a topic upon which they have given some modicum of thought.

“Principal John Smith thinks the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

First, unless you have some sort of mutant power, on par with Dr. Charles Xavier, you don’t know what this guy thinks. Mind readers are excused from this lesson, but for the rest of us, we have no idea what he actually thinks.

He might be doing this because he’s tired of bumping into kids in the hallway who don’t look up from their phones during passing period. He might be thinking, “All that charging going on in classrooms is killing our electricity budget. How can I get this to stop?” He might be worried about students taking videos of teachers smoking weed in the faculty lounge or beating the snot out of kids. We don’t know what he’s thinking. We do, however, know what he said:

“Principal John Smith said the banning of mobile phones in school will lead to improved grades for his students.”

Second, and more inconsequentially, you have a weird verb-tense shift when you go from past tense to present with “thinks.” You can’t fix this the way you would fix a “says/said” verb shift by going with “thought,” as that implies he previously held an opinion but has since changed it:

“Principal John Smith thought the banning of mobile phones in school would lead to improved grades for his students, but the latest data reveals a sharp drop in GPA across all grades.”


Believes: This one suffers from much the same issues as “thinks,” in that you can’t demonstrate a clearly held belief in pretty much anything. Just ask all those 1980s televangelists who “believe” in the sanctity of marriage and then they were caught fooling around with the church secretary or some sex worker named “Bubbles” or something.

I use this example in my class each term, where I tell them, “I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught.” They don’t know if I believe that, or if I just professed the same belief to my other writing class. They don’t know if I go into my office and break out the “emergency scotch” and weep for the future of literacy after teaching their class. What they do know is that I said that statement.

You can either use it as a direct quote:

“I believe you are the BEST writing for the media class I have ever taught,” Filak said.

Or, if you really have a passionate love of my believable nature, go with this:

Filak said he believes this is the best writing for the media class he has ever taught.


According to: This is the one I waffle on more than occasionally, with the caveat that it not become a constant within the piece. It also needs to be applied fairly to sources.

This attribution works well for documents, although the term “stated” works just as well:

According to a police report, officers arrived to find the butler trying to capture an increasingly agitated lemur that had already bitten one woman in the face.

Pretty simple and easy, and nobody (other than the one woman) gets hurt. Here’s where it becomes problematic:

According to Bill Smith, Sen. John Jones has run a campaign of falsehoods and negative attacks.

Jones said Smith is upset he’s behind in the polls and is desperate to make up ground.

When one source gets an “according to” and the other gets a “said,” you have a situation in which it sounds like you believe one person and think the other person is just yammering. It comes across as if to say, “According to this twerp, X is true. However, the other person clearly and calmly says something that is actually accurate.”

How do you avoid all of these problems? Stick with said. It’s like Novocaine: Keep applying it and it works every time.

Simple solutions for frequent writing problems: The paraphrase-quote structure

In an attempt to help writers fix simple problems that have tended to crop up in the pieces I’ve been grading lately, we’re going to spend this week giving each one a quick look with some examples of things that went wrong and some simple solutions.

Today’s menu item: Structural problems involving quotes and paraphrases.

Despite the fact I never drink coffee, this is one of my favorite gifts from a student.

BASICS OF THE PROCESS: The paraphrase-quote pairing approach in media writing is one way to help readers learn key information from a source and then get some extra spice or flavor from a quote that augments and improves upon that paraphrase.

Generally speaking, this means you’ll need to follow a few basic rules:

  • The paraphrase and quote should come from the same person, or at least not different people. In some cases, a quote from a source, who is commenting on a trend or a report can work. However, having Person A in the paraphrase and Person B delivering the quote gets awkward.
  • The paraphrase and the quote should be attributed, just in case you move stuff around, or in case readers could get confused. (More on this next time.)
  • The paraphrase and quote should work in tandem to get a point across. I often make the case that a good pairing is like a diamond ring: The paraphrase is the ring part with the big prongs that helps set the foundation of the ring and helps display the big shiny thing. The quote is the diamond, as it’s sparkly and engaging, but it needs something to properly display it for the world to see.
  • The paraphrase and the quote should be separate paragraphs

PROBLEMATIC APPROACHES: As simple as this seems, there are plenty of ways to screw it up. Consider these trends that the journalism hivemind have noticed:

  • Telling me you’re going to tell me something soon
  • “When asked” paraphrases
  • Redundant paraphrases and quotes

Let’s examine each of these and talk about why they lead to bad writing:

TELLING ME YOU’RE GOING TO TELL ME SOMETHING: This approach has taken hold over the past couple years in my classes, and I guess I’ll blame it on cliffhangers on streaming shows. Regardless of its origins, this annoying trend of setting up the quote by telling me it’s coming has to stop. Example:

  • Mayor Bill Smith had this to say:
  • Although it costs a lot of money to attend college, Hailey Jones had some good reasons for attending.
  • Quarterback James Carlson mentioned several things that cost his team the game

In each of these cases, all the paraphrase is doing is telling me that the quote coming up will tell me something. Given that we only get so much space to work with in these stories, and that people now have an attention span that’s shorter than that of a goldfish, providing dead-space content in the story isn’t a great idea.


“WHEN ASKED” PARAPHRASES: Not to place blame, but this trend started as a result of media convergence, as broadcast and print journalists started blending their approaches to content. Broadcasters often used first person in their stand-up segments or in the Q and A approach after the main package was done during the live shot:

ANCHOR: Jane, did the mayor say if he planned to support the “Doggie Doo” bill?

REPORTER: I asked the mayor how much political capital she planned to expend to make sure people picked up after their pets, and she told me, “I’m going all in on this one.”

Since print reporters eschewed the use of first person, but they still wanted to do this kind of thing, they somehow came up with the “when asked” approach:

  • When asked if she supported the bill, the mayor said, “Absolutely, I do. We need to hold people accountable for cleaning up after their pets. Dog poop is a scourge on our parks. There’s no reason someone should ruin their shoes because other people are lazy.”
  • When asked about his position on increasing tuition, the chancellor had no comment.

This is bad for two key reasons:

  • “When asked” is simply a passive-voice version of first-person writing. (When asked by me…) We want to avoid passive voice AND first person writing, so you clearly don’t want to do  both of these things at the same time.
  • I can’t imagine why you think it’s important to tell me that the person was asked something. Are you concerned that your readers might think this person just randomly engaged in a soliloquy? Also, it’s hard to imagine a moment in your reporting life where, totally unprovoked, a random person came running over to you and said, “Hey, you look like the kind of person who would be writing a story about parking on campus, so I’m gonna tell you that my name is Jim Jackson and I think parking here sucks and you should totally quote me on that.”

In short, we know they were asked something. Stop including that.

REDUNDANT PARAPHRASES AND QUOTES: The goal of a paraphrase is to set up a quote and provide context about the upcoming quote and value for the reader. If they do exactly the same thing, you are clearly wasting space:

Mayor Bill Smith said firefighters don’t need as much insurance as others do.
“The firefighters don’t need as much money for insurance as anyone else does,” he said. “If they think they do, they can pay for it themselves.”
In some cases, it’s even just the use of similar phrases that can be a problem:
To reach the playoffs, the Oshkosh Wildcats need to be more dedicated to the fundamentals of the game, Coach Jane Wilson said.
“We need dedication to the fundamentals,” she said. “Making the playoffs is a challenge for any team, particularly if that team can’t do the little things right.”
As noted earlier in the “telling me that you’re going to tell me” examples, you’re clearly wasting space here and the readers are going to get bored right quick.
SOLVING THESE PROBLEMS: The obvious answer is to stick to the paraphrase-quote pairing to avoid mushing together the paraphrase and quote in a “when asked” way. The problem most people have is that they often feel like they can’t write a decent paraphrase that will set up the quote without repeating the quote. Thus, they default to the “telling me” approach or get stuck in redundancy hell.
One of the easiest ways to solve this problem is to look at the entirety of the quote for additional information that you’re not going to use in the direct quote and use THAT information for your paraphrase.  Let’s use two of the above examples here:
  • When asked if she supported the bill, the mayor said, “Absolutely, I do. We need to hold people accountable for cleaning up after their pets. Dog poop is a scourge on our parks. There’s no reason someone should ruin their shoes because other people are lazy.”
  • To reach the playoffs, the Oshkosh Wildcats need to be more dedicated to the fundamentals of the game, Coach Jane Wilson said.
  • “We need dedication to the fundamentals,” she said. “Making the playoffs is a challenge for any team, particularly if that team can’t do the little things right.”

In each case, we can slice a bit off of the quote to make a stronger paraphrase that would then refocus the point of the quote and increase its value to the reader:

The mayor said she supports the “Doggie Doo” bill because the city needs to hold people accountable for cleaning up after their pets.

“Dog poop is a scourge on our parks,” she said. “There’s no reason someone should ruin their shoes because other people are lazy.”


Coach Jane Wilson said the Oshkosh Wildcats need to dedicate themselves more to the fundamentals of the game if they want to have a successful season.

“Making the playoffs is a challenge for any team, particularly if that team can’t do the little things right,” she said.

If you’re concerned that the quote is getting sliced too thinly, go back to the interview and grab the sentence above the one you plan to use at the start of your quote and summarize that. Conversely, you can look at the sentence after the last one you want to use in the quote to see if that provides some fodder for paraphrase. Either way, you’ll be capturing words and concepts that are not going to end up in that direct quote and thus you will improve the overall paraphrase-quote pairing.


Simple solutions for frequent writing problems: How to deal with the time element in a lead sentence

In an attempt to help writers fix simple problems that have tended to crop up in the pieces I’ve been grading lately, we’re going to spend this week giving each one a quick look with some examples of things that went wrong and some simple solutions.

Today’s menu item: Problematic placement of time elements in the lead:

Putting the “when” in a lead is crucial in most cases, given it’s part of those “5Ws and 1H” professors preach and the way “immediacy” is included in the FOCII interest elements (Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy, Impact) used to drive audience-centricity.

Placement problems tend to arise in two key ways:

  • Misplaced modifiers
  • Overvaluing the time element

The first one happens a lot in speech or meeting stories, when the time element incorrectly reflects what the writer is trying to say about the event:

Mayor Bill Smith said he planned to eradicate poverty Wednesday on the steps of the city building.

A 28-year-old Oshkosh man was accused of stealing 100 computers from city employees in court on Monday.

In both of these cases, it sounds like the protagonist in the lead is really going to be busy: The mayor will get rid of all the poverty in the city on Wednesday, while the 28-year-old man stole 100 computers on Monday. (The “where” elements make these leads sound even weirder, but we’ll save that for another day.)

The second problem happens when we try to avoid the first problem by stuffing the time element at the front of the sentence:

On Friday, the West Smithton Bulls defeated the East Smithton Jaguars, 41-28, to claim the “Hamhock Trophy” in the city’s annual rivalry game.

Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he planned to send 1 million troops to help Ukraine push back advancing Russian forces.

In moving the time element to the front of the sentence, it avoids the modifier concern, but it also tells your readers that the “when” element is the most important thing in the sentence, which can’t be right in almost any situation. If the most important thing you want to tell me in the most important sentence of a story is WHEN something happened, you have some significant problems with that lead.

Notice that in the “big type” we have things like “WAR” and “INVASION” not “TUESDAY!”

SOLUTION: Get the time element as close as possible to the verb to which it applies.

Mayor Bill Smith said Wednesday he planned to eradicate poverty  on the steps of the city building.

A 28-year-old Oshkosh man was accused Monday in court of stealing 100 computers from city employees.

President Joe Biden announced Tuesday he planned to send 1 million troops to help Ukraine push back advancing Russian forces.

The West Smithton Bulls defeated the East Smithton Jaguars, 41-28, on Friday to claim the “Hamhock Trophy” in the city’s annual rivalry game.

In each case, we now have the time element more appropriately couched in a spot where it doesn’t create an incorrect assumption or overvalue the “when” element. That doesn’t mean these are GOOD leads, but they are improvements on the ones we had.

The better way to fix the leads would be to emphasize what matters more in the lead from a thematic standpoint that emphasizes some of the other FOCII elements.

Poverty has devastated Springfield for too long, and the city will now make its eradication a top priority, Mayor Bill Smith said Wednesday on the steps of the city building.

A 28-year-old Oshkosh man, who police say stole scores of governmental computers and sold them for more than $1 million via eBay, was charged Wednesday with 100 counts of theft.

The United States will deploy more 1 million troops to Ukraine to help the country push back advancing Russian forces, President Joe Biden announced Tuesday.

The West Smithton Bulls broke a 58-year losing streak against rival East Smithton, earning the “Hamhock Trophy” by defeating the Jaguars 41-28 on Friday.

Obviously, there are other ways to fix these as well, but these quick rewrites show how refocusing your priorities in the lead can improve the value of the content and avoid the problems that tend to crop up when the time element is in the wrong place.


If you are panicking about not having a journalism internship, read this. (A Throwback Post)

A couple students were in my office Wednesday, concerned that they couldn’t find an internship yet or that internship folks had turned them down. In one case, the place rejected her and then reposted the internship. This is like being told, “I’m sorry I can’t go to the prom with you” just moments before you hear that same person telling everyone around the lunch room, “I really want to go to prom and I’ll literally go with ANYONE!”

More than a few other folks have been stopping by with crises of confidence, so I made the kids a deal: I’d dig out this post for a Throwback Thursday if they promised to read it. It’s a look back about five years ago, but the core of this is still spot-on.

Here’s a look at me living up to my end of the bargain:

Five helpful thoughts as you panic about not having an internship yet

When March turns to April, summer seems only a few short weeks away. For those of us in Wisconsin, that means the snow might finally finish melting and we can finally put away our shovels and salt spreaders for the year. For journalism students everywhere, however, April means moving from “Hey, I applied for this internship” to “Why haven’t I heard back from the internship?” to “GOD, WHY?!?  WHAT HAVE I DONE IN LIFE THAT IS SO FOUL AS TO NOT GOTTEN AN INTERNSHIP YET?!?!”

I asked some folks I know who hire interns in the field what thoughts they had about this time of year, working through the hiring process and so forth. I also dug through the old file of rejection letters and such to come up with some advice for those of you who are somewhere between moderate concern and psychotic panic.

The Most Basic Advice:


You aren’t doing yourself or anyone else any good freaking out. The process is going to be the process, so don’t get yourself so wired that you’re tied up in knots and likely to send a horribly embarrassing text or email to a potential employer, begging for information. Cooler heads prevail, so YOU MUST CHILL. As one person who has worked for everything from top 20 circulation newspapers to promotions for the UFC explained:

My favorite quote: Patience is not absence of ambition. #EverybodyChill

This Takes Time

I remember working night desk at the State Journal one night when we were looking to hire a swing-shift reporter. My boss, Teryl, was responsible for reviewing the candidates. It was the end of a hellish night and I had just finished the midnight cop calls and settled in near the scanner to keep an ear out for any breaking news. Teryl sat down and pulled this giant stack of folders out of her desk drawer and dropped them on her desk with that clanging THUD that only half-metal, half-Formica desks can emit. There had to be 50 or more folders there, easy. She picked up the first one and with a heavy sigh, she started going through them. I thought it would take longer for her to get through them than it took for Andy Dufresne to make his way to freedom. I’m sure it felt just about as fun for her as it did for him.

Even now, these things take time and there is a ton of work involved. Even if you are the perfect candidate, it’s going to take a while to dig through the pile to find you. Or as one of the pros I talked to who is currently hiring interns said:

I’m at a very small agency and my colleague and I also have SO many of these things to sift through. We received more than 50 resumes for our one internship, and there’s only two of us to read them through. The process of trying to line up schedules and find a time for interviews is an absolute nightmare. Even once we do that, we’ve usually gone through 2-3 rounds of candidate interviews before we find someone we like. We try to put a dedicated effort into finding someone quickly and it still takes us about 3 weeks per hiring cycle.

You need to have reasonable expectations of how long this will take and understand there are actual human beings on the other end of this process who are likely doing their level best. Your best bet is to check in when you submit your material and find out what their general plan is for contacting people and then add about two weeks to that. Once that time has ended, you should give them another week and then contact them. But only do it once and do it in a, “I know you’re insanely busy but I wanted to check in” way. As a guy who works for Facebook explained to me:

Have the students ask what the typical turnaround times are so they have the right expectations and use the time spent waiting for one internship to apply to 3 more.

That said, if you have important updates, it helps to let the people know about that so you stay at the forefront of their minds in a positive way, according to a top PR pro who has worked for major players all across the country:

I also think that continuous follow up always keeps you ahead of the game. If it means thanking them for their time, sharing a story about the news they heard about the company (recent awards or otherwise) or writing a letter about how they are the ideal candidate and list specific strong reasons why… it goes a long way. I’m currently helping hire our interns for Baird and those are just a couple of things that stand out to our Directors/Managers.

Have a Plan B (and C…)

What might be the perfect internship for you might not make you the perfect candidate for the company. With that in mind, it helps to cultivate multiple options. If you are afraid that you might not get THE internship, keep an eye out and toss your hat in the ring for others that come open. One former newspaper editor who hired interns explained why this is a good idea:

I’d also recommend that students not put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to jobs and internships. Take the time to apply for a variety of internships. At best, you have a few great options to choose from. At worst, you got practice with the application process that will help you for years to come.

Another pro, who has worked in news, PR and university marketing, said not only should you be applying for multiple internships, but you should look for every opportunity to get experience if you get one:

Don’t sit tight waiting for one or two opportunities to pan out. Keep searching and keep applying. And be willing to seek and do work that gets you access to watch and learn, not necessarily do the “intern-version” of the “full-time thing.” Be a clerk. Tackle phones and backstage stuff if it gets you a front row seat. Bottom line: apply, apply and apply some more.

Take Advantage of Bad Situation

It helps to keep your ear to the ground for just-posted internships right about now and here’s why:

  1. Media outlets don’t always have their acts together when it comes to an internship program. Some places will get involved late in the game because they finally got permission to hire or because the money was finally available for the position. This means right about now, another wave of internships might be cresting and it could be yours to ride.
  2. Don’t feel bad about this, but it is possible that other candidates out there are viewed as being better than you are. As you sit at home, in a panicking dervish of anxious hope, those “better candidates” are taking internship offers and planning an awesome summer. Yes, this eliminates a few internship possibilities for you, but it also means that several other places that were banking on the Golden God/Goddess candidate are now looking for their Plan B. In some cases, you might be that Plan B. In other cases, they run out of options that are available and they might re-post the position. This gives you another shot to apply for something you might have missed or bypassed on your first salvo of applications.

    (You might not like it if you think your next internship sees you like this, but consider it a chance to prove them wrong.)

I know this all sounds like, “Hey, you might not be all that good, but you might be the best of the really lousy candidates left after all the good kids take the good jobs,” but that’s not the point. Yeah, you can look at this like you’re some kind of damaged goods if you want, but it’s better to think about it this way: You want the internship and the experience that goes with it, so suck it up, check your ego and apply to be someone else’s “good enough” option.

There’s a huge benefit to this: The ceiling on how impressive you can be is really unlimited. You have the ability to prove to them that you are awesome and you probably are better than whoever it was from the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Perfection that turned them down. Plus, nothing makes someone work harder, stronger and faster than a really big chip on the shoulder.

Don’t Be This Candidate:

You might find yourself wondering “Why?” when it comes to the lack of communication from your potential internship suitors. This is where it helps to go back through your materials. In one case, someone didn’t get the gig because they mis-typed their phone number on their resume and people couldn’t get a hold of her. In another case, the applicant’s package never made it and he was too bashful to check in on the process. Then there are candidates like the ones this pro described:

And for the love of all things holy, please ask them to read their resumes over numerous times for errors, have someone else do it, and then do it again. I just threw out one for calling the Huffington Post the Huntington Post and another for spelling her own school’s name incorrectly.

This is why it pays to edit the hell out of your resume and cover letter before you send it off. (I screwed up and misspelled the name of editor on my cover letter, but he hired me anyway. Conversely, I saw Teryl toss one of the applications away when the person wrote “Dear Mr. Franklin” to her in the salutation. It’s dicey out there.) It also would help to have someone look over it for you, preferably someone whose not just going to say, “Wow! You’re great! Now can we go to the bar?”

If you turned out to be the person who screwed up in one of these ways, it will be in your best interest to figure that out before you have to send stuff out again.

Florida: Where the First Amendment goes to die…

After Monday’s post about Sen. Jason Brodeur’s bill that would require bloggers critical of Florida officials to register with the state, a good friend and journalistic freedom fighter in that neck of the woods reached out to tell me this is just peanuts, compared to what else is being proposed:

Sadly, that’s just stupid. But this is downright dangerous: Another Florida bill seeks to overturn New York  Times vs. Sullivan.
Either bill, if passed, would face immediate court challenges.
(Editor’s note: Turns out, I ended up mixing some of the things from this bill into the post from Monday about that bill, as an article I was referencing touched on both bills. As I was going through it, I didn’t realize there were TWO stupid First Amendment attacks happening in Florida at the same time. I clearly should have known better. I’ve made the edits to the prior post.)
New York Times v. Sullivan is a 1964 Supreme Court case that established the “actual malice” standard that public figures have to prove in order to win a defamation suit. It essentially gives publishers a little leeway in regard to unintentional errors that could end up in story on these folks, thus emboldening journalists to more vigorously pursue investigative reporting that could expose things public officials might not want exposed.

An opinion piece in the New York Times outlined how the bill goes beyond bumping off the actual malice standard:

The bill goes much further than this attempt to hobble the press. It makes it clear that the new defamation rules would also apply to any single “utterance on the internet,” which could mean a tweet or a Facebook post written by anyone, or “any one presentation to an audience,” which could include statements made at school board hearings and other public meetings.

In a direct attack on a key aspect of free expression, it says that whenever someone is accused of discriminating against others on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation, that accusation is automatically considered enough to sue for defamation. Any person accused of bigotry based on sexual orientation or gender identity could file a defamation lawsuit and be virtually guaranteed of winning by saying the discrimination was based on personal religious or scientific beliefs. The penalty for calling someone a bigot would be a minimum of $35,000.

My friend noted a conversation with First Amendment advocates, who explained that media outlets have already heard that their libel insurance premiums could skyrocket or that the insurance could be canceled entirely.  In my reading of the Times’ analysis, this thing would also likely turn every social media platform in to Libel-palooza, especially give way in which even the most careful among us do or say stuff online that could qualify as defamation.

And if you’ve spent 6 seconds on any social media platform, you know most folks are about as safe and careful as a drunk bomb-diffusing expert.

If you’re thinking, “Hey, this is just in Florida. I live in (fill in a more enlightened state that prizes free expression). Why should I care?” my buddy has a pretty solid answer:

Yeah, this is just Florida, and we’re a hot mess in a dumpster fire. But if these tactics work here, they’ll surely be exported to where you live.
He’s totally right, but also it might not matter where you live if DeSantis pulls this off, because this bill will run the risk of becoming Federal law.
Here’s the obvious path this thing will go:

And that’s the goal: Take your shot while you have the odds in your favor in an attempt to kill something you don’t like and that prevents you from doing things you wouldn’t want other people to see.

This is one situation we all should keep an eye on.

I’m blogging about Florida officials. I will never register my blog with that state. Come get me, Sen. Jason Brodeur.

(Note to Florida Sen. Jason Brodeur: Nothing says, “Trust me on how to make the media work better” like being interviewed by a dude who looks like he’s about to engage in a rap battle with the protagonist from the Offspring’s “Pretty Fly for a White Guy” video. Unless, of course, it’s doing a video interview in your car outside of what looks like the most pathetic water park in Florida.)

I’m happy to report that all of the kids in my media law class this year passed their first exam. I am sad, however, to report that their knowledge of how the First Amendment works would likely disqualify them for a position in the Florida Senate, if Sen. Jason Brodeur is any indication of what passes for intellectual leadership out there:

A Republican state senator in Florida has introduced a bill that, if passed, would require bloggers who write about Gov. Ron DeSantis, his Cabinet or state legislators to register with the state.

Sen. Jason Brodeur’s bill, titled “Information Dissemination,” would also require bloggers to disclose who’s paying them for their posts about certain elected officials and how much.

This is part of a movement among numerous political figures, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who like the power that comes with political positions, but don’t like being held to any level of scrutiny by member of The Fourth Estate.

Among the 823,245,219 bad ideas in this bill, consider these key elements:

  • It argues that bloggers are essentially lobbyists, so if lobbyists need to register with the government, so should bloggers. (I spent 30 minutes trying to come up with an equally absurd comparative and basically rolled snake eyes on that one. Just imagine the dumbest comparison you can and then imagine it being made during a drunken screaming match on a “Housewives of Meth-topia” episode and you’re probably close to what I was trying to come up with.)


  • It would require the disclosure of payments for any posting the bloggers do, never mind for a moment that a) most bloggers aren’t paid for specific posts, (at best supported ad revenue or donations on the entirety of the blog) and b) this somehow overlooks the entire public relations industry, which would be essentially eviscerated by this kind of thing.


  • It seeks to fine people up to $2,500  a day for “late registration” of the blog, as outlined in the bill, which again makes no sense due to the point made above.

Brodeur and fellow backers of the bill couldn’t be more transparent in their self-interest if they were made of Saran Wrap: By creating a climate of fear among people who might be critical of these officials, these public figures can cut down on the amount of criticism they face.

That said, they face significant problems in making this thing stick for a few basic reasons:

  • It violates the essential rationale behind the First Amendment and other actions by the country’s founders. Before it declared its independence, the then-colonial state of this country operated under English laws pertaining to printing, including the rule that all presses were to be licensed by the government. The soon-to-be-a-country’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, was shut down in 1690 for printing without a license. Colonists realized the suppression of the press was a key way England kept its thumb on its critics,  and thus made sure the newly independent country DIDN’T license journalists for precisely this reason.
  • It violates common sense in regard to how anything works in a digital world. Let’s pretend for a minute that this thing gets passed in Florida and for some reason, we’re all sitting around for a year, waiting for the Supreme Court to do something about it. So… I have a few questions:
    • It only applies to PAID posting in regard to registration and disclosure. Does that mean I can spend as much of my time as I want calling Brodeur and DeSantis and the rest of the bill’s supporters peanut-brained, no-account, speech-suppressing ass-hats? I mean, if I’m just doing it without financial sponsorship, how am I violating the law here?
    • It’s a FLORIDA law. I read through Brodeur’s bio and was unable to figure out if this chucklehead actually understands that, unlike most physical things some politicians want to allow (carrying a gun) or prevent (ending a pregnancy), the internet doesn’t recognize state borders. Thus, I can write a blog in Wisconsin, criticizing stupidity in Florida, and people in all 50 states (and apparently Trinidad and Tobago, where I’ve apparently got exactly one really frequent reader), can enjoy the various ways I can poke holes in this bill.
    • Digital media covers more ground than this bill, so are you ready for some highly creative   fun people will have at Brodeur’s expense? I”m looking forward to some really long Twitter tirades, a “Violate a Fundamental Constitutional Liberty like Jason” TikTok challenge and something on YikYak that would make Bubba the Love Sponge blush…

So, in hopes of inspiring a generation of digital natives who love free speech and have a dark sense of humor, let’s have some fun:

This is a link to Sen. Jason Brodeur’s home page on the Florida State website. You can find a contact button there, which will allow you to tell  him EXACTLY what you think of this bill and his rather patronizing “Government Folk Know Best” approach to free speech. If you’re taking a law class, please feel free cite a particular precedent that would allow you to express yourself in a particular way. Speak the truth about a bad official, offer an opinion, participate in hyperbolic speech, present content that does not rise to the level of actual malice or anything else your free-speech-loving heart desires.

(Bonus points to the first person who redoes the Falwell Campari parody with Brodeur in it, or whoever arranges an amazing John Oliver singing extravaganza about Bob Murray that I’m not allowed to link here, but that you should definitely find on your own.)

To prove you understand the actual legal limits of the amendment, please do not engage in any fighting words, true threats or incitement to imminent lawless actions, to name a few.

To those of you who might think this approach is petty and childish, I would argue that the defense of the First Amendment in all of its forms is vital to the preservation of our democracy. Any dissent provided to rebuke those who would undercut our most basic freedoms should be embraced by all those who cherish the values that created the foundation of our country.

I guess I could also argue, “Well, he started it…”

Either way, take your shot and make your voice heard.

If Brodeur has his way, it might be the last chance you get to do any of this.


Don’t tell me that “concerned citizens” engaged in “heated discussions” and “tensions rise”: An explanation of “weasel voice” and how to avoid it in journalism (A Throwback Post)

A teaching colleague posted this “ask” recently regarding the blog:

This kind of phraseology tends to show up in media writing from time to time, in which one news organization figures out a relatively soft euphemism for something and others then co-opt it. The ones I recall were “concerned citizens” and “urban renewal,” neither of which really did much in the way of explaining what was going on.

“Tensions rise/are rising/continue to rise” is just another example of this kind of “weasel voice” that tries to say “Group A and Group B are not happy about X, Y and Z and here’s why.” As my colleague noted, it also is impossible to quantify how much tension there is, what it might lead to or why we should care.

Today’s post reintroduces us to the concept of “weasel voice” and why it’s terrible. We also go into the ways in which we can improve on this kind of writing and make things better for our readers. (If you want to take a look at a second post on “weasel voice,” this one is one of my favorites: A 3,000-word story basically tries to describe what is essentially prostitution in a happy and sunny way as “sugar dating.”)

Hope it helps.


The concept of “weasel voice” in writing and several ways we can avoid it in journalism

The “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object that we discussed at length in both books is all about trying to effectively communicate in an active-voice format. The structure of “who did what to whom/what” makes a lot of sense and clearly provides key information to readers. However, writing in active voice doesn’t always guarantee you are meeting the needs of your readers.

The Economist took a look at how it’s not passive voice or active voice that creates the biggest problem for writers and readers. It’s “weasel voice” writing that does the most damage. The article makes several key points about clarity and information that you can use, even if you aren’t covering political insurgencies or violent insurrections. Consider what weasel voice does and what we can do to fix the problems:

Weasel voice hides the identity of the person committing an action: Passive voice provides readers with a limited amount of information because we lack crucial information about the “who” in the sentence. For example:

The bank on Appleton Avenue was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.

The “who” in here is not only unclear but missing as “by a criminal” is implied. However, writing this sentence in active voice doesn’t help things any if we don’t have specific information on that person doing the robbing:

A gunman robbed the bank on Appleton Avenue on Wednesday afternoon.

What people want to know is WHO robbed the bank, which is usually information that isn’t available in crime stories so we tend to give the reporter a pass on this. Where this becomes more problematic is when journalists let vague statements slide into their copy or fail to push sources for more specifics. Here’s a “weasel voice” approach in both active and passive voice structures:

Passive: Sen. Carl Jones said he and his colleagues were sent complaints about voter fraud, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Active: People sent complaints to senators regarding voter fraud, Sen. Carl Jones said, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Let’s do some “weasel analysis:”

  • In neither sentence do we know HOW MANY complaints were lodged.
  • In neither sentence do we know HOW ACCURATE those complaints are.
  • In neither sentence do we IDENTIFY the PEOPLE who complained.

As a journalist, you want to press for these details so you can see how big of a deal this is:

Of the 720 poll workers in his state, 653 reported finding multiple cases of voter impersonation in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Carl Jones said as he backed a voter ID law Tuesday.


Despite only one case of alleged voter impersonation in the 2.8 million ballots cast in his state, Sen. Carl Jones said a voter ID law is crucial to the democratic process.

Weasel voice allows for unproven allegations: The rumor mill is always robust in politics, small towns and junior high school. As I have to deal with family members in all three of these areas, I find myself saying “says who?” a lot in my daily life. Here’s an actual conversation I had last year with my seventh-grader:

Zoe: Daddy, one of the boys at school was expelled for threatening to beat up the principal.
Me: Who told you that?
Zoe: (NAME) said at lunch that she heard…
Me: Wait, is that the kid who keeps telling you every year since fourth grade that she’s moving to California? And she still hasn’t?
Zoe: Yeah, but…
Me: Uh-huh…

The weasel voice approach hides sources, so readers have no way of knowing how likely something is to occur. Political writers and sports journalists often start sentences with “Sources have told me that…” and then they explain something that nobody wanted to say on the record. I had conversations with high-end reporters in both sports and politics who said they couldn’t operate any other way.

First, I find that a bit weak, as it’s the grown-up, journalistic version of “Everybody does it!” If I didn’t get to stay out past curfew or get a purple mohawk with that excuse when I was a kid, I’m not buying it now from professional journalists.

Second, it’s often a case of just letting accusations slide without pushing back on them. Don’t let anyone tell you “everybody is saying” or “I’m hearing that X is the case” or whatever else. CNN pulled this together from a series of statements President Trump made before and after the election and you can see why this is a concern:

Weasel voice allows me to say pretty much anything with a vague attribution of “people said” or “sources said” or “everyone is saying.” When you have a source providing you with information based on those vague attributions, do more to get concrete answers or consider not publishing the statements without additional proof.

Weasel voice falsely emboldens you to make hyperbolic claims: Here are a few key terms I’d include in the “weasel voice” lexicon that you should avoid:

  • Allegedly
  • Arguably
  • Supposedly
  • Said to
  • Mostly
  • Traditionally
  • In recent memory
  • Believed to be
  • Might
  • Uncertain

Now, not all of these words are bad words, but they tend to lend themselves to creating bad sentences more often than not. When you use these words in “weasel voice,” you allow yourself to make bigger claims than you can prove because you feel like you hedged your bet. Consider this:

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga allegedly took $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion.

OK, who is doing the alleging and how likely are we to believe this person?

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga stole $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion, prosecutor Dan Standford told a jury Wednesday.

In some cases, you can’t wrap it all up in a single attribution, but that doesn’t give you the right to avoid telling people where you got this stuff. Here’s an approach that takes a bit longer to get the scenario in place, but it’s worth the wait:

Springfield High School Beth Barlenga wore a coat made of ostrich to her 30-year high school reunion this weekend, according to former classmates Carla Jackson and Marty McKeeper. McKeeper said she bragged that it cost more than $15,000 and that “nobody here could afford it.”

Meanwhile, district accountant Carl Spackler filed a report stating that the milk money fund at Barlenga’s school came up $15,000 short during a recent audit. Springfield police spokesman Adam Bronzer said the department filed charges against Barlenga, accusing her of the theft.

Don’t try to write around the hard work of reporting. Do the job and show people how you know what you know. Here’s another example of how weasel voice can eliminate your responsibility as a reporter:

Brett Favre is arguably the most durable player in the history of the National Football League.

Again, who is doing the arguing and why is it we should believe this person? In most cases, it means that the reporter wants to say it to be true, but knows he or she can’t without being accused of relying on opinion to make the point.

How do you fix this? It’s called looking stuff up:

Brett Favre set a record for durability in the National Football League, starting 297 consecutive regular season games despite suffering multiple serious injuries. According to an ESPN report on his streak, Favre sustained a first-degree shoulder separation, severely sprained his left ankle, coughed up blood, sprained his right thumb, sprained  his lateral collateral ligament of the left knee, broke his left thumb, sprained his right hand, tore his right biceps and sustained a stress fracture of the left ankle but kept playing.

Looking stuff up can be annoying, but it’s better than faking it, as too many weak writers are willing to do:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge killed 12 people and injured 43 more, making it the worst disaster of its kind in recent memory.

Who’s doing the remembering? Probably the reporter who didn’t want to bother to look something up. “In recent memory” is one of those wonderful safety nets that allows for hyperbole without responsibility. When an editor says, “Hey what about X disaster?” the writer can say, “Oh, I didn’t remember that…” Good grief. Also, in most of the student newsrooms I have encountered the term “back in the day” usually means about a year and a half ago.

Just look stuff up:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge, which killed 12 people and injured 43 more Wednesday, was the deadliest disaster of its kind since Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 143.

Not perfect, but at least the facts are there.

Keep an eye out in your writing for spots where vague statements need more support, weasel words provide a sentence with a crutch or allegations randomly occur without the proper backing. Once you learn the ways of the weasel, you can use your writing skills to defeat them.