Four things students can learn from a college newspaper’s coverage of a racist text (Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe, Part II)

Yesterday’s post looked at the George-Anne’s coverage of a racist exchange between two potential roommates at Georgia Southern University. Editor-in-chief Matthew Enfinger outlined the paper’s reasoning behind publishing certain aspects of the story while omitting other details, such as the screenshots of the text and the actual word itself.

Enfinger said that the paper’s story was successful for several reasons, not the least of which was the amount of people who contributed to the piece.

“I would have to say one of the lessons learned from this experience is that dividing (the) labor on this article really helped our paper be one of the first media outlets to have a story out,” he said in an email over the weekend. “One person could’ve (done) the story but dividing the work load really allowed our newspaper to make fast and accurate reporting all while working together as a team.”

The collaborative process also helped Enfinger decide what approach the paper would take on the story. Over the years in journalism, I often noted that the head editor was the person with access to “the big red button.” In other words, it was that person’s decision in the end, but it always helped to have other perspectives in the discussion prior to pressing the button.

“I would like to give a very big thank you to my staff, particularly McClain Baxely and Tandra Smith for really stepping up and working with me on this article,” Enfinger said. “Their dedication and drive to telling this important story really showed in the quality of the work. I’m forever grateful to them. I would also like to thank our advisor David Simpson of taking my hundreds of questions and using his years of experience in journalism to walk us through this story but still gave us the control over the article.”

I asked Enfinger if he had any particular takeaways or lessons he learned as part of this process and he came up with four great ones that should help you if you ever run into a big story with a lot of potential landmines. He had some great suggestions, so here’s Matthew:

There are so many things I’d like to share with students about this experience:

  1. If your community is showing concerns about a specific issue or topic, start looking into it and report on it. A past editor at The George-Anne, Corey Leonard, use to describe covering news like playing football. “If it hits you in the hands you’ve got to catch it.” This story hit out staff in the hands and we caught it. I believe there isn’t a bigger way to fail in journalism than not looking and reporting on topics that your community is concerned about and/or constantly talking about.

 

  1. Don’t write these stories alone. I worked closely with our Enterprise/Features Managing Editor Tandra Smith and Sports Editor McClain Baxely in working on this piece. Each of us had different tasks that allowed us to report fast but also be a good check system. If one of us were stuck at one point all three of us talked through it. At The George-Anne we have a rule that everyone reports breaking news. Working as a team not only helps you be among the first but to be right as well.

 

  1. Being right is always better than being first. Fact check. Fact check. Fact check. Especially in situations like this be sure to be very accurate with your attributions and your facts.
  2. Watch your bias. In journalism we work to be as unbiased as possible. For example. I do not tolerate the use of any racial profanity. It makes me sick to my stomach. However, in this article all we had was social media posts that showed the racial slur being used but we could not prove who said it. My staff and I had to make sure that this piece wasn’t a piece calling for punishment of the students but instead report the fact and reactions. Another way to stay unbiased as possible is to reach out to both parties involved and allow each a chance to speak out. In this case only “the receiver replied.”

 

To continue following the George-Anne’s work on this and many other stories, visit the publication’s website here.

Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe: Georgia Southern University’s student newspaper reports a local story of racism that went viral (Part I)

While scrolling through Twitter, Matthew Enfinger found his university, Georgia Southern, had become a hot topic for all the wrong reasons. The senior writing and linguistics major, who serves as the editor-in-chief for the school’s newspaper, located tweets and screenshots about texts between two women who were to become roommates in the fall.

After the basic pleasantries of “getting to know you” texts were over, the white student apparently thought she had switched over to text another friend and wrote that her new African-American roommate didn’t “look too n****rish.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: She used the full word. I will not.)  Upon realizing she texted that to her new roommate, the white student blamed auto-correct, saying she meant “triggerish” as in “nothing that triggered a red flag.”

After he  heard from staffer Tandra Smith that this topic was trending on Facebook as well, Enfinger knew his paper, the George-Anne, had a big story on its hands. (Read the paper’s story here.) He also knew this story would echo far beyond his campus, so his crew had to make some serious choices about what to publish and what to avoid. Several of those choices could have ramifications for the students involved, other students on campus and the paper itself.

“One of the first things our staff did was reach out to both of the students,” Enfinger said in an email over the weekend. “While we were waiting for responses our original article did include the names of both the students involved in the situation, student reaction quotes and information that we had based off of social media posts. However, we received a response from ‘the receiver’ telling us she would like both their names to remain anonymous.”

The decision of whether to include names of people involved in any kind of incident often comes down to several factors: Do you have the names at your disposal? Are you sure you have the right names? How will this affect the people you name or the people you don’t? Other publications, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chose to name the sender.

Enfinger said two key things played a role in the staff’s decision to remove the names.

“We left both of the names out to respect that student’s wish and also we had no real way of proving that her roommate was the one who actually sent those messages,” he said. “All we had was just social media posts and we wanted to remain as unbiased to the situation and report only the facts that we were presented with.”

The paper also had to decide whether to post the screenshots of the text exchange, which were available online, that showcased the racial slur and the student’s apology. Enfinger said he and his staff discussed this issue thoroughly with the publication’s adviser, David Simpson, before deciding not to use the shots.

“We had no real way of proving these were not fabricated,” he said. “What if this turned out to be false? What if someone (else) typed that message? We had no clue and couldn’t defend it with facts. I’m not saying other media sources were entirely wrong for posting the screenshots. Looking back on it now I’m sure there was a way to use the screenshots and attribute the posts to the social media user but we were more focused on showing the student population reaction, the university’s reaction and the facts we had at hand.”

Finally, the paper had to decide if it should publish the full “N-word” or not. Some publications have a policy of simply referring to “the N-word” while others will write the whole word in each instance in which it is required. In this case, it was a derivation of the word itself, so it isn’t as clear cut. However, Enfinger said after discussing it with Simpson, he made the decision not to publish the word.

“I ultimately made the choice of not using the racial slur for many reasons,” Enfinger said. “One, I think using the full word shouldn’t ever be used even in reporting. There are many alternatives to describing was was said. We used asterisk to block out most of the word (so) our audience could understand what was said. I personally felt uncomfortable with the thought of typing out the word. Two, this wasn’t our main reason for not using the racial slur but it definitely encouraged our thought process of not using the word, but A.P. Style states that even the term ‘N-word’ should not be used unless under extreme circumstances.”

The reaction to the publication’s story was swift and loud, he said. The African-American community on campus reacted to the story and pushed the university to pay attention to this issue. The school issued a press release regarding the text exchange, affirming the school’s position against racism. Other media outlets followed the paper’s coverage, including some major, national publications, which Enfinger said was good to see.

“I would also like to thank The Washington Post, Buzz Feed and any other big media outlets that quoted our original article,” he said. “Student journalists put their hearts into their newsroom and having big outlets like The Washington Post quote us showed us our work is really valued and respected.”

(Tomorrow: What Enfinger said he and his crew learned from this and the four big lessons others can glean from the George-Anne’s experience with this story.)

Take a breath: Four key ways to tighten and shorten your sentences

Following up on Tuesday’s post about good leads, one thing we didn’t discuss was lead length. This is primarily because we were looking into narrative leads, which often go multiple paragraphs before hitting a nutgraf, which sets up the rest of the piece.

A standard news lead should sit between 25 and 35 words and cover the majority of the 5W’s and 1H. It should also capture the readers’ attention and clearly explain what happened as well as why it matters.

Here is a lead that violates those elements in multiple ways:

When convicted bank robber Luis Marty Narvaez walked into the Far East Side Madison branch of Chase Bank on the afternoon of March 1, 24-year-old Charles Daehling was just weeks into his position as an armed, undercover security guard working without a state license and under contract to an unlicensed and now-defunct Nebraska security firm.

The story, which you can find here, attempts to unpack a bizarre incident in which a unlicensed security guard shot a would-be bank robber. The lead is 55 words, doesn’t tell me what the story is going to include and loses me among a wash of proper nouns and random facts.

Subsequent sentences in the story have similar issues. Here are several examples of sentences that go on way too long:

Narvaez’s head and face were covered with a black cap and black mask as he briskly stepped to a window where a teller was already helping a customer, stuck a bag under the window and demanded money but never displayed a weapon, according to a 124-page Madison police report and video surveillance footage of the incident.

<SNIP>

Daehling didn’t think giving Narvaez a verbal warning before opening fire “would have been appropriate” once he realized a robbery was taking place, because Narvaez and the female customer were close enough that he worried Narvaez could have taken her hostage, the police report says.

<SNIP>

Daehling also told police he thought about trying to provide Narvaez with medical attention after the shooting but “given that he didn’t know whether the suspect was armed, the fact that he had his hands inside his hoodie pockets and the fact that he was the only one in the bank armed and with two customers, he believed that it would be better to make sure that he covered the male suspect with his firearm, until police arrived.”

<SNIP>

Mark Warren, Strategos senior vice president and director of training, said his company no longer subcontracts with Bobbi Randall Inc. but that such subcontracting arrangements are common in the private security industry because no one particular security company can be licensed to work in every state.

<SNIP>

Chase Bank, which started using off-duty Madison police officers to provide security at the branch shortly after the Narvaez shooting, declined to say whether it has any minimal training requirements for security guards who work at its branches, or to answer any other questions about how Daehling came to work at the branch.

Those five sentences occur before the second subhead of the story. The shortest is 45 words and the longest is 78, or more than twice the length of the most a lead should be. Body copy sentences tend to be slightly shorter than the lead when done well, but at the very least, they shouldn’t make you feel like a sugar-addled toddler is telling you about his day.

To help you prevent run-on sentences like these, consider a few tips:

  • Start with the core: Both books argue the value of building a sentence from the core out, instead of from the front to the back. In other words, you want to identify the noun, the verb and the object of the sentence and build outward from that point in concentric rings of information. If you can’t find the NVO core without a searchlight and a posse, you probably have a pretty weak sentence. The NVO core should tell you what it is the sentence wants to explain to the readers. Find it in each of your sentences and then augment it with additional, valuable information.

 

  • Read it aloud: If you count words, you can usually hit the mark for a solid sentence that doesn’t wander too much. That said, the word “a” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each count as a single word, so math is only going to get you so far. A good idea to help you figure out if a sentence is too long (or too heavy, as we discussed in the basic writing sections) is to take a normal, human breath and read it out loud. If you do this and you start to feel tight in your chest when you finish, you might need to make a few trims. If you run out of air before the  end of the sentence, it’s almost certainly going to be too long.

    SIDE NOTE 1: When I say a “normal, human breath” I mean the kind of breath you take when you assume you can take another one relatively soon, not a “the Titanic is going under and we need to stay alive” breath:

SIDE NOTE 2: It doesn’t behoove you to cheat at this. I had a student in my class one year who was on the university’s swim team and had the lung capacity of a blue whale. She would read these enormous sentences aloud in one breath and then exhale all her extra oxygen to prove a point. OK, Freya, you got me, but that’s not helping.

  • Write once, edit twice: Once you write the sentence, don’t assume it works fine. Go back through with your critical editor’s hat on and dig into this thing. Strip out extra words that don’t add value. Look to see if you cranked up the prepositional-phrase machine and let it run roughshod all over your work. Determine if you are making one, solid point in the sentence or if you’re trying to do three things at once. Find the noun-verb-object core and make sure each piece of the sentence applies to that core. If not, you can always pull it out into a second sentence. Once you do all this, go back and do another fine-tuning edit to clean up any problems that remain or errors you might have introduced.

 

  • Ask yourself, “Would I read this if I didn’t write this?” for each sentence: As we discussed multiple times, you aren’t writing for yourself. You need to write for your readers, so keep them in mind when you write each sentence. If the sentence doesn’t make sense to them or isn’t valuable to them, you have failed at your job. Go back and make the necessary fixes to help your readers get the most out of your work.

“The man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes:” Why a lead can make or break your story

I’ve spent the last couple days critiquing newspapers for a variety of institutions, during which time I’ve found one immutable truth:

Leads will make or break a story.

In most cases, people can write a solid news lead, with at least a few W’s and an occasional H in there, but when it comes to feature pieces, I find three types of leads that are horrible:

1) “Some people/Most people/Everybody/Nobody” leads: In most cases, these are straw-man leads where the author sets up the current situation with a generic statement about how “others” tend to view something. Then, the writer juxtaposes this with the source of the story doing the opposite or something quirky. Consider this opening to a story about a student journalist:

MONDOVI – Some college kids come home for summer and wait tables, paint houses or grab internships.

Nash Weiss is serving as interim editor of his local weekly newspaper, the Mondovi Herald-News.

He’s 21 years old, an incoming senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he’s studying journalism.

It’s an interesting story, but I’m bored right away as a reader. Also, it feels like I’m about to experience an infomercial or something:

(Whoever thought of this title was a marketing genius or went to work for the Pratt Tribune.)

2) “Not your typical” something or other: If I had a dollar for every profile that started with “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore (or junior or senior or whatever),” I’d never have to work a day in my life.

Of course someone isn’t your “typical” anything if you’re doing a profile on that person. The whole point of personality profiles is to showcase someone who is special or interesting. A person who is exactly like everyone else probably isn’t really going to stand out as a profile subject. Here’s a look at a lead about someone who isn’t your “typical college sophomore:”

Santiago Gonzalez is already in his second year at the Colorado School of Mines, one of the nation’s top engineering colleges, where he has his sights set on degrees in computer science and electrical engineering.

But Gonzalez, who is 13 years old, isn’t your typical college sophomore.

Most college sophomores aren’t 13 years old, so… yeah.

Instead, tell his story, which you can find in the quotes below that lead in the story, which would further engage your readers.

3) “Imagine” leads: Unless you are writing about the John Lennon tune, you should avoid forcing your readers to imagine something. I had a student once who had an imagine-lead fetish, as he was seemingly unable to write any lead that didn’t include the word “imagine.” At that point, I told him if he wrote “imagine” in a lead one more time, I’d fail him. His next lead started this way:

Envision this scenario:

I don’t know if I felt pride in his weaseldom or amazement at how hard it was to break free of his imaginary friends. In any case, you want to avoid “imagine” leads for two reasons:

  • If something is truly imaginary, why are you writing about it in a news story or news feature? We want facts and information, not flights of fancy.
  • In most cases, the imagined thing is really true and thus should be the core of what you want to tell your readers. Therefore, instead of having someone imagine what life was like to be homeless as a 5-year-old boy, tell the story of that boy and what he really went through.

The reason I dug into leads today was that I read two narrative leads that knocked my socks off today. They came from varying sources and are of varying vintages, but they both did the one thing a lead must do: Make me care enough to want to read the rest of the story.

Start with the classic: Jacqui Banaszynski’s 1980s Pulitzer-Prize-winning series, “AIDS in the Heartland.” The series chronicles the way in which AIDS, then thought of as a disease for large cities with questionable morals, hit the Midwest. She did it through the eyes and struggles of Dick Hanson, a Minnesota political activist and farmer, who died at age 37. Although all three parts have an incredible narrative lead, the third part was the one I picked for an example here:

Dick Hanson died Saturday, July 25 at 5:30 a.m. Farmers’ time, when the night holds tight to a last few moments of quiet before surrendering to the bustle of the day.

Back home in rural Glenwood, Minn., folks were finishing morning barn chores before heading out to the fields for the early wheat harvest. Members of the Pope County DFL Party were setting up giant barbecue grills in Barsness Park, preparing for the Waterama celebration at Lake Minnewaska.

In the 37 years Hanson lived on his family’s farm south of Glenwood, he had seldom missed the harvest or the lakeside celebration. As the longtime chairman of the county DFL, it always had been his job to ran the hotdog booth.

But today he was in a hospital bed in downtown Minneapolis. The blinds of the orange-walled room were drawn against the rising sun. He had suffered a seizure the morning before. Doctors said it probably left him unaware of his surroundings, beyond pain and — finally — beyond struggling.

Yet those closest to him swore he could hear them, and knew what was happening, and knew it was time.

“Three times during the course of the night he brought his hands together and his lips would move, and you knew he was praying. I can’t help I but think he was shutting himself down,” said Roy Schmidt, a Minnesota AIDS Project official and longtime friend who stayed with Hanson that last night.

Hanson died holding the hands of the two people most dear to him — his sister, Mary Hanson-Jenniges, and his partner of five years, Bert Henningson.

“Amazing Grace” was playing softly on a tape machine in the corner of the room. It was Hanson’s favorite hymn, the one he had sung over his mother’s grave barely a year ago.

This is the final chapter of Hanson’s story. After having lived a year longer than he was expected to, he grew weary of fighting for his life and was willing — if not eager — for it to end.

After his death, he was cremated. Mourners came to his childhood church for a memorial service that was vintage Hanson — traditionally religious but politically radical and, inevitably, controversial.

Henningson is left behind on the farm with a legacy of love — and death. For now he, too, is sick, suffering early symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. No sooner will he finish grieving for Hanson than he must begin grieving for himself.

In this lead, small details add to the big picture. It also comes to a point of conclusion that shows this illness is not slowing down and more will die of it soon.

The second lead I ran into came from ESPN’s Tisha Thompson and Kevin Shaw. It is about a boxing trainer who had been marked for death by someone close to him. The beginning uses details in much the same way the AIDS series did, but then the twist at the end has me wanting to read the whole thing from top to bottom:

The police camera clicked. Click. Click. Click. Each snap shattered a silence brought on by Houston’s suffocating summertime heat. The lens pointed into a waist-deep hole.

At the bottom of the freshly dug grave lay a man in his late 40s with what appeared to be blood running from a gunshot wound to his right temple. More blood trailed from his nose. The man, clad in nothing but his underwear, had his arms pulled beneath his back as though he’d been bound.

Detectives from the Montgomery County Constable’s Office already knew his identity: Ramon Sosa, one of the best-known boxing trainers in southeast Texas. A former professional fighter, he’d taught pros and Olympic hopefuls how to spar the fast-paced Puerto Rican way. Dozens of kids from gangs and troubled backgrounds had funneled through his nonprofit Young Prospects Boxing program.

He also owned a successful gym less than two miles from this spot, surrounded by heavy forest on all sides and well-hidden from the bedroom community known as The Woodlands. The detectives knew too that Sosa’s gym brought in about $20,000 a month, allowing the trainer and his wife to buy a fancy new house, cars, motorcycles and designer shoes and watches.

Gangs and money. That’s what might have been behind this grim scene. But this wasn’t a predictable crime at all. Once the camera stopped clicking, the lead detective spoke: “We’re done, Mr. Sosa. You can get up now.”

And with that, the man at the bottom of the grave opened his eyes.

If you’ll pardon me, I have to go read the rest of that one now.

 

GAME TIME: AP Quiz with an EAA AirVenture theme

This time of year in Oshkosh, you can’t do anything without hearing the sound of a plane buzzing across the sky. The Experimental Aircraft Association or EAA hosts an annual fly-in event called AirVenture, which draws flight enthusiasts from around the world.

Many of my former students cut their journalistic teeth working at EAA as interns in all forms of media, ranging from news to marketing. Many of them still work there to this day as professionals.

In honor of the mega-event, here’s an AP style quiz with an EAA AirVenture theme. You don’t need to know anything about EAA or airplanes to play. You also don’t need to sign up for an account to play, but if you want to get a ranking, you should sign up. Either way, screenshot your score and post it here. Challenge your professor and seek bragging rights once you beat him or her.

Speed and accuracy count here, as is the case with flight in general.

Click here to play.

Three myths students believe about their professors that hurt the students’ educational journey

Myth 1: “I’m bothering the professor if I ask for help.”

A derivation of this myth is “Professors are too busy to help me.” Yes, we are busy people and, contrary to popular opinion, we do stuff outside the classroom, like research, meetings, service, meetings, advising, meetings and other meetings about meetings, we are never “bothered” by a real request for help.

The truth is, we see it as an investment for a couple reasons. First, we help you improve the specific assignment that troubles you. That makes life easier on us when we have to grade the assignment and we get to read a quality piece. Professors can fly through quality work, quickly sing your praise and then move on to the next thing, which is probably a meeting. Work that is lousy takes forever and a day to get through, as we correct every glitch along the way and ponder if we should chuck it all and become a long-haul truck driver.

Second, it’s an investment in future assignments. If we help you fix the mistakes now, chances are, you’ll avoid making those mistakes in the future. That means we won’t have to muddle through the grading process each time we read your work. It’s that “Teach a man to fish” approach to giving you an education.

Finally, it gives us a chance to make adjustments for the class. If you’re having a problem, you probably aren’t the only one having it. Thus, if you bring it to our attention, we’ll probably find a way to help you fix the problem and then share what we figured out together with the rest of the class. That improves everyone’s experience and makes life easier on us when we have to grade your papers as well.

In short, you’re not a bother if you have a real concern, so bring it to us and we’ll help you get through it.

 

Myth 2: “Professors like failing students.”

Versions of this include “This guy/gal gets off on being a harsh grader” or “Nobody gets an A in Professor Smith’s class.”

We don’t like failing students and we probably aren’t that thrilled when we have to give out even worse grades like a “D+.” (Why do we have a D+ as a grade option? Who thought it was a great idea to dress up a D? I can’t imagine going home with one of these to have my old man yell, “You got a D?!?!?” and having me respond, “No, Dad, it’s a D PLUS!”)

Contrary to popular opinion, professors don’t get cash bonuses or a set of steak knives if we meet some quota for failing students. In fact, it takes far more work to fail a student than it does to pass one. Think about that the next time you bomb out of a class.

Professors typically have two main gripes about student and grades:

  1. Some students just want the A or the B or whatever but don’t care about the knowledge, information or learning to go along with it.
  2. Some students figure A’s are like Halloween candy: As long as they show up and go through the motions, they should get it.

If you approach the professor for help by saying, “I need to get an A (or  a B or a C or whatever), so how can I do that?” what the professor hears is, “Look, I really don’t care about anything going on in this class other than what I need to get out of it grade-wise so that I can move on to something much more important than you and whatever crap is happening in your class.” However, if you ask for help with the idea of better understanding the material so that you avoid failure or a grade too low to keep your scholarship or whatever, we’re totally in your corner.

I believe that, for the most part, grades will result from the effort the students put in, so failure takes an awful lot in my class. In other courses, I’m sure the failure rate is higher because the stakes are higher. My wife, Amy, has taken nursing courses where people get smoked every semester with F after F after F, which always seems to me to be Draconian. That said, the stakes are much higher if you have a nurse who doesn’t know the material perfectly. The last thing I want to hear before being sedated in advance of a surgery is a nurse saying, “I think I gave him the right dosage, but I had a real easy grader in Med-Surgery…”

 

Myth 3: “Professors don’t care.”

This drives us nuts because so many of us do care. It also smacks of that whiny, self-indulgent, woe-is-me crap that everyone has said at a bar, three drinks after getting the break up call from our significant other. (Versions of that include, “Women are evil, man…” and “Men totally suck…”) Sweeping generalities mean to camouflage personal shortcomings don’t get the job done, and professors know that. We STILL say this stuff in other aspects of our lives. (“The reviewers who rejected my article don’t know squat about this field!” or “The sabbatical committee is playing favorites!” or “Chancellors are evil, man…”)

We all have our own version of this myth and it distracts us all from the ability to get stuff done. Early in my career, whenever I would get a rejection from a journal, I’d crumple up the letter up, throw it in a corner of my office, dump a bunch of stuff on top of it, curse and then start looking for jobs in the automotive mechanic sector. A day later, I’d pick it out of the stuff, look at it, crumple it back up and throw it in a different corner. By Day Four, I’d read through the comments, figure out which ones were legit, which ones were crap and get cracking on a revision. Eventually, I learned to trim that grieving process substantially…

There are always people who are a-holes for no good reason, who like pulling the wings off of flies and who just don’t care about you. In professor-speak, we call them “Reviewer 2.” However, the majority of your professors want you to be successful if for no other reason than they get to brag about you when you do well. (I’m still yakking about students who are at “major media outlets” that I taught introductory writing to, as if my “noun-verb” lesson was the only thing that helped them succeed in life.) They also want to see you have that moment where the light goes on for you and you “get it.”

That’s the ultimate payoff for most of us.

“Welcome to $&^%* Stadium!” How to find and fix misplaced modifiers and similar awkward issues.

As I’ve said before, when a headline goes to hell in a speedboat, the Bat Signal tends to go out among those of us in the field of journalism.

The story in question involves John Schnatter, the founder of the Papa John’s pizza chain, who served on the Board of Trustees at the University of Louisville. Schnatter participated in a conference call with a public relations agency when he used a racial slur, thus setting off a chain of events that led to his resignation from the board and his company.

In the wake of these revelations, the university considered removing (and later did remove) his company’s name from the football stadium. During the period of consideration, the New York Times ran this headline, reminding all of us that even all-stars strike out occasionally:

DiARKTJUwAAcsPA

In reading that headline as it is written, it sounds like the Cardinals will soon be playing at a stadium named after a racial slur. Something tells me that’s not what the Times meant, but it is what the paper’s staffers wrote.

We’ve picked on headlines before here, but this is probably a better chance to poke at grammar, as the headline suffers from some snafus in this area that can filter into all sorts of writing.

Let’s start with the idea of misplaced modifiers, which are words that inadvertently end up describing something they didn’t mean to describe. Consider the following sentence:

Mayor Tom Hicks said he planned to eradicate poverty on the steps of the court house on Monday.

The sentence makes it sound like the mayor has a pretty busy, but narrowly focused Monday: Eradicating poverty that exists on the steps of the court house.

What the sentence intended to say was that Hicks made an announcement Monday while he stood on the steps of the court house and the announcement pertained to his plan to eradicate poverty. There are a couple ways to fix this:

You want to get the modifiers as close as possible to the words you want them to modify. In this case, the misplaced ones are really far away from the word they intend to modify (said), so moving them closer can solve the problem:

Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house that he planned to eradicate poverty.

In this example, you solve the problem of the modifier, but you have a boring lead, in that the when and where are moved to the front of the lead, even though they are the least important elements of that lead.

This is where a second rewrite gets you closer, as you focus on the most important stuff first and then get into the nuts and bolts of the remaining W’s. The “theme lead” approach works better here:

Poverty will no longer plague Springfield after the implementation of the “Help NOW” plan, Mayor Tom Hicks said Monday on the steps of the court house.

This lead, while not an amazing bit of prose, focuses the lead on specifics of the “what” element and pushes the rest of the info lower in the sentence where it belongs.

For other examples of misplaced modifiers and ways to fix them, you can click here.

Another issues of note in the NYT headline is that of a word that has multiple meanings: after.

In some cases, it means subsequent to or (as journalists love to say “in the wake of”) an event:

Jimmy opened his presents after his mom served birthday cake.

(First, you eat the cake and then you can open your presents.)

In other cases, it means in allusion to, such as a namesake:

Jane and Bob named their child after Jane’s father, Francis.

(The kid is named Francis because Jane’s father was named Francis.)

Other definitions and uses exist, but the point is, the word leads to confusion due to its many accepted meanings. Had the authors used a more specific word or restructured the headline to eliminate the confusing usage, the problem would disappear. Here’s the original:

Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium after racial slur

Other headlines of similar length could include:

Schnatter’s use of racial slur has U of L considering stadium name change

Louisville might rename Papa John’s Cardinal stadium due to racial slur

Louisville considers stadium name change after namesake uses racial slur

None of these are perfect. I hate the use of “might” in headlines (or anywhere) as anything “might” happen. It’s just as easy to say “might not” in any “might” head. “Due to” is wonky terminology, although it avoids the “after” issue. The name in the first example has an issue because not everyone will know “Papa John” by his last name. The third one repeats versions of “name.”

Still, at least people will know the Cardinals won’t be playing at Slur Stadium in the fall.

Here are a couple other headlines that have similar snafus:

Mortgage owners get shot to save $1 million

Boy Scout helps blind women in Springfield

The first one was an actual headline in a national publication during the housing meltdown. The word “shot” was meant as “chance” here, although it sounded more like these people were taking a bullet to get some cash.

The second one is a variation on multiple bad headlines using a word that is both a descriptor (Sally is blind.) and word of action (The sun will blind you if you look directly at it.).

A good way to avoid the multiple-meaning words is to read your copy several times, emphasizing different words each time. It also helps when you have touchy subjects to read even more carefully to make sure you don’t inadvertently make things worse.

Student media matters, even long after you’re a student: A look at Chip Stewart’s “failed efforts to rescue” his college paper

Trying to explain the allure of student media for some people is like trying to explain why you love your dog: It’s less logic than feeling and it’s a feeling few things can replicate.

And in some cases, it lasts a lifetime.

My student newspaper was The Daily Cardinal, the sixth-oldest student daily in the country and one of two papers at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus. I remember getting my first column published and grabbing a stack of the papers, handing them out to everyone I knew and mailing copies home to my family members. Grandma clipped it out and stuck it up on her refrigerator. Dad took a copy of the paper to work and practically badgered every guy he saw at the factory that week into reading it while he waited.

Despite the column being exactly the kind of thing I tell students to avoid writing now, that memory still counts as a happy one for me, many, many years later. An even better Cardinal-related memory came from one of our paper’s alumni reunions. Staffs from decades earlier arrived to see the office, talk shop and share stories of their days at the paper. Two elderly gentlemen, who looked like Statler and Waldorf from “The Muppet Show,” slowly walked toward each other and had that, “HEY! It’s YOU!” moment in the hall.

They asked if The Cardinal still had the old bound volumes of newspapers from eons ago, so a staffer led them to the back shop, scaled a ladder toward some of the most ancient tomes and brought down the papers these men had sweated over decades earlier. Somewhere around the third page of nostalgia, one of them jabbed his finger at a dusty book and turned to his friend, saying, “See? That headline is STILL horseshit!” And off the went, debating a moment that predated everyone else in the room.

The reason I touched on this today was that Chip Stewart, a former colleague, a good friend and a constant source of legal help, wrote a post about his experiences with The Daily Campus at SMU. The paper hit financial trouble recently, something almost ALL papers face these days, and Stewart had worked with some other DC alums to try to save the place. For some reason, the post popped up yesterday in my feed, even though he wrote it more than a month ago. However, it’s a good read and a good endorsement for student media, even though that’s not the point he’s trying to make.

I can’t think of another endeavor I undertook in college that still has a hold on me to this day. In talking to several other colleagues and former students, I get the sense that this is more of a truism than a rarity. So, if you’re thinking about joining the student TV station, radio station, newspaper, magazine, yearbook or whatever else is out there at your institution, give it a shot. You (probably) won’t regret it.

Either way, here’s Chip and his look at “My failed efforts to rescue The Daily Campus at SMU.”

Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

EDITOR’S NOTE: The piece I ran Monday regarding the murder-suicide in Vermont was less about the people involved and more about lessons to learn from the situation. The subsequent discussions that followed seemed to shift that focus, so I thought it was important to update and revisit the issue. In doing so, I wanted to make it clear that I know Adam Silverman well. I’ve known him for almost half my life as a student, a colleague and a friend. He contributed to my books and he stood up for my wedding.

I didn’t really think this disclosure was necessary before, as the post was more about the issue than it was about him. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve known Chris Evans, who is quoted in the VTDigger piece, for many years as a student media adviser and friend. Chris, however, did not stand up for my wedding. I’m sure he would have if I asked. Now, on with the post…

The apology the Times Argus issued Monday in the wake of its coverage of a murder-suicide in Vermont should have capped the issue entirely. Unfortunately, the leaders of the paper apparently never heard of Filak’s First Rule of Holes: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

In a brief recap, the paper published an article on Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, a young couple who died in a murder-suicide when LaCroix shot Gaboriault and then himself in her apartment last week. The follow-up story included many details on LaCroix, including his status as “a popular lacrosse coach” at an area high school and how he was “well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area.”

The details on Gaboriault were limited and thus some folks felt the story leaned toward favoring LaCroix. I referred to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, where everyone always praises someone who died in a horrible way, never seeing anything bad the person did or at least not expressing it.

Gaboriault worked for the Department of Public Safety, as does Adam Silverman, who took to Twitter to deconstruct the story and to demand some sort of remedy from the paper. Rob Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the paper, issued an ombudsman’s column on this issue Sunday, explaining the rationale behind what the paper published and offering an apology to people who took umbrage with the story.

It felt like the story arc was over until two things happened:

  1. Silverman took to Twitter to deconstruct and respond to the apology.
  2. The Vermont Digger, a statewide news organization, published a piece on the situation and the editors of the Times Argus spoke.

In both cases, it was like two people wanted to have “the last word” in an argument, so rather than let sleeping dogs lie, both sides picked at the tenuously healing wound.

Silverman’s Twitter feed on this did acknowledge the apology, although it also continued to note the paper’s need to do better. Yes, but it’s hard to “do better” 12 seconds after screwing up and apologizing for it. It’s also pokes at the assertion that the story was a mess but the writer and editor were not to blame for this, which he calls “a paradox.” I can’t make a call on this one either way, but I don’t know a lot of EICs who would dump a reporter or editor under the bus in a public column unless egregious fact errors emerged.

The Digger’s piece did the “media looks at media” approach, which makes sense, in that this is a public spat between a public information officer and a media outlet, who will likely need symbiosis at some point in life. The reporter gave Mitchell a chance to “fire back” (a term journalists have somehow taken to using for no good reason) at Silverman and Mitchell took it:

However, Mitchell said in an interview Monday that he does not believe criticizing newspapers is the public information officer’s role.

“It puts him and the state police in the position of becoming ombudsman of every article about crime,” Mitchell said. “That’s not to say we can’t learn something from his criticism. But there’s a line there that he needs to be careful about. There are many victims of crime in this state. It can’t just be about one or another.”

And so did editor Steve Pappas:

Times-Argus Editor Steve Pappas said Monday that the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.

“Bottom line is, I felt like it was a cheap shot,” Pappas said about Silverman’s social media posts.

This has led to additional Twitter outrage, arguments and other such kerfuffles, thus shifting the focus away from the dead people and the initial problem with the reporting.

So why talk about it here? Because there are a couple things you all can learn, regardless of which area of media you plan to enter:

  • Don’t take the bait: If you go into public relations, you will have plenty of chances to either stoke a story or let it die. When you already find yourself in an awkward position, the last thing you want is for that story to continue. Thus, when the reporter for the Vermont Digger asked Pappas and Mitchell for comments on this, the smart move would have been to say something like, “We always appreciate feedback from all of our readers with the hope of constantly improving our service to the greater Barre area.” It’s simple, true and it gets you off the dime on this. Statements like “There’s a line he needs to be careful about” are going to keep the story rolling the same way that “Yeah? So’s your mother!” will keep a schoolyard fight at DEFCON 1.

 

  • Consider the platform: I often espouse the Filak-ism of “A hammer is a great tool but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb,” and that applies nicely here when it comes to Twitter. I agreed with a number of the statements Silverman made on the initial coverage and I disagreed with some of the other ones both there and in the follow up he did. However, I didn’t like the use of Twitter here because the platform seemed wrong.
    If you have to use a dozen or more 280-character bursts to make a point, it can feel like a deluge of information pouring out into the public. Several folks in the Digger story seemed to reflect that issue, including Chris Evans and Pappas. I’m not sure a press release would have been the way to go here, as it wouldn’t get as much public play, but considering other platform options might have been a good idea. Twitter is more like a lead and/or a headline. If you start lapsing into soliloquies, Twitter isn’t the right platform.

 

  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?: I always ask this whenever dealing with a tough decision, in that I want to figure out if what I’m about to do is worth whatever I’m going to get out of it. It’s akin to the “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” question my friend Allison and I used to ask of ourselves when doing something that had heavy good and bad potential. Both sides really needed to look at this here:
    Silverman made his points and got out there on the issue, garnering an apology and a sense that the newspaper understood enough of what upset people to make the staff rethink its processes. Was it worth it to go back and re-litigate the issue in digging through the ombudsman column and thus pushing harder on it?
    The paper has to work with the state police and to at least some extent, I would guess, Silverman throughout his tenure as the PIO. Was it really worth it grousing to another media outlet about this, ticking him off again and extending the shelf life of the story? I know him well enough to know he’s not going to spite the paper, but the paper did make stuff awkward for the reporters who have to call Silverman for stories in the future. Was it worth it?
    I have my own theory on both of those, but what really matters is to what extent both parties considered these issues and then made their choices. You should also have a similar mental conversation before you make any moves as a media professional.

 

A look at the coverage of a murder-suicide and “he-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome

I got a note this weekend from Adam Silverman, a former editor at the Burlington (Vermont) Free-Press and one of the “pros” in the Media Writing book. Silverman, who now serves as the public information officer for the Vermont State Police, pointed me to a local paper’s coverage of a domestic violence incident that turned deadly:

I think you’d be interested in this from a journalism perspective — maybe something for a class or blog (a case study in what NOT to do).

The first story reads like a standard crime piece, outlining the death of two people, the identities of the dead and the police officers’ takes on what happened and what will happen next. As a professor and former crime journalist, a few things make me cringe (passive voice first person with the “Asked if…” thing; the repetition of certain phrases to the point of distraction; a couple giant run-on sentences etc.) but it was a functional piece.

Silverman’s concern, however, came in the follow-up story, which began like this:

BARRE — Counselors were on “standby” at Spaulding High School and the state Department of Public Safety was in mourning a day after a popular lacrosse coach allegedly shot and killed his estranged girlfriend at her Barre apartment and then turned the gun on himself.

As a matter of disclosure, Silverman works for the same organization that employed Courtney Gaboriault, the “estranged girlfriend” mentioned in the lead of that story.

“This was a tragedy that hit close to home in the Department of Public Safety. Courtney was a colleague and friend to many,” he wrote in an email. “The dismissive nature of the TA’s story angered and upset many people within the DPS family, including our commissioner and the head of the Vermont State Police. We could not let this go without calling out the TA publicly.”

Even with that level of attachment, he does a good job of logically unpacking a lot of his concerns with the whole story, which you can find on this Twitter thread. Here are my issues with the piece that in some cases mirror and other cases diverge from Silverman’s take:

  • The word “allegedly” always gives me hives, but here it’s doubly dumb. The police say in the third paragraph that this is a no-doubt-about-it murder suicide, so using “allegedly” to cast a doubt makes it seem like we’re going to end up in an episode of CSI, where the truth is hidden somewhere.
  • The references to the two people who died in this incident, Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, are markedly different. LaCroix, who police said shot Gaboriault and then himself, is touted as “a popular lacrosse coach” at Spaulding High School, while Gaboriault is referred to as “his estranged girlfriend.” In other words, “Locally liked good guy and this person he used to date involved in murder-suicide.” Ouch.
  • As Silverman points out, LaCroix gets several laudatory mentions in the story (“coached boys lacrosse and substitute taught at Spaulding” and “his adoptive father, David, serves on the School Board” and “He was a three-sport standout” and “Well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area…”) before Gaboriault is even named. All we learn about her is that she worked for the DPS for about five years. No idea if she was “well-known or generally liked” in any city or town’s “greater area.”
  • This line: “Though LaCroix and Gaboriault were together for several years, friends and family members said she ended their increasingly troubled relationship and he did not take it well.” The use of “increasingly troubled relationship” really doesn’t explain exactly what was going on here or who was the instigator or recipient of the “troubling.” The vague language doesn’t paint a picture here that helps the readers clearly see the situation and kind of glosses over who might have been doing what to whom.
  • He did not “take it well?” Eeesh…
  • I don’t have the chops to fully unpack this from a feminist perspective, but even I can see that pretty much every mention of Gaboriault has her as some sort of referential object associated with LaCroix. The story calls Gaboriault “his estranged girlfriend” in the lead, “his former girlfriend” a few paragraphs later and near the end of the article it mentions that “LaCroix met Gaboriault” when they attended college. I’m sure I’m missing more of this, but those stuck out to my untrained eye, so that’s not nothing.
  • References to the death of LaCroix often come in passive voice or lack acknowledgement of action. The line “LaCroix is now dead and so is his former girlfriend, Courtney Gaboriault” makes it sound like something happened to them as opposed to LaCroix initiating the action that cost both people their lives. The same is true with the press-release quote the author used from the school district: “The district and the school community is deeply saddened by the death of Luke LaCroix,” she said. “We sent his family our heartfelt condolences (and) we will cooperate with the authorities in any way we can assist.”

In an ombudsman piece for the Times Argus, Rob Mitchell took a look at the coverage after multiple readers complained about its tone and approach. If you want to spend a buck for a day pass  on the site, you can find the whole thing here. Below are a few excerpts and some thoughts that might be generally helpful:

Mitchell first acknowledges the lack of balance in how LaCroix and Gaboriault were treated in the follow-up story, with many more details and plaudits used in his description. He also explains how reporting works in a solid, albeit a little passive fashion: An event happens, we put something out, the next day happens, we follow it up with whatever we can get as fact emerge etc. In trying to find sources, Mitchell argues, reporter David Delcore was trying to find “warning signs” from people who knew LaCroix, only to find that people just really liked him:

“What Delcore found is that the community around him was having trouble equating the lacrosse coach with the man who committed a heinous act of murder. This is the reasoning behind including so much detail about the murderer. It was not Delcore’s choice to paint a picture of him as a “good guy” – that was the story the community told.”

I refer to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, a condition that emerges when someone the interview subject knows gets caught up in something horrible, usually something of their own making. I’ve dealt with this on a number of occasions as a reporter, an editor, a media adviser and even as someone watching the news with non-journalists who ask, “What the hell are they talking about?”

I remember the mother of a college football player who took part in a shoot out at the drive-thru window of a Taco Bell screaming at me over the phone for writing this in a way that made her son “look bad.” I also remember having to explain to students that nobody is ever going to look at someone just after they died and say, “Bastard still owed me five bucks…” EVERYONE is a good person or is well liked or was THE LAST person on EARTH who would ever do whatever horrible thing it is they were accused of doing.

Not to parallel these situations, but consider these articles on convicted and executed serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy:

BundyGacy2Gacy

And more to the point, Bundy’s mother thought he was a wonderful and innocent child all the way until her dying day. Very rarely do you get an honest assessment like this one in the wake of someone’s death.

Mitchell also tries to explain the thinking of the publication in regard to its focus on LaCroix and his “well-known and generally well-liked” status within the community:

There is extensive debate within the journalism community about how to approach this. How much weight do we give to reporting about perpetrators of horrific crimes? What purpose does reporting on the motives, the lives or the personalities of killers serve? In this case, the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities – they are among us, often unrecognizable as abusers to people other than their victims or a close circle of friends and families. Part of our role as journalists should be to educate the community on how to identify these signs, and the steps to intervene.

Consider the passive voice: “there is extensive debate…” This phraseology exemplifies the art of the dodge. The same can be said of the use of the rhetorical questions that follow, giving the reader a sense that there is so much confusion and discussion that any answer will likely be wrong. In addition, the line about how “the reporting serves to show that domestic abusers are not alien to our communities” makes it sound like the article really dug in on this whole line of thought.

Pardon me, but that’s crap on both accounts.

First, there isn’t “extensive debate” out there on how to cover these things. The debate on how to cover domestic violence ended somewhere around the time that airlines outlawed smoking on planes. The goal of any first-day crime story is to explain the 5W’s and 1H to the best of the writer’s ability. The goal of a second-day story that becomes focused on domestic violence is to use experts as an overarching network of explanatory elements with friends, families and authorities who are aware of the case providing specific anecdotes that fill in the broad strokes of the theory.

Second, this story does nothing in the way of covering domestic violence as it relates to this situation. The only people mentioning domestic violence are the police who speak of it as an epidemic and whoever decided to list the contact info for the domestic-violence hotline. I’m uncertain as to where the police press release gets the “domestic violence” angle on this relationship, but the release speaks of it as if this were the unfortunate conclusion of a long-term violent relationship. No one else in here mentions anything having to do with this specific relationship fitting the pattern of one steeped in domestic violence. (This is not to say this wasn’t the case or that the shooting itself was not a case of domestic violence, but nowhere in the story does the writer draw a line between the broader issue and this specific relationship.)

The closing of the piece offers an apology and a look forward, with a promise that the paper will strive to do better. I believe Mitchell on this account, given that I doubt he or anyone else at the paper foresaw the backlash on this story. I also believe that this story wasn’t an intentional hatchet job, but rather more of a lazy story, powered by sources who had a stake in protecting the reputation of someone they knew.

The key take aways for you here are simple, if not difficult:

  • Seek balance: In cases like these, two people died and two people had families and friends who will miss them and who will deal with heartache and pain. Don’t paint one side well and the other poorly simply because you don’t have as much “good stuff” for Person A as you do for Person B.

 

  • If it’s not ready, hold it: Nobody likes being last on a story, but running a half-baked piece out there to show you got there first won’t do a lot of good. In a case like this, it does a lot of harm. If you don’t have the full piece, wait until you do or until you and your editors are comfortable that you have given everyone a fair chance to present information. Then go for it.

 

  • Consult an expert: Some stories are outside of the traditional understanding of reporters, in that they require nuance or the reporter isn’t an expert on the given topic. Stories involving sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes in this vein often require some clarity from pros. Even if the topic isn’t crime, if you feel you don’t know enough about an area or topic that has sensitive issues or nuance beyond your understanding, contact someone who knows this and let that person guide you or help you help your readers more fully understand.

 

  • Fess up: The best thing about this is that the paper stepped up and spoke back to the readers who spoke out on this topic. Mitchell seemed to do a little too much of the “Don’t hate the player. Hate the game” thing for my taste, giving the writer and editors a pass. However, he did say the paper acknowledged the position of the readers and the paper did apologize while making offers to improve its efforts in the future. That’s something not every paper would do, but it something you should aspire to as writers. When something goes wrong and you had a hand in it, fess up and be forthcoming.