“The Paragraph:” Lessons to learn from journalism’s “filthiest” screw up

Every year, as part of a final exam in my media writing class, my students read the story “Inexperience faces Green Wave Soccer.” The pedestrian look at a high school soccer team more than 20 years in the past seems like no big deal until they hit “the paragraph.”

I can always tell when they do. The class is silent until the fastest reader in the class gasps out loud. Then a few more “Whoa!” and “Pshht!” noises emerge. Eventually, they’re all saying some version of the same thing: “No way! This CANNOT be real!”

The paragraph makes obscene comments about a teenage boy on the soccer team. The writer, Nick DeLeonibus, intended it as a joke that he expected his editor to catch. Instead, the paragraph about Garrett “Bubba” Dixon made its way on to the sports page of Tennessee’s Gallatin News-Express, establishing (for me at least) what is the absolute perfect case of libel.

The story had long ago passed into myth among journalists, journalism teachers and adviser of student media. Some people just “recalled hearing” it while other “swore they had a copy of it somewhere.” Legends emerged about staffers running across lawns to steal back copies from people’s doorsteps and the publisher using the copies to build a bonfire. All we knew for sure was that this was bad.

I always kept a copy at the ready as to demonstrate that, no, this was real and, yes, there were dire consequences. One thing I didn’t know was what happened in the subsequent years since that 1997 story first hit the paper. Veteran journalist Jeff Pearlman, who has a copy of the story taped above his desk, filled in the gaps this week when he published the story for Deadspin. The story walks through how this error was made and the severe ramifications for everyone involved. If you don’t mind coarse language and you really want to know what that paragraph said, this is worth a read.

The reason I posted this and the reason I show this to my students goes beyond the shock value. The lessons behind “Inexperience Faces Green Wave Soccer” are as important today as they ever were:

  1. In journalism, you are always playing with live ammo. Gun safety experts tell you to always treat every weapon as if it is loaded. In short, you can kill someone if you’re goofing around or if you don’t keep your head on straight. In journalism, this rule is important, especially in the age of digital and social media because a) you often shoot from the hip and b) you don’t always have an editor between you and a tweet. So when you’re standing in line at the grocery store and some elderly woman is paying for a pack of Freedent gum with a third-party check, you might want to vent your anger on Twitter. Or when you get irritated at a student government official for blowing off an interview, you might feel the urge to tweet about the guy, speculating as to which farm animal he was likely cavorting with instead of showing up.


    You are publishing content, just as sure as if you were pounding out that soccer story for the paper. Every time you put something out there, you take certain risks. Make sure you keep that in mind when you publish anything on any platform.

  2. If you wouldn’t want it published, don’t write it. I’m fairly confident that the majority of journalists (myself included) has gotten punchy near a deadline or frustrated while writing a headline. Thus, the instinct to write “Quote from Congressman Dipshit goes here if he ever gets off his ass and calls us back,” in a story or “Replace this shitty headline with something less shitty later” into a headline hole kicks in. We do it to just “get something in there.”
    Fight that instinct with every ounce of your being, as it’s not always a guarantee that you will remember to get back to that paragraph or that headline hole and fix it. Also, whatever you think is “so funny” at deadline probably isn’t. (A similar rule exists in broadcasting, which is to treat every microphone like it’s “hot,” in other words broadcasting to the audience. Thus, cussing on the set is highly discouraged.)
  3. Ramifications always exist for your actions. Everything you write will have a ramification of some kind, be it good or bad. Your story about the local kid winning a spelling bee will be the source of pride for parents and grandparents who will clip the story out and hang it on the refrigerator. The piece you wrote about someone being arrested for robbing the local gas station could make people wary of stopping there for gas or it could bring shame onto the robber’s family. Each action has a reaction of some kind.
    The thing that stuck with me all those years was, “Why Bubba Dixon?” The legend was the DeLeonibus had dated the kid’s sister and, as a bit of revenge for a bad break up, decided to pick on him. Another version had the editor picking on DeLeonibus for giving Dixon special treatment as a way to get back with the sister, so he decided to shock the editor by “slamming” the kid. Pearlman’s story demonstrates that neither of these were true. It just happened to be the player DeLeonibus picked out. It could have been Sean Sparkman or Travis Watson or Michael McRee as the butt of DeLeonibus’ attempt at humor.
    Instead, it was Dixon, an honor-roll student with a deeply religious background, who went through hell because of this. Why? It just was. And the ramifications were unending.
    Keep this in mind every time you ply your trade and think about what could happen as a result of your actions. Don’t let it paralyze you, but let it serve as a bit of caution before you hit the “send” button.


“You are a journalist:” The Cav Daily, “Unite the Right” fallout and the importance of local media

Editor’s Note: There is a fine line between telling a story and milking a story, especially one like this. To err on the side of caution, this is the third (and last, for now) in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I reviews the preparation and the Friday march of white supremacists on campus.  Part II talks about the Saturday events, including the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Tim Dodson, the paper’s managing editor, helps me wrap up the trilogy with a look at what people were saying in the aftermath and why student media matters every day. Tim stressed that the ongoing coverage was a team event and you can continue to see that today with a look at Bridget Starrs’ piece on the candle-light vigil on the University of Virginia campus.

Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.

National news organizations spent much of Wednesday reviewing President Donald Trump’s reversal on the condemnation of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville. Talking head shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC debated the big picture of white supremacy. The Associated Press put out a statement on its new rule for the term “alt-right” (in quotes only, as the term “is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims”). Great-great-great grandfolk of Confederate leaders spoke out about what should be done with monuments to the era of secession.

In some ways, Charlottesville became almost inconsequential as a town and as a people. In an interview right conducted shortly after the chaos of the weekend, Cavalier Daily Managing Editor Tim Dodson pretty much saw this coming.

“The national news outlets come into town when something like this happens and they report the major facts and the controversy,” Dodson said. “Then they leave, but we are the ones who are going to have to live with the outcomes of this. How are people going to heal from this going forward?”

Dodson wasn’t relying on cliche when he told me, “We live here.” He is from Charlottesville and stuck around his hometown to attend U.Va. after graduating from high school in 2015. As students roll into town in anticipation of next week’s start of the fall semester, Dodson said the staff of the Cav Daily continue to look for things that will affect them.

“I think we need to tell the stories that relate to students that no one else will have access to,” he said. “How does what happened (over the weekend) influence campus safety? How do students feel coming back into this environment? We’re not going to see stories like that on CNN or any other national outlet… I think that speaks to the role of local news and the importance of local journalism.”

Dodson said the staff’s goal was to look for ties between the publication’s campus readership and the events as they unfolded. For example, Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed during Saturday’s events, was a waitress at a restaurant adjacent to campus. Cav Daily reporters interviewed her friends and colleagues, some of whom had ties to U.Va.

The staff covered the candle-light vigil held on campus as well as the lawsuit filed in relation to the car-based attack on counter protesters. The Cav Daily also ran a story in which the university president, citing the violent events of the weekend, requested that students cancel this year’s “Block Party,” an off-campus, back-to-school event often laden with alcohol.

“We are trying to find angles that speak to the student experience,” he said. “We are not just in a bubble here at U.Va… However, you try to figure out how you can differentiate yourself by telling a story as a student.”

As the national outlets go bigger with the white supremacist story (CNN is now telling people where hate groups are in their area), and the Cav Daily goes for more local stories, one thing ties them together: They are all journalists, telling stories that matter to their readers. That can be a harder task for student journalists in a lot of ways.

“I think a lot of the reasons why professors and members of the community don’t like student journalists is because there is more risk involved,” Dodson said. “We’re not as seasoned as the pros. We’re going to make mistakes. We don’t always have the best email etiquette. Those experiences can rub sources the wrong way and that’s a challenge.”

Even knowing that, one of the themes Dodson kept coming back to was this: Don’t settle.

” I don’t think (a student journalist) should be intimidated because when you’re on the scene, you are working with the same situation and the same facts,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated because you are “just” a student journalist. You are a journalist. You don’t have to predicate that with “student.” You are a journalist.”

“I think it can be really problematic when students settle for less,” he added. “If all they do is email and quote from emails and write from a dorm room, well, that’s not journalism. Get on a phone, talk to someone in person, go to the scene in person. That’s what journalists do… Rather than taking press releases and emails, really put yourself out there.”

The Cav Daily crew proved that point this weekend when staffers waded into the chaos of the “Unite the Right” rally. Police in riot gear were everywhere. Members of white supremacist groups waved flags adorned with symbols of hate and toted military-style weapons. Tear gas made it hard to see and breathe at some points.

Still, the journalists did what journalists do: They reported the news.

“There were so many questions and concerns from people in the area,” Dodson said. “The media played a very important role in getting stories out there… I was one person on a team of journalists and I’m very proud of the members of our staff. We saw people with weapons and we saw people chanting and fighting, but we needed to tell the stories. Our team threw itself into it.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have been more worried about my personal safety,” he added. “But we were more worried about getting the stories out there.”


“We had never covered something like this.” The Cav Daily, “Unite the Right” and some incredible journalism (Part II)

The crew from the Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia that covered the chaos in Charlottesville over the weekend: Alexis Gravely, Anna Higgins, Daniel Hoerauf and Tim Dodson. (Photos courtesy of the Cavalier Daily staff)

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I can be found here, along with an explanation as to why I’m focusing on student media and how amazingly helpful managing editor Tim Dodson with all of this. Tim, Senior Associate News Editor Alexis Gravely, News Editor Anna Higgins and Senior Writer Daniel Hoerauf were on the ground as the “Unite the Right” event turned violent and deadly. Tim was repeatedly clear how much this was a team event and that is so clear in the coverage the Cav Daily published.

The staff of the Cav Daily is continuing to cover the outcomes of this event. Here are a few stories they published in the last 24 hours:

Here is part two from our hour-long interview. Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.


Here are two images that give you an indication of what the Cavalier Daily staff was walking into when covering the weekend’s events. Photos by Alexis Gravely, courtesy of the Cavalier Daily.

As the Cavalier Daily staff began covering Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally, one thing became immediately clear to Managing Editor Tim Dodson.

“We had never covered something like this,” he said in an interview this week.

Charlottesville had become a flashpoint for the alt-right, neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups that weekend. A group of white supremacists had already gathered Friday on the University of Virginia campus, carrying tiki torches and chanting racist rhetoric. A federal court injunction Friday allowed the event to take place in Emancipation Park, but it felt like chaos might emerge in the city. Counter-protestors had gathered in droves. Police donned riot gear and braced for mayhem.

Into it all marched the four-person team of the Cavalier Daily, U.Va.’s student newspaper, unsure of what would happen but knowing covering the event was necessary.

“There are people who are ‘first responders’ who rush into situations like fires and accidents to help people,” Dodson said. “I’m not comparing us to them, but journalists are like ‘first informers’ and we run toward chaos too so we can tell people what’s going on… I am proud of the courageous members of the Cavalier Daily staff who put themselves in harms way to report what we were seeing”

The main event was to start at noon, but things were getting ugly far earlier. Dodson said brawls popped up in various spots around the area. Someone burned a Confederate battle flag. Marchers carried machine guns and wore tactical body armor. The air became unbreathable.

“We started walking over to the rally and immediately the chemical irritant hit us,” he said of the tear gas. “We were choking on it. I was trying to do a Facebook Live event but I had to give up on it. I couldn’t keep it going because I was coughing on whatever was in the air.”

Police were clearing the area when Dodson said the staff got word the white supremacists planned to gather shortly in McIntire Park to continue the rally.

“We drive over to the park and then we start walking around and it’s kind of empty, nobody really there,” he said. “There appear to be some alt-right people and some white supremacists, but not a crowd. It was really quiet. And then within a half hour, dozens or up to 100s showed up to gather and they’re clustered by this playground and we hear there are going to be speakers.”

Former KKK leader David Duke and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer arrived and addressed those who had gathered. The Cav Daily crew wove its way into the amped-up crowd to gather information.

“I think the people on the ground had great news instincts,” Dodson said. “There were seasoned members of the Cav Daily. In terms of the photography, Alexis is more of a trained photographer than I and she had a lot of photos. I had no experience with this so I kind of learned on the job when Spencer and Duke were speaking.”

Spencer and the Cav Daily had crossed paths before: The staff learned last year that Spencer graduated from U.Va. in 2001 and it began trying to piece together his past on the Charlottesville campus. He was not overly active in campus events, except for his participation in “Shakespeare on the Lawn” productions. Few people remembered him and those who did were almost universally unwilling to talk about him. When it came time to interview Spencer for the profile, the task fell to Dodson.

“I think I did two or three phone interviews with him to get a line on his time here,” Dodson said. “I had been prepared for the interview, I researched his timeline here and so forth. There’s not a whole lot written about his time at U.Va., so I was at a bit of a disadvantage… It was just a matter of asking some open ended questions.

“I don’t think I was necessarily intimidated but I did as much research as I could but I had to realize I was gathering information,” he added, noting that Spencer made it clear that nobody at U.Va “turned him into” the current iteration of himself. “You don’t always have all the answers.”

When Duke addressed the crowd, the situation began to devolve again.

“It was hard to keep track of all these things as the speakers were addressing the supporters…” Dodson said. “Some people saw a reporter being intimidated… During Duke’s speech, counter-protesters showed up and that altercation turned physical…  As all that was happening, our reporting team and I were watching this happening and covering all this on social media and we get this news that a car plowed through crowd in a downtown area.”

The staff members split up with two people heading downtown and two others staying at McIntire Park. All the content was flowing from the scene to EIC Mike Reingold, who was retweeting material and working with others to build content on the paper’s homepage. The social media flow from the scene was essentially a reflexive need to get the story out immediately, Dodson said.

“I think for the social media it was just our instincts,” he said. “As things happened, we just had our phones out and we were telling stories. One of our people was smart and brought a battery pack, so we were all plugging into that to pull juice off of for the day… I think as things happened in the moment we were very good at reacting to that.”

The car attack downtown killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injured 19 others. Other physical altercations, including an assault in a parking garage, were reported as well, with varying levels of injuries. The police began to take over the situation downtown and the rally in the park began to dissolve as the day wore on, Dodson said.

“Police began to take charge and there was definitely less chaos,” he said. “We could see the aftermath of what had happened…”

“It was a very long day in Charlottesville.”


The Cav Daily and its amazing “Unite the Right” coverage (Part I)

Tim Dodson’s photo of the tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists on the U.Va. campus Friday night. (Courtesy of Tim Dodson, Cavalier Daily)

Editor’s Note: I wanted to take a look at the events of Charlottesville for the blog, but I wanted to look at it through the eyes of the student media. Far too often, student media gets the cruddy end of the stick or just gets ignored, so I went to the website for the student newspaper at the University of Virginia to see if anyone wrote a story on the topic. I was blown away by the overall coverage here in terms of quantity, quality and depth from the Cavalier Daily. The use of video, social media, text, links to previous work and photography was beyond what most local publications could handle. They “flooded the zone,” to borrow a phrase.

These are just a few of the stories the Cav Daily published:

I reached out to Tim Dodson, the managing editor of the Cavalier Daily on U.Va.’s campus, who was gracious enough to talk to me about all of this. He wanted to make sure I understood that he wasn’t the only one on staff working the story: Senior Associate News Editor Alexis Gravely, News Editor Anna Higgins and Senior Writer Daniel Hoerauf comprised the team that produced this incredible work. EIC Mike Reingold was chipping in as well, aggregating his staffers’ social media posts and flowing them through the Cav Daily’s formal social media channels. Opinion writers were building additional pieces and others were also adding what they could from wherever they were while still on summer break. As much as I knew I would end up telling this story through Tim’s eyes because he was my main source, he clarified at every turn that it was NOT “his reporting” or “his work” but that of the whole staff. So, if that doesn’t always come through in the writing, you should blame me, not him.

In going back through the notes of a more than hour-long interview, there is no way to do this well in one giant chunk, so I’m splitting it up across several posts on the next few days. In the mean time, here’s the first chunk of the story. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.

Corrections:  Date of Tim’s election to news editor has been fixed and clarification on who was covering which events on which days has been added. Keep ’em coming if I messed up.

Two days before his 21st birthday, Tim Dodson found himself working with a small group of journalists from the student newspaper at U.Va. to cover the chaotic events in Charlottesville.

“I think we all knew there was a potential for violence,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think anyone was expecting to see everything that unfolded.”

The national media kept a wary eye on this city of nearly 47,000 as white supremacists, the alt-right and other hate groups gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally on Friday. Dodson, the managing editor of the Cavalier Daily, was part of a skeleton crew of staffers that planned to cover the event that was happening on U.Va.’s front doorstep. Aside from his position at the paper, Dodson had another reason to care about the weekend’s events: Charlottesville was his hometown.

“I’ve grown up here this is my hometown,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m in no way making light of anything that happened Friday but in some ways, it felt like I was in one those “Purge” movies because of all the stuff that was going on.”

Dodson graduated in 2015 from Western Albemarle High School, where he worked on the student newspaper (“It wasn’t this hard core,” he said. “I didn’t do any breaking news.”) before he enrolled at U.Va. He found out about the Cav Daily while attending a student organization fair and became a reporter on staff. He was then elected as one of two news editors in December 2016. A year later, he was elected managing editor and his 20-30 hours per week at the paper surged to 30+ hours as he helped the editor in chief oversee the publication’s operation.

During this summer, he was on his second internship at Charlottesville Tomorrow, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization focused on covering quality of life issues in the area, and his weekend gig at News Talk 107.5 WCHV, a local radio station. Thanks to the flexibility of his various bosses, he was able to work with the Cav Daily staff on the “Unite the Right” events.

“I’m honored and blessed that my bosses have been really good about flexibility with me,” he said. “We are in a period where nobody is formally writing things (for the Cav Daily) so several of us were really trying to figure out who is in town and how we could get all hands on deck for this.”

Dodson said he went to the Cav Daily office on Friday night after working one of his other media gigs to await a court ruling regarding the event. The city tried to force the group of white supremacists to a different location, but the group sued the city and got an injunction. As Dodson awaited a court’s decision on how all this would shake out, he got several texts from people he knew saying the white supremacists would be holding a rally at the rotunda, which is right in the middle of campus.

“I have no photo skills, but I grabbed a camera and headed over there,” he said. “I found two other reporters and we were all walking around together. Then we start getting pictures of people lighting tiki torches and walking around on campus… I called the other members of the staff and said, ‘How quickly can you get over here?'”

Staffers Alexis Gravel and Daniel Hoerauf arrived and everyone threw themselves into the mix, even as people were twirling torches and chanting. (News Editor Anna Higgins joined the group on Saturday as the team covered the events downtown.) Dodson said the staff members were not only working on telling stories but also watching out for each other as mob’s frenzy grew.

“I was looking down on (the crowd) from a balcony area and if there’s one word for it, it would be chaotic…” he said. “We knew there was a high potential for violence and we knew it was going to be a mess the next day.”




Guest Blogging: LGBTQ coverage and how to deal with “the fear of offending.”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Pat Garvin a visual journalist at The Boston Globe to discuss the importance of LGBTQ identity and how journalists can work to understand it during reporting. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

A friend and former coworker recently reached out to me to ask my opinion. One of her colleagues had interviewed a business owner for a story, and in doing research for the story, this colleague discovered that the business owner was transgender. It had not come up in the interview, as it was not important to the story. But the reporter now wanted to make sure she used the the right pronouns, because she wanted to get it right. But she didn’t want to offend the source.

My friend asked if there was an overarching rule of thumb for how to ask which pronouns a source uses, particularly when the story has nothing to do with gender. In the end, the fear of getting it wrong overrode this reporter’s fear of offending, so she asked the source which pronouns to use. The source, not bothered at all, responded that she used she/her pronouns. The reporter then proceeded with the story. And that was the end of it.

When you work in journalism, you feel the need and pressure to get things right. That pressure to get it “right” informs a sports reporter’s need to get a score right, whether she’s reporting on the Super Bowl or a high school football game in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin That need for precision dictates why a reporter will use the term Kleenex only when he is absolutely certain that the tissue in question was a Kleenex brand product. That need for accuracy is why a reporter will ask how you spell your name, whether that name is a common name like “Smith” or less common one, like “Filak.”

But when the detail you’re not sure about pertains to marginalized community you’re not part of, that fear of getting it wrong comes with a fear of offending the group you’re covering. It could be a reporter not sure of which pronouns to use for a source. Or it could be when a copy editor sees that there’s a same-sex couple in a story, but it’s not clear whether they use the term “partners,” “spouses,” or something else. Or perhaps a designer had a package using the term “gay marriage,” but didn’t know if both people in the couple identified as “gay.” In these situations, journalists who want to get the information accurate can feel a fear of offending someone if they ask, but they also know that they don’t know what they don’t know.

As the anecdote from my friend’s newsroom points out, the fear of offending the source ended up being a moot point, because the source was not only not offended, but she appreciated the question.

I asked some friends who aren’t cisgender and straight what they thought cisgender, straight journalists should know about covering these issues. And the recurring theme was that journalists should ask which pronouns to use, rather than assume. My friends reaffirmed what I have often thought: When it comes to writing about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people, there is only one rule, and that’s that there are no agreed-upon rules.

It’s best to ask the individual, as everyone is different, and we can’t assume that the terms that one person uses will be what someone else uses. Some use the term LGBT, others use LGBTQ, others use LGBTQ+, and others will use a longer set of letters. Different people will have different perspectives on what you should use, and why. Some will just use the overarching word “queer,” and others will resent that because of previous connotations.

Some will use the term “partner,” whereas others will use the term “wife” or “husband.” Some will use the term “partner” even when legally married, and others will use “wife” or “husband” even if they are not legally married. Some will use the pronouns “they” and “them,” even if they do not identify as transgender. But some people who are transgender will not use “they”/”them,” and will instead use “he” or “she,” or maybe different pronouns altogether. Everyone is different, and thus, if you’re ever not sure, the only way to know is to ask.

For those who like to have ordered rules and distinctions, this can be maddening and feel like a game of whack-a-mole. But that misses the point: the expanded arsenal of pronouns and terms helps people who don’t feel like they fit into the preexisting rules and distinctions.

In a recent piece in Teen Vogue, partners Raechel Anne Jolie and Logan Casey talked about Casey’s experience as a transgender man. In the piece, Casey addressed the topic of pronouns:

“Sometimes people try out different pronouns to see what feels right to them, and more and more people are also going by gender neutral pronouns, like they or ze. Some folks think these don’t sound right grammatically, or they’re just totally unfamiliar words. But no matter how you feel about someone else’s pronouns, that person is more important than your feelings about weirdness or grammar. If you do feel uncomfortable – try imagining how uncomfortable it must be for your trans or gender nonconforming (GNC) friend to wonder if a friend might care more about grammar than them as a person.”

It’s important for us to get over our fears of making a mistake when it comes to these issues, because we can’t afford to not cover these issues. As we continue to have news stories about same-sex adoption, bathroom bills, and transgender service in the military, it behooves journalists to not avoid these topics out of a fear of getting it wrong. And it’s not just those topics that will require straight, cisgender journalists to consider what they don’t know. As my friend’s story points out, LGBTQ issues can (and will) surface in the reporting in any kind of story, be it about business, sports, the arts, government, or beyond.

For journalists who want to get a better sense of the issues, I suggest expanding the media you follow. In addition to the aforementioned piece by Jolie and Casey, I suggest following all sorts of people on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re looking for trans and gender-non-conforming journalists to follow, Janet Mock’s Twitter feed is a great place to start. Autostraddle, JoeMyGod, and The Advocate are other good places to check out. Both GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and The Association of LGBTQ Journalists have style guides on terminology.

When you’re reading up on topics, look up “deadnaming,” which is referring to a trans person by the name given at birth. There are many pieces about it, including The Advocate’s “10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say).” As you find other terms you don’t know, Google those as well.

As you go down this rabbit-hole, you’ll quickly see that not every person or outlet lines up 100 percent on terms. Again, this gets us back to my previous point: When it comes to writing about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-non-conforming people, there is only one rule, and that’s that there are no agreed-upon rules.

You’ll find that even among your sources, not everyone will agree on terms. And that’s OK. Again, the whole point is that people pick the terms that make the most sense for them. When you don’t know something and you think it’s vital to your story, just ask. In any other story, that is the guiding principle. You wouldn’t hesitate to ask a person named Jonathon which spelling to use. That person would rather you ask than publish the wrong thing.

That same principle applies to LGBTQ issues.

“Smart Brevity”

Politico co-founder and Axios Media CEO Jim VandeHei just explained what made his brand of journalism successful in an 85-word blog post, reinforcing his motto of “smart brevity.” Here are a couple highlights we can all learn from:


  • Obsess about your reader/viewer/listener. Their addiction/appreciation equals long-term biz success.

  • Related to first one: Never do stupid tricks for clicks or ad dollars. Short-term high but long-term buzz kill for biz/consumers.


These two items are at the core of everything we talk about at the front of the books: The audience matters most. If you don’t know for whom you are writing, you aren’t going to be able to help them or make them want to seek you out as a source of information.

In addition, the reason VandeHei and his crew can write so tightly is because they have a strong working knowledge of the topics on which they write. I can always spot the student with the least confidence in his/her writing when we review stuff in class because that person always has the longest and most complicated sentences. The people who know what they are talking about? They can boil it down to the noun-verb-object in nothing flat. Even if you aren’t in a reporting class, you have to “report” enough (read, ask questions, bother people etc.) to have a good grip on the topic. That will improve your writing.



  • If you don’t know with precision what your company is doing broadly, and what you are doing personally, run. Clarity of purpose is 🔑.


This is more about making the company successful, but it falls nicely in with our discussion of writing. One of the hardest shifts we have to make in learning to write for the media is from the long, descriptive-filled sentences of English, sociology and history papers to the noun-verb-object, bang-it-out structure we use in our field. After years of writing one way, it can feel frustrating to strip a sentence down to its core.

The reason we need to do this is to give people what they need to know quickly and simply. That’s our purpose.

And after taking four times the word count to explain half of what VandeHei had to say, I’ll end here for the sake of “smart brevity.”


GAME TIME: An AEJMC-based AP quiz

How well do you know AP style? Some rules seem eternal while others get added or dropped each year. If you think you have game, give this quiz a shot. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most.

In honor of AEJMC’s annual convention, the 10 questions have an AEJMC theme. 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. (Don’t worry if you bite the dust, we won’t tell your students.)

Click here to begin!

When reporting crime feels criminal

The idea of “stupid criminal stories” is as much a staple of the crime beat as first-graders doing hand-print turkeys for Thanksgiving is for the education beat. Readers can seemingly never get enough of this kind of stuff, whether it’s the man arrested on suspicion of smuggling monkeys in his pants or the woman who showed up for her drunken driving court appearance drunk. Cranking out these stories is simple, as the leads tend to write themselves and they drive traffic to your site from all over the world.

However, as we talk about in the book, there is an ethical standard we ascribe to as journalists and within that standard is a call for empathy. Hunter Pauli took a hard look at his work in this piece, recalling the saga of “Dickface,” a low-level criminal in Butte, Montana with an unfortunate facial tattoo. The question he asks is a good one: What the heck are we doing here and why are we doing it?

We should be thankful small places in America are safe enough to not always need a daily update on last night’s mistakes, but instead we blow small crimes out of proportion and ruin people’s lives for pennies, all while missing the big picture.

The question, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” is at the core of the critical thinking we preach here. Keep it in mind the next time you read about a guy who tries to rob a store with a banana (and then eats it instead).

(BLEEP) my (BLEEP): (or when to just drop the F-bomb)

(Bet you thought I meant something else in that headline… Which is the point…)

One of my favorite journalism scholars, Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, just took a look at how best to deal with the issue of profanity, an issue we in the Dynamics of Writing Hivemind have been batting around since Anthony Scaramucci’s rant in The New Yorker.

Clark’s analytical point-based system for scoring profanity’s purpose, value and social context can be found here. It’s a good read that gives you a sense of how to discern what you WANT to run from what you NEED to run from what you SHOULD run when it comes to profanity. Here are two quick takeaways from Clark’s piece and our thoughts:

  • Know your audience: I once worked for a newspaper that had such strict policies on curse words that it would make a home for elderly nuns appear liberal. Conversely, I now read blogs that drop f-bombs like Joe Pesci on a meth bender. In both cases, it was about the audience. The editor of the paper knew how conservative the readers were and that they did NOT want even a “hell” or “damn” with their breakfast. On the other hand, the blog editor knew that for her readers, cussing conveyed gravitas.
    A current magazine editor shared one of his earliest experiences in dealing with an alderman in a small Missouri town ranting about then-President Bill Clinton getting “a goddamned blow job.” The question was whether to run the quote, use some dashes or find a euphemism. The editor, a longtime resident of the area, chose the last option, referring to the alderman’s comments as “a slang term for oral sex.” In retrospect, the magazine editor realized it was all about the audience and still is:

    It’s nearly two decades later and I edit a magazine in a place that’s not (that town). I know the place well – and that, plus my experience in journalism, makes me judge and jury on what’s offensive or not. Not to go all Potter Stewart on this but when it comes to naughty-but-necessary language, I know it when I see it. Overall, I honestly believe there’s no one right answer other than – know your readership. Whether your readers are united by geography, interests or something else, have an idea of who they are and what will make them keep reading versus put them off. (That’s advice that goes well beyond whether or not you print colorful language, obviously.) Then, with that knowledge in hand, be as clear as possible.


This incorporates two of Clark’s thoughts in a tighter way: If you know your audience well, you’ll know what they tend to expect from you and you’ll also know how far you can go with your vulgarity. For some audiences, a “hell” or a “damn” will be a turn off while for others, cussing that would peel paint won’t bother them a bit.

(Johnny Cash had me wondering for half of my adolescence what was behind the BLEEP in “A Boy Named Sue.” I was quite disappointed when I found out how mild it was…)

  • Don’t make things worse: When you looked at the headline, I’d bet a dollar to a dime you thought of all sorts of things those bleeps could mean. Your mind probably played “Evil Wheel of Fortune” and pondered what might go in there. When you saw the video, I bet you thought, “That’s it? Really?” Exactly the point.
    One of our journalists recalled his first editor’s thoughts on profanity and they ring true when it comes to pulling the trigger:

    If the vulgarity is important enough to the story that you’re writing about it, just use the word and don’t pussyfoot around it. I haven’t always followed that advice, but I have always taken it into consideration.

    It’s also important to figure out if by dodging the word, you confuse your readers more. Someone mentioned a story about an attempted ouster of a small-town mayor over the use of a “derogatory term.” The mayor said it was just an old saying his family used back in the day. The city manager who wanted him out noted he had never heard anything as disgraceful or disgusting. The story never included the term or even gave a sense of what it was. How are readers supposed to know how to judge the situation?

These two ideas will help you determine how you want to approach the situation the next time someone goes off the rails and lets loose with profanity. In short, if you know your audience and you think it is important to do so, go for it.  (Avoid the halfway approach. Of the dashes or @$*(! approach, one hivemind editor noted, “That kind of stuff is reserved for the funny pages.”)

Either write up a description that will detail the issue (“In response to a request to speak to other people, Heather sarcastically requested Veronica carefully engage her in a sexual act with a lumber-cutting tool.”) or just drop the bomb and live with the consequences.

Guest Blogging: Context Counts (or when an airline cuts flights)

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 Jessica Sparks, an experienced journalist and assistant professor at Savannah State University to discuss the importance of context in journalism. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

In the first few weeks of my entry level course in media writing, I introduce students to three specific values the media has traditionally held- fairness, diversity and context. Without these three pieces, we become Rush Limbaugh- pick apart the facts to support your opinion and forget all those pesky statements that completely oppose it.

Context, to me, is one value many novice journalists tend to forget. There are two possible explanations for this: They know the context, but forget to include it in the story so the audience can see the information they way they saw it; or they didn’t ask enough questions to really understand the information given to them and therefore don’t have enough context to explain it thoroughly.

In class, I often pose this question to my students:

An airline announces it will cut half of all its flights from a mid-size airport near your media outlet. Is this news?

Without posing follow-up questions for context, you cannot definitively say yes or no.

As Vince points out in his book “Dynamics of Media Writing,” a good story applies to a mass audience- it’s interesting, timely and informative. In addition, it has at least some of those characteristics (conflict, impact, proximity, prominence, novelty).

For this example, most students picture an airline such as Delta cutting hundreds of flights, which could affect thousands of travelers and hundreds of jobs. Yes, that is news.

However, what if it’s a regional airline that flies twice a month with a 20-person plane? The announcement isn’t nearly as newsworthy as the aforementioned scenario, and it might not be worth a full report.

During my “Back to the Newsroom” fellowship with the Wall Street Journal, I was placed on The Numbers blog team. My job, essentially, was to identify data that would intrigue an audience and build visual elements to accompany short blog posts about that data. One of the most memorable of these pieces for me was “More kids born outside of marriage, but fewer teen births.”

In terms of context, this story stuck out to me because the numbers provided by the Census Bureau pointed to a traditional generational process. As the world has changed, so has the core family experience. This headline pushes that agenda.

However, the statistics still showed, the majority of new mothers were married when birthing their first child.

That’s context. The headline grabs the reader, but the story must still make clear that the data is showing a possible trend- not a rule. There’s not rule from this data saying children will be born out of wedlock. All it’s saying is that there is a possible trend emerging through the numbers.

What can you do to make sure you have the context around each fact, number and quote?

  1. Make sure you understand it yourself. Don’t write about something you don’t understand, and don’t feel silly asking a question of a source because you think it will make you look dumb. Sources would prefer you get the story right. (Though, you should do your best to come prepared and knowledgeable.)
  2. Continually ask yourself if you are misleading your audience. Are you choosing to omit information because it contradicts something else in your story? Don’t. It’s better to write that there was some confusing detail than to seem opaque in your reporting process.
  3. Read it out loud to yourself. Sometimes hearing the fact instead of reading it forces you to notice missing- yet important- details.