“How to Spot Fake News” Poster and Podcast

To help promote the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” the folks at SAGE took some of my random thoughts on fake news, combined them with some smart thoughts from smarter folks and built a really nice graphic. Feel free to grab it here and post it wherever it might help you or your staff:

FakeNewsjpg

If you want a full “poster” version, feel free to hit me up and I’ll get them to send you one.

Also, the great folks at eduPUNX did an extra podcast this week where we talked about the concept of fake news, how it works and how we can fight back against it. This one is about 20 minutes, so it’s not as high of a level of commitment as the last one was.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint:” How a student newspaper investigated Title IX allegations against a college administrator

(Editor’s Note: I’m a huge believer in student media and the benefits it has for student journalists as well as campus audiences. When a big story breaks on a campus, I like to chat with the students who made the story happen to get the “backstory” on the piece.

Today’s conversation is with Ian Leonard, the managing editor for enterprise at the George-Anne at Georgia Southern University. He is a senior writing and linguistics major from Johns Creek, Georgia. He joined the paper his first semester freshman year, and is now a four-year veteran of the publication. His staff caught a tip about a professor who was the subject of multiple Title IX allegations, including one that is currently under investigation by the University System of Georgia. If you or your staff has a big story and would like to shed light on how you made it happen, contact me and we can take a look-see at it.)

Journalists will often have to make important ethical and editorial decisions about what to publish and when to publish it. Rush a story to publication, you run the risk of undermining your credibility if you don’t cover all sides as completely as your readers expect you to. Hold on to a story too long in hopes of covering all the angles, you might end up losing any reason to run the story at all.

Ian Leonard, the managing editor for enterprise of the George-Anne at Georgia Southern University, found himself trying to balance those issues when he was working on a story that had the potential to damage a faculty member’s reputation. Eric Kartchner had been the subject of at least three Title IX harassment investigations and three grievances during his 10 years at the school. A current complaint was being investigated by the university’s system.

“A professor approached a staff member and just told us that we might want to look into Kartchner…,” Leonard said. “We pulled his personnel file and saw all of the complaints lodged against him and knew it was something we wanted to pursue.”

Throughout the process of working through this story, Leonard and his staff had several important decisions to make: Do we name complainants? How much detail to we use in outlining the complaints? What should we do if the complainants don’t want to be interviewed? Leonard said he worked with his editorial board and his adviser to make sure each concern was addressed in a way that made sense for the story and the staff. In the end, the George-Anne decided to be cautious in its approach, declining to use the complainants actual names and relying heavily on public documents.

“The decision to use pseudonyms was definitely a difficult one to make,” Leonard said. “As an editorial board we looked at the nature of the situation at hand, knowing Kartchner had multiple retaliation cases filed against him, and thought about what kind of environment we would be putting these complainants in if we were to name them. We did reach out to all of our sources of course but not all of them were comfortable going on the record, and so despite the fact that their names did appear in public records, we figured it would be best to use altered names our of respect for their privacy.”

Leonard said the staff also knew that it was important to be transparent in reporting the charges levied against Kartchner without revealing too much, as to undermine the protection the pseudonyms provided. Although they had access to all of this information from the documents they obtained through an open records request, Leonard said the staff members discussed how they wanted to handle all of this.

“We definitely were concerned with making it too obvious,” he said. “Our main goal was to stick as close to the official university documents as possible while also presenting what we thought to be the most important details of the story at the time. We did our best to ensure that nothing we revealed was so on the nose that it was obvious who the source was.”

In stories like these, people who are the subject of the reporting often develop what some folks refer to as “ostrich syndrome.” They refuse to comment on the issue and stick their head in the sand, hoping that if they don’t say anything, the story will just go away. This makes life difficult for the writers, in that to be fair, they want to hear from the person being accused of something. However, they also can’t let the story die because the person involved is being evasive.

Leonard said the balance between letting Kartchner have his say and deciding to run the story without him required patience on the part of his staff. The same was true in dealing with his supervisor, Curtis Ricker,the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

“As far as Kartchner and Ricker, we reached out to them multiple times and given them over two weeks to get back to us, so we just came to the conclusion that if they didn’t want to comment, that was up to them,” he said. “We would have liked to hear from them, but we felt that the community as a whole would benefit greatly from this piece, regardless of whether they chose to be a part of it.”

Once the George-Anne published the piece, the community responded. Leonard said the staff received additional complaints from other sources about allegations of inappropriate behavior on campus. Others just thanked the staffers for their efforts.

“I think it was the response we received to this piece that really made it all worth it,” he said. “It was so overwhelming how many people contacted and reached out to us, just to share their own experiences, or say thank you. We weren’t really sure what to expect because none of us had really done anything of this caliber before, and were, rightfully, pretty nervous. There have been grumblings of some, not yet confirmed, meetings that may be taking place, but so far we’ve been focused on hearing from all of the new people who have reached out to us.”

“At the end of the day, I think the most important thing to come out of all of this is the conversation that was opened on our campus and in our community about the environment and culture we expect at Georgia Southern,” he added. “We were able to not only be a part of that conversation but, in a lot of ways, be at the center of it. And I personally think that’s the best job a newspaper can do, generate and encourage people to have those tough talks and address issues that are facing their community.”

When it comes to doing the big story, as Allison Hantschel noted before, nobody does it alone. Leonard noted that he worked with two other reporters on the story and spent a lot of time checking in with various other people he trusted. In the end, the story was a solid piece of journalism that made a difference on the GSU campus.

“I think the most important thing is to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Leonard said. “Rushing something like this will almost always lead to mistakes and this is a topic that has no room for them. I also think this is far too large a subject for one reporter to tackle alone. Form a small team of 2-3 people who can constantly be working on this together and looking out for each other. (Fellow staff members) Blakeley (Bartee) and Jozsef (Papp) were obviously instrumental in getting this to print at the level of quality that it did. It wasn’t just “nice” to be able to work on this together, it was absolutely necessary to tell the story the way we knew it needed to be told.”

“Nobody works anything big alone:” Reflections on breaking-news coverage, fear of failure and how to tell an important story.

Two school shootings made the news last week, one in western Kentucky and another in Italy, Texas. In both cases, people died, suspects were arrested and the communities were sent into a state of shock. Although they were among the most publicized public shootings, other attacks like a double-homicide in Denver, the shooting deaths of two adults and a toddler in Atlanta and the killing of a Wake Forest student in North Carolina happen on a daily basis in the United States.

These random spasms of violence have become common enough that it isn’t farfetched to believe that most journalists will end up covering something like this at one time or another. These big stories that rock a local community require courage, grace, dignity and strength on the part of news journalists. They also are something you can’t “practice” in your classes so that you can get better at them.

I often tell students that I can tell them how to cover a speech or a meeting and we can practice it for weeks and weeks to make them great at it. That said, crime and disaster news isn’t like this. I can give you all the press releases I have on fires, floods, shootings and more, but that won’t really get you ready for this. I can also set up mock press conferences with police and fire officials, but that doesn’t do it either. Until you’ve been on the scene of an incident where stuff is flying all over the place or people are bleeding or the police are rushing in every direction, you won’t know how you will react.

sansone.profileTo help give you a better sense of how journalists end up handling this kind of story, I asked Allison Hantschel,who worked for 10 years in newspapers covering everything from crime to religion, for her recollections on one of her first big, breaking-news stories.

Hantschel was pulled into a story in which gang tensions erupted into a triple homicide, and she was there to help the team at the Elgin Courier-News cover the story as it continued to unfold:

The Elgin Courier-News was my first job out of college. At the time, Elgin was an economically depressed river town that was experiencing a lot of gang violence. The city had been pushing back hard on gang crime for a couple of years by the time I got there, so things were really tense.

One morning by the time I got to the office there had already been one murder and most of the office was out covering that. When the police scanner started going nuts I was the only one left in the office.  One of our photogs, who was a breaking news hero, grabbed me basically by the collar and we ran for his car.

The scene was really chaotic. It was outside some small apartment buildings and the cops had barely cordoned off the area when we arrived. The ambulance wasn’t even there yet and the mother of one of the victims was screaming and pulling at the cops trying to get back into the building.

I don’t remember where he parked. I know I moved around a lot, and eventually got herded behind some kind of fence once enough authorities showed up to care about where reporters were.

They weren’t sure where the shooters were, how many, how many victims, etc. One of the perpetrators, turned out later, was still wandering around the scene. Somebody stuffed one of the murder weapons in a stuffed animal and smuggled it out. I suppose if I’d been thinking about it I’d have been nervous for my own safety but I was more concerned about not messing up the story by missing something.

Hantschel’s recollections of being a new reporter and scared of screwing up the story resonate with many journalists who find themselves on the scene of a big story. In most cases, you can’t prepare for this and you also have no way of knowing instinctively if you are “doing it right. That’s why experience matters:

I hadn’t done much cop/crime coverage at this point and I thought there was some kind of magic to it or something, so one night I asked one of our copy editors, Ted Schnell, what I should do if I got sent to cover a crime scene.

His advice is something I STILL tell younger journalists I mentor: “Go to the scene and write down everything you see and hear. Everything. Every sight, every sound, every smell. Put the reader in the moment.” Your job is to be there for the reader who can’t, and it’s all relevant. So I watched and I wrote everything down.

The “what” is seems logical in terms of what to get, but the “how” to get it can often feel difficult or awkward. Hantschel’s advice is to understand that reporting requires you to put the audience’s needs first and then to get the information as best as you can:

It sounds harsh to non-reporters but you’re not a person when you’re working. You don’t get into yelling fights with people but you do ask questions that sound monstrous in some other context. You accept a no if you’re given one but you ask because you might get a yes.

You don’t have to believe everything you hear. You don’t have to put everything you hear in a story. But you do have to ask and you have to listen respectfully. Then go back to your car or the office and figure out what’s useful for your story.

We got grief for humanizing victims that were criminals. But criminals are people, not monsters, and their whole lives are relevant. It’s important to know how someone can seem nice, can seem normal, and be completely different under their skin….

It wasn’t hard to stay safe in that moment because the scene was contained within a building, plus mostly I was too dumb to think about any danger beyond the danger of screwing up the story.

Calm was the easiest part. All your focus has to be external. Be a person later, on your own time. You’re not important in that moment, the story is.

As is often the case, the “kill the messenger” drumbeat took hold of the area in the wake of the reporting. Hantschel said her paper took a lot of grief for contributing to the town’s “image problem.” The newspaper, however, refused to be bullied:

I’ll never forget the response from our editorial page editor. “This town doesn’t have an image problem, it has a corpse problem.” Chris Bailey should have won a Pulitzer for those editorials. They were brave and fierce.

Of all the things she experienced in that moment and everything else she did in journalism, Hantschel said was the sense of connection to the other people in her newsroom that helped her the most.

The newsroom will save you every time. Bounce ideas off other reporters. Ask them to read your stuff before you send it to the desk. Let them make sick inappropriate jokes to talk you down from hard stories. Let them tell you when you need to go home and get some sleep. They’re your friends, yes, but let them be your critics as well.

And dear God, demand to be edited. If your editor skims things and says they’re fine, get another editor to really read you before you publish and question everything. It’ll drive you insane at the time but it’ll save you from corrections or online dragging.

Nobody works anything big alone.

 

Journalism education, first impressions and the importance of working hard for what you want: The Doctor of Paper on the Edupunx podcast

One of the greatest joys of being a professor is having students come back to see you, years later, once they have found their joy and passion.

Even if their first impression of you was, “Man, this guy’s a dick.”

Katy Hamm, who graduated from UWO with a degree in journalism, came back to Wisconsin for a holiday visit along with her partner, Craig Bidiman. Katy now works as the Coordinator of Student Activities at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Craig serves as the Health Education and Wellness Promotion Specialist at the University of Massachusetts Boston. They both have a passion for education, college media and a ton of other things related to student life at the college level.

One of their projects is the eduPUNX podcast, which covers a wide array of issues such as sexual assault prevention, educational opportunities and even grad-school blues. On the day after Christmas, they were nice enough to sit down with me and do a podcast about the current state of media, journalism education and how I got involved in this field to begin with. It was a blast and it’s punctuated by some of Craig’s musical choices, which made it even better. They just released the podcast this week, so I wanted to share it with you all. In doing it and listening to it, I learned a few things:

  • I can actually go almost an hour and a half without (really) cussing if I know I’m likely to be recorded. I think I need someone to follow me around with a microphone.
  • I’m not as negative about media as I thought I would be in all this. I think it has a lot to do with having both of them with me and how we kind of fed off of each other’s positive vibes. It’s good to be surrounded by good people.
  • Wisconsin is an objectively frigid place. It was -2 on the day we recorded this with a -25 windchill. Katy and I had to explain to Craig the concept of it being “too cold to snow.” Craig, who spent time in Oregon and now lives in Boston and is an almost fanatical runner, refused to run in weather this cold. He also now knows what it’s like to have your butt freeze.
  • I still hate the sound of my own voice. I feel bad for students who have to listen to me. Or maybe it’s just the “your voice always sounds funny to you” thing.
  • Katy’s first impression of me was not a positive one. The opening of the podcast will tell you that. I’m glad the impression didn’t stick, as she was a heck of a great student, a wonderful person and a top-notch member of the educational community.

You can catch my chat with them here, or you can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes as well. If my voice doesn’t annoy you, give me some feedback if you’d like to have me add podcasts to this site on any topic of interest.

 

 

Guest Blogging: “Journalists are never on vacation”

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 Steven Chappell, the director of student media at Northwest Missouri State University. He has been a working journalist for various publications since 1985 and today he discusses the importance of always being aware of potential stories, no matter where you are or what else is going on. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
When the emergency alert signaling an incoming missile arrived on cell phones across Hawaii Jan. 14, NPR’s White House correspondent Tamara Keith was in the middle of her first extended vacation with her family since the election. I imagine covering Trump’s first year as president means you have earned some well deserved time off. But for Keith, it meant just the opposite (https://www.npr.org/2018/01/14/577969846/38-minutes-of-panic-in-hawaii).
Keith’s vacation was immediately interrupted. Rather than say, “I’m on vacation,” she picked up her phone, interviewed people in the hotel lobby during and after the crisis, called into NPR headquarters to report live and then later filed another report, with interviews of locals and tourists and how they reacted to the crisis.
That same night, disaster struck the student body at the college where I teach. A Northwest Missouri State University student was struck and killed by a pick-up truck while exiting a local bar. The driver of the truck plowed into the front of the bar while allegedly drunk. The bar was full of undergraduate students enjoying a three-day weekend following the first day of classes. Among those students — three employees of student publications.
I learned of the crash about 9 a.m. Sunday morning when one of two local Maryville weekly newspapers posted it to Facebook. I texted the paper’s editors and told them they should be covering that. Then I read about it in the other weekly newspaper’s website. Then I saw tweets by three other media outlets. It’s now noon, and my students have reported nothing.
It wasn’t until after the university sent a media release confirming the student’s death that my editors posted anything, and I was furious with them. I still didn’t know that three of my student employees had been in the bar. I learned that Tuesday during a class. Needless to say, that class did not end well — and the students are probably still burning from the berating they received from me.
One student had shot video of the aftermath on her phone. Another had taken photos of the truck in the building. Neither student knew at that time anyone had been hurt, much less would die later from the injuries. Yet, instead of reporting what happened on official student media social media accounts, they instead just went home. They didn’t call editors. They didn’t call other student media staff. It never occurred to them to report it.
When I asked why they didn’t immediately stop being partying college students and become journalists, they simply said it didn’t occur to them. I couldn’t believe that. I repeatedly preach that when you see news happening, you become the reporter. You don’t wait for an editor’s permission or an assignment. You take the initiative. Here was that opportunity, and none of them had done anything.
Keith sets a great example. She was on a real vacation. In Hawaii. With a 5-year-old child in tow. Still, she did what a real journalist does. She puts aside her fears and does the job. Students should learn from that.

GAME TIME! Back-to-School AP-Style refresher quiz!

With a lot of people getting back to the school grind, it’s time to knock the rust off of the ol’ AP style guide and sharpen your editing skills. If you think you have game, give this quiz a shot. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most.

Here’s a 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 the quiz.

A look at The Ithacan’s current coverage of its president’s sexual abuse conviction from 2001

(Editor’s Note: I’m a huge believer in student media and the benefits it has for student journalists as well as campus audiences. When a big story breaks on a campus, I like to chat with the students who made the story happen to get the “backstory” on the piece.

Today’s conversation is with Aidan Quigley, a senior journalism major from Trumbull, Connecticut and the editor-in-chief of The Ithacan at Ithaca College in New York. He has worked on the paper since his freshman year, and has served as managing editor, news editor, assistant news editor and staff writer. He has also interned at Politico, Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and the (Waterbury, CT) Republican-American. If you or your staff has a big story and would like to shed light on how you made it happen, contact me and we can take a look-see at it.)

The Ithacan’s EIC Aidan Quigley published a magnum opus Wednesday on the school’s new president, shedding light on a story about her conviction for sexual abuse in 2001. The piece has drawn national attention, with Fox News, The New York Daily News and the Chronicle of Higher Education all publishing follow-up pieces on the Ithacan’s story.

Shirley Collado, the school’s president, and the school’s board of trustees issued statements on both the incident itself and Collado’s fitness to run the school in advance of the story they knew was coming. Quigley said this move prompted the Ithacan to publish the story a half hour after the president released her statement, although it had been in the works for more than a month.

“President Collado released a statement on Tuesday night that pre-empted the publication of our story, which was planned for the next day,” he said. “After we were aware that she had sent her statement to the community, I thought it was essential that we release our story, which included the patient’s side of the story — the allegations made against Collado — to add context and information to President Collado’s public statement.”

Quigley said the paper received a package of material from an anonymous source in December regarding the Collado case. He then got the full case file from the Washington, D.C. Superior Court and began digging.

“Winter break provided me an opportunity to really dive deeply into the reporting, in identifying and speaking with sources, filing public records requests and continuing to do research into the legal and ethical issues involved,” Quigley said.

The university was also helpful in getting information from key sources, he said.

We received no push-back from the college while pursuing this story, and the college helped arrange interviews with President Collado, Tom Grape (chairman of the Board of Trustees) and Jim Nolan, who led the search committee,” Quigley said.

“An unexpected twist we ran into was Collado’s decision to pre-empt the story with her statement,” he added. “We were planning on publishing the story the next day, so while the pre-emption caught us off guard, we were able to react quickly and publish the story shortly after the release of her statement.”

The statements painted a more benign picture of the situation, with the board’s statement noting that all of this had been disclosed to the university community almost a year earlier in a published interview where Collado described the situation this way:

[O]ne of my former patients who struggled with significant psychological disorders and had been in and out of treatment sought me out for help. She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I went out of my way to help her. But it backfired when I decided I wasn’t in a position to help her after all and that I needed to focus on getting through my grief. She ended up making claims against me. Unfortunately, this is the risk that many therapists and practitioners face when working with trauma patients or individuals challenged by serious psychological disorders. I fought the claims for a while, but I didn’t have the resources, social capital, or the wherewithal to keep going. I was in my 20s, and I had just tragically lost my husband, so I decided to take steps to end the legal action so that I could focus on taking care of myself and moving on with my life. It was a very difficult decision, but it’s the kind of decision that young people face daily when they feel they have no options, no resources, and no outside support.

Compare that to some of the revelations the Ithacan published:

Prosecutors argued Collado took advantage of a vulnerable, sexual-abuse survivor with mental illness by entering into a monthslong sexual relationship that started when Collado was the patient’s therapist. Collado denies having any sexual contact with the patient.

<SNIP>

The patient was receiving therapy for post-traumatic stress at The Center, as she had previously been sexually abused by a doctor — who was convicted for the abuse — and as a child, according to the prosecution. The patient, who was 30 years old at the time of the court case, was diagnosed with having bipolar disorder and a dissociative identity disorder and had experienced lengthy periods of deep depression and suicidal thoughts, Marcus-Kurn wrote.

The patient alleged that she began a sexual relationship with Collado on May 20, 2000, which lasted until October 2000, according to the prosecution. Marcus-Kurn wrote that the patient recorded encounters with Collado in a journal that was submitted to the court but is not included in the case file.

<SNIP>

The patient alleged that she had participated in a three-way sexual encounter with Collado and an adult male on Sept. 9, 2000, according to the prosecution. The patient alleged Collado told her it “would be psychologically helpful for her.” The man and Collado denied that the interaction had taken place.

<SNIP>

The patient did express her feelings to Marcus-Kurn over the telephone. Marcus-Kurn wrote that the patient said the following:

“It brings on such immense pain and it is very, very intense feelings of confusion. I start hearing her calling her name, I start smelling her, I start remembering her telling me that it would be good for me to sleep with (name redacted) , and I remember being raped, and I have blocked that all out and I’m afraid that it would kill me if I start dealing with it right now. She has hurt me beyond belief and it’s like so bad that I can hardly touch it because it hurts so bad. I have to take it really slow. I know that I feel a lot inside but I’m not really sure what all of those feelings are because I try really hard not to feel them but I know that they are painful as hell. I literally feel that I will fall apart every time I think I’ll deal with it. And it hurts too much. And I’m really angry that she slept with me and that she convinced me to sleep with her boyfriend and I feel that I was raped and that there is nothing I can do with it because I believe it isn’t against the law in D.C.”

In the wake of the story, the discussion on the Ithaca campus has been centered around The Ithacan’s approach to the story and how it came about, Quigley said.

“While the initial reaction has centered around our decision to publish the story and the identity of the whistle-blower who sent us the information, I’m hopeful and optimistic the community will engage at a deep level with the complicated issues the story presents,” he said.

As for the “big take away” he and his staff had after working through this story, Quigley said he found it is important to dig deep on stories that matter to a publication’s readership.

“I think it’s important to write these type of difficult stories in a straightforward, nuanced and balanced way. It’s important to write stories you can stand by and let the reporting speak for itself,” he said. 

 

3 things media students can learn from Harley Barber’s racist tirades

My Wednesday lecture to my media-writing class about social media and my Thursday look at the media law conveniently dovetailed with a horrific story out of the University of Alabama. A 19-year-old student named Harley Barber posted two videos on Instagram in which she repeatedly used vile, racist language.

(I’m linking to the Washington Post and the AL.com stories, but not the videos themselves, as they are definitely NSFW. If you decide to watch them, you might want to consider headphones and a crash helmet.)

Barber has been kicked out of her sorority (which she states on one of the videos is the most important thing in her life) and the university itself. Alpha Phi sorority and the university’s president issued statement condemning Barber’s racist tirades. Barber’s estranged mother spoke out against her daughter in the media and Barber herself has moved back to New Jersey and gone publicly quiet about the situation.

What happens next is unclear, but if the case of Justine Sacco, the PR practitioner who once tweeted about going to Africa and “hope I don’t get AIDS” is any indication, Barber may never recover.

Even if common sense and normal human decency has you thinking nothing Barber did could ever impact you, consider these three takeaways from this situation that will help you as a journalist:

  1. When you are on social media, you are playing with live ammo: I asked the students in my class how many people had a Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat account. All of them had at least one, and many had all three and more. I then said, “Understand this: You are all publishers and that comes with some huge risks.” I think it was the first time that many of them understood that social media provided them with a public presence that could go viral in a ridiculously fast time period. I could see at least a few of them mentally going back through their social media usage, wondering if they’d ever said something they might regret or posted an image the might embarrass them.
    Social media makes it extremely easy for people to post, share and comment on things in a way that traditional media outlets like TV stations and newspapers never could. That said, there also isn’t as much vetting that goes into tweets, posts and comments as there is in those other outlets. When you reach for your phone or a computer to hit social media, you’re locked and loaded and the safety is off. Don’t let a long line at the store, a bad break up or some other irritant drive you to rant on social media. The anger is momentary but the stupid could follow you forever.
  2. Free speech doesn’t mean consequence-free speech: The question of “Doesn’t the First Amendment allow her to say whatever she wants, no matter how vile?” came up in various conversations I had this week. The answer is yes, but that’s not the point.
    People confuse the idea of free speech as it’s explained in the First Amendment with consequence-free speech, as in you can do whatever you want and nothing bad will ever happen to you. The amendment notes that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…” which courts have now taken to mean all forms of government shall not prevent people from opening their mouths and saying what they feel. (Obviously, that’s a little simplistic, as fighting words, time-place-manner restrictions as well as other court rulings have limited this.) That said, the First Amendment doesn’t mean you won’t suffer for your statements.
    Private organizations, such as the sorority, are allowed to impose rules and restrictions on what people say or what happens when they say something awful. Some educational institutions, both public and private, have “codes of conduct” that will place restrictions on some forms of speech or outline consequences for particularly vile speech.
    Even if those institutions didn’t or couldn’t levy consequences against someone like Barber for her language, there is always the court of public opinion ready to drop a hammer on people when they behave in a way seen as reprehensible. Before she went off the grid, Barber said she was receiving negative phone calls and other messages from people displeased in her choice of words, to put it mildly. As several members of the hivemind debated if the school could legally kick her out, I noted that the school might be doing Barber a favor in expelling her. It’s hard to imagine being Public Enemy Number One on a campus that size and having to go back to class like nothing happened.
    In short, every action has consequences and something like this can have incalculable ones.
  3. You are never as safe as you think you are: One of the things that came up in the Harley Barber saga was the fact she posted these videos on her “finsta,” or fake Instagram account. According to various sources, (read: a newspaper article and students I know who know way more about this stuff than I do) these “finsta” accounts are where people feel free to be who they are without ramifications. It’s like the Instagram account associated with you is who you are when you meet your date’s parents and the “finsta” is the party freak you become later that night.
    “Security features” of this kind can really lull people into a false sense of security and an erroneous belief that they have some level of privacy on this wonderful “information superhighway.” No matter how you set your Facebook privacy settings or how you lock down your Twitter account or how many “finsta” personas you have, someone can find you. Somebody out there knows you or will share it with someone who might not think your “Kanye Frat Party” isn’t that funny or that your 79-year-old house mother chanting the N-word in a video isn’t OK. You are never as safe as you think you are when it comes to these things.

Each time you use social media, you put yourself at legal, ethical and social risk, so make sure you are putting the requisite amount of thought into it. If you don’t, you never know what might happen.

 

Come for the advice, stay to copy edit the hell out of me

“Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” launched this week, which means a couple things:

  1. I’ll usually be posting at least once a day, Monday through Thursday. (Friday, possibly. Weekends only if something really weird happens.) You can feel free to subscribe if your professor is making you keep track of this instead of randomly checking in on the blog from time to time.
  2. I’ll be driving up Amazon’s web traffic exponentially by checking in constantly to see if anyone is buying this thing. (That’s not weird or anything, right? It is? OK, forget I said it.)
  3. I’m going to screw some stuff up. It’s inevitable.

I was on a call with the publisher Wednesday and I asked if everything was going OK with the book and the blog. Her responses were essentially, “The reps have only had the book for a day. Calm down.” and “The posts are fine, just watch the cussing and the typos.”

I’ve been dialing back on the cussing, although I think we need a running list of things the president is allowed to say, the media is allowed to repeat and that I can’t say on the blog. Maybe we need bingo cards or something. Feel free to get on that.

As for the typos, I’m going to be honest: I read the heck out of the posts before they go out but eventually I go blind to what I write. As I noted earlier in the year, I know everyone needs an editor. In fact, when I made that post, I got an email from a former student who caught a typo in there. Yes, I suppose it proves my point, but good grief…

So here’s the deal in this wonderful world of symbiotic relationships: I’ll do my best to tell you stuff that helps you out and you should feel free to say, “Hey chucklehead, you spelled (whatever thing I screwed up) wrong.” Just hit me with an email or via twitter (@doctorofpaper) and I’ll patch up my stuff and give you a hat tip.

Hope you all have a great start to your semester and let me know if I can be of any help.

Firefighters fight fire (or how to avoid the obvious when writing a lead)

I got this message from a former student:

Firefightersfightfire

(My hope is that thinking of me did not push her toward her pro-concussion stance.)

One of our earlier exercises in our media writing class requires the students to review a standard press release from a fire department and write a four-paragraph brief. The inclination the students have is to write it like the fire department did, placing the emphasis on what the department is doing and writing in a chronological format.

The problem with that is obvious in this headline: It doesn’t tell you what happened and the concept of “firefighters fight fire” isn’t a real revelation to the readers. Here are a couple tips to avoid writing a “no duh” lead:

  • What would you want to know first? Put yourself into your readers’ shoes and think about what would matter most to you if you were reading the thing you’re writing. If you went home after class and your roommate said, “Hey, your mom called. There was a fire at your house…” what would you want to know right away? (Is anyone hurt? How bad was the fire? What caused it?) Now, imagine your roommate started off with, “Well, the Merrill firefighters responded to a fire…”
    This is the same with any other straightforward story you write for a media outlet. People want to know the score of the game, the result of the meeting or the outcome of the vote, just like you would.

 

  • Look for the “noun-verb-object” elements: One of the key parts of our fire brief exercise is to put everyone’s brief up on the overhead and dissect each one. When we pick through the leads, the questions are simple: “What’s the verb? OK, what’s the noun? Now, what’s the object?” In a lot of cases, we get more than a few, “Firefighter fight fire” or “Firefighters respond to blaze” leads. When you’re trying to figure out if you have a good lead or not, look at the noun, the verb and any object you can find in that lead. If you have “fire destroys home” or “fire causes damage,” you’ll have a lot stronger lead than if you have “firefighters fight fire.” The same is true for things like “Board held a meeting” or “Woman gave a speech.” Tell me what the board did (Regents raise tuition) and the theme of the speech (Fight against sexism) and you’ll have some stronger leads

 

  • Focus on the FOCII: The five interest elements outlined in the book should be helpful in guiding you toward more engaging leads. Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Impact and Immediacy all speak to the basic things that make people want to read on. Impact and Immediacy can easily make a difference in a fire brief. If the fire is particularly noteworthy (oldest home, heaviest losses, weird way it started), Oddity can play in as well. Think about the things we care about and have an interest in and you’ll be in great shape.

When you write a lead, remember that you’re not trying to cure cancer or impress someone with your vocabulary. Your goal is simple: Just tell me what happened and let me know why I should care.