Guest Blogging: Write about women’s achievements, not their connections to men

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Tracy Everbach, an experienced journalist and professor from the University of North Texas here to discuss the coverage of women in media. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

“Wife of a Bears lineman wins bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.”

That’s what the Chicago Tribune tweeted last summer when Corey Cogdell, a three-time Olympian, medaled in trap shooting. Cogdell happens to be married to Mitchell Unrein of the Bears, and Tribune officials said they simply were trying to make a local connection for their readers.

A lot of people didn’t buy it, voicing their disdain on social media. Why connect an accomplished athlete to her husband, they asked?

The Tribune shouldn’t have been surprised at the reaction. Women often are portrayed in media coverage by their connection to a man — identifying them as mothers, wives, grandmothers and other such descriptors.

Last summer, when Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination for president, several news organizations chose to feature a photo of her husband on home pages and front pages. Some news organizations responded that the reason President Bill Clinton was pictured instead of Hillary Clinton was because she was not present in the arena. Again, many didn’t buy that excuse and saw it as a way to diminish a woman’s accomplishments.

Women have long been overlooked and ignored in media coverage. For example, academic studies show that women only compose about one-fourth of the sources quoted on front pages of newspapers, are quoted as experts much less often than men, and often are stereotyped in media portrayals: characterized by their appearances –their clothing, their hair, their weight, aspects of their bodies, rather than what they do. Even Supreme Court justices are not exempt from this.

When a woman achieves something, she deserves recognition – on her own. Stereotyping is not something journalists do intentionally. They work on deadline, trying to find sources within short time frames, and follow ingrained news values (such as finding a local connection). It takes a great deal of effort to begin thinking in a more inclusive way, whether it involves gender, race, sexuality, or another factor.

Here’s an easy experiment. Envision these people in your mind: a doctor, a professor, an editor, a CEO, an athlete. The chances are that all of the people you pictured were male. Even though we logically know that women hold all these positions (Hey, I’m a professor!), our minds assume the default is male. This is through no fault of our own – it’s because of patterns and beliefs that are ingrained into us since childhood through parents, peers, authority figures, and yes, mass media. We are socialized to accept certain gender roles as “normal.”

To break these habits takes practice. And journalists have little time to practice.

In a college class I teach called Race, Gender and the Media, we discuss these issues for an entire semester. Students come to see that much of what we consume in mass media repeats common stereotypes.

Too many news organizations repeat these clichés and assumptions. So, I urge those in the profession and those who teach journalism to think before they write.

  • Identifying a woman by her motherhood, wifehood or any other connection often is not warranted. Before you do so, ask yourself, would I say it about a man? You’d never write about the president of the United States, “Father of five issues executive order.”
  • If you are going to describe any aspect of a woman’s appearance, make sure it is connected to the story. Or better yet, just leave it out. One of the worst, most irrelevant and demeaning leads I ever read was in a Vanity Fair article about actress Margot Robbie. See how far you can read before feeling nauseated:

America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find the girl next door. In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. As I said, she is from Australia.

(And we wonder why women fall so far behind men in wages, in positions of power, in recognition and respect.)

While researching this piece, I checked the AP stylebook entry on “woman, women.” Note to the Associated Press: Your entry is extremely outdated. Need some help rewriting it? I’ll be happy to give you suggestions.

Look at some of these “gems” from p. 304 of the 2016 stylebook: “Copy should not assume maleness when both sexes are involved, as in: Jackson told newsmen …” (Seriously? Who under the age of 90 uses “newsmen” in 2017?) Also, “Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject, as in: Golda Meir, a doughty grandmother, told the Egyptians today …” (I’ll give an A to any of my college students who knows who Golda Meir was without Googling her name. And really, who these days would even think to describe her that way?)

Hmm … maybe we have progressed somewhat.

Clickbait, murderous gnomes and the Rummage Sale Theory of Journalism

In an attempt to point out how problematic question headlines, question leads and rhetorical questions were in journalism, I wrote a post using a hyperbolic question as a headline to prove my point: Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you?

I inadvertently proved a second point: Why people use them and why they’re worse than I thought.

I posted the headline on Facebook and Twitter, which usually leads to a few dozen hits. About 20 minutes later, I went back to make a minor correction and found that my web traffic had spiked. The tweet was being retweeted like crazy (a relative term for a no-name blog) and I was getting people from Egypt, England and any other E place I’d never been showing up on the site. I don’t get paid for this and there are no ads, so web traffic isn’t vital to putting food on the table or keeping shoes on my kid’s feet, but it is kind of a rush to see actual, live people showing up to read something I wrote.

Here’s the problem: They were one-click wonders. For them, it was essentially clickbait.

They showed up because the headline made them curious, but once they figured out this was basically a site for journalism students and contained no actual murderous gnomes, they left. Traffic in the subsequent days was back to its usual collection of my three closest friends and that one former student who keeps looking for spelling errors so he can torment me.

In quality journalism, regardless of if we are talking about news, ad, pr, marketing or anything else, we don’t want to have what I call a Rummage Sale Theory mentality. The idea behind this “Filak-ism” is based in a tradition in Wisconsin, whereby summer comes and everyone in this proud state starts selling stuff out of their garages on weekends. Cities build events around “citywide rummage days” and there are flea markets all over the place.

A rummage-sale mentality says, “I want to sell this thing and get it the heck out of my garage.” Thus, when you are selling a somewhat wonky lawnmower and someone asks, “Does it run?” you might respond with, “Yeah! Runs great!” The idea is that if this person buys the mower, you will never see him or her again. It’s not like someone is coming back in two weeks to knock on your door and tell you, “Hey, that mower sucks!” It’s a one-time transaction-based relationship with someone you will never see again and about whom you care very little.

You have to approach journalism like the owner of a local store: You live there, people will come to you multiple times and if you mess them over, you are in a lot of trouble. People will avoid your store and tell other people about the bad experiences they had with you. You will gain a reputation that harms your ability to do your job.

Conversely, if you treat people right, give them what they need in an honest and upfront fashion and avoid the one-hit-wonder, clickbait mentality, you will develop great relationships that further your reputation as a trusted resource. It’s why ads need to be more fact than hype. It’s why PR professionals profess transparency as the main virtue of the field. It’s why reporters stick to promises of anonymity, even when it would be better for them to throw a source to the wolves.

In this field, we own the store. We live here. We need to act like it.

We can’t sell people broken lawnmowers powered by homicidal gnomes and expect to survive.

“Didn’t learn Flash. Will Prof. For Food.” (or why journalism schools teach skills, not just software)

Pagemaker.

When I took my first journalism classes back in the early 1990s, it was the thing you HAD to know. At that point, desktop publishing was in its infancy as a journalism skill, and students who knew Pagemaker had the keys to the Kingdom. Rumors spread throughout the J-school of people getting rich job offers and tons of perks simply for knowing the BASICS of how the program worked.

By the time I graduated, Pagemaker was out and Quark was in. EVERYBODY who was ANYBODY had to know and use Quark. Instructors were scrambling to revamp lesson plans to make their design courses Quark-friendly. Editing classes were taught in computer labs, where the few precious copies of this incredible program resided. People hung tight to the idea that Quark and Quark alone would be the program of the future. In fact, when we decided to convert our newsroom from Quark to InDesign in the early 2000s, we almost had a revolt.

Fortunately for me, we had a design professor who told the students the most important thing about journalism education: InDesign is basically Quark with different quick-cut keys. We didn’t teach you how to use software. We taught you how to be designers.

This thought came to mind this morning when I saw that Adobe planned to finally kill Flash no later than 2020. In the mid-2000s, Flash became the web-version of Quark and Pagemaker: The “it” program that would guarantee fortune and glory. I remember sitting in my basement, teaching it to myself from Mindy McAdams’ incredible tutorial text. I feared that if I didn’t know it, I would be a homeless, unemployed faculty member with a little cardboard sign:

IMG_4574

 

Turns out, it was like those “it” programs in another key way: It will soon cease to be.

This is one of the main reasons why journalism education is crucial. We don’t teach you how to run a program or use software simply as an end. We teach you how to do quality journalistic work, whether it be in writing, reporting, public relations, photography, video, graphics or design. We teach you the underlying aspects of what makes for a good piece and what makes for a bad piece. We then teach you how to critically think about your own work as you seek to improve it and your skills.

The software matters, don’t get me wrong, but the software programs are tools to use once you master the ideas behind how to use them in furthering a process toward an end goal. In other words, you wouldn’t take a class called, “Hammer 101” or “Saw 242.” You might, however, take a carpentry course, where you learn how best to build something and how each tool can help you in that regard.

“The victim, a 29-year-old black man…” (or why do things like race get used like this in stories?)

In one of my favorite annual reads, “Ball Four” by Jim Bouton, the author and several of his teammates on the Houston Astros are discussing the issue of race. One man comments that he wouldn’t mind so much that the press described him as “the black first baseman” if they would just refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.” Instead, he was just “the first baseman.”

I thought of that this morning in reading a story of an early morning shooting in one of my old hometowns when I hit this paragraph:

Police spokesman Joel DeSpain told the State Journal that the victim, a 29-year-old black man from the Madison area, was in the driver’s seat of a car parked on Adderbury Lane, and was shot multiple times.

If you comb through the rest of the story, there is no other mention of race or any indication as to why this inclusion of race was important to telling the story. It just shows up and then the story moves on.

The issue of race, gender, sexual orientation and “othering” in the media is well beyond my area of expertise to speak about at length. (I’m hoping to have guest bloggers over the next several months who focus on each of these areas come here to discuss these issues.) I also refuse to become outraged on the behalf of others or point this out as the reason journalism is going to hell in a Ferrari. However, just like everything else on this site, the point is to help beginning journalists learn and here are a few quick suggestions on things to think about before including race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other descriptor that doesn’t add value but does point out how someone is “different:”

  1. Would you use the descriptor if the race/gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation etc. were reversed? One of the leads that has stuck in my head for the longest time was this:

    “Wisconsin congressman Steve Gunderson, one of the few openly gay members of Congress, will start a new consulting job in the nation’s capital on Jan. 6”

    I have yet to see a lead that starts off with, “Bill Smith, a straight guy, will be opening a chain of restaurants in the greater Chicagoland area this fall.”
    If the reason for mentioning sexual orientation is crucial, make it clear right where you mention it. The same thing is true for any other descriptor meant to draw attention to race, ethnicity or anything else along those lines.

  2. Does the descriptor add anything of value to the story you are telling? I worked at various places that varied on whether or not to include race in a description. One place had a “four-item rule,” in which any crime story that described an “at-large suspect” must include at least four distinguishing features before we included race as a characteristic. For example:

    Police are seeking a white man in his early 40s, who is 5-foot-9 and 260-280 pounds. He has a shaved head and a goatee and a tattoo of a lizard on his right hand. He fled the store in a 1991 red Pontiac Firebird.

    In this one, you get several “unchangeable” characteristics (height, weight, age, tattoo) as well as some other characteristics that might help distinguish him from other similar people (shaved head, goatee, specific car).

    The goal in descriptors, especially in crime stories like the one described here, is to describe an individual, not a group of people. It also helps to describe criminals who people might spot and be able to help the police find.

    In the story listed above, the race is used to describe the victim, not someone who police need help finding.
    In short, just like everything else, have a reason for adding something to your story before you do it.

  3. Can the descriptor reinforce a negative stereotype regarding the larger group without adding significant value to your story? In 1996, basketball announcer Billy Packer was once calling a Georgetown game when he called attention to his tenacious play by referring to Iverson as “a tough monkey.” Racists have often used ape-based comparatives when demeaning African-Americans, leading to a larger discussion of what Packer meant by his description. (Packer stated repeatedly he did not mean this in a racial way.)
    Certain story types can reinforce stereotypes based. Race and crime, gender and sport, equality and sexual orientation are just a few areas in which a pointless “othering” do more harm than good.
    This doesn’t mean you should never use a descriptor for fear of stereotyping a group of people. If an at-large criminal has held up six convenience stores and you have a strong description of him, not using race for fear of stereotyping doesn’t make sense. However, you should always weigh the value of the descriptor against the potential negative outcomes of using it.

 

 

Mr. Scott beamed them to a hospital (or why jargon is killing our writing)

Some of you reading the “Dynamics of Media Writing” will go into the news business, where you will end up digging through press releases, trying to find information of interest to your audience. Others of you will go into public relations or marketing and spend time writing press releases and other material intended to pique the curiosity of the news media.

Regardless of which side of the release you are on, good writing and clear communication matter, which is why you need to do your best to eliminate jargon, also known as “cop-speak” or “industry-speak” or just B.S.

Let’s start with the release writers. You need to keep your audience in mind. In most cases, you aren’t filing a formal report, but rather an explanation of what happened in a way that makes sense to people not in your field. One of the best ways to see if you are doing this is to read your work and ask if it sounds like anything you would ever say to another human being outside of work. Consider some of these taken from actual press releases:

“The deputy made contact with an adult female in the vehicle.”

“Hey Jimmy, how was your date last night?”
“Excellent! I made contact with the adult female in her vehicle. I then escorted her to a local alcohol-provision establishment!”

“The body was located in the area of a flowing well which is adjacent to the road West of Kutz Road.”

Well, that really cleared things up…

As reported in our recent earnings briefing, IBM continues to rebalance its workforce to meet the changing requirements of its clients, and to pioneer new, high value segments of the IT industry,

“How was work today, honey?”
“Not too good. I got rebalanced…”

As a PR professional, honesty and transparency remain core values for you. Jargon muddies the water and makes you look like a weasel. Say what you mean and say it to the best of your ability.

The same is true for news writers. When jargon slips into the releases you use to tell anxious readers what company will be cutting jobs or how bad the fire was at the local restaurant, you need to cut through those thickets of verbiage and let reality shine through. This is particularly important when it comes to phrasing that makes no sense. Consider this stuff taken from releases that often weaves its way into stories:

[The fire] was determined to be electrical in nature.

As opposed to what? Electrical in spirit? Did it go to fire college, hoping to be a forest fire, but it couldn’t pass botany, so it went with what it always knew it needed to be: An electrical fire.

He was transported to a nearby medical facility.

First, unless something like this was happening, no he wasn’t…

Second, would you ever say that to somebody if you got hurt? “Mom, I think I broke my ankle! I need you to transport me to a nearby medical facility!”

“Two armed gunmen entered the store…”

Do unarmed gunmen just carry pistols in their mouths? 

A leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told a group of University of Wisconsin students Thursday that abstaining from meat cannot only alleviate global hunger but is also healthier and can save innocent animals from unnecessary suffering.

As opposed to all those guilty animals and that necessary suffering?

When it comes to writing for any branch of the media, go back through your piece and see if you are overwriting, using jargon or in some other way making a mess of things through word choice. Simplify and clarify are the watch words of a nice, clean edit.

John Heard and Obituary Math

At one of my first newspaper jobs, a veteran reporter told me that there were only two reasons we EVER would stop the presses: If we printed the wrong lottery numbers or if we got someone’s obituary wrong. You libeled the pope? We’ll figure that out later, but if you screwed up an obit, stuff would come to a screeching halt in the press room.

I never found out if that was meant to scare me, as I was a new reporter who would mostly be doing the lottery numbers and obituaries or if it was a true story. However, the idea that obituaries mattered stuck with me. It continued with me at my first editing gig in Columbia, Missouri. My boss had a rule that EVERYONE who died in our area would get a full staff-written obituary, free of charge.

George Kennedy saw the Missourian as the paper of record and recording the life stories of people in our circulation area was sacred to him. We always would tell the reporters, “Do the math” when it came to the age of the deceased. We firmly stated, “Check again” on any outlandish claims regarding war medals or honorary degrees we couldn’t verify. “Are you sure?” was our mantra when it came to these stories.

While I was at a wedding last night, I found out actor John Heard, who was best known for his role in the “Home Alone” movies, died in Palo Alto, California. I did a quick search through my news feed and found that most of my main sources had done obituaries and most listed him at age 71:

However, one source listed him at 72. It was an outlier among a sea of “venerable” publications, and it had me thinking about how easy it is to screw up an age in an obit. A check of years instead of birthdays, an unfortunate accident near or on a date of birth or just a general “whoops” will do it. However, I dug more and found additional notices that supported the “Heard is 72” age issue:

A quick check of his IMDB page gave me this:

IMDBHeard.jpg

The math was easy (March birthday) and his birthday is listed, so where were the BBC and NY Times getting the idea that this guy wasn’t 72? I couldn’t find a birth record, a formal form from the coroner’s office or anything else. CNN finally put something together that was helpful in one of its stories:

(CNN)Actor John Heard, best known for playing the father in the “Home Alone” movies, has died, the Santa Clara County, California, medical examiner’s office said.
The medical examiner’s office said the actor was 71, but other reports list his age as 72. He died Friday.

It’s unclear where the coroner got the information from. Let’s just hope it wasn’t the most popular source out there prior to Heard’s death that listed his date of birth in a way that would have put him at 71:

HeardWikiFull

 

I can’t say for sure that the medical examiner (or even the NY Times) went to Wikipedia like somebody’s stoner roommate trying to pull together a last-minute Sociology paper. The Times, BBC and other people didn’t cite their sources. At least CNN, while not giving us a definitive answer, gave us clarity with an attribution. What I can say is that it’s impossible for him to be both 71 and 72 at the same time.

With all of that in mind, here are three key take aways from this:

  1. If your mother says she loves you, go check it out. Make sure you have a solid source to demonstrate from whence your information came. Also attribute that information so people can go back and check for themselves. It shows faith in your readers and bolsters your credibility. If a reader looked at you and said, “Where did you get THAT from?” would you feel confident telling that person the answer?
  2. Trust, but verify. Just because the New York Times ran a story that said one thing and the Portage Daily Shopper contradicted it, don’t just assume the Times is right and the Shopper is wrong. Sources do count for something, but even a blind squirrel can find an acorn and even Goliath can get knocked on his ass.
  3. Treat obituaries with reverence. I used to tell my students that an obituary might be the first and last time someone was mentioned in the media. With that in mind, you need to bring your “A” game when you do the reporting and writing.

 

Filak-ism: It should hurt so much that you never do it again, but not so badly it kills you. (Or how my grading policy works thanks to the Crawfish River)

SONY DSC

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.

It’s hard to get over a mistake you made when you literally have to drive over it several times a year.

As a cub reporter, I caught a great story about a 10-year-old kid who jumped into a river to save his little brother’s life. I managed to get the police report, the hospital info on the little brother and interviews with the family, all while on deadline. When TV didn’t have the story that night (in the era before people broke news online), I had an honest-to-God exclusive. I couldn’t wait for that story to run.

When it did, I wished it never had.

Turns out, I called the Crawfish River the “Crawford River,” which makes no sense as we don’t have one of those around here. I also managed to mix up Fall River, Wisconsin with River Falls, Wisconsin. Two errors in the lead. Good grief.

It turns out that to drive from Madison, where I was living at the time, to my folks’ house in Milwaukee, I actually had to cross the Crawfish River. Even now, years later, I’ll be driving in some part of the state and end up on a bridge over that damned thing. It never goes away.

What also doesn’t go away, however, was that constant reminder to ALWAYS double check proper nouns, including people, places and events. Spelling, geography, whatever. Just make sure you’re sure, I would tell myself after my fifth overly paranoid examination of whatever I was writing.

When I became a professor, I wove that philosophy of pain and remembrance into my grading as well. Fact errors cost people half their reporting grade. Some students thought it was too harsh. Colleagues occasionally told me it was too lenient, in that they gave out zeros when someone made an error like the “Crawford River.” I explained it to both groups with a simple philosophy:

I want mistakes like these to hurt so badly that you never make them again, but not so bad that they kill you so you can’t ever recover and thus miss the point. In short, if the penalty is too harsh, it fails to do its job. If the penalty is too soft, it fails to do its job.

I won’t disagree with other systems, but it appeared to me over time that mine worked out pretty well. Last year, I was in contact with a former student who had just gotten her master’s degree in library science. She just got engaged so congratulations on both fronts were in order. After a brief exchange, she said this:

“Poy Sippi is spelled P-O-Y S-I-P-P-I, not P-O-Y S-I-P-P-Y.”

I paused, wondering if she was OK.

“That’s the reason I got an A- in your features class. I misspelled that damned thing. Now I always look stuff like that up.”

Score one more for the Crawfish River…

Are gnomes in your underwear drawer planning to murder you? (or why rhetorical questions undermine journalism)

When you write for the media, embrace simplicity. When I need to remind myself of this, I go back to a book by William Woo, the first person outside of the Pulitzer family to edit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called “Letters from the Editor.” Woo frequently mentions his first editor, a man named Ray Lyle who ran the city desk at the Kansas City Time and who fit the crusty, grumpy editor stereotype perfectly.

Lyle’s edict to his young reporters was simple: “Write what happened.”

I thought of this when I got an alert on my phone today about a special report from one of my favorite publications:

Are all-inclusive resorts in Mexico drugging tourists with tainted alcohol?

My first thought: Good God, I hope not.

My second thought: Don’t ask me. Tell me.

The use of rhetorical questions is a threadbare device that has become all too common in today’s writing. In a quick look through my Twitter feed, I found these from major media outlets:

WSJ

APQuestion

Of course my favorite question headline/promo is this one:

Shoes

The story about the all-inclusive resorts wasn’t done asking questions either. “Extortion?” “Was it robbery?” “Sexual assault?” And then this:

Could it be what the attorney for the Conner family alluded to in his report: All-inclusive resorts using cheap, bootleg booze to cut costs?

The story is an intensely reported piece from a journalist I have long admired. The depth of the digging demonstrates how hard it can be to get at the core issue of a complex international topic with limited access to almost non-existent official reports. However, each rhetorical question undermined what the reporter actually had: A number of people reporting similar incidents, having similar outcomes and finding little in the way of answers.

Journalism is about getting answers for readers and providing them in a simple and straightforward way. This is one of the reasons to avoid rhetorical questions in your writing.

Or to paraphrase Ray Lyle, just tell me what happened.

 

 

The boy who cried, “Will anyone notice if I Photoshop out this wolf?”

The accusations of “fake news” and “Photoshopped” images aren’t new and they aren’t always without merit, even in the field of news journalism. One such case of “news” manipulation in 2003 caused a 24-year-old sports editor to lose his job after he inserted quotes from the movie “Caddyshack” into a golf story. However, it isn’t always inexperienced journalists or humor gone wrong that leads to manipulation. In 2014, a Pulitzer-prize winning photographer lost his job after he removed part of an image through “cloning.” The L.A. Times fired a photographer in 2003 when he submitted a “composite” image from Iraq as an actual photograph, one that seemed to demonstrate tension between soldiers and some Iraqi citizens.

The instances of “fake” or “manipulated” images clearly damage the credibility of the individuals involved as well as the overall reputation of journalism as an industry. The biggest concern is that of the “boy who cried wolf” issue, in which real photographs and real stories, especially those that strain credulity, will be ignored or treated as “fake.”

A recent study into photo manipulation found that people often can’t tell when an image is faked, manipulated or otherwise untrue. The researcher noted that some obvious shifts, like changes to background shapes, were more easily detected, but subtle shifts like shadows and airbrushing often went unnoticed.

This puts a remarkable amount of pressure on journalists to adhere to the highest possible ethical standards. When it is easy to do something, easy to get away with it and nobody seems to know the difference, ethics can take a backseat to expediency. That will continue to erode public confidence in the media at a time in which it most needs quality journalism and truth-telling operations.