Catch a livestream of my “Last Lecture” (and amuse yourself while you’re watching)

This will be the last post until after Thanksgiving, as a couple important events are conspiring to keep me off the blog for a bit. I have a trip to Arizona this week to see my grandfather, a massive maelstrom of grading and the annual “How did Thanksgiving get here so fast?” trek of visits to family and friends.

The big event, however, is happening before all of that.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 6 p.m. Central, I’ll be delivering a “Last Lecture” to the fraternity and sorority folks out here at UWO. I was invited based on student recommendations and I have to admit this is one of the biggest thrills of my professional life:

(In case you are unfamiliar with the “Last Lecture” concept, it was made famous by Dr. Randy Pausch, a professor who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. With less than three months to live, Pausch offered his audience a view on how to achieve their childhood dreams as his “Last Lecture.”)

If you are interested in watching me try not to curse accidentally in front of a ballroom filled with students, the link to the livestream is here.

(If you want to dial in from one of about a squillion places, here’s the full 4-1-1 on all that.)

To make this a bit more fun for some of you, especially those of you who know me well, I’ve created two BINGO cards you can use to keep track of my “eccentricities” during the speech:

Hope it helps. I’ll be back after the Thanksgiving break to help close up the semester. As always, though, if you need me, hit me up through the contact page and I’ll be there.

Have a great holiday!

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

 

Freedom of the press isn’t everywhere

So, you wanna be a journalist?

American journalist Danny Fenster has been freed from prison in Myanmar, according to a Myanmar military official and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who had been on a private humanitarian visit to the country.

Fenster’s release comes just days after the former managing editor of Frontier Myanmar — an independent news outlet that covered current affairs, business and politics — was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a military court in Myanmar.

The ability to cite the First Amendment or use the law to require government agencies to release documents can seem like standard fare around here. It’s great that we have these rights and that we have access to organizations that will help us stand up for them as well.

That’s not the case everywhere, as Fenster was one of about 120 journalists detained in Myanmar this year after a governmental coup.

According to CNN, 47 remain in prison.

Throwback Thursday: Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

I was working with a student today who was having some difficulty with her writing. In spots where she had a hard time trying to say what she meant, she’d reach for some obscure term or complex phrase that would make a dictionary blush.

“Let me guess,” I asked. “You don’t want to screw something up, so you’re trying to force the issue a bit here, right?”

She nodded, “It felt forced, but I didn’t know how to fix it.”

“OK, let’s just pretend it’s you and me sitting here having a soda or whatever. Tell it to me that way.”

Immediately, she was able to untangle the tortured prose and hit the nail on the head. “Why was that so easy?” she asked.

“Because you’re not trying so hard. Just write it like you’d want to read it.”

With that in mind (and in honor of nth edition of really obtuse book chapter reviews I got last week), here’s this week’s Throwback Thursday post:

Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

I got a giant wad of reviews for a book proposal that I put into the field a few weeks back. The idea of people reviewing work you haven’t done yet to decide if it’s worth doing gives me hives, but it does help me understand what professors want and what they think their students need.

Amid all of the helpful suggestions (and a few that made me wonder if they were reading another person’s proposal instead of mine), this rhetorical question stuck with me:

Is it possible to write in simpler language? The authors do not have to impress the other professors.  The goal should be to reach the student.

Of all the things I’ve received in reviews throughout my life, this is one chunk of text with which I wholeheartedly agree. Believe me, if I was trying to be impressive, I’d be totally screwed.

Whenever I try to write a book, I consider the students who had to plunk down their cash to buy this thing and now are forced to use it for something besides a doorstop. I will often think of one of my current or former students and then imagine I’m trying to tell that particular student whatever it is I think matters in a way I think he or she will best understand it. (I then go back and edit out the cursing, the “y’knows” and any reference to the 1980 USA Hockey Team.)

The point is: I try to know my readers before I write to them. I’m also not trying to impress anybody with my wide range of vocabulary or ability to recall a key moment from a “Full House” episode that foreshadowed Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin’s role in the admissions bribery scandal.

I want you to learn how to write well, communicate effectively and reach an audience. If I’m not doing that in my textbooks (or at least trying to), I’m either a hypocrite or an idiot. With that in mind, consider these key pointers when it comes to writing simply for an audience:

  • If you wouldn’t read it, don’t write it: A  major problem happens when you flip from the “reader” side of a story to the “journalist” side of the storytelling relationship: You forget what it’s like to have to read whatever it is you’re writing. The purpose of journalism is to reach your audience with quality information in a clear and coherent way. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Approach your content accordingly and if you wouldn’t enjoy reading something, don’t write it that way.
  • Tell me a story and make me care: Far too often, our desire to gather quotes or or grab basic facts can overwhelm the journalist, thus putting the storytelling aspect of the job on the back burner. Instead of treating journalism like you’re fighting through a “honey-do list,” focus on the concept of telling stories in a way that makes your readers care about them.The idea of a story drives our desire to read, listen, watch and interact with content. It’s why we search for characters, threads, plots and elements in the media output we consume for entertainment. News is no different in that regard, so find ways to make your work tell people a story that is relevant, useful and interesting to them.
  • The harder the story is to understand, the slower and simpler you should tell it: I remember seeing this on a sign in our Ball State newsroom one year and I wish I could find its source. (I’m sure someone will tell me about 11 seconds after I post this, complete with a link I should have easily located…) Its point is a fantastic one: When things get harder, slow down. We do it when we’re driving through a snowstorm or working through a difficult math problem. We do it when our parents or grandparents call and ask, “How do I stop the computer from doing this one blinky thing?”However, when we write stories for our audience, we often blaze through the jargon, speed through the complexities of a proposal or rush through a series of actions that barely make sense to you. Instead of flying along like my wife on a freeway, jamming out to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, slow down and incrementally explain each important detail as if you are communicating to a child. Or a parent asking about that “blinky thing.”

“Is ‘pole-dancing girlfriend’s monkey’ properly punctuated?” and other weird things to ponder on a Tuesday

As noted many times before, whenever something weird happens in media, friends tend to hit me up with a “Did you see this? Thought it would be great for the blog!” message.

They are always right.

Let’s get into it.

Sometimes, a headline completely sells a story:

A friend sent this along last night with a note: “Just wanted to make sure you’ve seen this headline…

I hadn’t but I’m glad he shared.

Not a huge fan of “allegedly,” as we’ve noted before, but other than that… I’m reading this thing.

 

When people tell you to “shut the f*** up,” I’m not sure this is what they mean:

The spelling error is bad, but it could have been worse: “Thank you for your copulation.”

 

This is spondifferious in its censoriousness and its ridiculousness

A friend sent this to me with a note: “Discuss?” My take: When you sound like someone mocking Mike Tyson’s speech pattern, maybe you should rethink your approach to whatever it is you’re doing.

 

If you say it three times, does Beetlejuice’s cousin, Improvejuice, show up?

A former student sent this along from a press release she was working off of:

Press release from the university, it was the second sentence:

“The Golden Eagles improved from 2019 as they improved their team average from 30:50.31 to 29:49.95, an improvement of over a minute.”

Think they improved? 

I don’t know… Can you tell it to me in a more concrete fashion?

 

And finally…

That’s DOCTOR LORD “FILAK, YOU A-HOLE” to you, pal!

I don’t know what Facebook has done to its algorithms, but I’m getting a lot of weird suggestions lately. A female friend I knew well in high school had a birthday recently and it suggested I send her a “BUTT-wiser” towel as a thoughtful gift. It also decided that apparently I needed to up my self-importance game a bit, so it suggested this:

I bet all the Scottish lords who shop at Costco get some serious respect from the sample ladies…

Have a good rest of your day

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

Aaron Rodgers, COVID-19 and the tale of three advertisers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 last week, a revelation that had media folks scrambling on multiple fronts. First, the news and sports journalists were trying to figure out exactly how that happened, give Rodgers’ statement back in August that he was “immunized.” Then, the advertising media had to make some choices about what to say or do in regard to this revelation.

On the news front, a video from August regarding Rodgers and his immunization status began circulating.

In addition, Rodgers went on the Pat McAfee podcast show and, to put it as neutrally as possible, covered a wide array of topics. He stated his decision was connected to the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He stated that he worried about what the vaccine might do to his fertility. He pulled out the “my body, my choice” argument, blaming a “woke mob” and “cancel culture” for his current predicament.

He also explained how, despite having an NFL-grade medical staff that could practically turn any player into a cyborg after entering the “blue tent,” Rodgers turned to a more trusted medical authority for his health, namely podcaster Joe Rogan:

Rodgers also said he spoke with Rogan about treating COVID-19 after testing positive for the virus earlier this week.

“I’ve been doing a lot of the stuff that he recommended, in his podcasts and on the phone to me,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been taking monoclonal antibodies, ivermectin, zinc, vitamin C, D, and HCQ [hydroxychloroquine]… And I feel pretty incredible.”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug championed by vaccine skeptics that has not been approved for use to treat COVID-19 by the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I can’t speak for any other part of the world, but here in Wisconsin, this has been all anyone has talked about. President Joe Biden could have reversed climate change, solved world hunger, developed a cure for every disease on earth and rescued six kittens from a hurricane this week and up here it would still be, “Joe Biden has gotten a couple things done this week, but OUR TOP STORY is: Will Aaron Rodgers be out for TWO games due to COVID?”

As fun as it would be to poke at all of this from a news perspective, its the second issue we raised earlier that will be at the core of the post: What were advertisers tied to A-Rodg doing in the wake of his COVID revelations and how much sense did it make?

One of the easiest calls was from Prevea Health, a Wisconsin-based medical company, which quickly cut ties with the QB:

Another local company, Bergstrom Automotive, continued to run advertising featuring Rodgers throughout Sunday’s NFL coverage, including the Packer game.

This is a shot of the Bergstrom ad talking about hearing “no” and how at Bergstrom, it’s great because of “no haggling” and apparently, “no worries.” The irony here is a bit thick, even for me.

On a national level, the key ads of interest came from State Farm Insurance, which has been running a campaign featuring Rodgers and his supposed-to-be-on-field-foe-this-week Patrick Mahomes. The running gag of the “Rodgers Rate” versus the “Patrick Price” has included Mahomes as a “typical sneakerhead” and Rodgers as an “aspiring singer song-writer.” Both ads ran during the games, although the mix seemed to heavily lean toward Mahomes.

As of this posting, the insurance company hasn’t made any definitive statement about its relationship with Rodgers, other than to say it wasn’t going to comment about his COVID situation.

So let’s break down what makes sense and why in regard to these choices:

The reason most places pick someone to be a spokes person for that organization is because the person represents something the brand wants to represent. If you’re doing ads for a tough, rugged brand of clothing, you probably want to pick bull riders or construction workers. If you want to do ads for something dainty and elegant, you want to go with twig-sized super models.

Prevea dumping Rodgers was as easy of a call as it was for Kansas City to dial up every blitz on earth to freak out Rodgers’ replacement, Jordan Love. This is a healthcare organization that is impressing upon everyone to get vaccinated. The fact Rodgers misled people as to his vaccination status was bad for the brand, as was his decision to take medical advice that involved a horse-deworming medication. Keeping him on board for any reason doesn’t not fit with the healthcare brand.

Conversely, I imagine I’ll still be seeing a lot of Aaron Rodgers on Bergstrom Automotive ads around here. First, his COVID status doesn’t impact the brand. An automotive sales organization doesn’t have to take a stand on this issue, so kind of letting this ride doesn’t undermine the brand.

Second, a lot of folks in this more conservative portion of the state will likely thing BETTER of him for his decision to push back against rules “trying to out and shame people.” Michael Jordan once famously noted that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” a comment he later clarified as being in jest, but he stood by the principle in terms of not pushing in one direction or the other politically. Bergstrom is kind of over a barrel here in that regard: Keep Rodgers and tick off people who think he lied and is a medical whack job. Fire Rodgers and tick off people who aren’t all-in on vaccine mandates. Right now sitting still and quiet is probably the best move here.

State Farm is the one oddball here, in that it’s an insurance company selling products that protect the autos, homes, health and lives of its members. In one sense, the current campaign is about how cost-effective the product is, regardless of who you are. The “Rodgers Rate” and “Patrick Price” ads focus on value more than anything else, so it’s not like they have Rodgers taking COVID shots in the ads, only to have accidentally duped the audience.

That said, having something based on protection keeping someone on the payroll who got COVID after skipping out on what medical professionals call the best protection against the virus could seem incongruent at best.

Watching what happens over the next several weeks should be interesting in regard to Rodgers. As one former coach used to say, “You’re only as smart as your won-loss record,” so this could be a situation where a deep playoff run could turn this into a “misunderstanding regarding Aaron’s vaccination status.” If he ends up blowing out a knee or something, someone will find a way to make some “off to the glue factory, horse-pill boy” memes as the team “looks forward to the Jordan Love era.”

 

 

 

THROWBACK THURSDAY: “Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

We were discussing horrible headline in class the other day, so I dug this one up from the Wayback Machine and figured it’d be worth a share on Throwback Thursday.

Enjoy!

 


“Get shot,” “Soccer Blows” and “Robbed Accidentally:” Four tips on writing headlines that mean what you want them to mean

 

As we have discussed here before, I spend a less time thinking about how a headline or a photo or anything else can be awesome and a lot more time thinking about how it can go horribly wrong. That level of mild-to-moderate paranoia keeps me out of more than the average amount of trouble when it comes to my writing here and elsewhere.

I’m teaching an editing class this summer, which has me on the lookout for gaffes, stumbles and other snafus that pop up on all manner of platforms. Although horrible spelling and awkward moments make up a great deal of my finds, I have noticed more than a few areas in which the way in which a word can be interpreted or misread can lead to problems within writing.

One of my favorites came from USA Today as the country was crawling out from under the mortgage meltdown:

Shot.jpg

The questions I had were a) do I get to pick where they shoot me? and b) where do I sign up?

Obviously, in this case, the writer meant “shot” to be a synonym for “chance.” However, “get shot” can also easily be interpreted to mean someone put a bullet in you. (I suppose if you want to get technical, it could also mean a needle full of something or a small glass of hard liquor. “Barkeep! I’ll take a Tequila Sunrise and a shot of “Loan Abatement.”)

A similar problem emerges in this headline:

GayStraight

(Glad they finally got those Gay-Straight Alliance ruffians to stop picking on people in the school…)

Stressing different words in different ways can help you avoid issues like this one as well:

WalkerPodcast

The title in the tweet showcases the problem: “You can’t recall courage with Scott Walker.” The title is a play on words, in that Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. However, on a first pass, the word “recall” more likely sounds like people are trying to remember something. (“I clearly recall putting my wallet in my pocket, but now it’s missing.”) So, it sounds like we can’t remember anything about courage when it somehow relates to Scott Walker. (“I can’t recall any acts of courage on the part of Scott Walker.”) I’m sure that sits well with the former governor…

In any case, the point is that had the writers read these items aloud, we wouldn’t be debating the issue. Other similar problems happen when you get a bad headline break. In print, when you “break” a headline between columns, you create a natural pause at the end of the first line, similar to a comma. On one line, the head makes sense:

Smith, Jones dead even in polls

However, when split at the wrong spot, you get a zombie movie of sorts:

Smith, Jones dead
even in polls

When this happens in print, it’s often due to layout issues and those issues can lead to some awkward headlines:

Blows

(Wow… the soccer team must be exhausted…)

Even in digital copy, this can happen (h/t Testy Copy Editors)

SplitsMatter

How does one get “robbed accidentally?” (To be fair, it could be worse, I’ve seen “robbed” end up getting spelled “robed,” which always makes me think of Hugh Hefner for some reason…)

Here are a couple points to help you avoid these problems:

  • Read your stuff aloud: I often tell students to read their copy out loud, as that will help them find grammar errors, run-on sentences and structural issues. One other benefit is that if you emphasize different words in different ways while reading the copy aloud, you can see how something might not read quite right.
  • Watch your swaps for size: In many cases, the headline errors come when people are trying to swap out a longer word for a shorter one or (occasionally) vice versa. This is how you get things like “shot” for “chance” and similar errors.
  • Keep an eye on your breaks: When you have a break in a headline, regardless of platform, realize it’s going to shift the way in which the content is read. Therefore, you need to put the breaks in the right spots to avoid people hearing that two candidates are “dead… even in polls”
  • Beware of potentially hazardous word choices: We talked about this before when it comes to reading like a 12-year-old boy, but it’s not just the double-entendre sex-ed stuff that can get you into trouble. A headline on suburban sprawl could have a politician hoping to “retard growth.” That word, although technically accurate, has the potential for danger, as the “R-word movement” can clearly explain. All sorts of words can create danger for you, so always think, “How can this go wrong?” and you’ll save yourself some explaining and agony for sure.

“Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do:” Award-winning sports reporter Ryan Wood discusses his in-depth examination of the NFL concussion settlement’s impact on former players

Ryan Wood, a Green Bay Packers beat reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, covers the day-in, day-out elements of NFL football in the league’s smallest outpost. 

He worked the sports beat at the DeKalb (Illinois) Daily Chronicle, where he covered Northern Illinois University athletics. He also covered the athletic programs at the University of South Carolina and Auburn University before taking on his current job covering the Packers. He has earned multiple awards for his reporting on the team as well as his coverage of the retirement and hall-of-fame moments of players.

Sports journalism requires heavy reliance on quick-hit social media posts and deadline-pounding stories from games, something Wood has perfected over his time in Green Bay. What he thought might be another quick-hit story turned into one of the longest ones of his life: an 18-month reporting journey into the NFL’s concussion settlement with former players and how the league was dodging many players’ claims. His reporting took him from former players and league offices to lawyers and concussion experts to fully understand what was happening with this settlement.

Wood was nice enough to submit to an email interview to give us an inside look at how the story started, what he dealt with throughout the process of building it and some tips on how student journalists can do some quality investigative journalism on their own.


You mentioned when you shared this on social media that you thought this might be a quick story, but it quickly evolved into something that took 18 months of your life. How did you find this story and how did it evolve to the piece that you published?

“The story found me more than I found it. Seems the best stories tend to do that. I was on the phone with an NFL agent at the end of April, just after the 2020 draft, when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round. A story like this was the furthest thing from my mind, but then I got an email forwarded from my editor. It was just a tip that Jim Capuzzi, the son of then-88-year-old former Packers player Camillo Capuzzi, was having difficulties with the NFL’s concussion settlement.
“My first reaction was that there must be something this family was missing. I certainly did not expect it to become a story, much less one that would engulf 5,500 words and 18 months of my attention. I would simply send an email and get an answer, I thought. I emailed Carl Francis, communications director for the NFL’s player association. This seemed like an issue the NFLPA would be interesting in helping solve.
“When I did not hear back, that was my first sign there was something more here.”
The thing that I noticed was the number of former players who spoke at length with you about their personal issues, their struggles after they retired and their battles with the NFL. How did you get these people to agree to work with you and what did you do to establish trust with them, especially after they had all of those rough experiences in life? 
“In reporting, the most important ingredient for cooperation is one word: motivation. A source must be motivated to help. What’s in it for them?
“These former players obviously had a great deal of motivation. They felt like the NFL and claims administrator BrownGreer was not paying money they were owed. The more I spoke with former players and their families, though, the more I came to realize the thing they wanted almost as much as the financial assistance is to be listened to.
“Many of these retired players feel like they’re living in the dark. They’ve gone from adulation, from playing inside stadiums packed with tens of thousands of fans, like modern gladiators, to the obscurity of retirement. Most of them are dealing with significant health issues, sometimes health issues they don’t even understand, and the realities of their situation are unknown to the public. I think they trusted me to tell their stories because I was genuine. The same thing with lead attorney Christopher Seeger giving me 20 minutes on the record.
“I approached this story from a genuine interest in understanding and being fair to every side, and I think that goes a long way when people feel like they’re not being listened to.”
The NFL is a key player in this and yet they didn’t seem all that interested in participating. What steps did you take in trying to get an official league response and how did the league treat your requests? Also, have you received any blow back from anyone attached to the NFL after the piece ran?  
“It took a lot of persistence to get a league response. I first emailed NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy on a Tuesday, 13 days before my deadline, and gave him one week to respond. (I needed a few days to factor in for story revisions after the response.) I called the next day and left a voicemail. I didn’t get a response to the email or call, so I sent McCarthy another email on the ensuing Monday. That email consisted of key reporting details included in the story on how the NFL/claims administrator was treating claims. That email was followed by an immediate phone call, which McCarthy answered.
“We discussed the story while he read the email, and he said he’d do what he could do given legal restraints. McCarthy sent me a statement of several paragraphs the next day, meeting the deadline I had given him. I included the key proponents of that statement in the story.
“I have not received any blow back from the league. I think the reason is because the story fairly presents their side. The interest of fairness is why I sent the followup email. I wanted the NFL to have a chance to respond to the reporting in this story before it was published, not after. That email, I think, was the key to getting a response.”
We’ve had a lot of chatter about how sports reporters and political reporters and others at the highest levels have to “play the game” to get scoops or to avoid being ostracized.  Did you ever consider the ramifications of going after a piece like this or worry about how it might impact your day-to-day work with the Packers or the NFL?  Did you think, “This might get me into some trouble and it might not be worth it” for your career?
“That thought never crossed my mind during the entire 18 months. I’m not really wired that way, for one. Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“But the biggest reason is because I know I have firm backing from my employer. I’m blessed to work at a newspaper committed to doing journalism at the highest level. So I never had to be concerned about backlash.
“A thought that did occur to me early on was that this story was entirely about the NFL, and not the Packers. This issue went above any team to the league level. So I also didn’t have to worry about any blow back from the Packers, who I work with on a daily basis. Not that it would have changed how I reported the story in any way.”
Were there any key moments in the reporting process where you started to see a bigger piece develop? Anything that made you start to realize how big this was and why the story mattered?
“After I did not get a response from the NFLPA, I spoke to lawyers. I got a referral to one lawyer, who gave me referrals to a handful of other lawyers, and the web started to grow.
“What makes this story special is that it falls on a rare cultural cross section of sports, legal and medicine. That’s a lot of factors to weave into one story. I knew the sports, but I needed to understand all the intricacies of from legal and medical perspectives. I knew nothing about the concussion settlement when I started reporting the story, so that was the first step.
“To become an expert, learn from the experts. It was basically like going to school. Those initial conversations were lengthy, at least an hour. I think my longest phone call was more than three hours. What the attorneys were telling me made it clear there was a big story here.
“As for why the story mattered, it was very simple. People needed help and weren’t getting it. Every now and then, we get the privilege and obligation as journalists to help people who can’t find it anywhere else. It’s what makes journalism a service. Those opportunities make this job quite rewarding.”
What advice do you have for student journalists and journalism students who might want to go after a bigger piece like this? Are there any things you found that were really helpful or things you would caution them against?
“Don’t eat the elephant in one bite. A project like this can feel impossible at the onset. You’ve got to start somewhere. A phone call. Another phone call. Just keep going.
“No story in my career has stressed the value of patience more than this one. Reporting a story 18 months can be very rewarding at the end, but it’s exhausting to reach that point. There were moments I had doubts whether the story would ever be published. I constantly questioned whether it would be worth the time investment. So I think it starts there, at the emotional level.
“In terms of reporting, it almost works the opposite. Cast the widest net possible, and narrow it from there. I wanted to speak to everybody: players, family members, lawyers, physicians. Every conversation ended with the same question: Who else do you know that would be good for me to speak with? That’s a critical question for reporters taking on a project like this. The people you’re speaking with sometimes know better than you who else to talk to.”
Anything else you want to say? Anything I missed?
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the necessity of working with a great editor. The industry has devalued editors over the past decade, but this story more than any in my career emphasized the important role they serve to quality journalism.
“There’s no chance this story would have gotten off the ground without the work of my editors. I was fortunate to work with two superb editors over these 18 months. It started with my sports editor, Robert Zizzo. He helped me believe in the story, keep patience when the reporting took longer than I wanted, and was important to one of the most crucial elements, crafting a narrative through the reporting.
“It moved to the desk of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative editor Sam Roe midway through. With Sam, I rewired the story. The analogy we used was keeping the structure of a house, but removing all the appliances, furniture and floors, and then refurbishing it. A major revision to the story was for it to be told through the perspective of players. Initial versions were too heavily reliant on reporting from lawyers. I think the final copy personalizes the story, helping make a dense topic digestible.”

Word choices matter (or why a judge thought people who were shot to death couldn’t be called “victims” of the shooting)

Journalists must have a decent vocabulary to make sure they can communicate effectively to an audience. To assist my students in this regard, kids in my Feature Writing class have been required to smell or feel a mystery substance without being able to see it. They then have to generate 15 words that describe the sensation accurately and clearly.

(If you want to see the “Feel it” Lab or the “Smell it” Lab in action, feel free to click on those links.)

The point I was trying to make in those lessons was that distinctions in verbiage convey specific images to your audience. There’s a difference between “sticky” and “slimy”  or between “cool” and “cold.” In taking a whiff from the mystery bags, students found themselves debating among  the terms “scent” and “odor” and “stench.”

Distinctions like this can make the difference between a vivid word picture and a fuzzy mental image, but really can’t do much harm to the readers or the field. A recent court decision in Wisconsin, however, demonstrates how word choices can literally shape opportunities for justice.

Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for his actions during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. 2020. Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them, as part of a collection of citizens who came down to “monitor” the civil unrest that occurred after police officer Rusty Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times as  Blake was getting into his SUV. Rittenhouse is currently on trial for these shootings and the judge in the case made a specific requirement as to how participants in the case should refer to certain people involved:

During Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial on homicide charges, prosecutors must refer to the two people he fatally shot — Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber — and one he wounded — Gaige Grosskreutz — as Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Huber and Mr. Grosskreutz, or the people who were shot, or as to Rosenbaum and Huber, the decedents.

They may not be referred to as victims.

<SNIP>

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger countered by seeking to bar defense lawyers from calling the men “looters, rioters, arsonists or any other pejorative term.”

While looting, rioting and arson occurred in the two nights before the shooting, Binger argued that unless there’s specific proof Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were engaged in any of those actions, and that Rittenhouse had seen it, the labels are even more “loaded” than what judge ascribes to “victim.”

Schroeder was not swayed.

We have seen this problem before in how certain words can lead readers to have certain emotional reactions. The most famous one is this comparison of people during Hurricane Katrina trying to survive by scrounging for supplies. While the caption on the photo of the Black man shows him “looting,” the caption for the white couple has them “finding” supplies.

In both cases, people were taking items necessary to their survival from places without paying for them (primarily because everything was destroyed or abandoned at that time, and nobody showed up to run the register at the local convenience store). However, the “looting” tag carries with it a criminal vibe while the “finding” tag seems to indicate the people just were walking around and discovered the stuff under a pile of leaves on the sidewalk or something.

Feminist scholars have long noted the incongruity in language as to how men and women are described. A few common pairings include:

  • Women are “pushy” while men are “assertive”
  • Women are “bossy” while men “take charge”
  • Women are “stubborn” while men are “persistent”

We could go on for days, but the point is that language matters in how we tell stories. Here are a couple hints to improve your word selection when it comes to potential biases in language:

 

WOULD YOU USE THE DESCRIPTOR OF THE SITUATION WAS REVERSED?: One of the key ways to determine fairness in language or description is to turn the tables and see if it still works for you. My favorite example comes from Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” in which one of his teammates notes that he wouldn’t mind the papers referring to him as “the black first baseman” if only they would refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.”

The same is true of descriptions like “the female mayor” or “the woman CEO” and so forth. Calling attention unnecessarily to an attribute that you wouldn’t flip the other way is clearly an indicator that you might want to rethink that descriptor. I can’t remember seeing headlines about “the white quarterback” or “the male company president” and I bet most of you can’t either. Same thing with references to a “straight wedding” or a “cis gender politician.”

This doesn’t mean all descriptors of any kind like this should be ignored or eliminated. What it does mean is that you should think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and see if it makes sense.

 

DOES THE TERM HAVE A LOADED MEANING?: I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone described as “a looter” or “a rioter” and had a positive reaction to that person. Those terms carry with them some negative baggage.  Conversely, I’ve seen an array of meanings ascribed to the term “clowning around” that range from bright and happy to racist.

Calling a member of the city council a “bureaucrat” can be technically accurate, as that person is a governmental figure, but it also brings up an image of someone who cares more about laws than people or who obstructs important actions by adhering to the letter of the law.

Calling a new policy a “reform” can be technically correct, as it will reshape the legal landscape in regard to the the way something is done, thus re-forming something. However, the term carries with it a positive meaning that leads people to believe something is a good idea. For example, a plan to cut benefits to working parents who are operating just above the poverty line can be deemed “welfare reform” and seen in a positive light.

The one I just saw that made me think was “unskilled labor.” In a post on this term, someone noted that all labor is skilled. If you took Bill Gates and stuck him with a road construction crew, he would be as lost as can be. If you took Jamie Dimon and put him in charge of a Naperville McDonald’s during lunch rush, he would probably end up with a crowd of really angry people and some severe grease burns. The term “unskilled labor” is meant to diminish the value of what certain people do and thus make it easier to discount them or pay them less.

All sorts of terms have a particular angle on them, such as “pro-life” for people who are against abortion rights, to “anti-death,” to people who opposed capital punishment. The question you need to ask is if your choice of words is providing bias or giving favor to a particular side of a debate.

 

DOES THAT WORD MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS: Whenever I’m writing and I’m half guessing at the meaning of a word, I’m mystically transported back to eighth grade and hearing my mother’s voice yelling from another room, “Look it up!  You’ve got a dictionary in there!”

Systemic Racism: “I Don&#39;t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means” – Crafted For All

We talked about this a bit during one of The Junk Drawer posts, where a reporter talked about this lead and word choice:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

Aside from the 83 other problems we noted, the use of the word “aftermath” is wrong, given that it  means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.”

I still love the student who finally learned after years of using “penultimate” to describe something that was super-extra ultimate, the word actually meant “second to last.”

The point is to know the meaning of the word before you use it.

That’s an important point I hoped I emphasized in that penultimate paragraph.

Stress and Burnout, Part IV: Hints and tips for slowing the burn

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues (as well as other researchers) and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed the earlier posts:


First and foremost, I want to be clear that if you are experiencing severe burnout, either based on the scores you tallied from the Maslach Burnout Inventory or based on intuition after reading the previous posts, you should seek help. Most campuses I know of have mental health professionals who can assist you in whatever concerns you while many others have programs that seek to take care of students who feel like they’re breaking down.

I am not “that kind of doctor,” so please find someone who is.

That said, if you’re feeling a bit crispy around the edges or you want to knock your MBI scores down a few pegs, here are some lower-end suggestions that can assist you in mellowing out a bit, consider these options:

TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: If there’s one good thing the pandemic has provided people, it’s the realization that illness can’t be overcome with gumption. I can’t count the number of times I’ve pushed myself past my limits while sick because, “I don’t have time to be sick.” That phrase is so ingrained in the mentality of journalism folks that we should have it translated into Latin and carved above the door of every student newsroom.

We often had students in the newsroom or the classroom looking like something out of “Dawn of the Dead,” pumping orange juice, cold meds and throat lozenges into themselves like they were stuffing a turkey. They wanted to write “just one more” story or edit “just one more” page, as they sounded like they were hacking up a lung. The idea is that being there at 50% (OK, maybe more like 25%) is better than not being there at all.

The truth of the matter is, if we just took care of ourselves a bit better, we wouldn’t get sick as often (usually). If we did get sick, we would recover to full strength better if we took the break when we needed it.

You can’t do anything when you’re sick or dead, as both tend to diminish productivity.

Early and regular coping techniques are good to keep yourself from dropping off: daily exercise, regular meals that include several parts of the food pyramid and quality sleep.

Now, let’s make something clear here. Walking briskly to the vending machine three times a day does not count for exercise and a regular meal schedule. Sleep isn’t well had passing out on the floor of the newsroom with a coat over your head. You need real versions of each of these elements.

(If you can’t sleep because you’re too worried, that’s another warning sign. You’ll want to see the student health folks for some recommendations.)

 

FIND YOUR HAPPY PLACE (OUTSIDE OF YOUR JOURNALISM LIFE): I was always amused when I worked in the newsroom and students decided they had finally had ENOUGH of whatever was bothering them that week.

“I need to get out of here,” they’d mutter. “I gotta leave the newsroom and get away from these people.”

Then, they’d get together with all of the same people they were grousing about and go to a bar or a party where they’d continue to discuss whatever was bothering them in the newsroom. It had the same internal logic of celebrating your first day of sobriety with a bottle of tequila.

There is nothing wrong with loving your job, your newsroom, your classes, your clubs or anything else. However, you eventually need a break from all of those “joyful” activities to just relax and actually enjoy something. You need to find something that brings you to your “happy place.”

Happiness can come from a variety of areas. One adviser I heard from told me she brought her dog into the newsroom on occasion. “You can’t be stressed out when you’re petting a dog,” she said. That’s pretty true. Little kids can also be amazing in this regard. Many years ago, I would bring my 2-year-old daughter into the newsroom. She’d dress up in princess clothes or build block towers with the editors. She’d draw with them and in the end they’d feel better.

The simple and small pleasures have been known to stave off stressful situations. After a particularly stressful day, several of us in a newsroom used to agree to meet online to play a game in which we were in “arena combat” and the goal was to blow each other up until the timer ran out. These days, I force myself to play a game of pinball or two to wind down and get away from the stress of the day.

 

PRIORITIZE AND SET LIMITS: This sounds easier said than done, but it’s like going on a diet or committing to an exercise regiment: Once you get into the groove, it becomes part of what you do.

Prioritizing can help you figure out which things you should focus on and in what order, thus eliminating the feeling of being overwhelmed. For some people, it’s about writing out things that HAVE TO happen in a given day on a list and taking pleasure in crossing them off. For others, it’s about learning how to determine which things need their attention and what things can be ignored, refused or delegated.

An approach I saw once used a color coding system to list off a bunch of things: Red meant it needed to be done before the end of business that day/week/hour/whatever. Yellow meant once the reds were done, a couple of these things could really use some attention. Green meant it got done when it got done and could be ignored for the foreseeable future.

Eventually when the list got pretty much crossed off, the person would make another list and re-evaluate the pieces that were left. Some of those greens needed to become yellows. A couple yellows might be red at this point. In addition, new stuff would fill in here and there in varying colors as well. It worked for that person, which was all it had to do.

Setting limits can be numerical, like, “Once the first five things on this list get done, I’m getting lunch,” or “I owe six emails today and that’s all I’m doing unless there’s a hostage situation that requires me to respond via email.” The limits could also be time-based, like deciding you’re going to turn off the computer by X time at night or you won’t work from A to B times during the day. One particularly clever way of doing this is to charge your laptop to full capacity and then leave your power cord at home. Once you run out of battery juice, you’re done for the day. Everyone else will just have to cope.

If you’re like me, (read: having grown up Catholic or in some other guilt-based system of existence) this can be really tough because you don’t want to feel like you’re letting people down or that you disappointed someone by not doing what they needed. This is how I end up writing letters of recommendation in 12 minutes after some kid I knew three semesters ago emails me with a desperate need and I don’t want them thinking I’m an uppity jerknugget.

However, I try to explain to people that for me to be the thing they want me to be (read: functional, helpful, valuable, intellectually on the ball etc.), I need to avoid burning out. In other words, “Do you want the thing done or do you want it done well?”

 

LEARN WHAT TO CARE ABOUT: If you write every headline in 100 point bold, screaming, you’ll never know what you should care about and your audience will tune you out. Same can be said about dealing with people.

When some professor in the history department makes some snide comment in front of a class about the newspaper or your major or a club you run, let it go. People who think they know what you do while actually having no clue about what you actually do in any of these areas are plentiful. No sense getting bent out of shape over an academic twerp. When the head of the journalism department says, “Your (club/paper/group) sucks. We’re cutting your funding and kicking you out.” That’s something to care a bit more about.

I often go back to the line about “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” when considering how stressed a situation should make me. I also find that people who can’t make this kind of distinction tend to think every hill is the one that EVERYONE around them MUST die on EVERY TIME. Learn to avoid these people and learn to avoid becoming one of these people.

 

HAVE A GOOD CREW IN YOUR CORNER: I remember watching a documentary about the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third and final fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. By the time the 14th round ended, the fighters were completely spent and both of their respective teams knew it.

Ali looked like he was going to have to quit in the corner, something his crew refused to allow him to consider. Frazier, who later revealed that he had been fighting for most of his career only able to see out of one eye, had his good eye swollen shut by repeated poundings to the head. The legendary trainer Eddie Futch told Frazier that he know the fighter couldn’t see and it was time to throw in the towel. Frazier responded, “Don’t worry. I can visualize him.” Futch refused to listen and ended the fight.

Futch lived to the age of 90 and until his dying day, he said he never once regretting stopping the fight, despite what it meant to Frazier’s legacy and Frazier’s own bitterness toward his former trainer. All that mattered was he wanted to keep his fighter safe.

I guess this is my way of rolling this series all the way back to the boxing analogy from the first piece. One of the most important things to have around you at all times is a good “corner-person” who knows what you need at any given point in time.

(A quality “cut-person” and a good  “hype-person” are nice additions as well.)

In student media, this should be the newsroom adviser: The wizened one who has seen it all and knows when you need a motivating kick in the keester and when to throw in the towel for you. They have to see the bigger picture as you simply plow ahead, round by round. In college, a variety of other advisers can serve this role, such as an academic one or the one overseeing your group, organization or club. It could be anyone out there you know who knows how you tick.

(Side note: In my life, it’s Amy. She’s like a human divining rod when it comes to what I need, when, where and why. If you find someone like that in your life, hang on to that person with all you’ve got.)

The idea here is that sometimes we don’t know ourselves as well as we need to in order to keep ourselves out of trouble. Surrounding ourselves with people who understand us and are able to get through to us can be a saving grace when we are too stubborn or stupid for our own good.

Stress and Burnout, Part III: Definitions and measurements of how burnt you really are

Editor’s Note: This week, we’re doing a deep dive into the topic of stress and burnout among student journalists and journalism students. The issues addressed here are part of a larger set of research articles I’ve done with colleagues, outside work done by those colleagues (as well as other researchers) and presentations I’ve done over the years at student media conventions. If you are interested in learning more, please hit me up on the contact page.

In case you missed the earlier posts:


To understand the impact of stress and burnout, it is important to understand what these terms actually mean. People can often use them colloquially, much in the same way that someone who skipped lunch might note, “I’m starving to death!” The concept of hunger is clear in this, but, in a clinical sense, that statement is not accurate.

When examined clinically and diagnosed appropriately, stress and burnout manifest themselves in measurable ways that create significant negative impacts for the individuals suffering from these issues. With that in mind, we’re going to look at what these things mean, how they impact us and also how to ascertain your level of stress and burnout in your life.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health defines stress as “the harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of the job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.” In other words, when you are forced to do more than you are physically, mentally or emotionally able to do, you endure stress.

Hans Selye, often called the “father of modern stress research,” defined stress as the rate of wear and tear a person receives from engaging in life. Stress can be a sharp, singular experience, like trying to drive through a freak snow storm, but it can also be the day-to-day grind of tolerating the bumper-to-bumper ride to work.

Stress can result from pleasant situations as well, such as getting a promotion at work and fearing that you won’t be able to handle the new responsibilities or getting an invitation to serve as a keynote speaker at a major event and fearing you will screw it up. Generally speaking, stress goes up and down based on a variety of factors in life, and in most cases, people can recover physically, mentally and emotionally from stress.

A researcher named Christina Maslach began investigating the concept of stress and its relationship to burnout in the 1970s. She found that high levels of repetitive stress can lead to an emotional and physical draining that creates a likelihood of burnout.  Individuals who are extremely dedicated to their work often exceed their stress limits without realizing the damage it is doing to them over time. After this pattern of excess becomes chronic, burnout ensues. Once it does, she and her research colleagues discovered, there is generally no cure.

To measure burnout, Maslach and Jackson (1981) developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The scales within this 22-item instrument measured three key aspects of burnout:

  • Emotional exhaustion: People suffering from this aspect of burnout report feeling “used up” at the end of the day or  “drained” by their work. They often report feeling like they are working too hard at something and getting too little in return. Emotional exhaustion can make people feel like they don’t want to get up and face another day of work or other similar activity. It can also lead to frustration, anxiety and fatigue.

 

  • Depersonalization: This aspect of burnout manifests itself through the development of negative and cynical attitudes toward other people. The source of the burnout tends to “harden” a person in terms of their views on things that others might feel empathy toward. Burnout sufferers in this area tend to identify people more as things than individuals. (An example of this might be a physician referring to “the broken leg in room 4” instead of “Danny, who has a broken leg.” A journalism example might be the editor asking “Where’s that photog?” as opposed to “Has Jane returned from taking photos yet?”)

 

  • Personal Accomplishment: This is the scale that measures how much pride individuals take in their successes as they relate to the source of stress. For example, a large final project in a class might lead to a great deal of stress. However, if the professor not only gives you an “A,” but offers to help you get your work published, the hard work and stress can feel worth it due to the reward. This scale runs reverse to the others, in that people suffering from burnout will reflect negatively on their accomplishments or view their achievements as insignificant.

Research in this area has found that burnout can be avoided if high scores on the first two scales (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization) are counterbalanced by a high score on the third (personal accomplishment). Scott Reinardy of KU and I did a look at college media advisers and found that moderate levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were counterbalanced by high levels of personal accomplishment. In other words, the advisers felt that the juice was worth the squeeze when it came to their efforts in student media.

However, research has also shown that high levels of depersonalization tended to lead to lower personal accomplishment scores. In examining teachers, the researchers found that as educational organizations pushed educators to produce higher test scores and other quantifiable measures of success, teachers felt less connected with their students and were more likely to depersonalize the students. This was because personal growth goals were replaced by metrics.

In studying student journalists and journalism students, we’ve found that this kind of goal-orientation can increase the likelihood of burnout. As a deadline-oriented, scoop-driven business, journalism requires participants to push toward an end goal. The drive to get the paper out, get the story editing, get the photo shot and more can supersede an individual’s sense of what it’s doing to them and the people around them.

Thus, it doesn’t matter that Johnny is sick. We need a photo, so call him because he’s the only one we have left to shoot it. It doesn’t matter if Sally’s parents are in town. Someone has to cover the chancellor’s state of the university address. See if she can get her parents to work around that. It doesn’t matter that Carlos has a study group for a midterm tonight. We need a copy editor for sports and nobody else understands AP’s rules on numbers like he does. See if he can borrow some notes or something.

In addition, student journalists are often asked to face things they have never previously encountered as part of being a “cub reporter” who is “cutting their teeth” in the field. Thus, they find themselves talking to people who just had a friend die in a fire or asking a dean about allegations of sexual misconduct. They find that even simple stories can have mistakes that would have just cost them a point or two in some other class but in journalism can lead to fatal factual errors that doom their grades. Even more, people who see their mistakes can express outrage or mockery, leading to additional problems and fears.

Again, not all stressful situations lead to burnout, but it’s often like that car analogy from the previous post: We ignore the warning light telling us that we’re a quart low on oil until suddenly the whole engine seizes up and we’re broken. That’s why it’s important to analyze your levels of burnout potential on the three scales in the MBI to determine how you are doing in any given field.

If you want, you can download a copy of the MBI scale that Scott and I reworked when we were doing our media research. In each case, we had our participants focus their answers or their thoughts on a particular area of life (advising the paper, serving as a newspaper editor etc.). If you want to look at it generally, you can do that as well, although it’s a little harder to pinpoint the causes of potential burnout if you’re not pinpointing the aspect of life that’s stressing you out.

If you and others are interested, you can contact me for a decoder key for the three scales and the break points on the scale that indicate low, moderate and high levels of each.

Tomorrow, we start talking about how to lower the bad scores, increase the good ones and avoid burning out.