More proof that you need to verify your facts: Mass-shooting edition.

As we pointed out in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, people will often spread incorrect information in the wake of a chaotic breaking news event. In some cases, errors come from journalists misinterpreting something or sources who provide accidentally erroneous information. In other cases, the work of trolls who have nothing better to do with their lives.

The guy who was “desperately searching for his father” after the Las Vegas attack turned out to be lying on purpose.  Why did he do it? “For the retweets.” Nice.

Regardless of the reasons why bad intel gets tossed around, it’s our job as journalists to separate fact from fiction, clarify instead of confuse and give the readers the best version of reality that we can.

After the school shooting in Florida in which a 19-year-old man killed 17 people, two threads of information emerged that led to the spread of a large amount of misinformation: That this was one of 18 school shootings already in 2018 and that the shooter was attached to/motivated by a white supremacist group.

In the first case, headlines noting the “18 school shootings” appeared on various mainstream media outlets, including ABC news, Politico and CNBC. The source of this information isn’t noted in the headline, but later in some pieces, the authors cite “Everytown for Gun Safety,” a gun-control advocacy group that has tracked gun-related incidents since 2013.

The fact this information comes from a gun-control advocacy group should not automatically make it suspect, but it should be something a journalist notes as early as possible. This is the point of attributions: Let people know where the information originated so they can apply their own level of scrutiny to it.

What makes the situation more concerning is the operationalization of the term “school shooting,” especially when it is put forth in the wake of the incident at Stoneman Douglas. A look at the list includes ALL incidents in which a gun discharged on ANY school grounds. Authors who dug into this, both in mainstream and politically charged media outlets, outlined the ways in which this approach inflates the number in a way that would likely confuse readers. The Washington Post dissects the claim in perhaps the most thorough way here, noting that suicides at school and an accidental discharge of a firearm were included as “school shootings.”

Although the people at Everytown defend their decision to use this term and count these incidents as such, calling these incidents “school shootings” would likely undercut your credibility if you included this info in a story on the Florida incident.

This is the difference between factually stated information and accurately framed information. I could factually say that “thousands of lives end every day at schools across the country,” if I wanted to include class pets that go belly-up, bugs caught on no-pest strips and mice that get caught in traps before they could reach the cafeteria. However, if I posted it after the Florida shooting over a picture of grieving family members, it lacks accuracy and is framed in a misleading way.

Big tip: Know where your information comes from before citing it and make sure you are saying what you think you are saying before you say it.

The second thread, which noted the shooter’s ties to white supremacy, falls into the category of people who enjoy jerking the media’s chain. What makes these people feel compelled to do this is beyond me, but it’s something we need to keep in mind on big stories.

A story in the New York Times provided the following information about the shooter’s supposed attachment to a supremacist group:

On Thursday, Jordan Jereb, a leader of a white supremacist group based in North Florida, told The Associated Press that Mr. Cruz had joined the group, but later Mr. Jereb said that he did not know whether that was true. Sheriff Israel said he could not confirm any ties Mr. Cruz might have had to white nationalists.

A CNN story cites an Anti-Defamation League blog post that noted similar ties. Other sources also published this information, tying the shooter to a Florida-based racist organization.

With all of these top-tier organizations seemingly confirming this tie between the shooter and the group, it would appear to be as close to true as one could expect. The problem? It was pretty much the work of trolls and a general disinformation campaign, as Politico explained while unpacking the whole incident. Since then, many sources, including the Anti-Defamation League, have updated their stories to explain how they were tricked. However, a search of “Florida school shooting white supremacist” returns hundreds of headlines that seem to confirm that this connection is valid and proven.

One of the biggest problems came from the journalists’ relying on a single source of information, which turned out to be the work of trolls. As one of them cited in the Politico story noted online, “All it takes is a single article, and everyone else picks up the story.”

This is why the concept of independent verification is crucial in journalism. If everyone is citing the same source and no journalists work to confirm this through other sources, the whole thing is a house of cards. I watched this happen firsthand when a paper I was working at erroneously published information that a motorcyclist who had been critically injured in a crash had died.

Our competing paper had made a habit of cribbing information from us without citing us, instead relying on vague “sources said” attributions, and they ran the story of the guy’s death. The morning radio news outlets had been in a habit of “rip and read” where they pulled copy from the newspapers and read it as fact without citing the paper from which it came. Thus, you had two papers and a handful of radio stations saying the guy was dead, so everyone assumed it was true.

The man’s wife had been getting calls from people offering condolences and when she said he was alive, the people were telling her that, no, he was dead. They heard it on the radio or saw it in the paper. She was furious that the hospital and police officials would tell the media her husband was dead before they told her. No matter the protestations of the officials that the man was still alive, she didn’t believe it until she got to the hospital. Chaos ensued and every media outlet had to correct the story as everyone involved tried to figure out where the error came from. In the end, no one was fired, but it was ugly.

And that was a story based on an unintended error. When people are going to the lengths of these trolls to present information as truthful, we have to double our efforts.

Big tip: Get the information from sources you trust and then independently verify it before you publish.

And if you say, “But what happens if everyone else is publishing and I can’t get it? I don’t want to be late on the story!” realize that it’s better to be late than wrong.


5 cool things about open records I learned from an #ACPBOM session

The Associated Collegiate Press hosted its annual “Best of the Midwest” convention in Minneapolis this weekend, where hundreds of students from around the area got the chance to learn all sorts of great information about journalism. I usually find myself running from presentation to presentation or conducting newspaper critiques all day, thus leaving no time to catch other presentations. However, I caught a lucky couple gaps in my schedule Friday and got to see two sessions on open records and interviewing from some student journalists at UW-Milwaukee and their instructor, Jessica McBride.

The UWM folk, who produce content for as part of their coursework recently published an extremely detailed story on sexual misconduct accusations on their campus that appeared to be swept under the rug. Based on their experiences here and in other work in hard-nosed reporting, these journalists provided some great information on how to go after the tough stuff. Here are five cool things about these issues that I learned from their presentations:

  • Content matters more than format when it comes to records: McBride noted that although states vary on how public record laws work, in her home state of Wisconsin, the law dictates that it is the content of a record, not the format of a record that determines if it is open or not. “I once got a stack of pink messages slips a secretary took notes on,” she said during her speech. She also explained that in some cases, text messages, emails and handwritten musings can count as open records, so don’t limit yourself when you request. (One of the student presenters noted that she had inadvertently limited her request to “formal complaints,” which yielded no results. A second pass at the request with the word “formal” eliminated got her a document or two.


  • Give yourself room to negotiate: I had never conceptualized of open-records request being like the way I approach buying stuff at a rummage sale, but this session gave me some food for thought. McBride said she often starts with a wider request, as in a larger swath of documents she asks for or a longer period of years than she might normally want. If the record keepers provide her with resistance because the request is too broad or request a large amount of money to meet the request, she often then narrows the focus to what she really wants. This prevents her from losing out on documents that she really wants but demonstrates a willingness to “meet people half way.”


  • Go as a person. Be polite, respectful and firm: Nyesha Stone mentioned this during the panel she presented with fellow students Jennifer Rick and Talis Shelbourne. Stone mentioned that she used to feel awkward in asking for interviews or documents, but once she started thinking about the importance of the information she was seeking, she started feeling less anxious in some cases. (One of the students, I can’t remember who, mentioned that although repeatedly asking for documents or interviews helped diminish anxiety, they imagined that even veterans of this stuff never fully get over nervousness. She’s right, at least from where I’m sitting.) What helped her was to go talk to people as a person, she said. You want to be polite and respectful but also firm in your purpose. It opened a lot of doors, she said, and made her feel like she was getting somewhere.


  • “The cheapest possible option:” As we’ve noted in the book and throughout the course of the blog, people who hold records and don’t want to give them to you will put up roadblocks in a variety of ways. One of the biggest ways is by trying to overcharge you for records and “research time.” McBride recommended that you ask for more recent documents first, as those are the least likely to be stored away somewhere that will require a lot of “research” to find them. She also mentioned something important: The people who hold the records have to lay out how much they think this will cost and how they came to that conclusion. In a lot of cases, research is based on X hours times whatever the hourly rate it costs for the person who does the digging. When this happens, she said, the people need to find the cheapest possible person eligible to find the records to do the digging. In other words, they can’t figure out what your chancellor’s salary is per hour and use that as a financial benchmark for the research costs. In addition, she noted that in Wisconsin, you receive the first $50 worth of location time for free.


  • “Write about it. You’ll get the records:” The other way in which people will try to block your access to the records is by trying to wait you out and make it feel pointless to access the records. They try to out-wait you because they know you are likely to have a limited time to fight or that students will eventually graduate, so the requests will just die off. One of the key “helpers” you have when it comes to trying to crack that nut is the Student Press Law Center, which we’ve discussed here earlier. They can provide some legal guidance and legal muscle as needed to prevent record keepers from taking advantage of students. McBride also noted that writing about the process and the reticence of the organizations to produce public records can help draw attention to the situation and shame organizations into doing the right thing.


For more help on your specific state laws or suggestions on how to get records, check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website.

NYT’s Bari Weiss, “immigrants” who get the job done and Filak’s first rule of holes.

As we’ve mentioned before here, using social media is like playing with live ammo: You need to take it seriously, think things through before you publish and realize there are ramifications for your actions. Unfortunately for some people, having access to social media is like giving a toddler a bag of meth and an automatic weapon.

And, as we’ve mentioned here before, screwing up will happen. Your face is not on a lunchbox. You should do your best to avoid screwing up in the first place, but if you do, the worst thing you can do is double down on your screw up. As I’ve told my students who mess something up, “Filak’s first rule of holes is ‘When you find yourself in one, stop digging.'”

Case in point: Bari Weiss of the New York Times.

When Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel during her performance at the Olympics, the first time a woman has done this in the history of the Games, Weiss tweeted out, “Immigrants: They get the job done.”

Nagasu is a U.S. citizen whose parents were immigrants and she has maintained dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan. When someone pointed out this fact to Weiss, she responded in a dismissive and unsatisfying way:


This, like most dismissive statements tossed at people on social media, did not go over well with the Twitterverse, which responded in pretty much the same array of rage you get whenever someone makes a racist comment, complains about politics or picks on Brittney Spears. Some people called Weiss on the carpet for not taking this issue seriously enough, while others cut right to the chase and essentially told her, “Here’s toaster. Go play in the bathtub.”

The problem wasn’t that she said something glib that put her in a hole. The problem was that she kept digging.

First, it was a reference to the fact she was quoting (incorrectly) the line from “Hamilton” about immigrants. Then it was her trying to bend reality to fit the notion this was a compliment and that it spoke to Nagasu’s immigrant parents. Then it was her chastising all of Twitter for picking on her:


Anyone who has spent any time on social media had to be thinking at this point, “How deep do you really want to dig? This hole is getting to the point where the core of the Earth is about to be exposed…” It was similar to what happened when Louise Linton, an actress and the wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, sent out an Instagram post that detailed her fashion wear as she stepped off a government plane.

When people poked at Linton for flaunting her wealth, she belittled them, told them they didn’t pay nearly as much in taxes as she did and then called one poster “adorably out of touch.”


Instantly, she became the “Marie Antoinette of Instagram” and became a symbol of out-of-touch wealth in this country. Recently, she has noted that she was “super-duper sorry” about her social media rant, which I’m sure will quell the crowds that continue to call for her head.

The lesson for today is a simple one: When you put something out into the public via a media channel, you will be held to account. Before you decide to snap back at people who are voicing their opinions about your opinions, stop and think about a couple things:

  1. Is it possible that I just screwed up and that people, although they may be expressing it in a way I don’t like, are right that I was off base?
  2. Will any good come from me randomly trying to justify what I wrote or am I just fanning the flames for trolls and people with a legitimate beef alike?
  3. Is this REALLY the hill I want to die on? In other words, is this worth me pouring a ton of time, effort and energy into trying to change the minds of people who probably won’t change their minds as I engage in an ever-escalating Quixotic attempt to “set the record straight” or will it just be a waste of time?

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe a New York Times journalist can learn something from a guy at Barstool.

When Chloe Kim took the gold in the half-pipe event, Barstool radio host Patrick Connor called the 17-year-old “a hot piece of ass.” (Pause. Wipe the vomit off your lips and hang with me here…) After realizing that a grown man ogling an underage girl during the Olympics was not all that bright, he went on Twitter and wrote:


No, that shouldn’t entirely let him off the hook and yes, there should be more ramifications for him, but he at least decided he was deep enough in the hole and it was time to stop digging.

“Just grab a stock image for free” and several other dumb things photojournalists have heard over the years.

The issue of how photography should be used in journalism came to a head last week after a column on the Poynter website suggested that writers should find free, generic images to pair with their content. The column drew a sharp rebuke from photojournalists who felt their work was devalued or considered simply “art” to decorate “real information.” The National Press Photographers Association wrote an open letter, expressing both dismay in Poynter’s approach to photographs as well as outlining the true value of quality photojournalism.

(Quick disclosure: I’ve said before that our field has about two or three degrees of separation to it and it is true for me here. Kristen Hare, who co-wrote the Poynter column, is a former newsroom student of mine from my time at Mizzou. Danny Gawlowski, who signed on as one of the authors of the NPPA letter, is a former newsroom student of mine from Ball State. I’m not even sure if they know I’m alive anymore, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like I was hiding something.)

For this post, I asked photo folks I know to tell me the most annoying, problematic or ridiculous things people have told them about photography or the value of their work.

Here we go:

It’s gotta be the equipment!

(“Money it’s gotta be the shoes!” Um… no. He’s just really gifted and he practiced a lot.)

Photographers often carry an abundance of high-end equipment to make sure they can get the best possible shot in each set of circumstances. However, the equipment alone doesn’t create the photos, as one former student who now shoots for a Major League Baseball team pointed out:

One thing that really bugs me is when people say, “You take really nice photos! You must have really good camera equipment.” Equipment only gets you so far. You need to know how to use the equipment and look for the angles that will make the photos the most interesting.

I’ve heard this issue discussed in a variety of circumstances and ways. One former colleague pulled out his phone during a meeting and told a skilled former news photographer that, “I have an iPhone, so I’m essentially a photographer now.” A photojournalism professor and former news photographer noted something similar about the “anyone can do what you do” vibe:

When people say something like, My brother/sister/cousin, etc. is a photographer. I’d ask who they work for if they own a photo business, and I’d usually find out it was a hobby. Putting together Lego buildings with my kids never made me an architect or a construction worker.

Equipment does matter to some degree, as we’ve pointed out before on this blog, but the photographer’s eye and skill matter a lot more. The ability to compose an image, capture a mood, cope with lighting issues and a ton of other things make the difference between great photography and whatever my 12-year-old is doing with her Instagram account.

You mean you want me to pay you?

It’s weird what we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not. People will happily pay the neighborhood kid to cut the grass or shovel the snow. We pay for lollipop hammers in “Candy Crush” or coins to play app-based slot machines. People will even pay for “moisture” that may or may not exist any more.


(Yes, this is a real thing and yes, I own one of these. Don’t judge.)

One thing apparently people don’t pay for is photographs, as one long-time shooter noted:

One of my peeves is when people ask to do it for free. I didn’t spend money on gear just so I can give images out for free. Not to mention the time spent at the event but also post-production/editing. Time is money.

Speaking of time, a photographer who has worked internationally noted that time is not only money, but it’s also often miscalculated by people who hire shooters:

“It’ll only take like 30 minutes…” To clarify, it ignores the time spent cleaning the gear, editing the photos, traveling, gear insurance costs, software costs, archive costs etc. Photographers used to be able to roll this into film processing fees, but now without those everyone thinks the day ends when the event is over.

Skilled work takes time in all fields. I’m sure Pope Julius II could have gotten the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling painted in a lot less than four years if he had fired Michelangelo and called on a local kid with a roller and a couple cans of eggshell white.

Skilled work also costs money to buy the gear, go to the event, shoot the event, edit the photos and provide a finished product. Again, you’re not paying for just the image any more than you are paying for the chemicals in the prescription medication you are taking. There’s a whole lot of R & D that goes into those pills so that the stuff comes out the right way. You’re paying for more than the materials. You’re paying for the skills.

Just grab some clip art

This argument was at the core of the Poynter article: Go find free stuff online and use it as you see fit. A former student media adviser who has family in the photojournalism business noted how this is a really dumb idea:

A volunteer I work with (and respect): Can you get some photos off the internet and make a video for these kids?

Umm. I’m not going to “get” anything off the internet without permission. I explained, taught a copyright/ownership lesson, only to hear this same request on another day. Why is it that many people don’t think words and images have value — that they just are out there for the taking?

A current journalism professor also mentioned a similar concern:

“Just grab some clip art” usually leads into my real world case study of the blogger who was sued and lost thousands for “just grabbing” a Google pic of a green pepper from Google Images.

(We discussed this particular issue before with the “ECOM-dude” who thought photographers had “trapped” him into using content and then suing him.)

Three key thoughts here for anyone thinking about “grabbing” images:

  1. Just because it’s out there, it doesn’t mean its yours for the taking. Even the line about “There were a whole ton of images and I just took one,” makes no sense. Every day, I can see a parking lot full of cars from my office. I can’t just go down there and take someone else’s car because I like it and it was there for the “grabbing.” People own things, whether those are cars or images.
  2. Trying to limit your liability by “crediting” the source doesn’t work. (And let’s get this out of the way: Google doesn’t own anything, so writing “Photo courtesy of Google” is doubly insulting to photographers.) If you don’t get permission before you use it, this isn’t a “courtesy” use. Go back to the car analogy: If I steal your car and drive it around campus, it doesn’t it make the situation any better if I tell people, “Driving around courtesy of Jimmy!”
  3. The argument that it “wasn’t an important/valuable/rare image” so it shouldn’t be such a big deal is really stupid. The whole reason that particular image was stolen was because someone looked at it and found it appealing. Sure, it might “just” be a photo of a green pepper or a sunset, but it was the quality of that particular shot of a green pepper or a sunset that drew the person’s attention. Thus, the effort and the eye of photographer played a role in the inherent value of the image. Something to think about…


Here’s the biggest point: Stock images fail you in journalism

Even if you’re not swayed by the argument that photographers are part of the journalism ecosystem and that when you steal stuff or use generic images you are harming a fellow journalist, think about the point of photos in journalism: They tell stories.

There’s a reason why I used the term “photojournalist” quite a bit here and why good quality publications hire photojournalists to work for them. Just like ALL forms of journalism, the images that these people create are meant to engage readers and provide value to your audience members. The images operate in a symbiotic fashion with text or tell stories on their own. To do this, they have to be composed with the underlying story in mind by a journalist who understands how to tap into that story.

In closing, consider these thoughts from a couple of the photojournalists noted above as food for thought the next time you are tempted to “just grab” an image:

In my opinion, stock is very bland. Photojournalists capture raw emotion and the scene. Stock images can be ok for some things but real photos tell more of the story.

Photos are what draw people into a moment that already happened. They help draw the reader into a story. Photo journalists are valuable, because we know how to search these moments out to tell the story visually. You will not get the emotions or angles of moments that photo journalists would get from stock photos.

Good photojournalists know how to grab something more important than photos. They know how to grab eyeballs. In a time in which every journalistic operation is fighting for attention, it pays to take advantage of their expertise as part of a storytelling process.


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

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

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

Here we go:

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Says who?”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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



GAME TIME! A “Febrrrrrr-uary Blues” AP-Style Quiz!

If you live where I live, February stinks.

It’s cold, it’s gray and Spring Break is too far away. At least my wife loves me so I’ll have someone to out with on Valentine’s Day… Or is it Valentine’s day? Or maybe Valentines Day?

If you know, you’re 1/10th (or is it one-tenth?) of the way to a successful run at this edition of the AP Style quiz. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to play.

“What student journalists do can make a difference on a college campus.” (A look at the Daily Egyptian’s coverage of a chancellor’s nepotistic hiring.)

(Editor’s Note: I’m a huge believer in student media and the benefits it has for student journalists as well as campus audiences. When a big story breaks on a campus, I like to chat with the students who made the story happen to get the “backstory” on the piece.

Today’s conversation is with Anna Spoerre of the Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. She is a senior studying journalism and has worked on the staff as everything from a reporter to the editor in chief. In addition, she has served as an intern in Peoria, Illinois and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has plans to intern at the Oregonian this summer. If you or your staff has a big story and would like to shed light on how you made it happen, contact me and we can take a look-see at it.)


Anna Spoerre returned to SIU-Carbondale after a semester abroad and walked right into a big story. The university had hired Chancellor Carlo Montemagno to start in Fall 2017, a time at which SIU-C was dealing with a budget crunch and significant cuts around the campus. Montemagno, however, didn’t come alone: He put his daughter and son-in-law, Melissa and Jeff Germain, on the university’s payroll as well.

“Since I’d been out of the country for a semester, I was still getting caught back up on the administrative beat when someone gave us a tip,” she said. “I was handed the hiring papers for the Germains, and from there began contacting my sources on campus to find out more. This is how I started hearing about the additional hirings being discussed.”

Spoerre dug through documents she had obtained through open records requests as well as those that had been leaked to her to figure out what was going on. She also did some double-checking of resumes and LinkedIn profiles. She discovered that Montemagno had a history of finding jobs for his daughter and son-in-law at each of his previous stops over the past decade. The chancellor declined to comment for Spoerre’s story, releasing a press statement through communications office instead.

One of the more difficult aspects of the story, Spoerre said, was finding a way to get people to talk about this issue in a way that she could support what she found through her research.

“One of the biggest struggles I had with this story was that I initially gathered most of the information from off the record interviews,” she said. “So, as of Monday morning before the story came out, I felt like I’d hit a roadblock when it came to getting anyone to speak on the record. To be perfectly honest, I skipped all of my classes for two days straight and just spent hours going from office to office looking for anyone who might be willing to speak with me. After about a dozen conversations and many other attempts at interviews, I finally had enough on the record to approach the administration Tuesday afternoon.”

In spite of what the story might have done to her GPA, Spoerre said she felt the sacrifices she made to get the story were worth it, given how people have reacted to it.

“The response I’ve received from the campus and surrounding community has been incredible,” she said. “I’ve yet to receive any push back from the administration. So far, everyone has either been open about praising the story or has simply stayed silent. I’ve also had reporters and editors from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Chicago Tribune give shout outs to the piece on Twitter.

“I’ve had countless people — many whom I didn’t know — come up to me on campus and thank me for the piece,” she added. “Like I said, the response has just been incredibly positive and great affirmation that what student journalists do can make a difference on a college campus.”

As for any advice for fellow student journalists looking at a “big story,” Spoerre said she wouldn’t advocate skipping a lot of class, but she thinks it is important to approach the work with unrelenting effort.

“My advice to college newspaper reporters is to always treat the job like what it is: a job,” she said. “Not an internship, not a class. It is those things too, at least initially, but what we print is real and has real effects, so reporting always has to be approached not only professionally but with honesty and integrity with the knowledge that what we write can affecting people and communities.”


Stumped on finding stories? Learn to wonder more…

Little kids are great for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their sense of wonder.

A 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” Kids want to know how stuff works, why it happens and the answers to all sorts of other important questions.

At some point, we stop incessantly asking “Why?” because we fear of looking stupid or because we stop caring about how things work. We stop engaging with the world around us and we no longer enjoy the wonderment we once experienced as little kids.

That’s a shame, because wondering more will lead to some incredible stories. When you notice things happening around you, stop and wonder for a minute or two. Here are five random stories that came from wondering about random things happening out here:

  • What does a 150-pound, 60-year-old fish taste like? Out here in the arctic north, it’s sturgeon season, which means hundreds of men and women park shanties on the icy lake (when it’s icy enough) and engage in the tradition of spearing these giant fish. When I first moved back to Wisconsin, people were talking about this in a doctor’s office waiting room and I was fascinated by the activity. (“It’s like lying with your head in a fire place, looking up a chimney and waiting for a bird to fly overhead,” someone told me.) They told me stories about family fishing, the generational aspect of it, the thrill of the hunt and more. However, when I asked what it tasted like, nobody knew because none of them actually ate the fish. I don’t know why, but they just never did. The sturgeon was used as fertilizer, one person said, although she wasn’t entirely sure how. Someone else said you had to bury them. Me? If I’m freezing my butt off in a shed for a day or two to get a fish, I want some eats.


  • What do other people want to know? The Freedom of Information Act and state open records make certain documents to the public. If you are at a public university, you can get all sorts of information, including people’s salaries, departmental budgets and contracts the U signs with outside agencies.
    One thing that most people don’t think to request? A list of the open records requests that people have made over a given period of time. (I had a student do this once. When I asked him why he did it, he said, “I just want to know what other people want to know.” Good point.)


  • Why Pepsi? Speaking of contracts a university signs, on our campus there is only one place I can actually buy a Diet Coke: A convenience store. Every place else, all I can get is a Diet Pepsi, which to me tastes like I’m licking a piece of chemically treated sheet metal. How does your university decide who gets the vending contract on your campus, how long is the contract and what kind of cash does the U get for exclusivity?


  • What’s life like for competitive eaters? Molly Schuyler won the Wing Bowl eat off last week, devouring 501 chicken wings in 30 minutes. (Me? I’m lucky if I get my money’s worth out of a Pizza Ranch buffet.) Competitive eating champions like Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi have become famous for their ability to down dozens of dogs, wads of wings and tons of tacos. How is it that these people became GOOD at this? Even more, what is life like for them outside of the arena of eating? Do people know them by sight? Are they banned from the Golden Corral? Do they eat normally in every day life and just go for it on competition day? Also, how do they burn through the thousands of calories they consume as part of their careers? (A conservative estimate of 81 calories per chicken wing means Schuyler took in more than 40,000 calories in a half hour, or about 20 times what an average woman usually consumes in a day.)


  • You mean it’s not just “frowned upon?” The state’s largest paper out here did some digging through data to put together an extended look at complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other similar charges at the state’s universities. A number of problematic results emerged, although one ended up catching my staff’s eye. It seemed that one case involved a student and a professor who had maintained a “consensual relationship” which turned into a complaint when the professor apparently wasn’t willing to stop bugging the student once they broke up.
    Our question: How is there not a rule against this in the first place? When I saw this, I had a flashback to a “Friends” episode.

Aside from all of us going “eeeeeewwwww…,” we wanted to know why there isn’t an actual rule about this. We also were curious to know if this ever didn’t end in the disaster we all imagined it to be. Find out what the actual rules are on your campus about this and if any personnel or criminal reports are available for any of these cases that went sour.

And here are five more random thoughts that might or might not lead to anything:

  1. Who is the longest tenured faculty member on your campus and how long has it been since you did a profile on him or her?
  2. Which building on your campus burns the most energy and what moves are being made to make it greener?
  3. What is the most popular food item that your campus food service workers make and how many of that item get sold each day/week/semester/year? What makes it a big deal for your students?
  4. What is the most arcane rule still on the books at your school or in your city?
  5. What is the least-often claimed scholarship on your campus and what makes it a difficult one to achieve? (A scholarship for professional banjo players of Bohemian descent? A scholarship that requires perfect attendance since kindergarten?)

“But I’m not going into news!” (or why you still need to know the basics of media writing to survive in life)

When my daughter was 5 years old, she often protested doing something my wife or I asked her to do with a whining version of, “But I don’t WANNNAAAAAA!” When people get older, they realize that’s not an acceptable answer, so they adopt a different tactic.

In the case of many of my students in the Writing for the Media course, the latter-day version of “I don’t WANNNAAAAA!” is “But I’m going into PR! Why do I need to know this stuff?” I get that from a variety of majors including those entering marketing, interactive web management, advertising and public relations. The argument is that if you aren’t a news hound, you don’t need to deal with all this grammar, interviewing and inverted-pyramid garbage.

Think again.

Everything you will do in any media-related field will require you to communicate effectively with other people. This will include written and oral communication, so you need to know how to write and how to speak in a way that gets a message across to people who need it. You also need to learn how to be almost paranoid about spelling, grammar and style as to avoid becoming a laughing stock among your peers and the public.

You don’t want people coming to the “State of the Uniom”


You also don’t want to advertise in a way that gets kids too excited about going to their “Pubic School”



You definitely don’t want your brochures to announce the graduation of people in “pubic affairs:



In PR, your inability to write a coherent sentence shouldn’t lead to a press release like this one (h/t to Nicky Porter at

If you read through this list of Five Startup Press Release Fails, you’ll notice a lot of commonalities between what makes for good news pieces and good releases: Quality quotes, getting to the point immediately and avoiding jargon. Good writing is good writing in the media, whether you’re writing a press release or trying to translate a horribly written one into a news story.

I have often told students I can teach them almost anything in this area, except for how to “wanna” do it. If you don’t “wanna,” I have no chance of making you care and if you don’t care, why should the people who will read what you wrote?

Write about women’s accomplishments, not about their relationship to men (or there’s more to Natalie Wood than being a “film star’s wife”)

In 1947, Natalie Wood got her first big role in “Miracle on 34th Street,” playing Susan Walker, a 9-year-old girl who believes that she has met the real Santa Claus. In 1981, she was found dead after she fell off a yacht and drown near Santa Catalina Island, California. In between those two incidents, she acted in more than 50 films for the small screen and the silver screen while earning three Oscar nominations. She played iconic roles in movies like “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Gypsy,” and “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.” Still, she apparently can’t get top billing in a headline about the reopening of the investigation into her death this week:


Yes, Natalie Wood was married to Robert Wagner, most recently known for his role as Number Two in the “Austin Powers” movies and his recurring role on “NCIS” as DiNozzo’s dad. For those folks with a passion for the 1980s, he was the leading man in the campy detective series “Hart to Hart” with Stephanie Powers. And according to the officials reopening the case, he is now a “person of interest” in Wood’s death, as he was on the yacht at the time and had a long and somewhat pained history with Wood.

That said, this headline demonstrates a point that guest blogger Tracy Everbach made earlier in the year when discussing the success of Olympic trap shooter Corey Codgell. Despite earning a bronze in the Olympics, she was referred to as the “wife of a (Chicago) Bears lineman” in media coverage.

Everbach’s point bears repeating here: When you write about women, write about their accomplishments, not their relationship to men.