Four fact-checking tips inspired by the NYT’s four-error, 135-word correction on John McCain’s obituary

The most anxiety-provoking story I ever oversaw was an obituary. Louis Ingelhart was likely the most important person in the history of Ball State University’s journalism program. He arrived in Muncie in 1953 and essentially developed almost every meaningful program associated with journalism during his time there, including the creation of a journalism minor, major and the department. He served as the department’s first chairman and also oversaw the Ball State Daily News for a time.

Beyond that, he was a legend in press freedom. He won dozens of First Amendment awards and had awards named after him. He was elected to the state’s journalism hall of fame as well as the College Media Association hall of fame. His list of awards and accolades reads like the “to-do list” of a journalism titan.

It was the day before the spring semester was to start when I got a call from someone at the newsroom, telling me they heard Louie had taken ill. It was about 5 p.m. and we had a skeleton crew working at the paper that night, given the first issue back was usually sports recaps and a few fluffy features. By the time I got to the office, we had it confirmed that he died. It was 6 p.m. and we had six hours to rip up the paper and make an appropriate tribute to this man.

Signs were posted all over the newsroom reading “IN-GEL-HART” so that no one would misspell his name. We had students combing through various publications and images to make sure we knew exactly when he graduated from college or what his job in which city. We had designers scratching out various front pages and photography editors scanning in 50-year-old black and white images.

At one point, my editor said something to me about how we needed to not take this so seriously or something and I recalled a line that hockey coach Herb Brooks told his players after they won the Miracle on Ice game. His team was playing Finland for the gold medal after the Miracle and his team wasn’t as focused as he felt it should be. Rather than talk strategy, he simply said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it with you to your (expletive) grave.” That was exactly how I felt at that moment. Every name had to be right. Every fact had to be right. If we spelled something wrong in a headline it would be there forever. If there ever was a day to not screw something up, this was the day.

I thought about that today when I found a copy of the New York Times’ correction on John McCain’s obituary:

TimesCorrections

That’s one heck of a long correction for a publication with the journalistic chops of the New York Times. It’s also hard to fathom that the staff didn’t have time to get this thing out from the files and really polish it up. McCain had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2017, and it wasn’t looking good for months. With that, someone probably should have figured it would be a good idea to really start working on this obituary.

(Most people of any significant societal distinction have an obituary on file at the NYT. Each time the person does something else of interest, it gets added to that file so the obit is as up to date as possible. When the person dies, papers like the Times just have to weave in the date, cause of death and age before sending it out to the world.)

I can give the paper a pass (sort of) on the family issue. A guy who is 81, you tend not to think, “I wonder if his mom or dad is still alive.” Plus, when it comes to survivors, there is always a risk of leaving someone off, no matter how hard you try to avoid the problem.

However, the other errors all come from facts that are at least 20 years old and pretty simple to verify. That hurts.

Rather than beat up on the Times, though, the goal here is to help you see some things you can take with you from this debacle. Here are four hints to help you avoid screwing up in a situation like this:

 

Beware of “-est” statements: The statement about fire on the Forrestal being the “deadliest” incident, provides you with a good lesson about how absolutism can get you in trouble. Absolutes are always interesting and yet difficult to prove in many occasions. This is why Oddity is an interest element and why things that are the first, last or only of their kind matter to people.

However, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

 

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: When people write or edit, they often look at a statement and assume it to be true unless they can prove it false. If I told you that, “I have a 13-year-old daughter,” chances are, you’d think, “OK, that’s probably true.” However, if I told you, “I have a 101-year-old daughter,” you’re probably thinking, “There’s no way that’s true. I gotta check that out.”

The point is, we start from the assumption of “True unless provably false.” If you want to avoid mistakes when the chips are down, reverse that approach to your fact-checking behavior. Look at each element of a sentence and think, “That’s probably wrong. I need to check on it.” Examine each factual component of a story and think, “How could that totally screw me over by being wrong? I need to prove it’s right.”

I often espouse the Filak-ism that paranoia is my best friend, and that really applies here. Obviously, it would be great if you had time to look up every fact and check on every comma in every story this way, but you have to be practical in this. However, if it’s a “you’re going to take this to your (expletive) grave” -level assignment, the “wrong until proven right” approach works pretty well.

 

How you state something matters: The Jack Kemp error comes from someone not knowing the history of professional football in the United States. The AFL was an upstart league that formed in the 1960s and eventually merged with the NFL. Kemp was a quarterback for the Bills until the end of the 1969 season, the last season the two leagues remained separate under a merger agreement.

Had the obituary stated he played professionally for the Buffalo Bills, that would have worked. Had it said he was a professional football player, that would have been fine. However, weaving in that minor detail about the NFL created an error because of how it was stated.

When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles.

The second statement has the same trappings of the Kemp situation when it comes to understanding the history of the game. The Steelers have won the most Super Bowls, with six victories. However the NFL was around long before the Super Bowl and titles go back to the 1920s. Thus the team with the most NFL championships is the Green Bay Packers, who won 13 league titles.

A similar thing happened in terms of phrasing during the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 20 others before killing themselves. At the time, some reporters called it the “deadliest attack” at a school in U.S. history in some cases, which was inaccurate. It was the deadliest school shooting at that point, but the deadliest attack was an incident in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927. A man there blew up a school, killing 44 people and injuring 58 others. Thus, “shooting” and “attack” were not interchangeable.

 

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

Game Time! An AP-Style News Quiz

The Associated Press style book is the bible (not Bible) of media writers. It helps provide consistency, structure and clarity for writers in news, PR, advertising and more. (Broadcasters have their own style for on-air scripts, but they still need AP style for filing text-based web stories.)

Think you have a handle on AP? Give this quick quiz a shot.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to take the quiz.

The concept of “weasel voice” in writing and several ways we can avoid it in journalism

The “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object that we discussed at length in both books is all about trying to effectively communicate in an active-voice format. The structure of “who did what to whom/what” makes a lot of sense and clearly provides key information to readers. However, writing in active voice doesn’t always guarantee you are meeting the needs of your readers.

The Economist took a look at how it’s not passive voice or active voice that creates the biggest problem for writers and readers. It’s “weasel voice” writing that does the most damage. The article makes several key points about clarity and information that you can use, even if you aren’t covering political insurgencies or violent insurrections. Consider what weasel voice does and what we can do to fix the problems:

Weasel voice hides the identity of the person committing an action: Passive voice provides readers with a limited amount of information because we lack crucial information about the “who” in the sentence. For example:

The bank on Appleton Avenue was robbed at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.

The “who” in here is not only unclear but missing as “by a criminal” is implied. However, writing this sentence in active voice doesn’t help things any if we don’t have specific information on that person doing the robbing:

A gunman robbed the bank on Appleton Avenue on Wednesday afternoon.

What people want to know is WHO robbed the bank, which is usually information that isn’t available in crime stories so we tend to give the reporter a pass on this. Where this becomes more problematic is when journalists let vague statements slide into their copy or fail to push sources for more specifics. Here’s a “weasel voice” approach in both active and passive voice structures:

Passive: Sen. Carl Jones said he and his colleagues were sent complaints about voter fraud, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Active: People sent complaints to senators regarding voter fraud, Sen. Carl Jones said, which is what made the ID law necessary.

Let’s do some “weasel analysis:”

  • In neither sentence do we know HOW MANY complaints were lodged.
  • In neither sentence do we know HOW ACCURATE those complaints are.
  • In neither sentence do we IDENTIFY the PEOPLE who complained.

As a journalist, you want to press for these details so you can see how big of a deal this is:

Of the 720 poll workers in his state, 653 reported finding multiple cases of voter impersonation in the 2016 presidential election, Sen. Carl Jones said as he backed a voter ID law Tuesday.

OR

Despite only one case of alleged voter impersonation in the 2.8 million ballots cast in his state, Sen. Carl Jones said a voter ID law is crucial to the democratic process.

Weasel voice allows for unproven allegations: The rumor mill is always robust in politics, small towns and junior high school. As I have to deal with family members in all three of these areas, I find myself saying “says who?” a lot in my daily life. Here’s an actual conversation I had last year with my seventh-grader:

Zoe: Daddy, one of the boys at school was expelled for threatening to beat up the principal.
Me: Who told you that?
Zoe: (NAME) said at lunch that she heard…
Me: Wait, is that the kid who keeps telling you every year since fourth grade that she’s moving to California? And she still hasn’t?
Zoe: Yeah, but…
Me: Uh-huh…

The weasel voice approach hides sources, so readers have no way of knowing how likely something is to occur. Political writers and sports journalists often start sentences with “Sources have told me that…” and then they explain something that nobody wanted to say on the record. I had conversations with high-end reporters in both sports and politics who said they couldn’t operate any other way.

First, I find that a bit weak, as it’s the grown-up, journalistic version of “Everybody does it!” If I didn’t get to stay out past curfew or get a purple mohawk with that excuse when I was a kid, I’m not buying it now from professional journalists.

Second, it’s often a case of just letting accusations slide without pushing back on them. Don’t let anyone tell you “everybody is saying” or “I’m hearing that X is the case” or whatever else. CNN pulled this together from a series of statements President Trump made before and after the election and you can see why this is a concern:

Weasel voice allows me to say pretty much anything with a vague attribution of “people said” or “sources said” or “everyone is saying.” When you have a source providing you with information based on those vague attributions, do more to get concrete answers or consider not publishing the statements without additional proof.

Weasel voice falsely emboldens you to make hyperbolic claims: Here are a few key terms I’d include in the “weasel voice” lexicon that you should avoid:

  • Allegedly
  • Arguably
  • Supposedly
  • Said to
  • Mostly
  • Traditionally
  • In recent memory
  • Believed to be
  • Might
  • Uncertain

Now, not all of these words are bad words, but they tend to lend themselves to creating bad sentences more often than not. When you use these words in “weasel voice,” you allow yourself to make bigger claims than you can prove because you feel like you hedged your bet. Consider this:

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga allegedly took $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion.

OK, who is doing the alleging and how likely are we to believe this person?

Springfield High School Principal Beth Barlenga stole $15,000 from the school’s milk money fund to purchase an ostrich coat for her 30-year high school reunion, prosecutor Dan Standford told a jury Wednesday.

In some cases, you can’t wrap it all up in a single attribution, but that doesn’t give you the right to avoid telling people where you got this stuff. Here’s an approach that takes a bit longer to get the scenario in place, but it’s worth the wait:

Springfield High School Beth Barlenga wore a coat made of ostrich to her 30-year high school reunion this weekend, according to former classmates Carla Jackson and Marty McKeeper. McKeeper said she bragged that it cost more than $15,000 and that “nobody here could afford it.”

Meanwhile, district accountant Carl Spackler filed a report stating that the milk money fund at Barlenga’s school came up $15,000 short during a recent audit. Springfield police spokesman Adam Bronzer said the department filed charges against Barlenga, accusing her of the theft.

Don’t try to write around the hard work of reporting. Do the job and show people how you know what you know. Here’s another example of how weasel voice can eliminate your responsibility as a reporter:

Brett Favre is arguably the most durable player in the history of the National Football League.

Again, who is doing the arguing and why is it we should believe this person? In most cases, it means that the reporter wants to say it to be true, but knows he or she can’t without being accused of relying on opinion to make the point.

How do you fix this? It’s called looking stuff up:

Brett Favre set a record for durability in the National Football League, starting 297 consecutive regular season games despite suffering multiple serious injuries. According to an ESPN report on his streak, Favre sustained a first-degree shoulder separation, severely sprained his left ankle, coughed up blood, sprained his right thumb, sprained  his lateral collateral ligament of the left knee, broke his left thumb, sprained his right hand, tore his right biceps and sustained a stress fracture of the left ankle but kept playing.

Looking stuff up can be annoying, but it’s better than faking it, as too many weak writers are willing to do:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge killed 12 people and injured 43 more, making it the worst disaster of its kind in recent memory.

Who’s doing the remembering? Probably the reporter who didn’t want to bother to look something up. “In recent memory” is one of those wonderful safety nets that allows for hyperbole without responsibility. When an editor says, “Hey what about X disaster?” the writer can say, “Oh, I didn’t remember that…” Good grief. Also, in most of the student newsrooms I have encountered the term “back in the day” usually means about a year and a half ago.

Just look stuff up:

The collapse of the Highway 441 bridge, which killed 12 people and injured 43 more Wednesday, was the deadliest disaster of its kind since Minneapolis’ I-35 bridge fell into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 143.

Not perfect, but at least the facts are there.

Keep an eye out in your writing for spots where vague statements need more support, weasel words provide a sentence with a crutch or allegations randomly occur without the proper backing. Once you learn the ways of the weasel, you can use your writing skills to defeat them.

 

3 things you can learn from Florida Atlantic University’s decision to “Photoshop” away crack cocaine

Student newsrooms usually maintain an inexplicable sense of humor that would appall most of polite society and mentally scar most human resources officials. One newsroom I visited had a “Wall O’ Creepy,” where staffers would post odd pictures or weird stories. Others had inside jokes, Photoshopped images and random quotes written, stapled or stenciled on walls, computer monitors and desks.

In the newsrooms I worked in and oversaw, we had all manner of oddity posted about. My boss at Ball State would usually call or email me to let me know if an important alumnus or big-name journalism personality was visiting the area that day, asking me to “sanitize” the newsroom. I know I failed at this at least once, as one of the top editors at the Indianapolis Star stopped by and happened to notice a photo of a monkey performing a sex act on itself that was glued to a computer monitor in our design pod. The conversation was awkward:

Him: Is that monkey (EXPLETIVE) itself?
Me: Yes, sir, I believe so… Over here is our photography desk…

Like I said, we’re all a bit weird.

Even as administrators wince at our idiosyncrasies, they often like to promote the newspapers on their website, thus leading to the issue for today’s post: How to handle the weirdness when promoting an inherently weird operation.

Florida Atlantic University has a long, awkward history in dealing with its amazingly good student newspaper, the University Press. The school once fired the paper’s adviser, Michael Koretzky, only to have him continue to volunteer to help the students, thus leading the school to try to fire him again. The student government also tried to get rid of a student editor because he pointed at someone. The paper has broken numerous stories on student government misdeeds, reported on campus concerns and generally been a pain in the keester to the university through strong journalistic practices. However, as a successful and valuable entity, the school included a photo of the newsroom on its website, albeit one that didn’t quite reflect the actual state of the newsroom.

“When the photographer visited our newsroom, the editors were in a meeting,” Koretzky explained in an email. “She told us to ‘act naturally,’ but apparently, our natural state isn’t photogenic. So she asked us to pose as if we were critiquing the paper – which was months old because we don’t print over summer.”

The photographer took several shots of the posed staffers, as well as a random woman who just came in to ask questions about how the paper worked. However, the background included a not-so-PR quote, as shown in a photo Koretzky shared:

Crack

When the image the photographer shot appeared on the FAU website, however, the quote was gone:

NoCrack

“The photographer then said she’d Photoshop out the Dan Rather quote,” Koretzky said. “I don’t think we believed her, because that seemed silly and FAU’s administration doesn’t have a reputation for completing tasks it touts. Weirdly, the photog shot only that angle, not the other walls that have no crack cocaine quotes.”

(Side note: I wasn’t clear if this was the photographer’s own sense of what to do or if this was a FAU marketing policy. I shudder to think what would happen to the photographer if she just did this, handed it over to an editor who ran it with the understanding it wasn’t Photoshopped and then caught the brunt of the backlash. This is why being on the same page as the boss matters.)

The fields of news, marketing and PR have different standards of what is and isn’t acceptable in a case like this. In addition, visual journalists have specific ethical standards as well that mandate what can and can’t be done to manipulate reality.

Generally speaking, in news, it would be a large ethical breach to manipulate images and news outlets have fired photographers for doing this in some cases. Marketing, advertising and public relations have more leeway in some cases, but in some cases, professionals in these areas have been excoriated for some Photoshop manipulations.

In the case of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, the school had to reprint its entire run of freshman welcome guides and apologize to the public after officials manipulated a photo to make the student body appear more diverse.

Shabazz
(Note the one guy’s head on the left behind the woman in white’s arm.)

To get a fuller grasp on this, I asked several people who have worked on both sides of the fence to get a handle on the FAU’s approach to the “crack quote” in the image.

The most basic answer was one Koretzky noted earlier: Don’t shoot toward the wall with the quote on it.

“Two words: different angle,” a former news photographer and current visual journalism professor said. “Shooting the room at a different angle could resolve any ethical dilemma.”

Although the professor said marketing materials, including photos for advertisements, do alter images, the subject of the photo makes this manipulation a bit more concerning.

“I don’t mind elements being edited out for most advertising–that’s the nature of it, like taking out a street sign for a car on road ad,” he said. “Except in this case the promo is for a real tangible place, whose mission is the truth. The university is just asking for attention and not the kind they desire.”

One pro, who has served as a communications director for multiple organizations and who also worked as a newspaper journalist, said the university didn’t do anything to violate basic tenets of marketing.

“I think the university acted within bounds,” he said. “Marketing is about presenting things in the best light to the most people. So while students will find that quote inspiring, parents and donors might not. As long as the photo was not used in a journalistic capacity, which by your description it wasn’t, then it’s totally in bounds.”

Another pro, who wrote for the editorial side of magazines and also served in the marketing department of a major university, said she disliked both the shot and the alteration.

“I don’t think the PhotoShopping is a good idea, BUT i wouldn’t use that quote OR that photo,” she wrote. “Personally, I’d just use something altogether different.”

Whether this is an acceptable practice often lies in the eye of the beholder, the ethical standards of the organization and the common sense of the media professionals involved. However, here are a couple points to consider when you find yourself in a similar situation:

  • Get more than you need: This is a mantra of most broadcast journalists when it comes to gathering video and audio. The idea is to make sure you have enough content to cover your needs so you don’t end  up having to cut a corner to make something work, thus opening yourself up to an awkward situation like this. The photographer could have shot in multiple directions, taken various types of shots and done more to avoid the quote on the wall. It wasn’t as if she didn’t notice it. When you see that something might create a problem, get some backup options to keep yourself out of trouble.

 

  • Don’t be lazy: The photographing of this newsroom wasn’t a one-time-only deal, like a photographer capturing the first moon landing or a random explosion in a small town. It’s a newsroom that exists on the campus and is probably within walking distance of wherever the FAU marketing organization resides. Once she realized the words “crack cocaine” were going to be in the shot no matter how she cropped it, she could have probably found another 15 minutes to walk back to the newsroom and shoot some other shots. Photoshopping, while an important skill, was a crutch for laziness in this case. It was so much easier to just “blue-out” the background than to go shoot more images. Don’t be lazy. Go back and do the job right.

 

  • Know your code of ethics: I am uncertain as to which code this individual or the FAU marketing department adheres, but understanding that one exists and what it says about certain things can’t hurt. The Public Relations Society of America’s code includes a line about honesty: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.” The American Marketing Association has similar language pertaining to honesty, transparency and fairness in its code. Does a staged photo fit that level of accuracy and truth? Probably, as posed images are a standard element of most marketing materials and even some posed shots (environmental portraits, group shots) make their way into newspapers and magazines. Is the Photoshopping here accurate and truthful? Eh… Maybe yes, maybe no. The point is that understanding what your particular code has to say about certain activities might give you pause before simply saying something like, “I’ll just PhotoShop that out.”

Responsibility as a watchword in journalism: How what we do can cause collateral damage and why that should matter to us

An email popped up late Monday night that reminded me published information has an impact on people, and it’s not always good:

Hi,
Thank you so much for informing students about the importance of editing and proof reading. However I would appreciate it if this picture of me with the horrible headline was taken down because it comes up when someone googles me and its really starting to affect my life as many have seen this.
Thanks for understanding.

The email came from the young woman who was the unfortunate victim of the headline “Definitely Doable,” which we discussed in a post earlier in the year here on the blog. As I mentioned in that post, she was likely to be the victim of some unfortunate attention. I did some checking to make sure the email was legit, offered her an opportunity to speak her mind on the blog if she felt compelled to do so and then I made some edits to fix the situation as best as I could.

Journalism is a field in which you can have a profound impact on society. If you don’t think so, look back at what happened during Watergate and see what is happening now on the national media front. Local publications can investigate claims that have wide-reaching impacts, like the Watchdog crew at the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has done with its look at tainted alcohol in Mexican resorts and deadly delays in the screening of newborns for certain conditions. Even small publications can have an impact in informing people about things like why it is a road is closed or why it took four squad cars and a tow truck to take care of an SUV that broke down on Main Street last night. (It happened in Omro last night and the reason is incredible.)

On the other hand, what we write also has a chance to create collateral damage, something I didn’t think about when I posted that young woman’s name with the story about her. Sure, I could make the argument that her name was out there already and that about six people read this blog, so why should I be concerned? Still, “everyone else did it” is the kind of excuse you’d expect from a 12-year-old who ate a Tide pod, not a writer with a decent ethical code.

Around the time I was pondering this, I got a message from a fellow educator about a national media outlet’s coverage of the Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student who had been missing for more than a month. Tibbetts’ body was found Monday, which the national media outlet announced with no named sources and no sense of timing. My colleague knew members of Tibbetts family, who found out about it via the national report instead of from the officials investigating the case.

“10 minutes later they got the call,” she wrote.

The family was a mess and rightly so. Local outlets did more due diligence in finding named sources, announcing a more complete report and providing at least a moment of breathing space between hearing a rumor about the body and announcing it. One reason might be the local media folk have to live there after the national media packs up and moves on to the next sensational story of death and mayhem.

Reporters in and around the Iowa towns connected to Mollie Tibbetts might see her mother or her cousin or her friend at the store or a festival and have to justify their actions. I doubt Katherine Lam, who broke the Tibbetts story, is worrying too much about that as she moves on to writing about a “Teen Mom 2” star’s ex-boyfriend who was busted for running a meth lab. (Really. That happened.)

I spent my professional reporting and editing life on the crime beat, where it always was about getting the news fastest and publishing it first. I could justify a lot of things by saying, “It’s going to be put out there some time and at some point, so I need to do it first.” In a lot of cases, covering crime made me feel OK about that because, hey, these people were doing bad things and letting the public know about it was my job. However, I rarely thought about the families of victims or the way in which my actions might have unintended consequences.

That wasn’t always the case, and I can still remember the sting of it all.

I was finishing up a story a day-side reporter left behind about a 4-year-old boy who died of AIDS-related complications. The boy’s mother, father and brother all had the illness and the prognosis in those days was not good for any of them. I had to call the mother, who agreed to speak with me but told me she would only do so if I promised not to discuss her boyfriend (the boy’s father) and his HIV status. I agreed and we did one of the most uncomfortable interviews of my life.

When my editor saw the story, she overruled me on the issue of the boy’s father. I fought back as best I could, but I was a 21-year-old cub reporter and she was the city editor that night. The story included information I promised I wouldn’t put in there and it had my name on it. All the begging and arguing in the world didn’t change that.

Shortly after that, I came in for a shift and found I had a voicemail waiting for me. It was the boy’s mother who said that she saw my story and so did her boyfriend. She said he was so distraught, he refused to leave the house to mourn his own son and that she held me personally responsible for that. When I told my editor this, her attitude was essentially, “Oh well…”

I like to think of the job of journalists as one where we tell people things they need to know, whether or not those things are pleasant. I never had trouble with the idea that people might be upset with things I wrote, so long as something valuable came out of that discomfort. When what I did hurt people who didn’t deserve to be hurt, that shook my sense of self and my ability to justify why I mattered as a journalist.

In the media writing book, I quoted a scene from Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues,” where the main character realizes what he writes in his journal can create problems for people who read it or were featured in it:

“Something magical happens once it’s put down on paper. They figure no one would go to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn’t the truth. Responsibility was my new watchword.”

And it’s a good watchword at that.

Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.

Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:

 

Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…

Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:

Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.

I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”

 

The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:

  1. The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
  2. The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.

This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.

 

Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?

Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?

Answer: Like this.

Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.

This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:

  • He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
  • His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
  • Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.

I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.

LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?

Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.

This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:

  • In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
  • In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
  • Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.

There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.

Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:

Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:

“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.

Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.

By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.

 

 

It’s not our fault you’re bad at this: Law and ethics and “accidentally” public information

Journalists often use open records requests to shed light on things public officials would prefer remain secret. Courts often seek to balance the public’s right to know against individual privacy rights in determining which documents merit public scrutiny and which ones should be kept out of the public eye.

In some cases, courts or public information officials will try to “split the baby” on the release of documents through a process known as information redaction. For example, if a document contains information that meets the standard of public information, but it also includes information that should clearly remain private, record keepers can “black out” those private parts before releasing the documents. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

redact

In the “old days, the copying and redacting process was often done with a thick, black marker and a photocopier. Now, since many of the documents are kept and shared digitally, records keepers use PDFs and some Adobe editing tools to do the redactions, which is what led to a clash between the Broward school district and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The paper requested documents pertaining to the school district’s interactions with Nikolas Cruz, the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, who killed 17 people at the school in February. The courts ruled that the documents should be released, but that certain information needed to be redacted, which the district thought it did.

However, when reporters downloaded the files and pasted the information into a word-processing file, they found that all of the redacted information was visible. They also found that the information in the documents painted a much different picture of Cruz and the school district than the public officials had put forth. Seeing this information as valuable and in the public interest, the Sun-Sentinel published it. The judge who ordered the release of the documents was not pleased about this, as she demonstrated in a hearing to determine if the reporters should be held in contempt of court: 

Scherer was not swayed. She threatened to restrict what the media can report, a practice known as prior restraint.

“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print – and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie … then I’ll do that,” she said.

At this point, let’s unpack a few things you might find useful or at least amusing:

  • The statement Judge Elizabeth Scherer issued about writing “word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print” is a bit scary and more than a bit unconstitutional. The courts cannot dictate content to the press in this fashion. It’s barely legal for your high school principal to do this, and that’s only through gross misinterpretation of one of the worst court cases in media law history.

 

  • In the video, the judge berates the publication for manipulating the documents by downloading them and then pasting them into another program, saying she had “never heard of such a thing.” Scherer is 42 years old, so computers have been around for much of her lifetime. It’s not like she’s Sen. Strom Thurmond, who lived to be 101 and once referred to a microphone as “the machine.” I have no idea how she never had to use a PDF before. In any case, just because you don’t understand how something works, it doesn’t follow it’s not standard operating procedure for the rest of the world.

 

  • She also made this statement: “You all manipulated that document so that it could be unredacted,” Scherer said. “That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that. It’s no different.”
    Right, and I know that more than a few of us have done something like this to try to figure out what was behind the black lines. In the days of typewriters, the keys made impressions on the page, which were still visible through the black marker. With toner (essentially plastic powder melted onto a page), the black of the text was different from the black of the marker, which allowed reporters to backlight the page and read the content. None of this is illegal.

 

  • I checked in with two legal experts about the issue of publishing information that was intended to be redacted to see what the law had to say about the topic. Both of them told me that it’s the record keeper’s job to redact the information he or she wants to keep out of the public eye. It’s not the newspaper’s job to look the other way. In short, it’s not our fault you’re bad at this. The law does not prohibit the publishing of this information.

What you should be concerned about is the ethical issues associated with publishing information in a case like this. This is where the balancing test comes into play, where you weigh the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy. As one of the “legal eagles” explained to me:

Basically, I think it’s completely ethical for journalists to hold redacted documents up to the light (or, in the digital sense, to search for letters/words to see if they show up in the redacted blocks of text). In fact, I think our job demands us to find out as much info as possible (seek truth and report it, right?).

That said, I think ethics come in when it comes to publishing. It’s a bit like handling a leak — what distinguishes us from Wikileaks, besides the Russian control and efforts to undermine democracy of course, is that we make editorial decisions based on journalism principles and practices. So you’ll be balancing public need to know with privacy concerns.

So, as a reporter, you might not want to publish certain information you receive from a source or a document, such as the name of a crime victim or an unproven rumor. However, that’s a judgment call that rests with the journalists, not the courts. When you have the information, it’s up to you to determine what the public should know and what they probably shouldn’t. It’s a monumental responsibility, but that’s why journalists make the big money.

The paper saw within the documents a pattern of the district failing Cruz, as it denied him access to services he desperately needed. Reporting this information was within the best interest of the public, the paper decided.

Earlier reporting on this, done without those documents, was refuted by the superintendent, Robert Runcie, who called the coverage inaccurate and even “fake news.” Runcie and his colleagues sought to hide these failures and gloss over the district’s responsibilities and without those reports, the paper was at a decided disadvantage. This is why open records matter and why using the information within them can shine a light where it matters most.

“Buy the damned AP Stylebook:” Helpful hints for students hoping to succeed in their media classes

At the start of each year, I ask my collection of professionals, educators and just relatively smart folks to offer you some advice or provide some sort of thoughtful discourse. Last year, I asked them what they remembered about their first journalism course. The answer from most of them? “I was scared out of my mind.”

This year, I asked my “hivemind” to offer you some helpful advice to kick off your writing, reporting and editing courses on the right foot. The suggestions actually started with a story from a magazine editor who offered this after lunch with an intern:

She’d come in thinking fashion journalism was her thing, and now she’d like to explore more widely. It’s not true in every case, but I feel like this is something that happens a lot. A young person gets interested in journalism largely because they’re interested in a subject – and usually one of the cool subjects. They want to be a sportswriter, or a fashion writer, or a music writer. Rarely does anybody get into journalism with a burning desire to cover the Possum Hollow board of aldermen. So then, my advice: think about journalism as a general condition and not a conduit to a subject you really love… Branch out and think less about subject matter, more about the craft itself.

While working on that craft, some folks offered a few basics:

Call your sources. Phones are your friends.

To be fair, I realized how much time I spend using my phone for non-calling functions dwarfs the amount of time I spend calling people, so I feel your pain on this.

In terms of writing and editing, some suggestions were pretty blunt:

Buy the damn AP Stylebook.

The purpose of a style book is to serve as a reference guide. I don’t think any professor expects you to memorize this thing from top to bottom. Even if you do, AP is now changing rules faster than the Catholic church during Vatican II, so don’t expect to ever fully get a handle on the book. The point of owning the book is so you can figure out what kinds of things you need to look up. Within both the media writing book and the reporting book are Fred Vultee’s 5-Minute AP Style Guide, which should be a good starting point for you, if you feel overwhelmed.

Learning to adhere to style will also help you get used to editing your own work carefully, a suggestion offered by more than one person, including a recent graduate who now works as a reporter:

Proofread all of your work. The work entails you explaining something to another person. If you can’t understand a sentence, how is somebody else going to figure it out?

(By the way, I had to edit at least three parts of that clip to make it make sense… Nobody’s perfect.)

Another person, who works as a professor and media adviser, offered this advice for editing your own work:

Pretend every word costs $1. Save your money.

My two favorite suggestions come from opposite ends of the spectrum. First, a graduate student and former editor at some major daily newspapers, provided this gem:

Learn the rules, then get good enough to break them.

This echoes one of the earliest posts I wrote about writing: You earn the fungus on your shower shoes. I would also note that even people who earn the right to break the rules have to be smart enough to know when it’s not working. There is nothing wrong with backing off some weird lead or turn of phrase if all it’s doing is bogging down your copy or annoying your readers.

Finally, a “fall back plan” from a pro who worked on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in multiple media formats:

Journalism’s screwed and they should also learn welding.

Maybe, but if we all give up on writing, who is going to write those compelling stories about welders?

In any case, have a great semester and we’ll see you here from time to time. If you ever have a topic of interest you want me to cover or a question to ask about anything, just feel free to reach out.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

Thanks, Terri.

Editor’s Note: I came back a day earlier than expected because this was important to say. I’ll be back Monday with regular news, journalism, media and other odd posts for the official start of the semester.

If you’re like me, when you spend three years of your life on a project, you tend to get a bit territorial, anxious and borderline psychotic when the ground shifts under your feet.

The “Dynamics of Media Writing” book was just heading to press when I got an email from Matt Byrnie, the guy who convinced me to write this thing. He had been promoted and he would no longer be riding over the top of my book. My new contact, who was on vacation at that time, would be a woman named Terri Accomazzo, who was coming over from another division in SAGE to take Matt’s place.

This seems like a little thing, if you don’t know publishing and if you haven’t had the publishing experiences I had up to that point. SAGE had been the fourth publishing house I had worked with (five or six, if you want to count the merry-go-round approach Focal got through mergers and acquisitions). In the previous two, the editor at the company who signed me to a contract had moved or quit the company during my writing process, leaving my books as “orphans” in the system.

When your book becomes an “orphan,” it usually spells disaster. In one case, I had to wait 11 years to do a second edition of a book because nobody had an interest in working with me at that publisher. (Oddly enough, I finally found someone who had faith in me, pushed for the book, got it set up for a second edition and got it published. She resigned shortly after that and I’ve never heard from those folks again.) In another case, the approach and the content of the book kept shifting, as each new person at the publishing house had a “great new idea” on what we could do. The book essentially died on the vine.

When Matt told me on Aug. 24, 2015 that I was getting this new contact, I thought, “Dammit. Here we go again…” I was going to end up on the street corner selling bags of oranges with a free copy of “Dynamics of Media Writing” inside, I figured, thanks to this Terri person.

Three years, five books and one blog later, I’m sad to say that “this Terri person” is completing her last day at SAGE today. In even writing that sentence, I have a wave of oddly contradictory emotions: sad that she’s leaving, happy that she found her dream job, worried about what happens next and amazed at how much we managed to do together in such a short period of time.

Over those three years, there was never a time where I didn’t have a giant Post-It Note full of book deadlines on my wall. I owed a chapter, an edit, an email, a proof copy or something else to Terri every day of my life over that span of time. With the final copy edit of the “Dynamics of Media Editing” book this week, that last note comes down as she hangs up her spurs at SAGE. It’s an odd confluence of timing that is both fitting and amazing.

Over those three years, Terri also had to put up with a lot from me as we learned to trust each other and find common ground. Our first big discussion was about a book cover. It began when I said the original set of cover proofs for the media writing book looked like “a muppet’s ransom note.” OK, a bit harsh, but tell me I’m wrong:

Filak_DynamicsMediaWriting_comps1-2_Page_2

After that, we worked together on every cover to make sure it was something we both could proudly hand out to people and say, “This book is great from cover to cover.” Her willingness to collaborate was different from my previous experiences in publishing. (In one case at another publishing house, the cover suggestions sucked so badly, I ended up hiring a designer on my own dime to help develop the cover. When the publisher balked at using the cover design she had created, I threatened to stop working on it until I got the cover. Childish? Maybe. Stupid? Not a chance, as what they had couldn’t have been more generic if they just put out a white cover with the word “BOOK” on it in black Comic Sans.)

Terri also had to put up with what I called my “needy girlfriend” emails over the years. “What did the publications committee say about the book?” “What did the reviewers say about the chapters?” “Why are the reviewers so meeeeeeen?????” “Are you going to be at XYZ conference?” “Are you mad at me?” Somehow, even though she had a squillion other authors to deal with, she managed to email me back each time to tell me, “They don’t just like you. They “like you” like you!” or whatever you tell angst-riddled authors to get them to stop listening to The Cure and acting like Tickle Me Emo.

Terri was also willing to push the envelope to see what we were capable of. When the media writing book did better than expected, she pushed for a revision that added more content and improved the product. When I was looking for a home for an editing book that had some baggage with it, she signed me to a contract and put me in contact with some smart people to get it into shape. When someone mentioned an idea that would succeed only if the author REALLY bought into it, she pitched it to me as a “I know you can do this” concept.

I could always tell when she had more work for me, as her tone of voice was like that of my mother when she called me to get some help with her computer. I was fine with whatever she wanted and I always worked harder for Terri, because I knew she was working even harder for me. That’s why I ended up working on three books at once. It’s why I tried to beat her deadlines by weeks or months. It’s why I added chapters or workbooks or whatever. We were a team, and I know I’m going to really miss that. Even though I know SAGE has my back and that the company will get someone great to take her place, I am going to miss Terri and her enthusiasm for my work.

Perhaps my favorite Terri moment came right when she got the green light to sign me up to do the editing book. She called me to tell me the good news and I filled her in on a couple other things. She discussed how the publication cycles would work and what she would need from me and when.

Then she stopped and laughed.

“If all of these projects are as successful as I know they’re going to be,” she said, “you’re going to end up doing one book per year for me for the rest of your life.”

I might end up writing a book a year for life, but I won’t be doing it for Terri now. Still, I have no doubt I never would be where I am today with any of these books if it weren’t for her.

So, thanks, Terri. For everything.

 

 

Gone Fishin’: Taking in a final breath of summer

I’m sure most folks are done with their summer courses at this point and the fall hasn’t started for a good many of you yet. (We start after Labor Day. I know some folks start in a week or so.)

With that in mind, I’m going to take a week off and enjoy the last bit of summer we have. I’m probably going to refinish some furniture and work on the Mustang. I hope you find a way to have as much fun with your time as I’m going to have with mine.

See you back Aug. 20!

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)