Read it now, read it again: Tracy Everbach’s explanation on what journalists need to cover sexual assault

About three weeks ago, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, I reached out to a good friend, veteran journalist and feminist media scholar, Tracy Everbach, to see if she’d be willing to help me make sense of how this was all being covered in the media.

Given her expertise (and the insane amount of work professors like her have to deal with), her answer was about what I would have expected:

Yes I will. I am really slammed but will make time for this because it’s important. When do you need it?

My response was both honest, and unfortunately, prescient:

Thanks! As for “when” (and I hate saying this because it’s bad and yet I know it’s true) I’d be fine any time in the next week or so as I can’t imagine we’ve heard the last big “Famous person X is now accused of XYZ despicable sexual acts.”

In the time between that post and now, we’ve seen a number of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and other “what the heck is wrong with you?” situations among men of power being revealed. We even now have a case in which a woman tried to “catfish” the Washington Post into running a false allegation against Senate candidate Roy Moore. Today’s firing of morning show host Matt Lauer had me thinking, that it’s probably a good idea to shine a spotlight back on Tracy’s wise words.

Read her original post on this topic here. It’s worth it.

The Secret of the Briefs Bin (or how to write press releases that actually see the light of day)

I got a request for a post over the Thanksgiving break: “Can you talk about press releases? You cover this in the book, but what should we REALLY do to make sure our press releases (get published in news outlets)?”

Here’s a quick look at my actual experience writing news pieces from press releases. Hope it helps.

Of all the jobs I had working on the night desk of a professional newspaper, the one really annoying task was to tackle the briefs bin. The wire basket sat on my editor’s desk and was filled with press releases that various groups, clubs and businesses sent to us, hoping we would be enthralled enough with their prose to provide them with free coverage. Once every couple days, my editor would sort through a giant stack of releases and make some quick-glance decisions on their value.

I’d guess that at least one-third of them ended up in the garbage immediately. Those tended to come from out-of-state organizations or contained irrational screeds. A small number of the releases (maybe 5 or 10 percent) became actual stories: The editor would see a lot of value in these and hand them off to reporters who could pour some time and energy into them. Sources were called, people were quoted and stories were born.

The rest, however, had “BRF” scrawled across the top of them and were dumped into the briefs bin. These press releases would, at best, get a four-paragraph brief in the local section. Still, it would be something, so getting that far mattered.

The briefs bin was essentially a “do this when you have time” job for those of us who worked nights or general assignment shifts. When the editor asked, “Are you doing anything?” if you couldn’t plausibly come up with a job that you needed to do RIGHT NOW, she would say, “Well, why don’t you work through the briefs bin instead?”

So, what made for a “good” release, or at least good enough to get some level of coverage from a news publication? Consider the following thoughts:

  • A clear focus:  In a lot of cases, the most important stories were already gone, as my editor had pulled them out and given them to reporters. It was like someone had opened up a bunch of packs of baseball cards and pulled out all the major stars. I needed to find value in the semi-stars and commons that remained. When a press release hit the briefs bin, I knew it wasn’t something that was going to cure cancer, but I needed to find something that would matter to my readers. A strong focus in the headline and the lead sentence would help me figure this out. If the headline was something like, “City wins ‘Arborfest’ award for record-setting 23rd year in a row,” at least I had something to hang my hat on. If I’m reading six paragraphs into this and I’m hearing about “Ever since the dawn of time, trees have been an essential component of human existence on Earth…”, well, I’m probably skipping that one. If the release could be easily converted into a tight, clear brief, I wrote it up and pushed it over to my editor. If it couldn’t, I would usually slip the news release to the bottom of the briefs bin and pick another one. Eventually, if enough of us pushed a release to the bottom of the bin, it became “old news” and my editor would throw it out when she did a “cull” on the bin at the end of the month.
  • Write like I write: I once asked a friend who did press releases as a major component of his job what a “win” would be for him when he sends these things out to news outlets. His answer was, “I’d love it if you would just print the whole thing exactly the way I wrote it.” If that’s the goal, use the inverted pyramid, write in single-sentence paragraphs and follow AP style. Essentially, you want to write like I write for my publication. The less work you make me do, the more likely it is you will see your content published almost verbatim.
  • Appearances count: I say this as a chronically messy individual who will only “dress up” for weddings, funerals and court appearances. I also say this as someone who once tried to turn in a report that had tartar sauce on it. That said, as a professional, your job is to present information to me in a professional fashion. Yes, letterhead looks nice, but I’m talking about appearances in terms of things that make your release easy to read. Contact info should be easy to find and give me a named individual I can reach if I have a question. The font should not look like it was chosen by a toddler, a kidnapper or the Son of Sam. The paragraphs should be double spaced, so I can read them without getting a headache. At 1 a.m. when I was writing these things, ease of use made my day. If I felt like I was playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” I would usually give up.
  • It’s not about you: The goal of any form of media writing is to reach your audience members in a way that has them see why they should care about the story you are telling. The key way to do this is to tell the readers why THEY should care about something, not why YOU want to tell them something. In short, it’s not about you. The promotional aspect of press release writing allows you some leeway in how you tell them this information, but you want to keep in mind this press release isn’t about you or how cool your group is. If every release you write starts off with “The Smithton Company announced Wednesday an important (NEW PIECE OF INFORMATION)…” you are essentially writing the PR version of a “held a meeting lead.” You get to “play” in the release, but it shouldn’t be all about you.

Thanks for asking for this post! Hope it helped! By the way, I do take requests, so if you want me to cover a topic, pick at a story or generally deal with something on the blog, contact me and I’ll be happy to give it a go.


GAME TIME: Thanksgiving-themed AP-style quiz!

On the last day before most people take off for turkey, shopping, hunting or whatever you all do, beg your instructor to let you do this instead of actual work!

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 Thanksgiving-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 start your quiz.

Allegations of rap, a sheriff-groping student and other awkward mistakes to avoid

We have a couple examples today of what happens when journalists don’t think before they act or they fail to spend an adequate amount of time to check their work before publishing.

SPELLCHECK WON’T SAVE YOU: One of the main reasons you have so many headline issues or stories about “pubic speakers” or “pubic events” is because journalists misspell “public” and don’t notice it because spellcheck didn’t say something was wrong. Just because a word is spelled correctly doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right word, as Newsweek found out in its recent coverage of sexual assault allegations:


If you read the second sentence carefully, you will notice journalist says “Simmons allegedly rapped”  the woman, as opposed to “raped” her. (Def Jam is a label predominantly known for hip-hop artists, thus making the “rapped” reference additionally awkward.)

Regardless of if you are writing about a major figure accused of committing a heinous crime or if you are covering a bake sale hosted by local youth, edit carefully. It can save you from something truly embarrassing.

HYPHENS HELP: We’ve discussed the idea of reading everything from the perspective of a 12-year-old boy as a way to keep yourself out of trouble when writing things that could lead to awkward double entendres. This not only helps with word choices, but also in the use of punctuation. Perhaps the most famous one indicates how commas save lives:


In this case, the lack of a hyphen creates a problem for anyone wondering who was doing what to whom:


The YouTube video referenced here talks about a “Student Groping Sheriff,” which is a bit too vague for the casual reader. It could be a student groping a sheriff or, in an extremely odd reading, a student sheriff whose job it is to engage in groping. What you needed was the hyphen so it was a “Student-Groping Sheriff,” as in a sheriff who groped students.  Hyphens help to clarify what could be an awkward construction. This is why I tend to over-hyphenate, even on things like a “public-relations practitioner.” I don’t want someone to be seen as a “relations practitioner” who operates in public. Not sure what that would look like and I don’t want to know.

WORD CHOICE MATTERS: It’s not only about what the word says or means in some cases, but rather what the word connotes. Consider this word choice in a item about several hunting fatalities:


The phrase “a couple” does mean two, so the headline isn’t inaccurate, but the feeling of “a couple” is a bit too casual of a tone for a story in which people died. I have a hard time believing the recent Las Vegas mass shooting would have a headline like “Some guy shot bunches and bunches of people at concert.” Then again, this headline ran after the Texas shooting:

When it comes to crafting your content, think about how your readers will read what you are putting out there. Every word you choose or error you make has the potential to affect how your readers consume your work and what they will think of you.

In short, be careful out there.

‘Tis the season to kill these 17 holiday cliches that will land you on the naughty list and get you coal in your stocking

The holiday season brings a lot of things to a lot of people, including family, gifts, joy and faith. Unfortunately for journalists, it also brings a ton of horrible, well-worn phrases that sap your readers’ will to live.

I tapped into the hivemind of jaded journos who were nice enough to come up with their least favorite holiday cliches. Avoid these like you avoid the kid in class with a cough, runny nose and pink-eye:

Turkey Day: The event is called Thanksgiving, so give thanks for journalists who don’t use this cliche. In fact, it took almost 300 years for turkey to become a staple of this event, so you might as well call it “Venison Thursday,” if you’re trying to be accurate.

T-Day: Regardless of if you are “turkey perplexed” or not, you’re compounding the problem with the above cliche with simple laziness. That, and you’re really going to create some panic among distracted news viewers in the military.

‘tis the season: According to a few recent stories, ’tis the season for car break-ins, holiday entertainingto propose marriage, to get bugs in your kitchen and to enjoy those Equal Employment Opportunity Commission year-end reports!

The White Stuff: Unless you are in a “Weird Al” cover band or running cocaine out of Colombia, you can skip this one.

A white Christmas: The only people who ever enjoyed a white Christmas were bookies, Bing Crosby’s agent and weather forecasters who appear to be on some of “the white stuff.”

Ho-ho-ho: It’s ho-ho-horrible how many pointless uses of this phrase turn up on a simple news search on Google. None of these things are helped by the inclusion of this guttural noise.

On the naughty list: The toys “on the naughty list” in this story “all have some type of hazard that could send a child to the hospital. The majority pose a choking hazard but parents should be aware of strangulation, burns, eye injuries, and more.” Including a cliche diminishes the seriousness of this a bit. Also, don’t use this with crime stories around the holidays: The first person to find a story that says Senate candidate Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. or Kevin Spacey landed “on the naughty list,” please send it to me immediately for evisceration.

Charlie Brown tree: Spoken of as something to avoid. You mean you want to avoid having a tree that demonstrated looks aren’t everything and that tries to capture the true deeper meaning of Christmas? Yep. Can’t have that stuff.

“Christmas starts earlier every year…” : Easter, maybe. Christmas, no. It’s the same time every year. Check your calendar and stop this.

War on Christmas: Be a conscientious objector in this cliched battle, please.

“… found coal in their stockings”: Apply the logic of “on the naughty list” here and you get the right idea. The story on the Air Force getting coal for Christmas after tweeting that Santa wasn’t real could have done without the cliche. Then again, maybe we’d all be better off if the Air Force was right, given the picture included with the story.

Making a list, checking it twice: A all-knowing fat man has a list of people who are naughty and nice and will dole out rewards and punishments accordingly. Sounds cute when it’s Santa, but less so when an editorial is using this to talk about Steve Bannon. Let’s be careful out there…

Grinch: There is probably an inverse relationship between the number of people who try to use this cliche and those who actually get it right. Let’s let John Oliver explain:

Jingle all the way: Nothing warms the heart like an in-depth financial analysis of a multi-national retailer like a random reference to Jingle Bells.

Dashing through the snow: This product pitch isn’t improved by the cliche, but it might help you survive hearing the use of it over and over and over…

It’s beginning to look a lot like…: Well, it apparently looks a lot like Christmas for small businesses, at Honolulu’s city hall, through a $1.5 million investment in lights at a Canadian park, and at a mall in Virginia. It’s also looking a lot like 2006 in the NFC. Oh, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Watergate as well. Get ready with that naughty list and coal, I guess…

The true meaning of…: Nothing says, “I understand and want to engage with my readers” like lecturing them on “the true meaning” of something, whether that is Christmas or a VAD.

Wishing you all the best in this season of cliche…

Vince (The Doctor of Paper)

Guest Blogging: Journalists need to understand rape culture to report on sexual abuse

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Tracy Everbach, an experienced journalist and professor from the University of North Texas, here to discuss the recent spate of sexual assault stories in the media and journalists’ obligations while covering this topic. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.

“It was 40 years ago.”

“Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a 30-year-old single male asking a 19-year-old, a 17-year-old, or a 16-year-old out on a date.”

These are actual quotes from public officials defending Roy Moore, Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. Moore is accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32 and of pursuing several other teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore called these allegations “fake news.”

The Moore story is just one of a cascade of sexual abuse accusations that have become public in recent months, from candidate Donald Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, to Anthony Weiner’s emailing pictures of his penis to girls and women, to Harvey Weinstein’s “casting couch,” to Kevin Spacey’s molestation of young men.

How do we as journalists handle these types of stories?

It is helpful to understand that these are NOT stories about sex. They are stories about violations and crimes against girls and women, boys and men. They are stories about power and taking advantage of others who don’t have it.

It also is helpful for journalists to understand the concept of “rape culture.” This is defined as an accepted societal belief that normalizes rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Rape culture blames the victim for her or his own assault or harassment and encourage myths such as “she asked for it,” “he couldn’t help himself,” and other falsehoods.

The visual below may help explain the concept. (The graphic is not perfect. The words at the top of the pyramid are “Rape,” “Incest,” “Battery,” and “Murder.”) In a nutshell, rape culture often deters victims and survivors of sexual violence from coming forward about crimes because of a fear they won’t be believed, that they will be blamed, that they will be ridiculed and/or feelings of shame.


The Associated Press Stylebook offers surprisingly little help on covering sexual abuse, beyond an entry under “privacy” that tells us not to identify people who have been sexually assaulted unless they voluntarily identify themselves. Yeah, okay.

When accusations are flying, what are our obligations as journalists?

First, we should show compassion for those who are victims or survivors. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a Justice Department-funded agency, finds that a majority (63 percent) of sexual violence cases never are reported to police.

Rarely are such accusations false, and we should understand it takes courage for someone who has been abused to come forward. The Sexual Violence Resource Center also finds that only about 2 percent to 7 percent of sexual violence cases are falsely reported. Therefore, as journalists, we always should be skeptical, but should keep in mind that false reports are a tiny proportion of reported cases. Some news organizations tend to jump on these false reports as big stories, which caused them to appear more prevalent than they really are. More on that in a minute.

In addition, we should focus our journalism on the bigger picture rather than dwelling on individual cases. Topics to address include:

  • Why do survivors of abuse decline to report cases? The fact that many women and men have been coming forward about celebrities in the past few months points to a possible beginning of change to rape culture. It shows that when survivors bond together, they can find strength in each other.


  • Why do men (and most of the perpetrators are men, even when men are the victims) engage in such behaviors?


  • What about our society and culture supports the myths that victims are to blame for their own assaults? That false reports are rampant?


  • Why don’t we talk more about sexual consent and what it means? This is an excellent video that helps define consent by comparing it to a cup of tea. College students love it. (Profanity warning here. There also is a “clean version” for middle and high school students.)


The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a stellar resource for reporting on sexual violence. For example, it advises: “Rape or sexual assault is in no way associated with normal sexual activity; trafficking in women is not to be confused with prostitution. People who have suffered sexual violence may not wish to be described as a ‘victim’ unless they choose the word themselves. Many prefer the word ‘survivor.’”

At this point, I’m guessing some journalists are asking, “What about the Rolling Stone story?” The magazine ran a story in 2014 that described a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. The story was later debunked and the magazine retracted it. Rolling Stone was ordered to pay the fraternity $1.65 million.

While the Rolling Stone story had many problems, the main ones were not false accusations; they were journalistic failures. The story was based on one source, a survivor who apparently had been through a traumatic experience at some point. The reporter and editors did not check or corroborate records and sources to verify details of her story. Columbia Journalism Review took the story apart in detail, calling it “A failure that was avoidable.” CJR also published tips to avoid repeating the mistakes and noted that the incident should not deter journalists from reporting on the valid problem of campus rape.

Journalists reporting on these types of stories need to know some of the basics about sexual abuse and violence, as well as myths that continue to be perpetuated. Accurate and fair journalism is essential to changing rape culture. It also is the first step to changing sexual harassment behaviors in newsrooms.


Guest Blogging: A look back at media coverage of several transgender candidates’ election victories

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, Bethany Grace Howe, a doctoral student who has written extensively on issues pertaining to the transgender community, discusses the media coverage of election victories by transgender candidates throughout the country. If you are interested in guest blogging on a topic of interest, please contact us here.

I won’t pretend that as a transgender woman the Nov. 7, 2017 election of Danica Roem’s historic election to lead Virginia District 13 didn’t thrill me. The first woman to be elected and one assumes seated as a state representative, I’m proud of her and what she means for people like myself.

Even more towards my own personal joy, it’s especially wonderful because she defeated someone who billed himself as the state’s “chief homophobe.” I won’t deny my sense of schadenfreude at seeing him sent packing from government. Or, to put it in a way more typical of my liberal-Oregon roots: “Karma’s a…”

That said, as a journalist I’m also excited about what the night meant for myself and others like me. Not because of what the media said, but what it did not. Not one article in a mainstream publication mentioned the details of Roem’s transition. Not the liberal New York Times, nor the more conservative Washington Examiner. Even Fox News considered that irrelevant to the story at hand.

Can it be said all media outlets did so? No. Though I have no immediate means to prove it, I suspect on election night some of the more right-wing conservative talking heads chose to do so. (And maybe some liberal ones, too.) Not surprisingly in the least, Breitbart labeled her “a man living as a woman.” And I’d have to pretend to be surprised that they would make such a choice.

That, however, is the point: they made a choice. One that my perusal of media covering that evening and election shows responsible media outlets are making in a way that respects the identity of transgender people.

In Minneapolis, two African-American transgender city council representatives were elected the same night as Roem. No mention was made of their transition in the election coverage.

Outside Atlanta a transgender woman was elected to city council in Doraville. No mention was made of her transition in the election coverage.

And in Erie, Pennsylvania, a transgender man was elected to the school board. No mention was made of his transition in the election coverage.

If this seems repetitious, then I’ve made my point: transgender people should not have to explain or defend their identities any more than members of other diverse groups. People of color or religious faith: we don’t make them quantify and defend their experience. No one asks them to prove they’re African-American, nor how long they’ve been a Christian and why.

I suppose it could be argued that this is a trend limited to major media markets, or those in more liberal blue states, like Minnesota. Atlanta, though more liberal than the rest of the state, is certainly not a hotbed of transgender liberalism. And Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, where the Erie School Board newspaper coverage was based, is in Cumberland County, a location that saw Donald Trump outpoll Hillary Clinton by 18 percent.

Does this mean everything is just dandy out there in the world of transgender people and media? Certainly not; Breitbart and other faux-news sites like it will remain widely-read purveyors of hate and ignorance. I’ve no doubt either that there are small-town media outlets where small-minded editors prevail over contemporary ethics. Though you don’t have to look that far – or that small – to see where transgender people still must defend their identity.

Danica Roem born September 30, 1984) is an American journalist and politician of the Democratic Party from Northern Virginia. In the 2017 elections, he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Roem won the Democratic primary on June 13, 2017, and the general election on November 7, 2017. He is set to become the first openly transgender person to both be elected to a U.S. state’s legislature and serve his term.”

“‘He’ was elected.” “‘He’ is set.” “He” – a incorrect pronoun the article goes on to repeat 17 times (along with “his”) in an article of just over 600 words. For what it’s worth, they included “she” or “her” a half-dozen times. Bad editing? Perhaps.

But I was kind of hoping Wikipedia would be at least as current as their entry regarding the latest Hollywood pervert to come down the pike. Priorities, I guess.


Journalism Folk: Help Me Help You (on this blog, at least)

The “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” book is entering its printing stage, which means whatever happens next has to be on this blog. No more “Wait! We have a new example of a disaster we can stick in there!” or “DAMMIT! What do you mean “YikYak” isn’t a thing anymore?” rewrites.

The nice thing about the way this blog is set up is that you can access “chapter topics” I’ve covered over time, so you can assign a chapter and say “Also, go read what this yahoo had to say about Chapter 6 on his blog” or something. There’s also always something new to say, given the rapid rate in which we have news flowing, disasters brewing and people generally falling on their keys in public.

The purpose of this blog was to help instructors who used the book (and those who don’t but enjoy the vibe of this approach) to tackle topics that matter to them and their students. For the most part, I’ve been guessing (hopefully well) but if this book is to become more than a colorful doorstop, I need to make this worth your time.

With that in mind, here’s my ask today: Help me help you. Either email me, hit me up on Twitter or just post something below here to tell me what you want me to cover, examine or discuss on this blog. Tell me what you want to see more of or less of as we go forward.

How to annoy your survey participants in six easy steps

As a researcher, I end up asking a lot of people to participate in surveys I’m doing and studies I’m conducting. As such, I feel compelled to reciprocate whenever someone out there is asking for help in a similar vein. Thus, when a survey from one of my alma maters landed in my in box, I decided to give it a shot. Ten minutes out of my life? Happy to help.

I’m not sure how much help I was to the people who put the survey out, but given the various problems I had with this survey, I’m hoping I can help you all learn how to avoid what went wrong for them. Thus, you have today’s look at how you can really annoy your survey participants in six easy steps:



This is perhaps the simplest rule for trying to gather information from people who really don’t owe you anything: Make it a simple, intuitive and error-free experience.

To do that, you need to have people within the group or who won’t be part of the larger data pool take your survey before you send it to your population/sample. This is where you work out the kinks, troubleshoot confusing items and generally make sure you don’t look dumb. It became clear to me in the first screen that this group failed to do this:

(NOTE: The blank spot is where the name of the university was. I deleted it to be decent.)

OK, do I click “next” to continue before or after I select my graduation group? Also, does clicking “next” move me to the next screen or do I need to click the arrow (something that seems more intuitive)? I tried a few ways of doing this and the only rule seemed to be that I had to make a click on “next” and pick my year at some point before I clicked on the arrow (which I was never actually told to do).

You are conducting a survey, not giving me a game of “Oregon Trail.” Make sure I know what I need to do or that you tell me how to do it simply. That’s one big thing in pretesting digital surveys.



In some cases you want people to tell you multiple things on an item (Which of the following ice cream flavors do you like? Select as many as you want). In other cases, you want to force a choice (Which flavor of ice cream is your favorite? Select one.) When it comes to forced choices, you need to make sure you WANT to force the choice and that the forcing of that choice is conveyed to the participant in a way that allows him or her to make the best choice. Here’s where it doesn’t work:


OK, but I did both Print and Broadcast. Which am I supposed to pick? The one most closely attached to my job? The one I liked best? The first one?

This happened at least twice more in this survey:

(I tried to click more than one and couldn’t. Trust me, this place has no trouble finding me for stuff like this.)
(Again, “all that apply” turned out to be “pick one.”)

If you want to force a choice where I might want to select more than one, remember the ice cream example: Tell me to pick a specific item (your favorite flavor). If that isn’t clear, explain what you want me to do if I fit more than one category (If you completed more than one track, please select the one you most closely associate with your current field of employment.). This will put the onus on the participant to choose, while still giving the person a sense of direction.



As we noted before on this blog, people can be jerkweeds for their own sense of enjoyment. You want to make sure they don’t have ways to screw up your data. In a similar vein, you don’t want to give people a chance to mess something up accidentally as well. This can happen when you give me mutually exclusive options that I can select simultaneously, as you can see below:

Mutually Exclusive Checkboxes

I could check all of the boxes I wanted, even though it makes no sense to say that I will tell you all of the things I donate to even though I donate to none of them and prefer not to tell you about it. If you need to get at if I donate or not, you can do one item that forces a choice (Do you donate money to organizations of any kind? Y/N/Won’t say) and then let the choice on that lead to another question. This is called logic within digital programs and allows people who pick “Yes” to get a screen filled with potential places you donated money (non-profits, universities, OTBs etc.) and people picked anything other than “Yes” to skip that item and drop into the next “everyone gets to answer” question.

(To be decent to the people doing the survey, I unchecked the options that didn’t make sense and answered honestly. It seemed like the right thing to do…)



People generally understand simple choices like rankings (Of the following three sports, please rank them in the order you enjoy watching them, with your favorite choice ranking first and your least-favorite choice ranking third.). People also are used to scales if those scales have numbers that attach themselves to choices (On a scale of 1 to 5 in which 1 = Strongly disagree, 3 = Neither agree nor disagree and 5= Strongly agree, please rate the following items.). However, when you have a set of rules and measurements like we’re playing “Bamboozled,” you will annoy the hell out of your participants. Consider these three answers:

Which 5 is 5?

According to the numerical equivalency the sliders gave me, each of these answers correspond to the number 5 on a scale of 1-7. I have no idea if that’s true or if my positioning of the sliders will indicate that I like Learning/Enrichment much more than career advancement (if I move either of those sliders just a teeny, tiny bit to the right and left respectively, you have a two-point gap on a seven-point scale). If I really wanted each of them to be EXACTLY 5, did I need to align them perfectly? And if so, where along that “five continuum?”

Why we needed sliders for this was beyond my ability to comprehend, as buttons with numbers would have worked out just fine.



In some cases, you will want to reaffirm people’s choices before they proceed on a question (You noted that you have a Ph.D. How many years beyond your master’s degree did it take for you to complete that degree?). However, you don’t want to confuse people for no good reason. I was asked this question:


I picked “Yes” and then went on to a second screen where I was given some particularly unhelpful options regarding my rung on the corporate ladder. Once I finished that, I got this:


Well, I said I AM employed, so I’m worried that I’m screwing up their data set. I want to go back and check, but I was not only unable to do it with an arrow at the bottom of the page (“Forward” is not only our state motto but also the edict of this survey.) but I couldn’t use the browser’s “back” arrow either. Fortunately, they sent me another link and I did the same thing and found that, no, I wasn’t screwed up. The survey was.

The same thing was true of confusing items like this one:

Extremely Likely TWICE

Which “extremely likely” is the right one? Or is this like a Russian election and you just really want me to pick something supportive?



Research (particularly marketing research) is supposed to be mutually beneficial. In other words, the goal is for the organization to learn something and the participant to feel good about taking part in the work. The best response you can hope for from participants is, “That was pretty interesting. I’d like to know what you find out.” The worst response you can get is what I got from a friend of mine who just completed the same survey:


Before you go through the trouble of asking people to help you, make sure you are doing your level best to be respectful of their time. Give them a clean, clear and simple instrument, have all the kinks ironed out and make sure they feel as good about the process as you do.

Twitter’s move to 280 Characters and the “Fat Pants Theory” of fixing the wrong thing

Twitter officially announced its move to 280 characters per tweet this week and generally speaking, people were a tad annoyed more about what they didn’t get than what they got:


The edit button issue is part of a larger problem: Organizations that don’t listen to their users. One of the biggest pushes on this blog and in these books is the idea of putting your audience’s needs front and center when you ply your trade. Some people on Twitter made that concern clear:


The second issue is that while Twitter is telling people that very few tweets reached the 280 character mark, it doesn’t mean they won’t. When Twitter first rolled this out, we noted this issue as the “bigger house” approach to having too much stuff. Apparently, we’re not alone in that thought:


In rethinking this, however, the house thing isn’t entirely accurate, in that more space can lead to more stuff, but it’s not necessarily the worst thing on Earth. A more accurate “Filak-ism” might be the “Fat Pants Theory.” Here’s how it works:

  1. Let’s say I’m wearing jeans that are Size X and they fit fine, I’m eating well and the pants feel good.
  2. I start working out less because I’m lazy and I start eating more of my meals out of the vending machine at work and Taco Bell on my way home from work, thus my pants start feeling tighter and tighter. I’m uncomfortable in my pants.
  3. I solve the problem by buying larger pants. I now have jeans that fit me fine.

I know I have pants of various waistband sizes at home because of the “Fat Pants Theory,” even though I also know that buying new pants doesn’t solve the underlying problem: I need to get off my ass, work out more and eat better food. If I don’t do this, not only will those earlier pants fail to ever fit me again, but I’ll eventually grow out of these pants and the cycle will continue.

Twitter is doing exactly this: Instead of forcing people to learn how to improve writing, clarity and focus, they simply gave them larger pants and said, “Enjoy eating lard while you lay on the couch watching ‘Stranger Things.'” As journalists, the temptation to let a few of those tweets slide toward 150, 160 and 170 characters doesn’t seem like a big deal, just like that extra bag of chips or that extra Burrito Supreme doesn’t really hurt at first. In the end, however, we’ll eventually be begging for 560 characters if we aren’t careful.

Since it’s here and we aren’t going to get rid of it, consider the following issues when deciding to tweet under this new level of textual freedom:

  • Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should: The old Filak-ism rears its ugly head here again, with the idea that extra space means extra responsibility, not just extra freedom. Some organizations clearly got that idea when they posted their response to this change in restrictions:
    Make sure that whatever you put into your tweet goes to the core of the primary point you are trying to get across and also that you remain focused on what the audience needs.
  • Edit anyway: One of the benefits of having a character limit was that it forced Twitter users to think and edit. The economy of the format meant you needed to swap out terms like “sustained injuries” for terms like “was hurt.” If you felt you needed the term “injuries” or “sustained,” you had to find ways to trim characters in other areas. It forced people to tighten their tweets. During that process, we were able to make sure that we had words spelled properly or that we had the precise message we wanted to send.

    Here’s a great look at how 280 can become 140 if we just focus on the writing:

  • Use this opportunity to fix some problems: As much bad as this change can do, you can use it to do some real good. First, one of the key, lame excuses for poor texting behavior was the character limit. People used “text speak” and annoying abbreviations, arguing that it was due to the restrictions of twitter. Thus you got this:

    OK, Twitter just doubled your space. Time to use actual words and complete sentences. U R able 2 wrt w/o BS abbr. so ppl w/brains can C U have 1 2.

    Second, a lot of social media policies were developed in a hurry because companies and organizations knew they needed one, even though nobody making the policy really knew what the policies should be. In some cases, these rules are arcane and in other cases, they never made sense. A number of places are considering changes in their policies to meet the opportunities of the new 280-character limit:

    Take this opportunity to weasel your way into the conversation and help set some logical boundaries and remove pointless restrictions. This rare policy shift will force leadership to reassess the rules on a larger level, so don’t miss this chance to get into the mix and help improve social media where you work.