I grew up with an odd confluence of grandparents who grew up in the Depression, great-grandparents who were first-generation immigrants and family members who believed in the healing power of food. This led to a general fear at most family gatherings that whoever we were hosting hadn’t gotten enough food or drink to satisfy them and that we would somehow look horrible in the eyes of God and mankind.
It’s the reason why whenever we’d plan a party, my parents would have the same argument:
Mom: So what are we going to have to eat?
Dad: I’ve got two dozen brats, two dozen hamburgers, some hot dogs… We’ve got shrimp salad, potato salad, chips, two cakes… You think I should go get a ham or something?
Mom: For God’s sake! Who do you think we’re feeding?
Dad: Well, there’s you, me and the kid! Your mom, my mom… (The list always ended up being the same 12 people, none of whom were competitive eaters…)
Mom: That’s way too much!
Dad: We’ll send it up to Madison if we have leftovers (Meaning, back to college with me; Thus I’d always go home to my apartment with a laundry basket full of food.)
It’s also why my poor mother, 110 pounds soaking wet, would have to slurp down three fingers worth of Rock and Rye out of a mason jar at 10 a.m. while watching holiday parades at my great-grandparents house. It was an insult not to take “something sweet” from those folks in those days, so you did as you were asked and you slept it off later.
Long story short: Not feeling like we have met your needs is anathema to my people. We believe that we should provide you with everything possible to make you feel like your needs were met. The family motto was essentially: If you go home hungry or sober, that’s your fault. We weren’t going to cheat you.
Thus, as the end of the semester comes nigh, I think I’ve hit on most of the big things and small things people wanted to know, but I’m not sure, so TELL ME what I’m missing or what you need. I don’t want you feeling like you went home missing out on something you should have gotten here on the blog.
What should I cover in the last couple weeks of the term? Post below, message me or let me know in some other way.
Vince (aka the Doctor of Paper)
The end of the school year is nearly here at UWO, and I’m hopeful that it’s close by for the rest of you as well. This feeling of “nearly summer” brings about two certainties:
- Student emailing for any potential extra credit or possible grade boosts, offering explanations as to why they have not cut the muster to this point or pagan sacrifices in hopes of making it out alive.
- The snow finally starts melting out here.
In honor of this annual ritual, here’s a “Summer is coming” AP style quiz to give you one last boost of style heading into your well-earned break.
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.
(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. -VFF)
Kelli Bloomquist, who was nice enough to do a guest blog for us, tagged me in a post a little while ago that had me feeling a bit awkward:
The people who liked this (and especially Kelli) aren’t slackers by any stretch of the imagination. Also, I don’t tend to like to reflect on the stuff I’ve done because I feel like I’m always one bad move away from becoming like every band VH-1 ever covered in a the “Behind the Music” episode. (Another way of looking at it is the way Satchel Paige did: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”) That said, there are times (usually when we have to fill out annual reports) that I look back and think, “Good God… That’s a lot of stuff.”
I once posted this photo of what my office looks like when I’m working on my books. It looks like an art museum for people with an organizational-chart fetish:
I don’t really think I have the “secret sauce” and I’m sure at least half of these things won’t be things everyone can do. Still, I promised that whenever someone asked me for something in relationship to education, media or the blog I’d do my best to deliver, here is the best answer I have in (more than) a few bullet points:
Amy Is Awesome
This is my wife, Amy. She rules.
If it weren’t for her, I’d never be able to do anything close to the amount of stuff I do. She’s the person who has to put up with me 24/7, make excuses for me when I’m on a deadline instead of at a gathering of friends, listen to me ponder whatever the heck it is I’m pondering and more. Above all of that, she’s the person who tells me, “Go do your work. It’s totally fine” and means it. Knowing I can do what I need to do without any more guilt than normally accompanies someone who spent 12 years in Catholic school is a real life-saver. She makes all this possible.
And to answer your question, yes, that is alcohol in her hand and yes, she needs an ungodly supply of it to deal with me, I’m sure.
If you ever see me without one of these, call the authorities. Something is clearly wrong. I would not recommend my Diet Coke lifestyle to anyone, given that I have no idea how many I drink in a day or a week, but I am constantly surrounded by empty 12-and-24-pack cardboard boxes.
I am often accused of surviving on Diet Coke and snark. I plead the Fifth.
Fear of failure
I once read a paragraph about Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks and it made total sense to me:
“He grew up on the east side of St. Paul, the son of an insurance underwriter, and the only thing he ever feared was failure.”
I understand that failure happens and believe me, I’ve failed a lot. When I do, I try to learn from that failure to make sure I don’t end up repeating it. However, above all else, I make absolutely sure that I always put myself in the best possible position to not disappoint other people. That often means putting off stuff I’d rather do so I can meet a deadline or changing plans at the last minute to help someone in desperate need.
The downside of this is that I always feel like instead of succeeding, I’m avoiding failure. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of this approach to life, but like I said, it does help me get a lot of stuff done.
I’m not chasing someone else’s dream
What is good for other people isn’t necessarily good for you and vice versa. This was a big problem around a couple schools where I taught: If your classmate got an internship at a 50,000 circulation paper, you HAD to get one at a 100,000 circulation paper. If your roommate got a job doing TV in a top 50 market, you HAD to find one in a top 25 market. And on and on it went.
This happened in grad school for me as well: If someone got a conference paper accepted, you had to get two. If that person got published in a top-tier journal, you needed to get an article somewhere even more exclusive, even if the “publish or perish” lifestyle wasn’t what you wanted.
For a long time, I got caught up in that and I couldn’t see what it was doing to me as I tried to out-do other people. On the other hand, as I watched my former students chase each other up a never-ending staircase of glory, I saw several of them become more and more miserable.
It finally crystallized for me when a great kid who had been a business reporter and and had been happy at it, ended up in Kentucky, covering the night-cops beat because, “Well, everyone ELSE was going some place bigger, so…”
Eventually, I settled in here at UWO. It’s a great school and I love my students, but it’s not a “name” institution and I don’t care. I also have no interest in being in administration, even as my former doctoral cohorts and good friends become chairs and deans. I’m glad that’s what they like and if they’re happy, God love them for it. However, for me, that would be like getting a root canal with a meat cleaver.
Which is the point: I get stuff done because I like the stuff I’m getting done and I’m not worried that I’m not doing it at the Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. I’ve turned down jobs elsewhere because I wouldn’t get to teach as much or I’d have to trade the newsroom for a suit coat and a gig shaking hands with rich donors.
If you like that stuff, that’s great. I’m just not going to be chasing you up that ladder.
“The Human Twitch”
I come from a long line of people who have difficulty sitting still. My father can’t watch a whole movie or ballgame without getting up and doing about nine other things during the process. If I ever see him laying still on the couch for more than 20 minutes and not snoring, I need to see if he can still fog a mirror.
My mother spent 45 years teaching grade school and middle school. She also directed plays, ran special programs and coached track well into her 60s. She retired a couple years ago, but does substitute teaching several times per week. Put those two individuals together and you have me, the person once dubbed, “The Human Twitch.” I have a hard time sitting still and an even harder time doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’m also trying to write a blog post while waiting for the stain to dry on the furniture I’m refinishing in the next room.
I also like to tinker, in the sense that I want things to work. I will often pull over to grab a broken lawnmower or vacuum cleaner someone left on the side of the road. I don’t need it, but I need to see if I can fix it. One year during a blizzard, a friend dropped off his dead snowblower to see if I could eventually get it to start. I stopped blowing my own snow, rebuilt his carburetor in sub-zero weather and got the thing running. I then used his snowblower to clean my driveway, just to make sure it would stay running.
Another time, shortly after I bought the Mustang, I discovered its heating system wouldn’t work. Was I ever going to drive this car in the cold? No. Did the car run just fine without heat? Yes. Thus, it made no sense for me to pursue this problem with the fervor of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. However, that’s exactly what I did and when I got it working after three days of effort, I drove around with the heat on full blast, giggling like a demented clown.
It was about 90 degrees outside at the time.
Amy and I had this conversation recently:
Me: I wish I knew exactly how much life I had left to live. I mean, like a cyclops does. It’d be great to know how much time I have so I could plan life better.
Her: You wouldn’t plan better. You’d obsess about the date to the point that you’d get nothing done. It would drive you crazy.
Me: No, I mean if I knew I’d be gone next year at this time, I’d panic less about getting another book done or meeting a deadline or something.
Her: Bull#%@%. You’d work twice as hard to make the deadline.
Me: Yeah, I bet I could squeeze in one more book…
I believe that there is an uncertain brevity to life. I have no idea if I’ll be around tomorrow or next week or next month or whatever. Then again, maybe I’ll be like my great-grandfather and live an active, independent life until I turn 100 and then die peacefully in my bed after a glass of nice top-shelf booze. (True story.)
The goal of some people is to leave behind a legacy or a monument to what they have done. My goal is to make sure I didn’t waste what I was lucky enough to get and to make sure I share it with whoever wants it.
The point is, because of that, I have this overwhelming desire to live urgently, to complete as much as I can while I’m here, to make other people glad they knew me, to help out in every way I can.
So that’s what I got. I don’t know if it’s the formula to success or a “secret sauce” to getting this stuff done, but it works for me.
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 Kelli Bloomquist, a part-time lecturer at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication. She also owns the Dayton Review newspaper which has served the rural farming community of Dayton, Iowa for nearly 140 years. Her post today lays out the 10 things journalism students need to know but that they don’t learn in journalism school. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
You Aren’t A Lawyer, But You Play One In The Newsroom
That media law class that’s a graduation requirement at your university is actually more important than you think. While every j-school class is important, media law is one class that you should show up to, stay awake for, and soak in and retain the information from because you will absolutely need to know every single nugget of knowledge taught in this class.
Journalists need to know media law like it’s your job, because it is! Never before in the history of journalism have professional journalists been questioned and denied access as we are today.
The First Amendment, Freedom of Information Act, open meetings laws, state recording laws, these are all necessary knowledge bases that every journalist must know front to back and back and forth.
I have been a working journalist, editor, a current newspaper owner, and also a university lecturer for more than 20 years. I have written my fair share FOIA requests, sat in on hundreds of city council and school board stories, and know Robert’s Rules of Order like the back of my hand. That’s my job.
Every student entering the workforce should know how to write a FOIA request. You will write dozens of these throughout your career depending on the beat that you’re assigned. Your professor should have you write one during media law class. If they don’t, ask them why.
I have been a guest lecturer in many university journalism classes in recent years and I’m always baffled at the number of students who don’t know their state’s recording laws. Iowa, for instance, is a one-knowledge state which means that a journalist doesn’t necessarily have to tell a source that they’re recording the conversation, though it is typically the best option to do so. These are all items that are covered in media law classrooms as are court proceedings, access at the scene, and even legalities surrounding citizen journalism. The concepts and tools taught in this class will be used daily throughout your career. I’m completely serious about that last sentence, and it’s not the university instructor in me saying that, it’s the 20-plus year veteran journalist saying it.
My very first dip in the legal pool was at the age of 17 when my radio news editor sent me to the local diner to see if our school board was meeting in quorum outside of regular business meetings. There I was, a 17 year old high school radio news intern, surrounded by diners my grandparents’ age who were ordering their daily usual. I tried to inconspicuously order toast and coffee while also keeping an eye out for a possible illegal meeting.
Sure enough, halfway through my toast, a quorum of school board members sat down near me and began discussing how they would vote at that night’s meeting. Bingo. An illegal meeting just took place. I took the information back to my editor and he – along with the local newspaper editor – made the call to the state and to the local superintendent that they were aware of the illegal meetings taking place. Ultimately, the school board members received additional training and were told not to make the mistake again, but the message was clear – the business of the public school system needed to legally happen with transparency before the eyes and ears of its constituents.
Small potatoes? Perhaps. But it set a precedent in the town that is still followed decades later. Know the law because you will have to put it to use daily during your career.
Pay attention when it comes to legal specifics when you’re out in the public working on a story. Where can you legally stand when covering a house fire? What are you legally allowed to print and copy when you visit law enforcement agencies for daily reports? What is the best response when you’re denied access? Remember that response and repeat it often. You’ll need to know it.
Early in my radio news career I was covering a local house fire. I knew all of the police and firefighters on scene and was making small talk with a few of them while standing in the parkway near the road. The homeowner suddenly appeared and was livid that their home (and weed grow lab, I might add) was going up in flames. They screamed and yelled at me to leave what they believed was their property when in actuality, I was standing on a city-owned parkway.
Items like this might seem small and boring at the time, but these are the items I have continually had students come back to me and say “I’m so glad you covered that in class! I actually had to use it today!”
Be Prepared To See The Best And The Worst Of Humanity
You will see humanity at its absolute best, and you will still be required to report on it at its worst. The role of journalism has many facets which also includes documenting history. As a journalist, you will cover murder trials, child abuse cases, shootings, flooding, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, and before your eyes, you will be required to step back and in the moment put your own emotion aside and report and photograph people at their best and at their worst with an unbiased and solely factual approach. It will change you and how you view the world outside of your newsroom. Quite honestly, there’s no way that it can’t. One of the hardest lessons that I had to learn personally was to go to a scene, do my job, and not become emotional while still at the scene of that incident. Journalists are human and we have the very same emotional responses that every other human being does. But showing that emotion at the scene can be viewed to some as bias, so learn to go to the scene, do your job, get in your car, take a deep breath while buckling your seat belt, and drive blocks away before parking your car and letting that emotion out. Even journalists need a good cry.
The very first court case that I covered early in my career is one that is sadly well known in my home state of Iowa. A mother and her boyfriend were found guilty of beating and killing their toddler aged daughter and blamed her death on younger baby brother who allegedly – they claimed – had pushed her off of a couch, killing her. Decades later, I don’t remember reporting on opening arguments, closing arguments, or witness testimony, but I can recall the uncomfortable wooden chair that I sat in while the state’s lawyers showed billboard sized autopsy photos of a toddler girl, her bloodied and bruised body, and listened as medical experts detailed how every single bruise and laceration allegedly took place. I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t not listen to what was being said. It was my job to report on that day’s testimony, to write down specific details that were said, and then write my story, edit audio, and record my story for that day’s multiple newscasts. I remember after the trial walking into the office of my editor and saying “I’m done! I can’t go through a lifetime of child murder trials.” He sat me down and told me that my response was normal, human, and that I needed to learn self care.
As a student, now is that perfect time for you to also learn the methods that work to calm you, to relieve stress, and to see joy again in the world. Perhaps it’s running, being with friends, maybe even a crafting class or a massage, but now is your opportunity as a college student to discover these self care tactics. Try new activities as you will need to institute them at some point in your early journalism career. For me, I bought a gym membership and began running and cycling, especially after particularly difficult days. I ran (albeit on a treadmill) away my frustrations, my anger, and even my joys. Now as a parent of six, university lecturer and newspaper owner, I’ve started running again and seen my stress levels greatly reduce. Try things now when you have the opportunity to find what you like and don’t like.
Be Prepared For Criticism
Don’t like the grade that you received on that last exam or ticked off at the email that your professor sent when they couldn’t meet with you during an opening in your personal schedule? Well just wait until you hit the real, working world! As a student, you need to learn how to accept and move forward with criticism. Sure, the easiest route would be to lose your temper, yell, be sarcastic, or even to take to social media to call out those that you’re angry about, but in a job situation, doing any of the above will have you packing up your desk and on the job hunt before the next edition of your newspaper even publishes.
People want you to report the news, but only when it fits their personal and political agenda. People will get mad at you for reporting what takes place in the world. This isn’t a new concept and is one that shouldn’t affect the way that news is reported, but as a student, you should be well aware of the fact that people will email you, tweet you, and call your desk to tell you how wrong you were in a story just because they didn’t agree with it. The age of social and digital media has made this more common as readers and viewers have more opportunities to seek out like-minded media instead of seeking out unbiased media outlets.
So how will you respond? Learn now while you have the time and the opportunity to accept criticsm without boiling over. Learn what your triggers are and how you can take a step back. As soon as you become aware, it will be easier for you to recognize and de-escalate when you do receive that screaming phone call from a mother who is angry that her kid’s picture didn’t make the sports page.
The act of cultivating and keeping news sources Involves creating relationships! Social media is an excellent way to do this. Create professional social media accounts now and post to them often. Follow professionals in radio, print, and tv journalism and public relations specialists and interact with them. Utilize your professional accounts to create relationships with those in the field that you wish to join after graduation. I should add that these accounts absolutely, and for all of eternity, must be professional in every way, from the content that is written, the photos that are posted, and even the handle that you choose. Years ago, I had a student who tried to explain to me at a Twitter handle of @ILoveVodka was completely understandable and legitimate for a television reporter to use while building a portfolio. Yet this very same student couldn’t understand why they weren’t getting interviews for jobs they had applied for. Keep it professional and relevant. Show us a rare photo of your goldfish or of your friends and parents but keep the alcohol, sex, curse words, etc. out of the purview of photos and postings.
Order some business cards. There are plenty of online retailers that sell business cards within a college student’s budget. Order them and then put them to use. Pound the pavement. Being a journalist means you actually have to meet people outside of social media and outside of the email world. It means that you’re actually going to have to leave your dorm room, your classroom, and your desk in order to have face-to-face conversations with people.
Be Confident In Your Writing
Please raise your right hand while reading this. Repeat after me. “I will never ever lie in order to get or report a story.” You have now officially taken the oath of journalism legitimacy. Now make sure you stick to it for all of eternity.
If you aren’t happy with your writing, don’t turn it in. Take what you have and ask your editor or a seasoned journalist to take a look and give you feedback. As a seasoned journalist, I relish in the opportunity to speak with new journalists and help them to polish their stories and photos. All seasoned and award-winning journalists were once newbies too. Most of us had someone who took us under their wing and helped us. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, in fact, it is looked kindly upon.
Don’t let your sources read your story before you publish it. As a college media adviser, I was floored at the number of students that were told they would only be given an interview if the source was allowed to proofread and approve the story ahead of time. I can only equate this to me – a journalism professor – proofing students’ math homework, and quite honestly, math has never been my forte, but I suppose when assessing their homework I could just wing it. It would be the same for a math teacher to proof a student’s journalism story. If you allow a source to proof a story ahead of publication, you’re undermining yourself and the journalism industry. What’s to say that that very source won’t say “well, I didn’t really like the way I said that so you need to change it” or “no, I don’t want this published at all” even after the interview has been given or for the person proofing it to not be a trained journalists who understands how and why our industry functions as it does. As a journalist, you will have an editor or a superior of some sort. Blame your editor or your publisher. We’ve been through the ringer and are more than happy to take these phone calls and explain why it’s our job to be the proofreader, not your source. We will be your scape goat. It’s our job.
This Isn’t The Daily Planet
Listen, you aren’t Clark Kent. I’m not Perry White. Lois Lane only exists in comic books and television shows. Journalism isn’t sexy and it doesn’t happen like Hollywood depicts it. If that’s your expectation, then you need to dive in head first into an internship or join campus media organizations to see how this field works and what being a journalist really means. You’ll spend more time in school board meetings and copying arrest reports at the cop shop than you will in secret undercover investigative stings.
Tell The Truth. Never Lie.
Truth is one of your most valued assets as a person and as a journalist. When you allow that to be compromised for the sake of a story or for power, you’re putting yourself and the journalism industry as a whole at risk. As a journalism student, you’re walking into a world where our field is constantly criticized, even by our own president, as being #Fake News. But you’re also the generation that has the power and the understanding to change that. A single lie to gain a story puts all of that at risk. Tell the truth. Always. See item number five above. Remember, you took the pledge.
You Aren’t The Story
There is no “I” in journalism. Well, actually there is. But when you begin to insert yourself into the story – both literally and figuratively – you’ve crossed the line of journalism. No where in a story should it be read “when I interviewed Sally, she said…” No. Stop. Rewrite. We already know that you interviewed Sally because you’re the author of this article. Also – and most importantly – you should never show up to cover a story and suddenly the story is about you and not the event or person that you originally came to cover. You should never show up to cover a city council meeting and then speak from the floor or offer your opinion. You should never go on assignment to cover a protest and then later be arrested for joining that very same protest. You should always be able to see yourself as a fly on the wall at these events, covering what is said and done and report it with an unbiased perspective. When you become the story, step away and find your editor immediately.
You Will Have To Talk To People
The news doesn’t happen at your desk, it’s just written there. You will have to leave the cozy newsroom and step out into the world. There’s just no way around that.
I’m a high functioning introvert. Throughout my career, I’ve had to learn how to fake it ‘til you make it when it comes to getting out in the public. It’s outside my comfort zone. I’m a small town newspaper owner. My office is quite literally me and two rescue cats. I prefer it that way after a couple decades of busy and loud newsrooms. When I’m teaching, I relish in the opportunity to speak with my classes and then I return back to my office and my cats. At the end of the day, I go home to six kids, a husband, and a farm filled with rescue animals and livestock. I love people in small doses and relish in the quiet calm of life. It’s just how I’m built. There’s nothing wrong with that, nor is there anything wrong with being the complete and total opposite. But for me, I had to learn how to get out there and talk to people, interview them, and not outwardly feel like an idiot. The first time I was sent out on assignment to interview a source, I made myself physically ill. I had to talk to someone that I didn’t know about a topic I didn’t necessarily understand and hope that they didn’t judge me for all of eternity. Listen up. Sources are more forgiving than you think. They’re the expert after all, so let them be the expert. But you’re going to have to actually talk to them in order to make that happen.
Can You Live With Yourself?
At the end of the day, can you look at yourself in the mirror and say that you honestly and ethically did your job to the best of your ability? You treated sources and your industry with the utmost of journalistic integrity? The day that you can’t say ‘yes’ is the day that you need to again seek out that seasoned reporter or your editor and fill them in on the fact that you’re struggling. There is no shame in reaching out and letting others know that you need help. It’s the lack of doing so that is cause for concern.
Journalism schools are constantly adapting to new technologies and storytelling techniques, but the 10 items listed above will never change. You will always have to know the law, be an ethical and trustworthy journalist, and to get out of your chair and pound the pavement of your city. Journalism is work, but it can also be one of the most rewarding careers imaginable. Journalism puts you in the front seat to be a change-maker, a recorder of history, and to meet some of the most inspirational and amazing people this world has to offer. I will forever say that journalism is the best, yet most challenging, career field and I’m ecstatic that so many university students are setting themselves on the path to continue the hard work that those of us before you started.
I reconnected with Eric Deutsch after finding out it had been 20 years since we found ourselves together covering “The bus fire” in Madison. We agreed that it remains one of the more difficult stories we found ourselves covering.
So why would I relive this thing here, let alone every year in class? It’s not about trying to gross out students or because of the shock value. I can still pin down four things that I picked up that day that informed my life as a journalist and I still teach to students as an educator. I’m sure that there are more things, but these are the big ones:
Do the job first, figure out the rest of it later: I have told many students that a panicking reporter is a useless reporter, and I learned that lesson that day. Even before the fire, I had seen things that would make a Billy Goat puke, but this was different. In most cases, the crime or the accident or whatever had finished being the crime or the accident by the time I got there. This time, people were still suffering, bodies were laying around, the guy was still out there and I had literally no idea what the hell I was supposed to do.
To figure out what to do, I just focused on the job: Talk to people, write stuff down, fill in holes, keep up to date, make note of everything I saw/heard/smelled… When I boiled it down to the most basic things, I saw myself as a conduit of content from the sources to the readers. I didn’t complicate things any more than that. If I stopped to think about it in any other way, I probably would have started freaking out.
I didn’t realize that this idea passed from me to others until years later when a former student reached out to me. She explained that the biggest takeaway she had in her time as a student reporter for me was when she had a really rough phone interview while reporting on an obituary. She was on the border of tears and she didn’t think she could handle it. I apparently took her into my office and told her that I understood that it was rough, but we had a job to do. “Finish the story and cry later,” I apparently told her.
I remember none of that, but she said it made a difference in her life as a media professional. The idea of “Do the work and then fall apart afterward” allowed her to compartmentalize her feelings on a topic and get stuff done in the face of really difficult circumstances.
It’s a good lesson and I learned it at that fire.
Faith and trust make a difference: I tell students that when they weigh job offers, they should consider the quality of the person to whom they will directly report. I have worked for people I would step in front of a bus for and others I wish would have stepped in front of a bus for all our sake. When it comes down to it, if you have a good boss, that’s going to make a difference between you succeeding and you failing when the chips are down.
I can recall two specific cases in my life where that happened: In 2000, I was running the night city desk at the Columbia Missourian when we got a report that a plane had crashed and the governor was rumored to be dead. As this moved from rumor to a virtual certainty, my boss, George Kennedy, called and said, “So, I guess you’re having an interesting night…”
I outlined everything I had done and everything we were doing to get this figured out. I believed I had a good handle on this, but George Kennedy was on the other end of the line and I needed to be sure. I was 26 with about two years of editing experience. He was the guy who wrote the textbook I learned from at age 19 and taught from since age 23. He was the gold standard, no way around it. Thus, I asked, “So are you coming in?” figuring he’d want to ride over the top on this one and make sure I wasn’t committing a disastrous failure of epic proportion. His answer stunned me:
“Why? I’ve got you.” He hung up.
At that point, I wasn’t going to let him down. And I didn’t.
The first time, however, was this bus fire. Teryl Franklin was my editor and she knew this had to be done right. It wasn’t necessarily clear at that point if I would do it right. She had other options, including a guy with almost a decade of experience with whom she worked closely throughout her career. She had a newsroom vet with almost 40 years of experience at the ready as well. Once she figured out this wasn’t an engine failure, nothing said she had to keep me on that story. I was the worst possible option from an “on-paper” perspective. Hell, I would have pulled me out of there at that point if I were her.
Instead, she kept the other two guys in the office, working the phones to pick up stuff to augment my reporting. She also trusted every fact I gathered and every statement I told her I checked. She pressed the hell out of me to make sure, but when I said I was sure, she backed me up.
From that day forward, I realized how important that had been to my development. I also realized the power of having someone put faith in me. When I became an editor and later an adviser, I stuck with that philosophy. I coached, I prodded and I pushed, but I always told the reporters, “You got this. You’re the right person for this job. Go get it.”
Work the problem: The first thing people wanted to know once police had Salim Amara under arrest was who he was. The police were telling us all sorts of things, but the name of the suspect wasn’t one of them, so we had to figure out a different way to get this information. This was one of the benefits of having multiple agencies working from different sets of information that all told us one or two crucial things.
I forget who gave us what, but we had information from the hospital, the police, the fire department and Madison Metro. One of them gave us all the names of the victims, but nothing else. One gave us the ages of the victims but nothing else. One gave us the ages and the conditions of the victims. One gave us the information that a 20-year-old man had been arrested in connection with the attack.
With no internet as we know it now, we started digging through phone books, old stories and more to try to match up people and conditions and ages and names. We made an educated guess that the person hurt least was the person who knew what was coming. We also were able to eliminate the women, leaving us with fewer potential candidates. I had narrowed this down to two people and I took an educated guess as to which guy it was. I then called the jail and asked if Salim Amara was being booked for anything. The jail, having no idea what was going on with all this, confirmed he was set to be booked. Better yet, they had a mug shot from a recent arrest if I wanted it, which I obviously did.
Still, we didn’t know for SURE that this guy was the fire starter and it was one of those moments where luck played a big role. I got a call at my desk from some big wig in the police department. I’d left a message asking for some additional info, so I figured that’s why he called back. I started asking questions, but he immediately interrupted me:
“That’s not why I’m calling,” he said. “I understand that you have a mug shot of our suspect and that’s a problem…”
Sounds like confirmation to me.
He then ended up on the phone for at least five minutes with Teryl arguing about whether we were being irresponsible in running his name and photo. The officer argued that all the victims hadn’t picked this guy out of a line up yet, so we could be tainting the investigation. She argued that we were one of many who were going to run this thing and that holding onto this information with the hopes of people recovering in a few months to then ID the guy made little sense. Either way, the photo and the name were running. We ended up breaking that news and we were the first to tell people about his previous run-ins with the law as well.
The point is, work the problem. Sure, it would be great if people just told you everything, but in most cases, that’s not going to happen. You have to improvise, adapt and overcome if you want to end up with a decent story. Don’t quit on a problem because it seems like you’re getting stonewalled. Use your brain and figure out how to get what you want.
Focus on the candy: I borrowed this line from “South Park,” to describe the idea of keeping your head on straight and paying attention to what really matters. When I went into that press briefing, I really wanted to know what the transit authorities had to say about bus safety and the future of transit over the next few days. It seemed to me to be a no-brainer, which is why I was stunned when Guy Smiley decided to make a big deal out of a bucket. I have no idea what he was thinking about or why it mattered, but his attention to it had me half thinking, “What am I missing here?”
Still, I wanted to know about the bus stuff, regardless of if I was being “bucket scooped” or not, so I hung in there until I could ask a question of value to my readers. In the end, the answer I got turned out to be the best part of both the main bar and the side bar of the story.
No matter what else is going on at a story, figure out what you think your readers would most want to know and stick to it. Keep your focus on the candy and you’ll nail the story. Get all “bucket distracted” and you’ll miss a lot.
One last thing: I asked Deutsch, who covered the fire for WTDY Radio, if he had any “lessons learned” he picked up from this situation. Here’s what he had to say:
“It’s better to follow up on something and it turns out to be nothing, than to not follow up and miss out. If my news director hadn’t called me back and I had to make the decision myself, I might not have gone to the site because the pager info was so vague that it didn’t seem like a story worthy of checking on on a Sunday night.”
Great advice from a great pro.
I was chatting with friend from my Wisconsin State Journal days when the paper’s current city editor sat down at a table near us. Once he recognized me (I haven’t aged well), he said, “Hey, I was just thinking about you. I posted one of your stories the other day.”
I hadn’t been in the newsroom for years and I had no idea what he was talking about until he decided to make me feel really old:
I never remembered the date or how long it had been, but the story of “the bus fire” comes up at least a handful of times each year in my classes. Of all the stories I wrote, that one lingers more than most.
It was a quiet, warm (for Wisconsin) Sunday evening when a mentally ill man got up from his seat on a city bus, poured gasoline on a young couple and lit them on fire. His actions turned the entire interior of that vehicle into a giant ball of flame, scorching four passengers, the driver and the assailant.
By the time Madison Metro #564 screeched to a halt on Hammersley Road, the windows had exploded outward and a giant boom drew neighborhood residents to the scene. People responded with fire extinguishers, blankets, water and anything else they could think of to help the wounded, several of whom had burns over almost half their bodies.
For me, it was supposed to be a “nothing” night on the city desk. Sunday night usually meant updating the weekly weather, nailing down the night’s lottery numbers and trying to cull a few nuggets of information out of the briefs bin. We had three police and fire scanners that sat about ear-level on my desk for anything that might happen, but it usually had to be something pretty serious for us to send a reporter.
The staff those nights usually consisted of a night editor and me. After the first edition of the paper went to press, the editor left me in charge to update any wire stories and to keep an eye out for anything worth alerting the day-side staff to. That night, however, the morning reporter was sticking around to finish off something or other that he had been working on for later that week and another reporter dropped by to get a head start on the week’s work. That meant that when the scanner alerted us to a “bus fire,” my editor was OK letting me run out there for a look-see when I asked, as I always seemed to ask, “Can I go?”
We both thought the same thing: The engine on the bus caught fire and the thing was now disabled in the middle of the road. I had planned on scraping together a story to polish off my portfolio and she was looking for something to freshen up the local section. A brief or something, maybe. She sent me out with the “newsroom phone,” one of those giant car phones of yesteryear that required you to mount an antenna on the roof of the car and plug a power pack into the cigarette lighter of your car. It was like carrying a purse and it weighed a ton.
When I got out to the scene (I took two wrong turns, as I have no sense of geography and the GPS Lady wasn’t around yet to give me step-by-step directions), two things hit me:
- This wasn’t an engine fire. It was something else way more horrible.
- I wasn’t the only one who underestimated this thing, as there weren’t enough ambulances there to take care of the wounded.
The first person I saw from the bus was a woman who I would later learn was named Ernastine Wittig. She was 73 years old and she was laying on somebody’s lawn with smoke rising off of her. Someone was holding her hand and talking to her as they waited for help. The wounds she had were like something you get when you skin your knee but it doesn’t bleed, but it rather weeps. These weeping spots were large and rimmed in black and they were all over her.
After that, it was all a blur of me finding people, asking questions and gathering information. I did what Allison Sansone noted she was once advised to do: I wrote down everything I saw and heard, having no idea how much of this was actually going to make it into the paper. I eventually ran back to my car, which by this point had been parked in by responding emergency vehicles, and called the newsroom for a photographer. My editor, Teryl Franklin, answered the phone and told me one had already been dispatched.
One of the clearer memories I have of that scene, however, was running into Eric Deutsch, who years later would be one of the “pros” in my media-writing book. Deutsch was a broadcast student in the lab I oversaw at UW-Madison a year or so earlier. He recently took a job at a local radio station and had been sent out to cover this disaster.
His recording device, a shoe-box-sized monstrosity called a Marantz, wouldn’t pick up any sound and he was kind of in a panic. For some reason, I remembered how these things worked, so I grabbed it, flipped a couple switches and sang the opening line to a Tom Jones song into his microphone, just to prove it worked.
I still have no idea why. It was a surreal moment in a surreal situation.
“Wow, I don’t remember any of that,” Deutsch told me. “If I ever write an autobiography, I’m calling you for details on my life…that does make sense about the Marantz giving me trouble. I was only on the job a a couple of weeks when this happened.”
What he did remember, interestingly enough, were things I had either forgotten, overlooked or managed to block out.
“I remember this day so vividly,” Deutsch wrote in an email earlier this week. “I was less than a year out of college at the UW, and after getting my first job as a news radio reporter in Eau Claire, had just moved back to Madison three weeks before to work at WTDY-AM. It was a Sunday, late afternoon, I was on call that weekend, just relaxing at home as the weekend was ending. The pager went off and had a vague alert about an incident with a city bus. I called my news director to see if I should head over there, because it wasn’t readily apparent based on the alert what happened. He told me to go, it was less than 10 minutes away from my apartment, so I got there quickly.”
“As I walked toward the scene, I immediately smelled a horrible stench… a combination of burned plastic and burned flesh. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything I’ve ever smelled that was more terrible; not just because of the actual physical reaction to the smell, but what it clearly meant had happened. I was able to get some basic information from some of the emergency personnel who still were on the scene, and then went to the UW Hospital where all of the victims were taken.”
I remembered running back to the office between the officers on the scene announcing they were going to have a press conference and the actual event. I pounded out almost everything I had from my notebook into a story file at the city desk before hauling ass down to the hospital.
I remember sitting next to Deutsch at that press conference. Everyone else in there was from TV or had many years of experience. They were all dressed for success. We kind of looked like random hobos who showed up for free coffee and wandered into the wrong room. I remember being embarrassed that I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. (When I got dressed for work, I figured I’d be stuck in the newsroom all night and that I’d rather be comfortable.) At least he had a Marantz with an official station logo on its microphone. People kept staring at me, or at least that’s what it felt like.
Again, it’s weird what we each remembered from that shared moment.
“I have a very distinct memory of the news conference held by the doctors that night,” Deutsch said. “Their tone as they spoke and their body language made all of us reporters think that at least a couple of the victims would not survive. It was just a very stunned and somber room as we all sat around a table; this clearly was the most horrific act most people in the room ever experienced.”
I remembered two completely different and yet ridiculous things. First, there was a guy from one of the TV stations who kept asking questions about the bucket of gasoline. Outside the bus, there was what I best described as a white “pickle bucket.” It was the kind of thing that anyone who ever worked in food service has seen, because sliced pickles or sliced potatoes usually came packed in one of these things. Police had painted an orange line around the bucket, which indicated to any sane individual that this was the bucket used in the attack.
However, this TV reporter was OBSESSED with this bucket. He asked about it and got an answer that didn’t confirm that the bucket he saw was the bucket that held the gasoline. He followed up with another bucket-related question and apparently was similarly unsatisfied as he finally said in an exasperated tone, “But was that bucket THE BUCKET the suspect had on the bus?” After one more semi-fruitless exchange, he began exasperatedly packing up his camera gear loudly.
The second thing I remember was that I almost got in a fight with this guy at a payphone after the presser was over.
When he finished with “Bucket-gate,” everyone seemed to be packing up. Deutsch was reaching for his mic and I tapped him on the arm and said, “Wait…” I had noticed the head of Madison Metro in the corner, seemingly there for support or something. I asked if he would be willing to take a couple questions. The guy got to the mic and I read him a quote from one of the people on the scene. It was something like “All the kids say they’re never going to ride the bus again.” I asked him what he wanted to say to the people who think like that and if the buses would be rolling tomorrow on that route.
He gave me a great quote about how he’d never seen anything like this, that the buses were safe as they could be and that people rely on the bus and the bus would be their for them. He then picked up his stuff and left. At this point, only Deutsch and I were in a position to get that info, as everyone else had either left or was in the process of breaking down their gear. The bucket guy confronted me about this after I had called in my quotes to my editor from a payphone just outside the room.
“Hey, what the hell?” he asked me in a really angry way. “You could have asked that while we were ALL recording. What’s your problem?”
“I just figured you had an exclusive bucket story, so I didn’t think you would care,” I said, or words to that effect. At that point, it looked like he was going to punch me. Someone else showed up and asked if I was done with the phone, so I took that opportunity to get out of there.
Amazingly, all of the people survived, including the person accused of starting the fire, Salim Amara. Police arrested him about a mile and a half from the scene and was later tried on charges of attempted murder. By the time this was going on, I had already left the State Journal for Missouri. Deutsch, however, covered the whole trial.
“I covered all aspects of Salim Amara’ court proceedings, and yet I never heard him utter a single word,” he wrote. “He would sit with his attorneys emotionless. The final story I covered for this was his sentencing hearing, when his victims were given the chance to speak directly to him. There are three stories I covered in my career that most stand out to me as the most difficult, gut punching, events I covered – this was one of them. The emotions in that packed courtroom were so intense. I specifically remember Eric Nelson, the most severely injured victim, telling Amara that he was ‘the most vile piece of human bile,’ and ‘I am strength and you are weakness.’ While obviously it was very tough for the victims to speak that day, it was good to see them get some small semblance of closure.”
Amara was found to be mentally unfit to appreciate his actions and was sentenced to 104 years in Mendota Mental Health Institute.
Not only did Deutsch remember those days, he still had his story packages from them. You can listen to them below.
It’s amazing how much of this all came back to the two of us after so long and in such a short reflex of recall. It speaks volumes about the event itself and what we went through in covering it. That said, we both agreed we learned a lot that we took with us in our careers after that.
Tomorrow: The “teachable moments” we learned covering the bus fire and why they still matter.
A week or so, a media adviser posted a question about an unfortunate and yet frequent reporting problem:
Our students are getting stonewalled trying to get information from our (private school) administration about a fraternity’s suspension. Is there a way to turn the tight-lippedness into a story?
Sources often assume that if they don’t comment on a story or in other ways avoid talking about a topic, the story will go away. I often refer to this as “Ostrich Syndrome,” which is named after the giant birds that stick their heads in the sand when they are scared. The idea here is that the problem doesn’t go away, but the bird can’t see the crisis and hopes ignoring it will somehow make it better.
In an answer to the adviser’s question, I reached out to a former student who once built an entire story out of nothing but “no comment” comments. Alex Nemec, now a general-assignment reporter with the Oconomowoc Enterprise, matched wits against a system meant to tell him nothing in hopes of making sure he could tell students at UW-Oshkosh that something was going on.
Nemec’s story, titled “The Curious Case of Willis Hagen,” is just one part of a reporting experience that has led to a yearlong court battle over open records. Even though he STILL has no idea what led to a professor being removed from a classroom during the middle of an instructional period, he said the overall experience has been worth the time and trouble.
The story started off like most of them do: A tip from somebody who knows somebody.
“I heard about the story from my managing editor, who told him that his friend said his professor got pulled out of class,” Nemec said. “That was the only tip I had. I followed up with him and he didn’t really give me anything else of substance beside he still wasn’t back and they had a long-term sub.”
Nemec said he figured out which course it was and then waited for the substitute instructor after class.
“I asked if she knew were Professor Hagen was, because she clearly wasn’t him,” he said. “She said something along the lines of she didn’t think he would be coming back anytime soon and that she was filling in for him. That was sort of my first big piece of information in the story. I asked her why, half playing the role of dumb student and half playing the role of clueless reporter. She said she didn’t know too much about it, but it seemed like he did something pretty serious and that he wouldn’t be back anytime soon. That was sort of my first step in the story. If the sub says he isn’t coming back anytime soon, I’m going to assume she is telling the truth because she is expecting to get the paycheck the rest of the semester.”
After that, Nemec went to the College of Business to see if anyone in the hierarchy there would talk to him. He approached multiple administrators and said he got “shot down” repeatedly.
“Each time I went there and asked questions, I was met with no comments or just general non-answers,” he said. “It was incredibly frustrating. In addition, to me, the associate dean gave me a vibe of incredible disrespect.”
With nothing else to go on, Nemec figured he’d ask Hagen himself why wasn’t teaching his classes. Hagen’s office appeared to be packed up, his office phone went unanswered and his email bounced back, so Nemec decided to take a drive.
“I found his house in the White Pages and drove the five minutes from campus to his house,” he said. “My heart was pounding when I walked up to his door and knocked on it. He had a piece of paper with two of the first 10 constitutional amendments (taped to the door)… By this point my heart was going to come out of my chest. Sure enough, he answered the door and I was hit with a huge blast of smoke from the house. I asked if he was who I thought he was and he said yes and asked who I was. I introduced myself as a reporter from The A-T and was greeted with door slammed in my face.”
With that, Nemec said he realized he wouldn’t have the “expansive exposé ” he hoped he would find. He even wondered if he had a story. However, once we started talking about it, he realized that he could tell a story by just telling people what he actually knew.
- Two students confirmed how the professor had been removed from the classroom shortly after a lecture began.
- A long-term sub had taken over the professor’s class and that sub said she expected the professor to be gone for a long time.
- The COB dean refused to comment on the issue because it was “a personnel matter.”
- An open records request for information on this professor was denied due to an active investigation. (On a lark, Nemec requested police reports pertaining to the professor, having no idea if any existed. That request was rejected, saying they are part of an ongoing investigation, thus indicating these things actually exist.)
- His office name plate was gone, his office had stuff boxed up in it, his email bounced back and his phone rang constantly without UW voicemail or an answering machine to pick it up.
- Hagen himself said “I would rather not say” why he wasn’t teaching his class before shutting the door on Nemec.
It wasn’t what he wanted, but it wasn’t “nothing,” either.
“Building a story from a slew of no-comments is pretty hard, but that essentially was the story,” he said. “I had the facts, which were, Hagen was pulled out of class, he was still an employee and there was an open investigation according to the open records request… To piece it together, I just took everything I had, which in all reality was about six facts, and just made it into a short article. But the short article, in my opinion, was pretty damning in that the University or College of Business were trying to keep this under wraps.”
Nemec said he didn’t know what kind of an impact his story had, but it did prompt him to push for more records. The university had planned to release documents pertaining to closed investigations related to Hagen, but Hagen sued to prevent their release. After a judge initially ruled in favor of release, Hagen appealed. The case has been ongoing for more than a year and Nemec has kept up with it, even though he has since graduated.
“Journalists need to be persistent,” he said. “If you’re a journalist and not willing to be persistent you’ll never be worth your salt as one.”
The whole process, he said, has been a real learning experience about how to make something out of nothing when he knows a story exists.
“What I’ve learned in my reporting, is that if someone is slamming a door in your face, they have something to hide and you’ve got yourself a story if you can follow it,” he said. “If you get enough doors slammed in your face relating to the same story, that is the story… Don’t get down on yourself for getting no comments, no comments are good if you get enough of them and have some facts to supplement them.”
The term “fake news” means various things to various people: Misleading information, satire, biased sourcing or even something they don’t want to hear. However, when it comes to truly “fake” stories, as in those that have no foundation in fact, things don’t look good for people heading into the field of journalism.
A massive study by MIT researchers has found that fake stories spread at a rate of almost six times that of those based in fact. The study looked at 10 years of data on Twitter and found that people, not bots, were dominantly responsible for these results. In addition, the topic didn’t matter in regard to the quickness of the false news; topics like business, war, politics and science all fared equally poorly.
The massive new study analyzes every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor. By every common metric, falsehood consistently dominates the truth on Twitter, the study finds: Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than accurate stories.
The authors of the study also looked into WHY this tended to be the case on Twitter:
First, fake news seems to be more “novel” than real news. Falsehoods are often notably different from the all the tweets that have appeared in a user’s timeline 60 days prior to their retweeting them, the team found.
Second, fake news evokes much more emotion than the average tweet. The researchers created a database of the words that Twitter users used to reply to the 126,000 contested tweets, then analyzed it with a state-of-the-art sentiment-analysis tool. Fake tweets tended to elicit words associated with surprise and disgust, while accurate tweets summoned words associated with sadness and trust, they found.
This kind of information, which multiple researchers reviewed and found to be worthy of support, is a bit depressing to people like us who constantly preach accuracy, fairness and clarity. It seems it’s a lot easier to become popular on social media if we were just willing to start every tweet off with “SHOCKING!” or “THIS SET OF LIES BY (fill in politician) WILL DISGUST YOU!” Since that’s not the kind of rodeo you all signed up for, consider these four things that will hopefully hearten you and show you ways to press back against this deluge of garbage:
Don’t try to be the cool kid: It is not easy to fight the urge to be at the center of a lot of attention, especially in a day and age where everything can be measured. How many followers you have, how many retweets you get and more can make social media seem like the set of “Mean Girls,” where everyone else is Regina George and you’re not even the Spelling Girl. The problem with that logic is that a) it’s not true and b) it turns out that truth-tellers actually get their due in social media, just not in such a loud and obnoxious way, according to the study:
Users who share accurate information have more followers, and send more tweets, than fake-news sharers. These fact-guided users have also been on Twitter for longer, and they are more likely to be verified. In short, the most trustworthy users can boast every obvious structural advantage that Twitter, either as a company or a community, can bestow on its best users.
Of course, the downside is that the fakers STILL get more penetration of the market and have their stuff take off much more quickly than do the truth-tellers, which is maddening to people involved in decent journalism. It can also be a situation in which, to quote the Atlantic “the thrill of novelty is too alluring, the titillation of disgust too difficult to transcend.”
That all might be true, but the one thing that isn’t clear from my initial reading is the degree to which the “root accounts” from which these bits of misinformation emerge remain valuable to readers. In other words, we know how many fake tweets there are but what we don’t know is if those people continue to send out false information over time and they remain sources for people. Or, to put it another way, do false news purveyors become like the little boy who cried wolf? Eventually, nobody cared what that kid said, even though it cost them all their sheep.
So, yeah, you won’t be cool for the moment, but how long does “cool” last these days anyway? Think about it this way: That kid in third grade who could belch the alphabet was the king of the school for about six weeks. What’s he doing now? Or as mom used to tell me, “The unpopular kids of today are the Lamborghini owners of tomorrow.”
Before you retweet, consider the source: Where information comes from is crucial in determining how much credence you should put into a story. Think about when you were in grade school and you heard some unbelievable story from “that one kid” on the playground who always was making stuff up. Chances are, you learned to stop believing him after you discovered that there wasn’t a pool on the roof of the gym and that there was no such thing as “No Pants Wednesday.”
However, when your teacher or the principal told you something, you tended to give it serious consideration. Apply the same basic rules when you are considering information you find online. “Who told you that?” should be one of the first questions you ask when you get information that doesn’t seem to pass the smell test. That also means finding out who told the person who is now telling you something. This will cut down on the number of people adding to the noise and help to keep your nose clean in terms of being a source of fake news.
Find the root of the rumor: Just because a quick Google search reveals dozens of stories on a given topic, it doesn’t always follow that the information is true. Some sites frequently cite one another and create an echo chamber of information that lacks external support. You want to find a variety of sources for any piece of information before you send it forward.
Look up the concept itself that the retweeter is putting forth in the message and see if it tracks with other things you can find online. Look to see how deep that “retweet” goes: Is this person tweeting information passed on by a source or by someone who retweeted someone else who is retweeting someone else and so forth. Don’t just hit the retweet button. Treat that rumor like a missile and consider your retweet a launch code. Make sure the Twitter freakout isn’t just a game of “Telephone” gone horribly wrong or the result of someone trusting someone else’s ticked off cousin who has nothing better to do than tweet while on house arrest.
If your mother says she loves you, go check it out (and encourage others to do the same): One of the best ways to avoid letting fake news trick you is to be a bit paranoid about every piece of information you receive. A few years back, a good friend posted online that the president of our alma mater had resigned under pressure. No link, no citation and no support with that line. I was about a second away from just sharing that when I thought, “You damned dummy. You’re doing exactly what you tell your students not to do.”
I hit him back with a “Where did you get this?” inquiry and he quickly responded that he was streaming the university’s board of trustees meeting live, which is how he knew this. He also noted, “I probably should have mentioned that.” Yeah, but now you did and now we both feel better about putting that information out for additional consumption.
The Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify,” should guide you through anything you read. Independently verify the information in a piece before you pass it along to others. In addition, poke back at people who are passing along info without decent supporting resources. Help the people with whom you interact learn how to dig into stuff or at least avoid hitting the “retweet” button like a rat hitting a feeder bar to get a food pellet. The more people we get to see things in a journalistic fashion, the better off we’re all going to be.
In covering the news, journalists can occasionally find themselves becoming the news. This happens when reporters attempt to do their jobs, as was the case of Dan Heyman, who was arrested in West Virginia for persistently asking Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price questions. (The charges of “willful disruption of governmental processes” were dropped four months later.) In another incident, a reporter was arrested at the New York Capitol for using a cell phone while in the building. According to media reports, a discussion between Ken Lovett and Capitol police regarding the phone “escalated quickly” leading to Lovett’s arrest. The situation ended shortly afterward when Gov. Andrew Cuomo had him released.
Then there was the case of Adair “A.J.” Bayatpour, who was arrested on a tentative charge of substantial battery while reporting on a Milwaukee Brewers/Chicago Cubs game Friday. According to the police report, Bayatpour was sitting at the game with his colleague Madeline Anderson and her fiancee, a local NBC reporter named Ben Jordan, when the even occurred. An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel stated that this all began when Anderson showed Bayatpour a photo of a bulldog. The situation escalated to the point where Bayatpour punched Jordan in the face three times, breaking his nose, chipping a tooth and causing orbital bone fractures.
Boy… That escalated quickly…
FTVLive.com, which first reported the incident, accused FOX-6 of having “buried” the incident in its newscast. The site also noted that neither reporter was reporting on the game at the time of the arrest, which probably didn’t make things any better for either TV station.
When media practitioners become “the news,” it makes things awkward for other journalists who have to cover the situation. Even more, when you have to report on someone in your own newsroom, it’s downright weird.
When I was working as a crime editor/night city editor at the Columbia Missourian, I got a call from my wife, who was a dispatcher for the University of Missouri’s police department. (In some other post, I’ll get into how awkward THAT kind of situation is.) Thus began one of the weirder phone calls of our marriage:
Her: “Hey, it’s me. I’ve got one of your reporters in our holding cell.”
Her: “We arrested one of your reporters. He’s in our holding cell, singing show tunes to the security camera.”
Me: “Wait… WHAT?”
It turns out the reporter was picked up with a couple roommates on suspicion of burglarizing a historic home on our campus, an action that included the theft of an $11,000 oil painting. The kid seemed oblivious to what was going on, as he apparently told the person taking his mug shot that he was “ready for my close up” and then started singing and dancing after the police put him in cell. Amy explained that he was driving the officers crazy.
I can’t remember exactly the order of the next several events that occurred, but I ended up informing my boss, assigning the story and running a piece on this guy. (I don’t remember if we used the mug shot and I can’t find a copy of this online.) As we were both a city paper and an educational endeavor, we were not allowed to dismiss him from the paper until he was tried and convicted or until he pled out. Thus, as my reporter is writing a follow-up story on this burglary, the accused was sitting about 10 feet away at another terminal, working on a feature story about something or other.
“Hey, can you come over and read this story about the stupid burglary thing?” I remember my reporter yelling to me, as I was walking across the newsroom.
“Shut up!” I hissed at him. “The guy’s right over there.”
Eventually there was a plea or something (I have open records requests in at about three university and state agencies, so I’ll fill in more if I ever hear back…), thus pushing the kid out of the newsroom and mercifully allowing the story to end.
Based on this experience and talking to others who have had similar “Oh, God, why do we have to report on this?” situations, here are a few basic bits of advice in case you have to deal with this:
Treat it like every other story, even though it’s not: The news is the news, regardless of how happy or displeased it makes you. Thus, you need to knuckle down and do your job. If you’re the editor, assign a reporter who is qualified and least likely to have a conflict of interest in reporting the story. If you are the reporter chosen for this fantastic assignment, do the same things you do for every story: Request documents, verify facts, seek sources and get interviews. If the person is willing to talk, treat that person like you would any other source. That means also not allowing the person to be near you when you’re putting the story together. Give it the same play you would for other stories involving “minor local celebrities” and give it the same amount of space/time/word count you would as well. Then, move on.
Transparency, transparency, transparency: You do not want to be late on this story, nor do you want to hide this somewhere. What news reporters tell PR professionals in that chastising tone comes back to roost here: The more you hide something, the more people will dig and the worse it will get. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lead with a “GUESS WHAT OUR GUY/GAL DID!” lead, but you don’t want to try to gloss this over as well. Try using an “interesting-action lead” and focusing on the situation as opposed to a “name-recognition lead” and focusing on the person. Still, get it out there and get it over with.
Have a plan as to how you will respond to others: OK, you know how YOU want to handle this, but that doesn’t mean everyone else is going to follow suit. Depending on where you work and how many people really dig this stuff, you might get one call for a comment or five dozen. The trick is to take a page from the PR practitioners’ playbook and have a plan for handling this: Who will speak, what the statement will be, when they will make it and how they will handle any inquiries beyond that first-day story. Just because you want something to be over, it doesn’t mean that’s going to happen.