EXERCISE TIME: AP Style Spring Training Edition!

Baseball is perhaps my favorite sport and leads to my favorite time of the year. The sounds of Bob Uecker calling Brewers games on the radio that Dad kept in the garage was the soundtrack of summer for me. Now, I listen to him or Tom Hamilton calling Cleveland games on my MLB app.

In celebration of the opening weeks of spring training, here is an AP-style quiz that focuses on those picky rules that surround America’s pastime. 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 play.


Geriatric Dr. Evil v. Mr. Nutterbutter (or defamation involves more than someone being mean to you, Bob.)

During the publication of “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” I frequently told the people at SAGE to avoid using color, images or whatever else because, “It’s not worth it to waste money on me.”

The only time I begged them to waste money was for a photo of a giant talking squirrel that was insulting a coal baron.

Comedian John Oliver spent part of a “Last Week Tonight” episode talking about the coal industry. During much of that, he mocked coal magnate Bob Murray, saying he looked like “a geriatric Dr. Evil” and stated that Murray placed his miners in unsafe conditions. He also made fun of Murray for once supposedly saying a talking squirrel once told him he should start owning coal mines. The episode concluded with a costumed staffer called Mr. Nutterbutter the Squirrel presenting Murray with a novelty check for three acorns and 18 cents.

While doing all of this, Oliver even called out Murray’s litigious nature, explaining that he knew Murray was likely to sue him, but he stood behind everything he said. Murray, who has sued numerous media outlets before for unflattering coverage, took the bait and sued Oliver for defamation, false light and more.

The minute this happened, I desperately wanted to include an image of Mr. Nutterbutter in the book, because a) I’m clearly crazy and b) it was the perfect example for the law chapter of how there is a distinct difference between defamation and just saying things people dislike. (I ended up with more of a stock image of Oliver, but hey, I’ll take it.) The court made that distinction clear this week saying that none of this was defamation and it would be dismissing the case against Oliver. Murray has already stated he plans to appeal the court’s decision.

(Perhaps the greatest filing in the history of our legal system came in the form of an amicus brief from the West Virginia ACLU, which includes the amazing heading of “Anyone Can Legally Say, ‘Eat Shit, Bob!'” Feel free to read about it here.)

This is not the first time someone has tried to bully a media professional through the use of the court system. Washington football owner Dan Snyder sued the Washington City Paper after it published “The Cranky Redskins Fans Guide to Dan Snyder” in 2010. Snyder’s legal team first approached the paper’s parent company with what amounted to a “cease and desist” letter. In it, the attorney made such “legally compelling” statements as these:

Can you imagine how you would react if your wife was battling breast cancer and her public role as the National Football League’s national spokesperson on breast cancer awareness was demeaned as a mere public relations ploy to “sell” the “transformation” of her husband’s public image?

Your paper’ s latest diatribe comes on the heels of more individual columns concerning Mr. Snyder than any other news outlet in the city has written about any single businessman in Washington, perhaps ever.

Mr. Snyder has more than sufficient means to protect his reputation and defend himself and his wife against your paper’s concerted attempt at character assassination. We presume that defending such litigation would not be a rational strategy for an investment fund such as yours. Indeed, the cost of litigation would presumably quickly outstrip the asset value of the Washington City Paper.

In case you need a rough translation here, the letter basically says, “You are being really mean, you do it a lot and we have a lot of money we can use to sue you.”

The paper didn’t back off, so Snyder sued. He eventually dropped his $2 million suit, saying he wanted to “focus on the coming football season and the business at hand.” In other words, “We had no hope of winning so we backed off our bluff.

The point of explaining all of this, other than to highlight two pieces of content that irritated extremely rich people who tried to sue the media into silence, is to outline the key legal aspects of what it actually takes to libel or defame someone. Also, it is an opportunity to explain how to deal with people who get angry and scream, “I’m going to sue you!”

NOLO.com lists a series of potential defenses against defamation, two of which got Oliver off the hook: Truth and opinion. A third defense, hyperbole/parody, is also solid defense, as the 1988 Supreme Court case involving Hustler Magazine and the Rev. Jerry Falwell demonstrated.

Whether you are reporting on a serious matter or using a 7-foot-tall talking squirrel to take on a coal mine owner, here are some tips as to how best to deal with people who threaten to sue you:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: A threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources. (In the case of Bob Murray, it was less about factual inaccuracies and more about “OMG MEEEEN!!!” As the courts have repeatedly demonstrated, that’s not enough to win a suit, especially when the plaintiff is a public figure.)
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the Web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to them as needed.
  • Provide resolution: Either you or your editor should provide the person with some form of resolution to the issue. During this process, you need to explain what you found, what you decided to do and how you will proceed. If the person is still upset, you should have options for him or her to pursue the issue further. At that point, it might even be a lawsuit, but you have done your best to resolve the issue.

Lead writing: Finding the sweet spot between too much and not enough.

Some stories contain a lot of twists and turns, thus making a lead extremely difficult to write. An assignment I give to my introductory media writing class is to rewrite a lead on a story that has all sorts of problems. Here it is:

An Oshkosh man ac­cused of stealing women’s undergarments and sending them threatening letters told police he considered himself a sexual predator and ad­mitted he was close to committing more serious crimes — including rape and murder — but that his religious beliefs pre­vented him from following through.

The problems include:

  • The lead is 47 words long.
  • It includes a misplaced modifier that makes it sound like he’s threatening underpants.
  • We have no idea why we’re reading about this now (turns out, he was in court that day, which we don’t find out about until the second-to-last paragraph).
  • The thoughts he had or his self-confidence in his predatory-like nature isn’t as weird as what he actually did (which we find out more about later).
  • No real impact noted here, but if he was convicted, he would face more than 60 years in prison on five charges.

A more recent case of all sorts of potential elements clamoring for a spot in the lead occurred late last week when  Alec Cook, a former UW-Madison student, pleaded guilty to several charges related to sexual misconduct. Cook’s case was an odd and sprawling one, involving multiple victims and varying degrees of criminal activity.

According to one complaint, he choked and raped a woman after dinner and studying with her. Another complainant said he had drugged her before having non-consensual sex with her. Other complaints include allegations of stalking, inappropriate touching during class and strangulation attempts. In all, 11 women came forward and 23 charges were filed against Cook.

Trying to explain the magnitude of this while still avoiding the pitfalls of doing too much with the lead can be difficult. Below are the leads from several publications, with links to the stories.

Here is the lead from the Wisconsin State Journal, the daily newspaper located in Madison:

Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty Wednesday to five felonies, including three counts of third-degree sexual assault, nearly bringing to a close a sprawling case that had been set for seven trials involving 11 alleged victims that were to have happened over the next several months.


Here is how The Capital Times, another daily news source located in Madison, wrote its opening:

Expelled student Alec Cook, who was scheduled to go on trial on Feb. 26 in the first of seven trials on 23 charges involving 11 female UW-Madison students, pled guilty Wednesday to five felony charges involving five accusers.


The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the state’s largest newspaper, wrote this version:

An expelled University of Wisconsin-Madison business student accused of sexually preying on 11 women pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges involving five of them, closing the book on a high-profile case that shook the state’s flagship campus and drew national attention in fall 2016.


Here is the Associated Press lead, as published on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

A former student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has pleaded guilty to five felonies stemming from a string of alleged assaults around campus.

(UW-Madison also has two independent student newspapers, The Daily Cardinal and The Badger Herald. Both the Cardinal and the Herald covered the event and you can find their leads here. As I’ve said before, I don’t pick on student work in public whenever possible because a) students are learning and b) I don’t want to chill anyone’s desire to go to a student media organization to learn for fear of knocked around by an uppity Doctor of Paper. You can apply whatever lessons you learned here to them.)

You can see how various publications tried to encapsulate this case and the pros and cons of each. The State Journal and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel both went big, which led to leads of 47 and 43 words, respectively. They significantly exceed what you normally shoot for with a standard news lead (25-35 words), but they do focus strongly on the “Oddity” interest element.

The Capital Times and the AP both go shorter, although the Cap Times still goes beyond the 35-word limit (38). However, they both skip out on the thing things that make this case well known and also extremely disturbing. The AP lead almost makes it sound like a) the assaults didn’t actually occur (“alleged” gives me hives) and b) this could have been a guy punching out bouncers or something instead of raping women.

You will also notice that the two Madison papers used a “name-recognition lead” (Alec Cook) while the other publications used an “interesting-action lead,” which focuses on the What more than the specific Who. The name, in this case, gets delayed to the second paragraph.

There is no such thing as a perfect lead, so you have to figure out what’s worth keeping and what’s worth cutting. This is why you have to think critically while writing your lead. Each lead has key benefits and drawbacks, based on the approach the writer saw fit to use and the audience each writer was attempting to reach.

EXERCISE SUGGESTION: Look through the four publications cited here and build a lead that fits the parameters outlined in both books for lead writing: 25-35 words, applies FOCII elements, contains key 5Ws/1H elements and will draw in your readers while remaining factually accurate and non-opinionated.

The “Tragic Trib” and learning how to compete in an old two-newspaper town

In every phase of my news career, I was lucky enough (relatively speaking) to work in two-newspaper environments. As much as we didn’t like the idea that TV would occasionally beat us to the punch, we always feared what the afternoon edition of our competing paper would bring. It has been years since I had to worry about getting scooped, but I could easily recall that fear this week when a story began popping up in my social media. Several former students from the Columbia Missourian shared this story about the “tragic” gutting of the paper’s competitor, the Columbia Daily Tribune.

When I took an editing job at the Missourian, the city’s a.m. paper, we’d send someone running down the street around 2 p.m. to a newspaper box that contained still-moist editions of the Tribune. When the reporter would return with the paper, we’d tear the thing into sections, looking for stories that we had that were absent from the paper or something “they” got that “we” didn’t.

When the internet became more prevalent, the Tribune would post all of its stories online just before we had our news budget meeting. Our newsroom would be filled with reporters at computers, clicking the “refresh” button on their web browsers, trying to get the first look at what the Trib had. More often than not, we were on the short end of the stick and we had to scramble to catch up.

Working for the Missourian presented a unique challenge. The University of Missouri owned the paper and staffed it with professional-practice faculty as editors and students at the J-school as reporters, photographers and other staffers. The Tribune, on the other hand, was a professional, family-owned publication.

Reporters there had years of experience under their belts, along with an extensive set of relationships with sources throughout the area. Our staffers had trouble figuring out how to transfer a phone call.

Making things worse, sources on certain beats actively undermined some of our student reporters. It was infuriating to have a reporter catch a rare tip, work on it for days and then get a “no comment” or some other denial from a source, only to have the source turn around and give the story to a Tribune staffer. It was a sick feeling to read “your story” on the front page of the Trib with the writer slathering “told the Columbia Daily Tribune” attributions all over it.

As much as I really, really hated getting our butts handed to us on a semi-regular basis, it really helped me drive the reporters working for me on the crime beat to hustle like crazy. Living with the Tribune was like being a little brother: Your older sibling kicked your keester over and over and over again at EVERYTHING you both did. But, when you managed to pull off a win, it was like a Christmas miracle, a first kiss and hitting a game-winning home run all at once.

I know that the media environment is much more diverse these days when it comes to social media, citizen journalists and news-driven websites. Turf battles over a city or town by two monolithic traditional news operations doesn’t happen anymore and there’s something good to be said about a more diverse set of niche voices gaining volume.

However, the competition that existed between the two papers in that town helped shape and grow some of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to know. The Missourian reporters knew nothing would be easy, nothing would be handed to them and they had to hustle just to tie that damned Tribune every, single day.

I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate that kind of environment any more and I think in many ways, news consumers are the worse for it.


News versus PR: “Who tells the story?”

When I started working on the “Dynamics of Media Writing” book, my goal was to outline the key tools valuable to ALL media practitioners and then explain how each discipline could use them as part of daily work routines to reach valued audiences.

Along the way, I found that professionals who agreed to be part of this book had woven in and out of those various disciplines and that the core tools remained valuable to them. Some moved from news to PR while others went from PR to news. Some started in radio or TV before flipping to print or web-based publications. A few had visited almost every discipline I covered in the text. They all agreed that the tools mattered, as did the desire to reach an audience of interest while behaving ethically.

How that all works out is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

The Student Press Law Center ran an interesting article about the push and pull between student news reporters and university public relations operations. The writing here clearly comes from a point of view, one that sides with the student news publications, so it can be a bit difficult to read for anyone interested in PR. That said, it’s worth a read.

My experiences with public relations practitioners has been similar to my experiences with news reporters: There are good ones and bad ones and you can find plenty of each without having to look too hard. I had the head of PR at one university lie right to a reporter’s face. When I found out and confronted her about this, she told me, “I didn’t feel it was appropriate to share that information with her.” I have also had reporters who have falsified interviews and lied to sources. When confronted, they, too, tried to worm out of taking responsibility for their actions.

Conversely, some of my best friends sit on opposite sides of the supposed news/PR divide. Marketing communication folks at various universities provided me with an immense amount of support and help, even when it didn’t benefit them to do so. News reporters have shared a lot of their work with me and my students, again, when they didn’t have to do so.

To be honest, I often feel like Winona Ryder in this dinner scene when trying to explain this to people I work with or former students who are overly zealous about the PR/News divide:


Long story short: The relationship between news and public relations professionals can be complicated and you can always find an example of how “they” screwed “us” over when you want to. That said, there’s no reason you can’t behave in the most decent and ethical way possible, regardless of your area of the field, to serve as a good example of how things ought to be.

Profile Writing: You can observe a lot by watching

I spent the weekend talking about a variety of topics at the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Minneapolis, but my favorite presentation was on how to write personality profiles. I often find these stories are the staple crop of college newspapers’ feature sections and yet they often lack the kind of depth and richness that draw readers in.

One of the biggest things that makes the difference between a good profile and a weak one is the quality of the observation the reporter conducts and the way in which those observations are used in writing the profile. Too often, profiles don’t paint a picture in the mind’s eye of the readers and that usually comes from a lack of quality observation. This leads to the cliche openings of “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore…” To make the profile better, you need to see what your source does, who your source is and how your source behaves.

Or, as Yogi Berra once noted, you can observe a lot by watching

Consider this opening in the piece Jeff Pearlman did for Sports Illustrated on pitcher John Rocker:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

This is a simple (OK, maybe not “simple” for most people) car ride that becomes a window into the mind and life of this guy. In a few paragraphs, you can understand who he is, what he thinks and how he feels about things. The author sets the table perfectly for the readers and gives them what they need to know.

However, for my money, the best profile in terms of the painstaking description is Nancy Jo Sales’ piece on reality star Kate Gosselin. The introduction breaks one of the most basic rules I usually adhere to: No quote leads. However, the author knows the rules and when to break them, so we get this:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu.

She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

The first time I read this opening, I was hooked. I got the vibe of a pouty toddler/entitled teen in that opening quote to the point I could almost imagine her stomping her foot on the ground in a demanding way. Later in the piece, the author describes a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, an upscale toy store:

As the S.U.V. pulls up to F.A.O. Schwarz, the paparazzi arrive in a crush at the car door. Chick-chick-chick-chick-chick. Kate climbs out, assisted by Neild, who escorts her into the store, warning the paparazzi not to follow her.

“That’s the mother that had eight kids!” a shopper squeals. It’s a weekday, and the store is filled with tourists, men in khaki shorts and women with scrunchies. Suddenly everyone is pulling out a digital camera. “It’s Kate Gosselin!”

Neild asks a security guard to call for backup.

Everyone wants to take a picture with Kate. She stops obligingly, here and there, posing with the same elated smile for every picture—it’s the same smile she’ll wear in her People cover next week: “Kate Strikes Back!”

A personal shopper, an older lady in a floral-print dress, is summoned to help Kate select toys for her brood. Kate sails along beside her, ignoring all the gawkers. The personal shopper shows her some hacky sacks: “Boys like these.” “I’ll take your word for it,” Kate sniffs, moving past them. The personal shopper shows her some action figures: “This is the hottest stuff for boys.” “I’d rather die,” says Kate. “Moving right along!”

“You look fabulous, Kate!” a woman shouts. “Kate, we love you. Stay strong!” says another.

Kate accidentally steps on a little boy’s foot with her three-inch heels; he yelps. “Oooooh, sorry about that,” she says, moving right along.

Everything from word selection (“her brood” and “Kate sniffs”) to the specificity of her shoes (three-inch heels) provides the reader with a rich sense who this person is and what she really values. If you read through the whole profile, you will find only one mention of her children by name and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t from Gosselin herself.

The way you get this kind of description is through observation. Nancy Jo Sales took the time to look for every tiny moment and every scrap of detail, using what helped advance her storytelling and discarding the elements that didn’t. The profile thus becomes a window into the life of the subject and a chance for the readers to watch the story emerge.

The next time you have a profile assignment, consider spending a day with your subject for the sole purpose of gathering detail and description. It may seem like a large investment, but it will be worth it.

More proof that you need to verify your facts: Mass-shooting edition.

As we pointed out in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, people will often spread incorrect information in the wake of a chaotic breaking news event. In some cases, errors come from journalists misinterpreting something or sources who provide accidentally erroneous information. In other cases, the work of trolls who have nothing better to do with their lives.

The guy who was “desperately searching for his father” after the Las Vegas attack turned out to be lying on purpose.  Why did he do it? “For the retweets.” Nice.

Regardless of the reasons why bad intel gets tossed around, it’s our job as journalists to separate fact from fiction, clarify instead of confuse and give the readers the best version of reality that we can.

After the school shooting in Florida in which a 19-year-old man killed 17 people, two threads of information emerged that led to the spread of a large amount of misinformation: That this was one of 18 school shootings already in 2018 and that the shooter was attached to/motivated by a white supremacist group.

In the first case, headlines noting the “18 school shootings” appeared on various mainstream media outlets, including ABC news, Politico and CNBC. The source of this information isn’t noted in the headline, but later in some pieces, the authors cite “Everytown for Gun Safety,” a gun-control advocacy group that has tracked gun-related incidents since 2013.

The fact this information comes from a gun-control advocacy group should not automatically make it suspect, but it should be something a journalist notes as early as possible. This is the point of attributions: Let people know where the information originated so they can apply their own level of scrutiny to it.

What makes the situation more concerning is the operationalization of the term “school shooting,” especially when it is put forth in the wake of the incident at Stoneman Douglas. A look at the list includes ALL incidents in which a gun discharged on ANY school grounds. Authors who dug into this, both in mainstream and politically charged media outlets, outlined the ways in which this approach inflates the number in a way that would likely confuse readers. The Washington Post dissects the claim in perhaps the most thorough way here, noting that suicides at school and an accidental discharge of a firearm were included as “school shootings.”

Although the people at Everytown defend their decision to use this term and count these incidents as such, calling these incidents “school shootings” would likely undercut your credibility if you included this info in a story on the Florida incident.

This is the difference between factually stated information and accurately framed information. I could factually say that “thousands of lives end every day at schools across the country,” if I wanted to include class pets that go belly-up, bugs caught on no-pest strips and mice that get caught in traps before they could reach the cafeteria. However, if I posted it after the Florida shooting over a picture of grieving family members, it lacks accuracy and is framed in a misleading way.

Big tip: Know where your information comes from before citing it and make sure you are saying what you think you are saying before you say it.

The second thread, which noted the shooter’s ties to white supremacy, falls into the category of people who enjoy jerking the media’s chain. What makes these people feel compelled to do this is beyond me, but it’s something we need to keep in mind on big stories.

A story in the New York Times provided the following information about the shooter’s supposed attachment to a supremacist group:

On Thursday, Jordan Jereb, a leader of a white supremacist group based in North Florida, told The Associated Press that Mr. Cruz had joined the group, but later Mr. Jereb said that he did not know whether that was true. Sheriff Israel said he could not confirm any ties Mr. Cruz might have had to white nationalists.

A CNN story cites an Anti-Defamation League blog post that noted similar ties. Other sources also published this information, tying the shooter to a Florida-based racist organization.

With all of these top-tier organizations seemingly confirming this tie between the shooter and the group, it would appear to be as close to true as one could expect. The problem? It was pretty much the work of trolls and a general disinformation campaign, as Politico explained while unpacking the whole incident. Since then, many sources, including the Anti-Defamation League, have updated their stories to explain how they were tricked. However, a search of “Florida school shooting white supremacist” returns hundreds of headlines that seem to confirm that this connection is valid and proven.

One of the biggest problems came from the journalists’ relying on a single source of information, which turned out to be the work of trolls. As one of them cited in the Politico story noted online, “All it takes is a single article, and everyone else picks up the story.”

This is why the concept of independent verification is crucial in journalism. If everyone is citing the same source and no journalists work to confirm this through other sources, the whole thing is a house of cards. I watched this happen firsthand when a paper I was working at erroneously published information that a motorcyclist who had been critically injured in a crash had died.

Our competing paper had made a habit of cribbing information from us without citing us, instead relying on vague “sources said” attributions, and they ran the story of the guy’s death. The morning radio news outlets had been in a habit of “rip and read” where they pulled copy from the newspapers and read it as fact without citing the paper from which it came. Thus, you had two papers and a handful of radio stations saying the guy was dead, so everyone assumed it was true.

The man’s wife had been getting calls from people offering condolences and when she said he was alive, the people were telling her that, no, he was dead. They heard it on the radio or saw it in the paper. She was furious that the hospital and police officials would tell the media her husband was dead before they told her. No matter the protestations of the officials that the man was still alive, she didn’t believe it until she got to the hospital. Chaos ensued and every media outlet had to correct the story as everyone involved tried to figure out where the error came from. In the end, no one was fired, but it was ugly.

And that was a story based on an unintended error. When people are going to the lengths of these trolls to present information as truthful, we have to double our efforts.

Big tip: Get the information from sources you trust and then independently verify it before you publish.

And if you say, “But what happens if everyone else is publishing and I can’t get it? I don’t want to be late on the story!” realize that it’s better to be late than wrong.


5 cool things about open records I learned from an #ACPBOM session

The Associated Collegiate Press hosted its annual “Best of the Midwest” convention in Minneapolis this weekend, where hundreds of students from around the area got the chance to learn all sorts of great information about journalism. I usually find myself running from presentation to presentation or conducting newspaper critiques all day, thus leaving no time to catch other presentations. However, I caught a lucky couple gaps in my schedule Friday and got to see two sessions on open records and interviewing from some student journalists at UW-Milwaukee and their instructor, Jessica McBride.

The UWM folk, who produce content for MediaMilwaukee.com as part of their coursework recently published an extremely detailed story on sexual misconduct accusations on their campus that appeared to be swept under the rug. Based on their experiences here and in other work in hard-nosed reporting, these journalists provided some great information on how to go after the tough stuff. Here are five cool things about these issues that I learned from their presentations:

  • Content matters more than format when it comes to records: McBride noted that although states vary on how public record laws work, in her home state of Wisconsin, the law dictates that it is the content of a record, not the format of a record that determines if it is open or not. “I once got a stack of pink messages slips a secretary took notes on,” she said during her speech. She also explained that in some cases, text messages, emails and handwritten musings can count as open records, so don’t limit yourself when you request. (One of the student presenters noted that she had inadvertently limited her request to “formal complaints,” which yielded no results. A second pass at the request with the word “formal” eliminated got her a document or two.


  • Give yourself room to negotiate: I had never conceptualized of open-records request being like the way I approach buying stuff at a rummage sale, but this session gave me some food for thought. McBride said she often starts with a wider request, as in a larger swath of documents she asks for or a longer period of years than she might normally want. If the record keepers provide her with resistance because the request is too broad or request a large amount of money to meet the request, she often then narrows the focus to what she really wants. This prevents her from losing out on documents that she really wants but demonstrates a willingness to “meet people half way.”


  • Go as a person. Be polite, respectful and firm: Nyesha Stone mentioned this during the panel she presented with fellow students Jennifer Rick and Talis Shelbourne. Stone mentioned that she used to feel awkward in asking for interviews or documents, but once she started thinking about the importance of the information she was seeking, she started feeling less anxious in some cases. (One of the students, I can’t remember who, mentioned that although repeatedly asking for documents or interviews helped diminish anxiety, they imagined that even veterans of this stuff never fully get over nervousness. She’s right, at least from where I’m sitting.) What helped her was to go talk to people as a person, she said. You want to be polite and respectful but also firm in your purpose. It opened a lot of doors, she said, and made her feel like she was getting somewhere.


  • “The cheapest possible option:” As we’ve noted in the book and throughout the course of the blog, people who hold records and don’t want to give them to you will put up roadblocks in a variety of ways. One of the biggest ways is by trying to overcharge you for records and “research time.” McBride recommended that you ask for more recent documents first, as those are the least likely to be stored away somewhere that will require a lot of “research” to find them. She also mentioned something important: The people who hold the records have to lay out how much they think this will cost and how they came to that conclusion. In a lot of cases, research is based on X hours times whatever the hourly rate it costs for the person who does the digging. When this happens, she said, the people need to find the cheapest possible person eligible to find the records to do the digging. In other words, they can’t figure out what your chancellor’s salary is per hour and use that as a financial benchmark for the research costs. In addition, she noted that in Wisconsin, you receive the first $50 worth of location time for free.


  • “Write about it. You’ll get the records:” The other way in which people will try to block your access to the records is by trying to wait you out and make it feel pointless to access the records. They try to out-wait you because they know you are likely to have a limited time to fight or that students will eventually graduate, so the requests will just die off. One of the key “helpers” you have when it comes to trying to crack that nut is the Student Press Law Center, which we’ve discussed here earlier. They can provide some legal guidance and legal muscle as needed to prevent record keepers from taking advantage of students. McBride also noted that writing about the process and the reticence of the organizations to produce public records can help draw attention to the situation and shame organizations into doing the right thing.


For more help on your specific state laws or suggestions on how to get records, check out the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s website.

NYT’s Bari Weiss, “immigrants” who get the job done and Filak’s first rule of holes.

As we’ve mentioned before here, using social media is like playing with live ammo: You need to take it seriously, think things through before you publish and realize there are ramifications for your actions. Unfortunately for some people, having access to social media is like giving a toddler a bag of meth and an automatic weapon.

And, as we’ve mentioned here before, screwing up will happen. Your face is not on a lunchbox. You should do your best to avoid screwing up in the first place, but if you do, the worst thing you can do is double down on your screw up. As I’ve told my students who mess something up, “Filak’s first rule of holes is ‘When you find yourself in one, stop digging.'”

Case in point: Bari Weiss of the New York Times.

When Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel during her performance at the Olympics, the first time a woman has done this in the history of the Games, Weiss tweeted out, “Immigrants: They get the job done.”

Nagasu is a U.S. citizen whose parents were immigrants and she has maintained dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan. When someone pointed out this fact to Weiss, she responded in a dismissive and unsatisfying way:


This, like most dismissive statements tossed at people on social media, did not go over well with the Twitterverse, which responded in pretty much the same array of rage you get whenever someone makes a racist comment, complains about politics or picks on Brittney Spears. Some people called Weiss on the carpet for not taking this issue seriously enough, while others cut right to the chase and essentially told her, “Here’s toaster. Go play in the bathtub.”

The problem wasn’t that she said something glib that put her in a hole. The problem was that she kept digging.

First, it was a reference to the fact she was quoting (incorrectly) the line from “Hamilton” about immigrants. Then it was her trying to bend reality to fit the notion this was a compliment and that it spoke to Nagasu’s immigrant parents. Then it was her chastising all of Twitter for picking on her:


Anyone who has spent any time on social media had to be thinking at this point, “How deep do you really want to dig? This hole is getting to the point where the core of the Earth is about to be exposed…” It was similar to what happened when Louise Linton, an actress and the wife of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, sent out an Instagram post that detailed her fashion wear as she stepped off a government plane.

When people poked at Linton for flaunting her wealth, she belittled them, told them they didn’t pay nearly as much in taxes as she did and then called one poster “adorably out of touch.”


Instantly, she became the “Marie Antoinette of Instagram” and became a symbol of out-of-touch wealth in this country. Recently, she has noted that she was “super-duper sorry” about her social media rant, which I’m sure will quell the crowds that continue to call for her head.

The lesson for today is a simple one: When you put something out into the public via a media channel, you will be held to account. Before you decide to snap back at people who are voicing their opinions about your opinions, stop and think about a couple things:

  1. Is it possible that I just screwed up and that people, although they may be expressing it in a way I don’t like, are right that I was off base?
  2. Will any good come from me randomly trying to justify what I wrote or am I just fanning the flames for trolls and people with a legitimate beef alike?
  3. Is this REALLY the hill I want to die on? In other words, is this worth me pouring a ton of time, effort and energy into trying to change the minds of people who probably won’t change their minds as I engage in an ever-escalating Quixotic attempt to “set the record straight” or will it just be a waste of time?

I never thought I’d say this, but maybe a New York Times journalist can learn something from a guy at Barstool.

When Chloe Kim took the gold in the half-pipe event, Barstool radio host Patrick Connor called the 17-year-old “a hot piece of ass.” (Pause. Wipe the vomit off your lips and hang with me here…) After realizing that a grown man ogling an underage girl during the Olympics was not all that bright, he went on Twitter and wrote:


No, that shouldn’t entirely let him off the hook and yes, there should be more ramifications for him, but he at least decided he was deep enough in the hole and it was time to stop digging.

“Just grab a stock image for free” and several other dumb things photojournalists have heard over the years.

The issue of how photography should be used in journalism came to a head last week after a column on the Poynter website suggested that writers should find free, generic images to pair with their content. The column drew a sharp rebuke from photojournalists who felt their work was devalued or considered simply “art” to decorate “real information.” The National Press Photographers Association wrote an open letter, expressing both dismay in Poynter’s approach to photographs as well as outlining the true value of quality photojournalism.

(Quick disclosure: I’ve said before that our field has about two or three degrees of separation to it and it is true for me here. Kristen Hare, who co-wrote the Poynter column, is a former newsroom student of mine from my time at Mizzou. Danny Gawlowski, who signed on as one of the authors of the NPPA letter, is a former newsroom student of mine from Ball State. I’m not even sure if they know I’m alive anymore, but I wanted to make sure it didn’t look like I was hiding something.)

For this post, I asked photo folks I know to tell me the most annoying, problematic or ridiculous things people have told them about photography or the value of their work.

Here we go:

It’s gotta be the equipment!

(“Money it’s gotta be the shoes!” Um… no. He’s just really gifted and he practiced a lot.)

Photographers often carry an abundance of high-end equipment to make sure they can get the best possible shot in each set of circumstances. However, the equipment alone doesn’t create the photos, as one former student who now shoots for a Major League Baseball team pointed out:

One thing that really bugs me is when people say, “You take really nice photos! You must have really good camera equipment.” Equipment only gets you so far. You need to know how to use the equipment and look for the angles that will make the photos the most interesting.

I’ve heard this issue discussed in a variety of circumstances and ways. One former colleague pulled out his phone during a meeting and told a skilled former news photographer that, “I have an iPhone, so I’m essentially a photographer now.” A photojournalism professor and former news photographer noted something similar about the “anyone can do what you do” vibe:

When people say something like, My brother/sister/cousin, etc. is a photographer. I’d ask who they work for if they own a photo business, and I’d usually find out it was a hobby. Putting together Lego buildings with my kids never made me an architect or a construction worker.

Equipment does matter to some degree, as we’ve pointed out before on this blog, but the photographer’s eye and skill matter a lot more. The ability to compose an image, capture a mood, cope with lighting issues and a ton of other things make the difference between great photography and whatever my 12-year-old is doing with her Instagram account.

You mean you want me to pay you?

It’s weird what we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not. People will happily pay the neighborhood kid to cut the grass or shovel the snow. We pay for lollipop hammers in “Candy Crush” or coins to play app-based slot machines. People will even pay for “moisture” that may or may not exist any more.


(Yes, this is a real thing and yes, I own one of these. Don’t judge.)

One thing apparently people don’t pay for is photographs, as one long-time shooter noted:

One of my peeves is when people ask to do it for free. I didn’t spend money on gear just so I can give images out for free. Not to mention the time spent at the event but also post-production/editing. Time is money.

Speaking of time, a photographer who has worked internationally noted that time is not only money, but it’s also often miscalculated by people who hire shooters:

“It’ll only take like 30 minutes…” To clarify, it ignores the time spent cleaning the gear, editing the photos, traveling, gear insurance costs, software costs, archive costs etc. Photographers used to be able to roll this into film processing fees, but now without those everyone thinks the day ends when the event is over.

Skilled work takes time in all fields. I’m sure Pope Julius II could have gotten the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling painted in a lot less than four years if he had fired Michelangelo and called on a local kid with a roller and a couple cans of eggshell white.

Skilled work also costs money to buy the gear, go to the event, shoot the event, edit the photos and provide a finished product. Again, you’re not paying for just the image any more than you are paying for the chemicals in the prescription medication you are taking. There’s a whole lot of R & D that goes into those pills so that the stuff comes out the right way. You’re paying for more than the materials. You’re paying for the skills.

Just grab some clip art

This argument was at the core of the Poynter article: Go find free stuff online and use it as you see fit. A former student media adviser who has family in the photojournalism business noted how this is a really dumb idea:

A volunteer I work with (and respect): Can you get some photos off the internet and make a video for these kids?

Umm. I’m not going to “get” anything off the internet without permission. I explained, taught a copyright/ownership lesson, only to hear this same request on another day. Why is it that many people don’t think words and images have value — that they just are out there for the taking?

A current journalism professor also mentioned a similar concern:

“Just grab some clip art” usually leads into my real world case study of the blogger who was sued and lost thousands for “just grabbing” a Google pic of a green pepper from Google Images.

(We discussed this particular issue before with the “ECOM-dude” who thought photographers had “trapped” him into using content and then suing him.)

Three key thoughts here for anyone thinking about “grabbing” images:

  1. Just because it’s out there, it doesn’t mean its yours for the taking. Even the line about “There were a whole ton of images and I just took one,” makes no sense. Every day, I can see a parking lot full of cars from my office. I can’t just go down there and take someone else’s car because I like it and it was there for the “grabbing.” People own things, whether those are cars or images.
  2. Trying to limit your liability by “crediting” the source doesn’t work. (And let’s get this out of the way: Google doesn’t own anything, so writing “Photo courtesy of Google” is doubly insulting to photographers.) If you don’t get permission before you use it, this isn’t a “courtesy” use. Go back to the car analogy: If I steal your car and drive it around campus, it doesn’t it make the situation any better if I tell people, “Driving around courtesy of Jimmy!”
  3. The argument that it “wasn’t an important/valuable/rare image” so it shouldn’t be such a big deal is really stupid. The whole reason that particular image was stolen was because someone looked at it and found it appealing. Sure, it might “just” be a photo of a green pepper or a sunset, but it was the quality of that particular shot of a green pepper or a sunset that drew the person’s attention. Thus, the effort and the eye of photographer played a role in the inherent value of the image. Something to think about…


Here’s the biggest point: Stock images fail you in journalism

Even if you’re not swayed by the argument that photographers are part of the journalism ecosystem and that when you steal stuff or use generic images you are harming a fellow journalist, think about the point of photos in journalism: They tell stories.

There’s a reason why I used the term “photojournalist” quite a bit here and why good quality publications hire photojournalists to work for them. Just like ALL forms of journalism, the images that these people create are meant to engage readers and provide value to your audience members. The images operate in a symbiotic fashion with text or tell stories on their own. To do this, they have to be composed with the underlying story in mind by a journalist who understands how to tap into that story.

In closing, consider these thoughts from a couple of the photojournalists noted above as food for thought the next time you are tempted to “just grab” an image:

In my opinion, stock is very bland. Photojournalists capture raw emotion and the scene. Stock images can be ok for some things but real photos tell more of the story.

Photos are what draw people into a moment that already happened. They help draw the reader into a story. Photo journalists are valuable, because we know how to search these moments out to tell the story visually. You will not get the emotions or angles of moments that photo journalists would get from stock photos.

Good photojournalists know how to grab something more important than photos. They know how to grab eyeballs. In a time in which every journalistic operation is fighting for attention, it pays to take advantage of their expertise as part of a storytelling process.