How Audience-Centricity Plays a Role in Bears/Packers Coverage

When the oldest rivalry in the National Football League began its 195th meeting Thursday night, two people integrally involved in the “Dynamics” books were on each side of the battle. Ryan Wood, who covers the Green Bay Packers for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, and Pat Finley, who serves as the Bears beat reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, watched a 35-14 Packer victory, saw the game delayed by a lightning storm and included the usual chippy play that happens when these teams meet.

Wood has been featured on the blog before and offered his “Professional Thoughts” for the basic reporting chapter in the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book. Finley talked here about his use of social media (including his viral sketches of Bears’ practices) and also contributed his “Professional Thoughts” to the second edition of the “Dynamics of Media Writing,” which comes out next year. Both journalists have repeatedly stressed that in all they do, serving the audience matters most.

This fortuitous happenstance of having both of them covering the same event from different sides gives us a chance to see how they applied audience-centricity to their work. Consider this “core theme” paragraph by Wood in his game story:

The Packers trounced the Chicago Bears early and didn’t look back, winning 35-14 on Thursday night at Lambeau Field. Before the Bears had their second offensive snap, the Packers led, 14-0. The first half ended with the Packers scoring three touchdowns, and the Bears providing three turnovers.

Finley has a similar set of information, but a different approach:

(The Bears) lost 35-14, a margin that somehow failed to properly capture the particularly putrid stench of the game. The Packers reclaimed the all-time series lead, and, just four days after winning their first game of the season, the 1-3 Bears again appear in disarray.

When it came to other key plays, each author focused on aspects that would be of most interest to his audience. Finley looked a turnover in the context of quarterback Mike Glennon’s poor performance and a growing drumbeat among Bears fans to bench him in favor of first-round draft pick Mitch Trubisky:

Glennon, perhaps playing for his quarterbacking life, dug the Bears in yet another hole. Down 7-0, he was sacked by Clay Matthews on the team’s first offensive play and fumbled. Jake Ryan recovered at the Bears’ 3-yard line, and Rodgers threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb three plays later.

Wood’s look at that same play included a key interest element: oddity. Clay Matthews’ sack made him the all-time franchise leader in this department:

On Chicago’s first snap from its own 25-yard, outside linebacker Clay Matthews crashed the left side and sacked Bears quarterback Mike Glennon 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Matthews’ sack, which pushed him to first in franchise history with 75 in his career, jarred the football loose from Glennon.

For anyone watching the game, the scariest moment of the night came when the Bears’ Danny Trevathan struck Packer receiver Davante Adams in a helmet-to-helmet collision that knocked Adams out and sent his mouth guard flying across the field. Finley ends his story including this bit of information:

The Bears’ defense raged against the Packers’ field position advantage all night, but were responsible for its most horrific moment — a helmet-to-helmet Danny Trevathan hit that sent Davante Adams off the field on a stretcher and to the hospital with a head and neck injury. Trevathan could face suspension.

Wood, on the other hand, noted the “cheap shot” in several paragraphs in his game story and also wrote an extensive sidebar on the event, which you can read here. One of Finley’s colleagues also wrote a piece on the hit, which places emphasis on different aspects of the event and uses a different tone than the one Wood used.

Additional coverage came from both writers’ colleagues, with Packer coverage focusing on the team’s 3-1 start and the success of its patchwork offensive line. Finley’s publication had multiple columnists calling for the start of the Mitchell Trubisky era.

Both writers (and their publications) told stories about the same event, but from different perspectives based on what they thought their audience would want to know. Bears fans don’t want to hear about how great Aaron Rodgers is or how Clay Matthews broke a record at their team’s expense. Packer fans don’t want to hear about the carousel of quarterbacks that the Bears have seemingly been riding since Sid Luckman left town.

This is the main goal of good journalism personified: Know your audience and tell them what they need to know in a way they want to hear it.

3 reasons Twitter moving to 280 characters won’t help journalists communicate more effectively (Or, “Filak-ism: Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should)

(Once again proving that just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should do it.)

Before I wrote my first book for SAGE, I sketched out a handful of “Rules of the Road” that had to apply to ALL journalism. That ratty piece of hotel stationary with fading black ink on it sits in front of me every day at work, a reminder of the core principles of what matters most in this field.

When Twitter announced the other day that it was taking a trial run at doubling its character limit, I hated it, specifically because it violated several of those “Rules,” specifically:

  • Right tool for the right job
  • Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you should
  • Audience (and timeliness) matter most

In other words, Twitter could make it so tweets are 914,292 characters each, but that won’t make them any better or more helpful to readers, thus negating the value of the tool.

Here are three reasons why Twitter’s move to 280-character isn’t a great idea and/or why you should still shoot for that 140 limit:

  1. Noun-Verb-Object tells the best story: One of the biggest problems students have in transitioning from other forms of writing to media writing is learning to write tightly. One of the biggest reasons for that is their lack of strong sentence structure. In both books, we talk about the idea of starting with the noun-verb-object approach to a sentence and then building outward from that. Twitter, in its 140-character perfection, forces you to do that if you want to get your point across. When a sentence lacks a concrete noun or a vigorous verb, the writer must slather on adjectives and adverbs to get a point across. That makes for longer, weaker, lousier sentences.
  2. The Homeowner Theory on the Accumulation of Stuff: The more space you have, the more worthless crap you will accumulate.
    My first “grown-up job” had me moving 500 miles across the country and as such, they included a nice perk: A moving service. I packed everything in my studio apartment and had it ready for what I expected would be a full day of moving guys coming in and out of my place. The three movers walked in, looked around and started to laugh. “Is this it?” My total accumulation of goods didn’t even cover the back wall of the truck.
    The next move was from a two-bedroom apartment to our first house. The house had a giant rec room, where I dreamily envisioned adding a pool table and giant entertainment center. At the time, however, all we had to put in there was the beige velour floral couch I bought off a guy’s dead aunt for $50. We put the couch in that room and started laughing uncontrollably. It was this tiny speck of furniture in this giant room. We eventually bought a sectional and a pool table.
    Each move meant a bigger place and more crap. No matter what we thought we were doing, we kept adding more and more stuff. Thus the point: If you have extra space, you’re going to fill it with a lot of stuff you probably don’t need. If you are like our friends who live in tiny big-city apartments, you know you need to maximize space and get rid of stuff you don’t really need.
    Its true of space in a home, time in your day and characters in your tweet. If you are limited to 140, you’ll make the most of it. If you get 280, you’ll fill that space as well. Eventually, 280 also will seem too small because you keep cramming extra stuff in there and you get used to the larger size. It’s like knowing you’re gaining weight and that it’s not good but instead of trying to exercise more, you just buy bigger pants.
  3. It fails to demonstrate audience centricity: Look at the explanations that people have offered for this switch to 280:

    The idea of extending the length of Twitter posts has been contentious internally, batted around among product groups that are trying to find ways to persuade people to use the service more frequently. At 328 million users, Twitter has been criticized for its inability to attract more people. Investors have grown nervous, as that slowing of user growth has affected the company’s revenue.

    “We understand since many of you have been tweeting for years, there may be an emotional attachment to 140 characters,” the company said.

    As a result, Twitter said, if rules around characters are loosened, English-speaking users — who tend to use more characters in tweets — will also hit character limits less frequently. That may, in turn, lead English-speaking users to post more regularly.

    So, in short, Twitter is looking at this as a way to get more people sending more tweets as part of a profit motive and people who got used to the 140 characters are essentially just “emotional” in their concerns. Notice what’s missing here: The focus on people who RECEIVE information on twitter, a.k.a. the audience.
    The value of any tool you use in media writing is how well it does in reaching your audience members and providing them relevant, useful and interesting information. Nothing about the increase of the characters focuses on how much better the tweets will be or how the audience will be best served. The reason? It won’t, primarily for the reasons outlined in Points 1 and 2.

In the end, this might be tilting against windmills and everything will be fine. However, keep in mind this is just a “test” of the new limit so if you get to play with it, don’t get too attached. After all, once you get used to 280, it’s going to be hard to fit into that 140-character space.


“Is a big story worth it?” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell explains how you can tell

Investigative journalist Jaimi Dowdell recently published a two-part series with co-author Kelly Carr that examined the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight that has allowed drug dealers, corrupt officials and people linked to terrorism to take to the skies with impunity. The journalists dug through thousands of pages of documents, revealing how planes were registered in ways that concealed the identity of the owners and how licensing of pilots provides almost no guarantee that these people are who they say they are.


Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, published the stories in the Boston Globe, where she was working as a “Spotlight Fellow.” The project grew out of the movie “Spotlight, which chronicled the paper’s work to expose the child sexual abuse scandal associated with clergy in the arch diocese. Participant Media, Open Road Films and First Look Media created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which provides recipients the ability to do their own investigative work at the Globe alongside the Spotlight crew.


Dowdell, who along with Carr spent more than a year investigating, researching, interviewing and writing these pieces, is one of the featured journalists in the upcoming “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book providing “A View from a Pro” and more. In the book, she offers this advice for students who are trying to figure out if the “big story” is worth the time and energy necessary to tell it:

  • Does this story answer a question? The best investigations and data stories answer a question. Stay away from noun stories. Don’t do a story on “crime” or “salaries” because it just won’t be that good. Seek to answer a question or explain a phenomenon and you’ll be in better shape.

  • Does the story break new ground? Look and see what has been done on the topic. Just because a story was done in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, but how can you move it forward? What is different? Why is this important now or to your community?

  • Does the story have potential for impact? We want people to care about your work. Why should they care about this? Is there room for change?

  • Are there victims or does this affect people? Again, you want people to care about your work and this helps.

  • Does this have a point to it? Keep making yourself write down a sentence or two explaining the story. What is the story? What is the news? If you can’t do it in a couple of sentences you need to go back to work. Keep asking yourself, “Is this a story?” Get feedback from other people. Be honest with yourself because your time is limited.

In closing, she made a key point that is true of all good stories:

“At the end of the day, you need to have a passion for the story and a desire to stick with it. Otherwise, no matter how good the story or how deep the pool of resources you have, the story will fail.”

3 things students ask that drive journalism professors nuts (and how to ask them in a much better way)

Journalism is a funny field when it comes to grades, classes and more. As a professor, I often find that when I talk to instructors in other fields, I’m speaking Greek in terms of the value of grades or how best to work with students to improve. However, among journalism profs, I’m like Briar Rabbit in the briar patch. In short, we’re all weird.

To help make sense of that weirdness when it comes to these issues, I talked to colleagues and drew from my own experiences with students to come up with today’s post: Three things students say that drive professors nuts, why those things drive us nuts and how better to ask the questions to get at what you really want to know without driving us nuts. Think of this post as a lesson in interviewing mixed with an intervention:


  1. “I didn’t make it to class. Did I miss anything important?”
    (A runner-up/close cousin: “I can’t keep up with your class because (fill in the name of some extracurricular activity) is taking up all my time and that’s important.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: Think about what you essentially asked: “Was this class a colossal waste of time or did you manage to say something that I should give a crap about? If so, can you just boil down that two-hour lecture for me in a couple sentence in an email. Thanks!”

    Professors for the most part think that what they are trying to tell you is, in fact, important. This is particularly true in journalism because for most people who are in those classes, this is the field you are going into. It would be like a medical student asking, “Hey, I missed your lecture on the cardiovascular system today. Is that going to be important going forward?” Granted, some lectures are more or less important, but asking this question in this way assumes your professor might actually say, “Nah, I just stood at the front of the room and BS-ed for two hours. Whatever you did was probably a better use of your time.”

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: First, don’t look to the professor to bail you out of missing a class. Most courses have an online roster of classmates you can bug for notes. Bother them first before you fess up to blowing off class because you DVR-ed “The Bachelor” or something. Second, if nobody’s ponying up to help you, go through and read the assigned readings for the day. (Theoretically, you should have already done this. As a practical matter, I know that this almost never happens. A kid once showed up in week 10 of my class with his textbook still shrink wrapped.) Then, ask if you can meet with the professor to talk about the readings and better understand how they apply to the lecture. Yes, it’s more work, but it saves you from being remembered as “Oh, you’re the student who couldn’t be bothered to show up.” It’s a much safer way to go about this especially when worrying about how well you’re doing in this class. Which brings us to…

  2. “What’s my grade in this class?”
    (Runner-ups include “I need an A in this class. Why aren’t I getting one?” “Grades are important to me.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: I always told students if they wanted to be the student I liked least, they should come to my office every day before class and ask me EXACTLY what their grade in the class was. I don’t speak for every professor or every situation, but I do know that of the people I asked in journalism told me that grades are among the least important things in education.
    Only once in 20 years of teaching college did any student ever come back to me and tell me that anyone at a job interview asked about that person’s grade-point average. According to the student, it was some a-hole they just hired about six months earlier who asked it like a challenge to the student’s manhood: “Yeah? What’s YOUR GPA, huh?”

    Also, it feels shallow. It’s like the whole reason you are there is to procure a single end (your grade) and you really don’t care about anything else. Think about it this way, how would you feel if you just met someone who told you  “I’m very interested in becoming your friend because I know you are quite wealthy.” Eeesh… |

    If all you care about is the grade, you miss out on the core elements of the class that will help you get better at this, get a job and improve your skills. Truth be told, the best students I’ve had were the C students, as they tended to screw something up and then spend a lot of time trying to figure out WHY they screwed it up and how not to do it again. (It also didn’t hurt that they were basically living in the newsroom or the on-campus PR firm instead of keeping up with classwork, but still…)

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The core of your question has a glimmer of hope and goodness in there: What will make me a top-notch journalist? If you can redirect your question to that end, you will have a much more productive encounter with your professor. Focus on things like “learning” and “understanding” and “improving” during your discussion on this topic: “I wasn’t happy with how I did on my last assignment. Can you offer me suggestions on how to improve XYZ about my writing?” or “I’m having trouble understanding why I’m not doing as well as I would like to in this class. Can we talk about things I can do to improve?”
    The idea here is that if you work toward the improvement of the work you are doing and the development of the skills, the grades will follow. Or as they said in the Karate Kid: The points will come. Focus on applying your skills like we talked about:

  3. I’m going into (Advertising, PR, News, TV etc.)! Why do I need to know any of this?

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: This statement presupposes an awful lot that will make your professor really want to grab a shovel and start practicing an alibi.

    First, it presupposes that you, having been in the field for somewhere between zero and three months, know more about the field than the professor, who has likely been working in or around the field for all of his/her life. In other words, you just told your instructor, “I know what you should be teaching and you aren’t doing this. Can you up your game a bit?”

    Second, in most cases, it’s the way in which the question comes across. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” This approach lacks any semblance of tact.

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The underlying assumption in your frustration with having to take this class (or more likely than not, not doing as well at this as you think you should be doing) has merit. I would wager all the money in my pocket against a pack of Juicy Fruit gum that any professor you say this to has probably said something similar back in his/her college career. It didn’t go over any better, I assure you.

    The “why” aspect is important, as the more you feel connected to the concepts of the class, the more likely you will buy into them and the harder you will work to get better at them. Asking this question isn’t bad, it’s just how you approach it that will make for a better or worse experience.
    In most cases, as we argue in both books, journalism teaches you transferable skills. In other words, even if you can’t see how something applies directly to your field of interest, it probably does and you’ll be better off for learning it. Even more, you’ll likely be able to use that skill in multiple fields going forward as you move from job to job or field to field.

    Start by asking for a meeting with the instructor or stop by during office hours. You will almost always find that face-to-face meetings work better than emails. Then, try something like this: “I know I’m having difficulty in the class and one of the things I’m struggling with is seeing how what I’m doing will make me better at (Ad, PR, news etc.). Can you help me better understand this?”

    This approach does three basic things: 1) Cuts out the whining of the original approach. 2) Demonstrates some introspection on your part and 3) Caters to the ego of your instructor, seeking help from this all-knowing bastion of cross-disciplinary information.

As with all advice, it won’t work all the time or with every person you encounter. However, it’s probably got a better chance of success than any of the original statements listed here, so what do you have to lose?

Veteran journalist Dan Bice (sans horse) talks about death threats, learning to talk to people and being honest with interviewees

BiceMugWhen veteran journalist Dan Bice got his now-infamous “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on” reply from ex-Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, it wasn’t even close to the ugliest response he received over his career in journalism.

“I would say I get a lot of harsh emails and calls from the public, including three death threats,” Bice said in an email Thursday. “Someone posted on Facebook last night that they are hoping I get mugged.”

Bice is well-known in the Milwaukee area as an investigative journalist and columnist who covers all corners of public officials behaving badly as well as odd situations that deserve public scrutiny. He not only covered Clarke’s escapades, but he has looked into the high salary paid to an official running a town of 4,000, concerns regarding a non-profit organization of a possible Democrat challenger for governor and the financial troubles of a conservative website. Bice also wrote about the ethical journalistic issues associated with a journalist having an affair with the city’s police chief while writing a long feature on him.

In this case, Bice managed to raise the ire of Clarke with an email requesting a few basic answers to questions pertaining to his county-funded, around-the-clock security detail being halted after he resigned his post. Bice also asked Clarke for his thoughts on the $225,000 cost associated with it. When Clarke responded with the terse, two-sentence email, Bice did what all good journalists do: He looked before he leaped.

“I did think it was a little stronger than normal,” he said. “But then I wondered if someone else might have written it for him. So I wrote back to try to confirm that Clarke did, in fact, write the response. I didn’t get an immediate reply, so I didn’t include his response in my story. Later, I was told by one of his advisers that the ex-sheriff was expecting a stronger reaction from me to his email. Then I felt comfortable posting it.”

I asked Bice for some of his thoughts about interviewing, specifically how he does it and what tips he could offer students to help them get better at it. Bice, home recovering from pneumonia this week, was nice enough to provide some thoughts on the topic. Of all the things he said, two stuck out to me as crucial for student journalists:

  1. Practice makes you better at this and even a pro like Bice still occasionally gets interview jitters: “Your students need to learn how to talk to people, even about difficult subjects. You get better at this only by actually doing it. I still get nervous before some interviews, but many of the best stories come from learning to manage conflict when talking to sources.”
  2. Email should not be the first option for doing interviews: “Many students and young reporters love to do interviews exclusively by email. I make email my last resort. Far and away, the best quotes from face-to-face interactions followed by phone interviews and texts. Email responses are often lifeless or stilted. Which is how your story will sound.” (Side note: Yes, we both know that not only were we both doing email interviews to get this post rolling, but it was an email to Clarke that got this whole things started in the first place. I acknowledge the irony, but would defend this instance of email, given Bice wasn’t at work, he’s recovering from pneumonia and this interview wasn’t going to be like Jack Bauer interrogating Santa.)


Here are some other important thoughts Bice provided:

“Public officials are a little more restrained on email. But I’ve had some real rows with prominent officials over the phone or in person over the years. For example, I was very upset with US Rep. Ron Kind for not telling me he was coming to my office to meet with my editors to complain about a column I had written about him. I caught him before he got in his staffer’s car in front of the Journal Sentinel and made sure he couldn’t get in. It allowed us to air our differences. Fortunately, I’m not a shouter, so that keeps things from escalating too much.”



“I enjoy doorstepping officials who are ducking me. Cary Spivak and I did this routinely when we were writing the column together, and I still do it on major stories in which I think someone is avoiding me. In 2014, I had to talk to a guy who was the focus of a story. I knew he had PTSD and drank heavily. I called two of my friends to let them know I was going to his house at 9 p.m. and that I would check back at 9:20 pm. The interview ended up being tense, but it all worked out. I also visited the run-down apartments run by a prominent local official a few years back. The official had used some vague language suggesting I might encounter some harm from one of his armed guards if I trespassed on his properties. But one of his tenants helped me out, so I was able to skulk around without any problems. Also, I frequently catch candidates while they are out campaigning. That way the responses are unrehearsed and/or not filtered through a bevy of staffers and consultants.


“I hate it when journalists, even veteran ones, do interviews and dupe individuals into thinking a story won’t be as harsh as it will actually be. We owe it to people to be honest with them. It actually prevents even bigger problems once the story is published. But it’s also the decent thing to do. If you’re doing a series of interviews, I don’t think you should show all your cards at the start. But before a story goes online or in print, the people you’re quoting should have a pretty good idea what’s coming.”


GAME TIME: Sports-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.

Here’s a sports-themed, 10-question AP style quiz for you. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

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


Click here to begin the quiz.

“F— you and the horse you rode in on” (Or how to deal with hostile interviews and your fear thereof)

Students often tell me their greatest fear in doing reporting is interviewing people. The idea of asking questions of strangers and approaching people who don’t want to talk to them feels downright terrifying. I often ask students, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Most of them fear a response like the one veteran investigative journalist Dan Bice posted today:


Bice notes on Twitter that he had covered Sheriff David Clarke for about 15 years. Over that time, Bice has broken a number of stories that outlined some of the more inane things Clark has done, including instructing his deputies to harass an airline passenger Clarke didn’t like, threatening to “knock out” that passenger and others like himmocking Milwaukee’s mayor for being beaten while trying to break up a fight and bailing on his gig as sheriff to make money on the national conservative political lecture circuit. Bice is both a great journalist and a fair one: He calls his column/investigation work “No Quarter,” likely a reference to his work calling out misdeeds of all types, regardless of the political affiliation of the participants.

(I reached out to Bice to ask him some questions about his experiences with Clarke and interviewing as well as to have him offer some advice to the students who read this blog. My guess is that he’s a bit too busy to get to what must be one of 189,241 requests for comment now that this story is going viral.)

With that in mind, I’ll play the poorer substitute for Bice and use some hivemind answers and suggestions here. Consider these thoughts when it comes to getting over your interview fear:

  • It will rarely be this bad: Clarke has what can charitably be called a “certain way about him” when it comes to the media. Also, threats and bravado are a sizeable part of his vernacular, including the time he said he’d only “reach across the aisle” to Democrats to choke one of them  and the time he accused the county executive of hating him out of “penis envy.”  Worrying that you’re going to have a hostile source ready to suggest you perform some sort of three-way, inter-species carnal act on yourself for asking a few direct and yet fair questions is like worrying a meteor is going to hit you if you go outside. You should usually assume that if you can show an interview subject a modicum of respect and decency, that person will reciprocate.
  • Some interviews will suck: It’s a safe bet that it will be much nicer interviewing the person who won the $758 million powerball jackpot than interviewing a mother whose 8-year-old son just died in a car wreck. Still, journalism isn’t just about the happy stories and you have a job to do. Approach the tougher interviews with caution, honesty and respect whenever possible. Being a jerk doesn’t tend to get you anywhere good. Even when people are angry in situations like that, it’s not so much that they’re angry at you, but rather the situation. Apologize for intruding on their grief if they are bereaved, offer rationale for your questions and provide them with the ability to speak if they want. If they still tell you to go to hell and take a left, back off. If you are confronting someone who has done something illegal or reprehensible (especially if that person is a public figure), don’t feel bad pushing the issue, but also know when it’s time to fold up your tent and go home. Good journalists don’t like to be the story. (I’d imagine Dan Bice is not all that thrilled that people are focusing on this spat as opposed to the guts of the questions he was asking about the costs Clarke accrued for the taxpayers. If he gets back to me, I’ll ask him.)
  • Explain the WHY: Some people feel like if they duck you, they’re better off. That’s rarely the case. It’s a “fight or flight” response. Usually, explaining WHY you want the interview or WHY it’s in the best interest of the person to speak gets you a little wiggle room with the sources. Some people will still be in the “No. NO. NO!” mode, but others will be more open. Explain that you want to tell the story fairly or explain that you have heard XYZ about the issue and you don’t want to be wrong. I once interviewed a woman whose 17-year-old daughter had just died while driving drunk. The first thing she told me is that she didn’t want to talk to me. I made one pass at the WHY issue by explaining that I was writing a story about her daughter and all I knew was what the police report told me. I told the woman I knew that her daughter was probably a heck of a lot more than what was on that formal document, so if she wanted to share anything about the girl, I would listen. The woman talked for about an hour and a half. The WHY helped. In other cases, it might not, but at least you are demonstrating a desire to be fair and honest.
  • Always give thanks: Just because someone else is being difficult, it doesn’t follow that you need to be. It’s always better to be the better person in these situations because you never know when decency might bear fruit for you. Maybe the person calms down and decides to call back and apologize for behaving that way, which might lead to the interview you wanted. Maybe if  you don’t behave well, word gets around and more sources decide it’s not worth it to talk to you. Who knows? It doesn’t cost anything to be polite, so even as the person is yelling “Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” feel free to say, “OK, thank you so much for your time.”

5 bits of advice for student journalists covering chaos

Over the past month, the level of crime and disaster coverage has really jumped up a notch throughout the country.

We’re running through the alphabet at a pretty brisk pace when it comes to naming hurricanes, with Harvey smashing into Texas and surrounding areas while Irma did serious damage to Florida and many parts of the Deep South.  We had the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that led to a “Tiki-Torch march” on the University of Virginia campus as well as clashes between racists and counter-protestors that left one woman dead and many more injured.

This week, St. Louis was the epicenter of both peaceful protests and violent outbursts, leading to more than 80 arrests Sunday night. The source of this unrest was the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis Police officer who was charged with murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man believed to be selling drugs, in 2011.

Student journalists are frequently at the forefront of these events, covering dangerous situations for their fellow students. The folks at the Rice Thresher talked last week about their experiences covering hurricane damage around their area, and they continue to cover the aftermath of the devastation. The Cav Daily at UVA was in the middle of the chaos both for the march on campus as well as the events that unfolded the next day. A more becomes known about the city’s efforts, the reporters at UVA continue the coverage.  In St. Louis, both the student reporters at St. Louis University and Washington University covered the protests in the wake of the Stockley’s acquittal.

Covering disasters, crime and mayhem can be scary as hell. I spent most of my professional J time on a night desk or the crime beat, so I’ve seen more than a few things that would make a Billy Goat puke. I also have sent student journalists into situations where danger was palpable and fear was inevitable. Based on that background, and the fact it seems likely you might end up covering something like this, here are five simple tips when you need to cover chaos:

  1. Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. I once went to the scene of an accident where a compact car traveling about 50 mph went head on into a compact car traveling 50 mph toward it. A lot of blood and glass. A TV reporter was on the side of the road, throwing up into the weeds, trying to hold it together for a stand up. In floods, you might find dead people or wounded people. Fights break out at protests and violence spills everywhere. (Tim Dodson’s line about the “chemical irritant” in the air during the “Unite the Right” rally sticks in my head when I think of how crazed a scene can get.) Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of an accident. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand. I interviewed a fire chief once who told me that a reporter wanted to get a shot of a burning building and moved too close to the structure. When one of his firefighters chopped into the roof, there was some sort of explosion through one of the windows, thus raining fire, glass and debris on the startled journalist.

    Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

  3. Paranoia is your best friend. Always make sure you are following up your stories on disasters. Things can change in a heartbeat, literally. When a young boy fell into a creek and was clinging to life, a reporter wrote a tale of how the priest was praying with the family and how God would make everything work out well. Unfortunately, as deadline approached, it turns out the kid was taken off of life support and died. A rewrite of that story was critical. Make sure you check back to see the condition of people involved in disasters, the official cause of fires, how many people are actually still without power following a storm and more. The more you worry that things might be changing, the better off your copy will be. In terms of crime, make sure you are sure on the specific charges, the ID and name spelling of anyone accused of anything and that you have slapped attributions on everything that needs one.
  4. Be humane. When you cover bad things, chances are you’ll run into bad people. When someone does something that harms others and you have to go after that person, you should do so with vim and vigor. However, that crime also affects a lot of good people as well. It could be the wife of a guy who she never suspected of running a dog-fighting operation. It might be the sister of a victim who was shot and killed by an under-trained cop. It could be a parent who just identified the body of her only daughter. Life isn’t easy on these people. It’s also true in disaster stories, where people have watched their homes wash away on TV or they just lost everything they ever loved. It’s a horrible event and these people are traumatized. Yes, you are on deadline and yes, the adrenaline is flowing. However, you need to make sure you act in a way that will allow you to live with yourself the next day. The story is fleeting, but if you are insensitive, rude or in some other way problematic, your impact will last a long time.
  5. Take care of yourself. Covering crises will have an impact on you in some way. How exactly? I don’t know and neither will you. I can’t tell you how you will react to seeing a dead body, a tornado-torn neighborhood or a road strewn with auto glass. One of the toughest student journalists I ever knew ended up almost broken covering a story about a garbage collector who died when he was crushed by his own truck. Why that story got her when others didn’t, I don’t know. However, you need to understand that these things have an impact on you. The DART center ( helps journalists deal with the trauma they experience every day, from war to crime and beyond. In the end, you might just need someone to talk to. However, you can’t do your job if you are really messed up. Take the time to take care of yourself.

Guest Blogging: PR and Marketing- How do you get your audiences to believe you?

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 Rick Fox, the president and founder of Riverside Strategic Communications, LLC. He has two decades of experience in communications for some of the world’s leading brands, and he is an award-winning journalist and PR professional. His post is about the most crucial aspect of marketing nad PR: How do you get your audiences to believe you? Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

It’s often said in marketing and PR that the truth isn’t written or spoken, it’s believed. So, how do you get your audiences to believe you?

Building Trust

The success of public relations, whether using the traditional press release or media pitch, or social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter, relies on effectively connecting with your audience. Whether your goal is to sell a product, get more clicks on your website, or inform consumers about the bad behaviors of a corporation, your success depends on your ability to get their attention and keep it long enough to make your point.

This requires strategic thinking, organization, research, and the ability to communicate. But does that require good writing?

It All Comes Down to Words

We live in a time of skepticism. The terms authentic and transparent are thrown around quite a bit. But in PR, transparency and authenticity really do matter. Your success in convincing others to buy what you’re selling depends on the words you type on your keyboard.

Overused superlatives no longer cut it. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Rather than claiming perfection, strong messaging requires plausibility. Your audiences, reporters and customers alike, prefer to hear pros and cons versus a self-congratulatory message claiming how good your product is.

Don’t get caught up in the buzzwords of the day. Avoid words such as guarantee, financial freedom, and best of breed. Use protection, financial security, and effective instead. Build your credibility by under-promising and over-delivering.

Nuance Matters

When someone asks you for a favor and you say “I can do that” it would reasonable for that person to assume you are going to do it, right? But in PR, the difference between can and will is real.

Take, for example, this response to questions about an employee accused of embezzling funds from a company. “We agree this is unacceptable and this employee will be fired.” You’ve stated that you are going to fire him. But what happens when your internal investigation reveals the funds were simply miscoded by another employee? Could you have instead told reporters that “We agree that the allegations are unacceptable and we can take actions as appropriate when we complete our investigation”

A well-written holding statement should focus on what is, not about what isn’t. For example, one of your buildings has burned and a reporter is asking you what happened.

An unprepared spokesperson may say something such as, “We don’t know the cause of the fire yet. We don’t know how much was damaged. We don’t know when we’ll be operational again.”

A prepared spokesperson will refer to his written statement that states, “All our people are safe. We have a well-rehearsed, fire-safety plan that we executed very well. We’re proud of the way our people acted during this emergency.”


What’s Your Story?

If you don’t tell it, someone else will. And when someone else tells it, they rarely do so the way you would want. I had a client who prepared a media statement to use following the release of an inspector’s report that confirmed a pest problem in his restaurant.

After drafting key messages, working through multiple rounds of edits and approvals, a member of his team responded to a reporter and felt good about the exchange. Then he read the first headline, in a highly-credible news outlet, that read as follows: ‘ABC Restaurant staff working to rid kitchen of roaches’. He couldn’t understand how they came to that conclusion. After all, there were no longer any cockroaches in the restaurant.

When he re-read the statement, he quickly realized that he mentioned all of the important things: they were sorry they let their customers down; they took immediate action and were addressing issues to ensure this would never happen again; they immediately saw dramatic improvements. But it’s what he left out that caused the problem. He never actually said the roaches were gone or the problem has been resolved.

Luckily, he had a good relationship with the reporter and was able to add five words to his statement that said, “the conditions present in our restaurant were unacceptable… and have since been addressed.” This simple addition resulted in a new, more favorable headline, while reversing the tone of the story.

Write to Your Audience

Remember, the truth is what people believe. Your communications – tweets, videos, blog posts – all need to be believable before they can be effective. Believable stories require strategic thinking to understand what’s meaningful to your audience, and solid writing deliver a story that hits the mark.

Every word should have a purpose – helping convey exactly what you are trying to communicate. Each message should be proven with facts. Each fact should support your overriding objective. And your objective should be clear.

Evan as the channels we use to communicate continue to evolve, the fundamental ability to write clarity, brevity and relevancy is more important today than ever. Strong writing will separate your pitch from the rest, just as is will separate you from your competition when looking for a job. If you can write, you can tell more effective stories, and if you’re planning a career in PR, telling stories is the business we’re in.


GAME TIME: AP Style Quiz, College Edition

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.

Here’s a predominantly “college-themed” 10-question AP style quiz for you. You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

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

Click here to begin.