Crime doesn’t pay: Some newsrooms decide to stop running click-bait mugshot galleries

From Poynter and the Marshall Project:

Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.

But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.

The media outlets discussed in this piece by Poynter aren’t cutting ties to mugshots like this, as editors note in the story:

The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.

A criminal mugshot is like any other tool in your journalistic toolbox: You want to use it for the right reason and be able to explain how it helps your audience understand the story you want to tell. I know that I’ve run more than a few mugs with stories I’ve done or encouraged students to include them with stories at student papers I’ve advised.

In one case, a man suspected of drunken driving ran over a young boy who was on a bicycle. The man tried to speed off with the kid stuck under the car, dragging the boy for several yards. Neighbors in the area came running out to stop the guy and get the kid help.

Then, they turned on man, dragging him out of the car and beating him bloody. The mug shot of this man told a story of a person who was both an accused criminal as well as a victim of a crime.  We felt the image added perspective to the situation. This was especially true when the police were looking for people who were involved in the beating, only to find that nobody in the area saw anything…

Another beating story ran at the Ball State Daily News, in which six female students at the school dragged another woman out of a party and attacked her. The police described the beating as “deplorable.” We ran all six mugshots across the top of the paper to showcase who was involved. I can still see the smirks on two of these women’s faces, looks that seemed to say, “You can’t touch me. My Daddy has the world’s best lawyer.”

The mugshot is a public record, and as such, you have a legal right to use it. However, this is where the ethics of journalism come into play and you need to ask yourself if you SHOULD use it.

A few key questions to ask before using a mugshot, or running any kind of content for that matter, might include:

  • Does this add value to the story I want to tell for my readers?
  • Will my choice do more harm than good?
  • What are the potential ramifications of my actions, particularly ramifications that are of a long-term variety?
  • Why do I want to do this?
  • What is the best counter-argument to the choice I want to make right now? Is it good enough to flip the argument?



An open letter to Peter Gade, a professor who used the “n-word” in class on Tuesday

Dear Peter,

Even though I’ve known you for many years, you hadn’t entered my thoughts much lately. Since news of this “classroom incident” entered my social media feeds yesterday, you were pretty much all I could think of.

I saw a link to the first article in the OU Daily, which had a headline that told me you used a racial slur during one of your classes, and immediately stopped everything I was doing to click on it and read the piece. I hoped it was one of those “twisted tongue” moments, like this one, or that there was some sort of misunderstanding that came from a student overthinking something or other.

Nope. You said it. The “n-word.” Clearly and unambiguously.

Students in your class were stunned, and yet a number of them did exactly the kinds of things you trained generations of students to do: They reported. They questioned. They published. Even as they wrote what could be your academic obituary, they demonstrated a professionalism and dedication to the craft you imbued in them and many like them for years.

Unfortunately for you, nobody’s going to remember that for a long, long time.

This situation is unfolding like so many others before it when someone says “that word.” People who sat through the class are upset. People who know the students are angry. People in administration are “fact-finding,” which means they’re running a panic drill and trying to figure out what the hell to do about this. Organizations have issued statements condemning you. People with social media accounts are demanding you be fired, or worse.

Two reactions always emerge when someone inevitably steps on that racially charged third rail: Outrage and silence.

The outrage comes from pretty much anyone, regardless of their connection to the situation. Those closest to the Ground Zero of this situation are hurt or scared or exasperated or worse. Others know the sting of this, through other similar incidents, and feel it is important to show solidarity with that first group of people against a term steeped in racial violence and horror. Still others just bandwagon on whatever outrage machine is up and running when they get to Twitter.

When you are at the center the outrage and the media coverage on it, it feels like you are falling down a flight of never-ending stairs as the whole house collapses in on you.

The silence has to feel worse.

Professors who “thought they knew you” give you the odd looks in the hallways. Colleagues at other institutions might drop you a “hang in there” call, but plan to sit this one out quietly, lest they be sucked into the vortex of rage that is kicking your ass. Friends plan to “let things die down” before they say much of anything, because, well, you know…

Peter, I would like to consider myself a member of all three of those groups. I’ve been a professor for more than two decades. I have known you as a colleague since I was a newbie Ph.D. student at your alma mater. I’d like to consider you a friend, both because I like you a great deal and you have gone to great lengths to help and support me over the years. It is wearing these hats that I felt it important not to be silent.

In the simplest of terms, and using only the language I’m allowed to use here, you massively f’d up. The analogy was dumb. The use of that word was stupid as hell. The attempt to try to justify it in front of people whose family, friends and ancestors likely felt that sting before from evil people just made it worse. You hurt people, regardless of your intention, and there is no justification for that action.

I’m guessing you didn’t need me or any of the 8,923,131 Twitter posts on this topic to tell you that. I’m guessing that right away after that word came out of your mouth and you realized what the hell you did, you could feel all the blood in your body drain into your feet. If your email to your class is any indication, I know you’re coming to grips with this.

Me? I would have seen my career flash before my eyes, everything that decades of education and dedication built gone in a flickering second. Ever since I read that first article, I’ve been reflecting on every stupid thing I have ever done or said in my academic life. My inner-voice tells me, “Yes, you are a crass human being, who has done a lot of dumb things, Vince, but you would NEVER say THAT or anything CLOSE to that hurtful.” I bet everyone who ever made a fatal mistake thought the same thing.

This might be the only thing a lot of people ever know about you, a man defined by his biggest public failure: Jackie Smith’s dropped pass, the ball between Bill Buckner’s legs and Donnie Moore’s 2-2 pitch to Dave Stewart. (If I were you, I wouldn’t Google my name for a while.)

What I know about you covers a lot more ground, which is why I can both hate the action in question, but still be public in my support of you as a person.

You helped me early in my doctoral career, with emails and advice. You let me know my failings were just part of the process and that I would eventually “get there,” even though I had no idea where “there” was at that point.

You recruited me for a position at OU back when the Gaylord school was a giant patch of open green grass. When true “OK, Boomer” faculty didn’t want to hire me because, God forbid, I was a “convergence” scholar who believed in the power of the web for journalism, you fought for me. When you lost that fight, you apologized to me, even though you had nothing to be sorry about. You told me that I wasn’t a bad candidate or a bad person and that I’d be just fine. Believe me, that made a difference.

You were always ahead of me, but you never treated me as less than. You treated me like a peer and a colleague, even when the rest of the “cool kids” felt no need to do so. I enjoyed telling people who saw your successes, cited your articles and read your books that, “Hey, I’m friends with that guy!”

None of those things change for me because of this incident, and I want you to know that, here and now, in a public way. I’m here for you, because I know you, I like you and I respect you, even though you did this truly horrible thing.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to you now. It could be some sort of “sensitivity training” or a “leave of absence,” two tried-and-true dodges administrators use when they don’t know what the hell to do but feel the need to do something. Someone mentioned you might “retire,” which is the quiet, peace-with-honor solution some schools use in this situation. I really hope it’s not the “Star Trek Red Shirt Guy” treatment, where OU decides to kill you off to show how serious the situation is.

I also don’t know what’s happening with you at this point of the process.  I hope you have an armada of friends, who are offering you whatever they can as you deal with all this. If not, please know I’m still here to listen or talk or whatever you need.

Email works and so does the phone.

Your friend,



Joker vs. Milker: A localization story from the Dairy State

Good localization stories have several key elements in common:

  1. They are timely, often surfacing as an “in the wake of the news” piece.
  2. They are valuable to local readers in a clear and specific way. (In other words, it’s not a “President unveils middle east peace plan; Area high school students say it won’t work” story.)
  3. They deal with things that could or have actually happened. (I once had to write a localization about what would happen if Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Federation, were to die in office, based on a hunch an editor had that he would. Yeltsin survived his term and lived a decade longer.)

During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Joaquin Phoenix took a rather circuitous route through his thoughts, deciding that it would be a good time to crap-talk the dairy industry, among other things:

We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.

Less than a day later, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett turned around this localization for his Dairy-State readers. It’s a great example of knowing an audience, touching on a key topic of interest to that audience and getting a good story together in the wake of the news.

Let’s break down some key things that you probably want to emulate if you need to localize the topic.

Start with the lead:

Dairy farmers are pushing back against an Oscar’s award acceptance speech by actor and vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix who claimed that farmers are cruel to cows and newborn calves.

It’s a straight-up inverted pyramid lead that nails down both the local angle (dairy folks) and the tie to the national story (Oscar speech, ripping on farmers). It doesn’t try to do too much, it makes the point and then it moves on. It also avoids trying to be cute with something like Dairy farmers “having a beef” or “having a cow” about this.

He then moved into a good bridge as well as some key background, before sliding back into the local angle:

The performer, who on Sunday night took home the Best Actor award for his role in “Joker,” used his speech to rip on the dairy industry and the breeding of cows.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” Phoenix said. “And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

That didn’t go over well with dairy farmers.

The experts do a good job of explaining WHY they think the actor was wrong and HOW the cow/calf situation works based their experiences. This is done with good quotes and solid paraphrases that don’t fall victim to jargon:

A newborn calf is taken from its mother, about 20 minutes after birth, but it’s for their own safety, said dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County.

“If that mom had manure on her, we would risk that calf, our best genetics on the farm, getting contaminated with Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria, along with Tetanus and all the other stuff that hangs out on the farm as well,” Hinchley said.


Barrett used quality reporting to cover his bases in outlining the story. Check out the sources for this:

  • dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County
  • dairy farmer Carrie Mess from Lake Mills
  • lan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation

In probably a couple hours (given that this story was posted by 12:30 and that Phoenix didn’t make his statements until about 10:30 the night before), Barrett got three good people with a background on the topic to speak intelligently about this. In addition, he wove in quotes from the Oscar speech and reporting on previous elements of Phoenix’s life.

The piece closes well with a decent closing quote that has both a sense of closure and the potential to look ahead:

“We have a free country, with freedom of expression, but we do wish that Joaquin Phoenix would talk with us, rather than at us, because if he did he would learn a lot about the commitment that dairy farmers have for animal welfare,” said Alan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This isn’t the first time he has made remarks like this, but it gets more prominence because it was in an Oscars speech,” Bjerga said.

Overall, the story is short (About 530 words), well structured and chock full of information. It ties a local interest to a broader concern and it provides background context as well.

In short, it’s a textbook example of how to build a great localization piece.


The Junk Drawer: Cursed Cars, Tiny Children and a Memorial Urinal

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes. Hope you find value in it:




SYMPATHY FOR THE WEATHER REPORTER: I think at one point my career at the State Journal, I had written something like 400 bylined stories, and I think one-third of them were weather stories.

The weather matters to people. If the readers are Democrats or Republicans, men or women, Packer fans or other people, they are all affected by what happens outside. It is usually the job of the lowest person on the reportorial totem pole to scrape together a quote from whoever answers the phone at the National Weather Service, a county dispatcher who is way overworked and probably a tow-truck driver to build one of these things.

When I was driving home from Milwaukee on Sunday night, we had near white-out conditions, with a ton of state patrol officers and tow trucks trying to get people out of ditches. We also had plows flying in every direction and at least as many idiots in 1997 Honda Civics trying to pass them on the right-hand side of the freeway at 75 mph. When I finally got home, I found to my delight that the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel did not disappoint, nailing down a weather story like the ones I used to write for the sheer glee of seeing my name in the paper.

Please click here to read Jordyn Noennig’s look at the weather and give the piece a “like” or a positive comment. (Hey, we weather reporters have to stick together…)

Speaking of things from the past that still work today…

DOES THIS ADD SOMETHING TO THE SUM OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE?: This quote popped up in one of my social media feeds for some reason and reminded me of the man who taught it to me: George Kennedy. George was the managing editor at the Columbia Missourian when I worked there and he was a longstanding faculty member at Mizzou. He used to ask us this whenever we were working on a story or a graphic or whatever else we were doing.

I borrow it from time to time, as needed, when a student is working on a “process piece” that isn’t processing much or an “explainer” that hasn’t explained anything. I also fall back on it because of a moment at the Missourian  involving, you got it, a weather story. We were heavily into graphics and it was a lousy weather day, so the graphics desk pitched a “helpful hints box” about driving in bad weather.

Given that we’d run these almost every week, it seemed to be redundant to me. Couple that with my “Wisconsin Chops” when it came to driving in snow, I asked if the box “was going to tell us anything that 75 other boxes we’ve already run and common sense would tell you about how not to drive like an asshole?”

After that, I bogarted the “sum of human knowledge” line. It seemed more dignified.

Speaking of somewhat undignified…

WHY YOU NEED A 12-YEAR-OLD BOY ON YOUR WRITING STAFF, PART 23,352,123: I don’t know who developed this car, but I’m buying one if I can find it:


Yep, it’s a real thing:

A new edition of the Subaru Forester on display at the 2020 Singapore Motorshow came with a rather eye-catching nickname: The Forester Ultimate Customized Kit Special edition. Or as people online were quick to note, the Subaru FUCKS edition:


Subaru told Business Insider that the car was from an “independent distributor” rather than the carmaker. However, Top Gear Philippines noted that the vehicle was inside the Subaru booth, sharing space with new models such as Viziv Adrenaline Concept and an updated Impreza.

It was unclear from this article what level of “market penetration” Subaru expected from this…

Speaking of marketing things…

WHAT COULD I GET FOR, SAY, $20? It always seems pretty awkward to me when we have to say that our favorite teams are playing at the Smoothie King Center, Tropicana Field or the KFC Yum! Center.

(To be fair, it used to be worse: the Astros used to play at “Enron Field.” Also, my beloved Cleveland Cavaliers named their new home after then-owner Gordon Gund, calling it the “Gund Arena,” which sounds like something your doctor diagnoses you with before giving you a shot of penicillin… Rocket Mortgage Field House is actually somehow an improvement.)

Well, my state’s university system is going one step further, offering rich people the chance to burnish their legacy with some additional naming rights:

Cash-strapped University of Wisconsin campuses have a new source of revenue to pursue: businesses seeking to put their names on academic buildings, colleges and schools.

The UW Board of Regents unanimously approved policy changes Friday opening the door for UW System campuses to sell naming rights to businesses, nonprofit organizations, foundations and other outside organizations. Previous policies restricted naming rights to individuals.

When UW-Oshkosh was constructing Sage Hall, the nicest academic building in which I’ve ever had an office, it had a lot of naming opportunities. We didn’t sell the building’s name, but classrooms, labs and even the courtyard got named after people and organizations.

I asked if anyone thought I could get “The Vincent F. Filak Memorial Urinal” set up in the men’s room near the office. A little plaque near the flusher handle, maybe my likeness painted in porcelain, urinal cakes shaped like my head…Hey, why not? If we’re going to sell out, let’s go for it.

My chair at the time told me that would be a “non-starter” with the building committee.

Oh, well. Dare to dream.

Until next time,

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



THROWBACK THURSDAY- Help save and grow student media in your area

I got a call last week from a good friend who is a dean at a major school in the southwest. Due to budgetary issues, the loss of ad revenue and the constant worry about the student government screwing around with its funding, the student newspaper at her university had to cut positions and scramble for additional revenue.

Her question was the one plaguing student media to this day: “How do we stop the bleeding?”

Every student newsroom with which I have ever worked has tried to answer that question, which is why I’m breaking out this post for Throwback Thursday. It’s been 25 years since we had to answer that question at my first student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal. In the intervening quarter century, so many more have dealt with cuts, losses, “reorganizations” and more.

The value of a student paper goes far beyond the idea of something for word nerds to do when they get bored. It is a place that changes the folks who work there and shapes the landscape of the schools they cover. It’s home and it’s family, in both the best and worst sense of those words. It forces people to account for their actions, both on staff and within the institution.

If you are a student reading this and you aren’t involved in student media, please consider giving it a shot. I can say from experience that it will give you exponentially more than you will give to it.

If you are a faculty member reading this, please encourage your students to take part in student media and give of yourself whatever little bit you can. It could be time for a critique, it could be a sit-down with a writer or even a couple bucks for pizza.

If you are just a random reader, please consider reading student media in your area and share it with others. A “like” or a “share” can mean a lot. (If you have the means, a few bucks is also nice; A lot of publications have a designation that makes your donation tax deductible. A list of publications with such a set up are at the bottom of the original post.)

And on with the show…


Cardinal T-Shirt

The other student newspaper’s staffers put our failings on their front page. When we saved the paper from ruin, we put their front page on a T-shirt.

The Life, Death and Rebirth of The Daily Cardinal: A Reminder of How We Still Need to Keep All Student Media Alive

The Daily Cardinal gave me my entire life.

And 24 years ago today, it almost died.

I honestly intended not to write this today, as the story is old and threadbare at this point. When I tell it, I feel like the grandfather at Thanksgiving who tells the same story each year, only to experience the eye rolls and deep sighs at the table. But this time, something more important than commemoration is at stake, because the Cardinal’s story may be one of the last of its kind in student media, and that is a problem we must address.

Since 1892, The Daily Cardinal has served as a student newspaper and media resource for the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, making it the sixth-oldest student daily paper in the country. William Wesley Young launched it on April 4 of that year, and staffers long after his departure told stories of him racing his horse down the street with his proofs, hoping to make the printing deadline.

Since Young’s time, the paper has turned out more quality journalists, Pulitzer winners, entrepreneurs and legends that to start a list here would guarantee this post would go on forever and yet still omit numerous important people. On April 4, 1992, the paper celebrated its 100th anniversary, toasting these people and the thousands of others who had written, photographed, drawn, designed, sold, distributed and pressed it over that time.

Three years later on Feb. 7, 1995, the paper closed.

At the time, nobody on staff knew for sure why it wouldn’t print the next day or what led to the “reorganization” the paper’s administration tried to play it off as. We found out the next day, as all the other papers in the city seemed to know the truth: We were broke. We owed our printers more than $30,000 and they refused to print without the resolution of that debt. We also owed money to dozens of other organizations and companies. We couldn’t even get our lawyer to help us figure things out because we owed his law firm money.

According to Allison Hantschel’s incredible history on the Cardinal, when the debts were tallied and the cash on hand measured, the paper owed more than $137,700 and had $43.71 in its checking account.

It was both way too real and almost completely unbelievable at the same time.

Over the next two months, the publisher, general manager and sales manager all quit. Board members spent a lot of time in meetings, scrambling to find out what had happened, how it happened and who was to blame for it. Most of the staff left and at one point, there were basically three people left in the office.

I was one of them. I had been elected city editor about six weeks earlier. After “The Shutdown” I was responsible for trying to bill an entire year worth of advertising with the goal of paying off our debts and closing the paper “with honor,” as one of our board members used to say.

At one point, the other two people, also former editorial staffers, came to me and asked for my key to the office. They were done, tired and broken. They just wanted to go home. The plan was to turn in the keys to the board, shutter the place and go on with life. For reasons I still can’t explain, I gave them an old key that didn’t work anymore. They locked up the office and left. Once they were gone, I went back in and finished the billing.

For the next six months, it was life on a flaming high wire, as a skeleton crew of former staffers and crazy people worked to pump life back into what everyone else saw as a rotting corpse. Money came in, debts were paid and disasters continued to emerge. Every day, it was a sense of “We’re probably dead, but let’s see what we can accomplish today.”

I skipped six weeks worth of class, spending hours and days at the paper. (I don’t recommend that approach.) My two best friends, neither of whom were working at the paper at the time of “The Shutdown,” came back to rebuild the paper. It was like climbing a greased flagpole in a blizzard, but eventually it worked. “If we ever print again,” became “When we print again.”

On Sept. 1, 1995, the paper published again. It hasn’t stopped since.

Without The Cardinal, I never would have gotten a job at the Wisconsin State Journal shortly after the relaunch. Without that job, I never would have gotten a chance to teach at the college level. Those two experiences gave me just enough value that George Kennedy hired me to work at Mizzou three years after that. Without that, I don’t get a doctorate, become a student media adviser, work as a professor, publish books or a dozen other things that make my life my life.

Beyond the journalism experiences, The Cardinal introduced me to my wife, my two best friends, the godparents of my child and the people who would make me a godparent. It gave me a home and a life that I never would have had during college otherwise.

The reason I decided to write about this today is because my story is interesting but not unique. Student media has provided countless students experiences like the one I had. College students with half-baked ambitions and a shaky sense of self cross the threshold of newsrooms all across this country and find themselves every day. They learn skills, ply their trade and grow into amazing members of The Fourth Estate. They also find true friends and a surrogate family. Calling a student publication “an activity” or “a club” is like calling Godzilla “a lizard:” It’s true, but wildly inaccurate and extremely reductive.

It also occurred to me that The Cardinal’s story isn’t unique in one way, but is becoming more and more rare in another. As I was rolling through one of my feeds today, I saw this article on Drexel University’s student newspaper, The Triangle. The paper ran into financial difficulty and has likely published its last issue. Last week, I got word that The North Texas Daily, the student paper at the University of North Texas, had its funding cut and was heading into similarly dire financial straits.

Last year, we talked at length about The Sunflower at Wichita State University, which looked to be headed toward the end of its 123-year run. And, even though I don’t think I’m a jinx, our student newspaper found itself in a massive fundraising effort to keep the publication going. When it comes to publications ceasing to print or in danger of closing entirely, The Cardinal seemed to be ahead of its time. And, to borrow a phrase from a friend, it’s a club nobody wants to be a member of and we don’t want any more members.

The unique aspect of The Cardinal, however, is that it found a way back home. The presses rolled again, a web presence emerged and students continued to take part in an important part of life. Thanks in large part to folks like Anthony Sansone, who essentially built The Daily Cardinal Alumni Association, the students there get additional financial help from former Cardinalistas. The staffers also get opportunities to learn from alumni as well, thanks to the DCAA’s mentorship and training programs.

I don’t know how many of these other programs are lucky enough to find support for their news operations, be it through university funds, alumni giving or some other miracle I would like to know more about. What I do know is that student media is too important to too many people to let it die quietly among budget cuts, shrinking ad revenue and “I’ll just read stuff on Twitter” shrugs.

Below is a list of student media outlets that have active fundraising efforts available online. As I continue to get more names and links, I’ll continue to update them here. (Feel free to contact me via the form on this site.) Please spread the word and contribute if you can. As the folks at The Triangle noted, if everyone on Drexel’s campus gave a buck, the paper could run for a year.

Keep student media alive.

An incomplete list of “third-rail people” you should never talk about in a positive sense

Earlier in the week, we covered the story of Morris Berger, the now-former offensive coordinator for the Grand Valley State University football team. Berger resigned after he told the student newspaper he’d like to have dinner with Hitler, and every media outlet on earth seemed to want to run that as a headline.

During some social media and listserv chatter, various people weighed in on this, including one person who asked the question that seems both fair and yet dangerous to ask:

It was a careless comment, but the coach also made it clear he didn’t favor Hitler’s motivations or goals. And unless the university found evidence that the coach actually supported Nazism, I’m having trouble seeing how this should cost him his job. An assistant coach at a Division II school tries to be honest in a run-of-the-mill interview with a student newspaper and the clumsiness of his statement draws the attention of ESPN, CBS and other national news outlets? Why? Only because the national reports could refer to his comments as the “Hitler statement” and suggest he favored the Nazi leader. So instead of having to apologize, he has to apologize and resign so he won’t be a “distraction.”

My only real answer to that question is that there are individuals out there I would call “third-rail people,” folks for whom speaking about them in any way other than as bad or evil will land you in trouble. The third rail is part of any electrical train (subway, etc.) that carries a high level of current and if you touch it, you almost always die.

I asked the Hivemind to help me put together a list of “third-rail people” as a general public service announcement for folks who might run into media outlets who ask them stuff. To make the list, the person had to be pretty universally known or at least their actions were known. For example, you might not remember John Q. Problemguy by name, but you remember “that one guy who went around lighting homeless people on fire.”

You also had to have no real strong, decent-to-semi-decent supporter group to make the list. (Several people suggested folks like Donald Trump or R. Kelly, and yet we still have people who applaud for the State of the Union address and the Ignition Remix. Thus, they sat this one out.)

So, without further ado, here is your incomplete list of people you should probably avoid telling anyone you’d like to do anything with, other than punch them in the throat:


  • Adolf Hitler
  • Joseph Goebbels
  • Josef Mengele
  • Heinrich Himmler

(Once we hit Mengele, I kind of just said “OK, enough Nazis,” for fear of taking over the entire discussion with the Third Reich. However, if you find yourself talking about anything having to do with the Nazis in any positive way, you’re probably going to be in trouble. Leave any level of analysis beyond “They were evil” to scholars who look like they’ve been buried in dusty books since they were 12.)


  • Jeffrey Dahmer
  • John Wayne Gacy
  • Ted Bundy
  • Charles Manson
  • Charles Starkweather
  • Dennis “BTK” Rader
  • Richard “The Nightstalker” Ramirez
  • Charles Whitman

People who fit the bill as insane serial killers rarely should be considered as people you’d like to know or support in a public fashion. Talking about how great Gacy was as a clown, the complex nature of Rader’s knot work or the amazing accuracy Whitman had with a rifle will only get you in trouble. Even more, if you get the “Name three historical figures with whom you’d like to eat dinner” question, understand that answering with “Jeffrey Dahmer” will almost certainly get you fired/ostracized/kicked off


  • Brock Turner
  • Harvey Weinstein
  • Jerry Sandusky
  • Jared “The Subway Guy” Fogle
  • Jeffrey Epstein

Rape, child molestation, unwanted sexual stuff and anything along those lines will lead people to think poorly of an individual. When people become famous for such things, they tend to become “persona non grata” in the world at large, but still don’t reach the “don’t you dare say anything positive” level.

However, when Weinstein managed to get an entire movement (#metoo) rolling against him for such acts, that lands him on the third-rail list. In addition, Turner’s slap on the wrist for raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, coupled with his father’s argument that Turner’s life shouldn’t be ruined “for 20 minutes of action,” jumped up the universal hatred to a third-rail level.

Pedophiles rarely get a “but he was such a good guy” counterpoint, but people like Fogle and Sandusky, who abused multiple children over multiple years make them completely nonredeemable in any discussion of anything. Add in the fact that both men used their charities to seek and groom victims and you have darkness and evil squared. You’re not going to get very far with a “you gotta admire the will power it took to lose all that weight” or a “he was responsible for 10 All-America linebackers and many pro careers” ice breaker.


  • Idi Amin
  • Pol Pot
  • Osama bin Laden
  • Efraín Rios Montt
  • Joseph Stalin

Basically, if a person’s name pulls up search terms like “genocide” or “terrorist,” keep them off the list for the dinner party.


  • George Zimmerman
  • Mary Kay LeTourneau
  • Bernie Madoff

Zimmerman’s actions that led to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin were horrifying, but he kicked things up a notch with his decision to sign autographs at a gun show after his acquittal. Among the items he signed? Confederate flags and a bag of Skittles.

I had honestly forgotten about LeTourneau, the then-34-year-old school teacher who pled guilty to two counts of child rape for her affair with a 12-year-old student. She ended up marrying him and having children with him. Not like she’s coming up in everyday conversation anymore, but any even half-joke about “going the extra mile in educating students” related to her will get you run out of town on a rail. (Special thanks to my friend, Janna, who reminded me of this and managed to get one female character into this giant sausage party of misery.)

When you run the world’s largest Ponzi scheme, bankrupt the elderly and Robert DeNiro has to play you in a movie, for which there is no role for Joe Pesci, you’re probably not going to be worth talking about positively in polite company.

I’m sure we missed a few, which is why we’re calling this an incomplete list. The point here, other than this was a riff that kind of took on a life of its own, is to undercut the argument that folks in various corners of the world are making now: If Berger hadn’t spoken to the student newspaper, he would have been fine.

Thus, their answer is, “Don’t talk to the media.”

Actually, the answer should be to think better about what you’re saying before you say it. The paper wasn’t trying to get Berger in trouble, and I doubt Berger has a closet full of brown shirts he irons while he whistles Horst Wessel Lied.” However, a confluence of an off-the-cuff brain fart coupled with a third-rail person distributed across a media channel spelled doom.

We’re hopeful this list will prevent future moments of “duh.”




Cropping, ‘Shopping and Racism in the Media: Four things to consider in the wake of the AP’s “white people only” photo

The Associated Press issued an apology Friday for its photo of several climate-change activists that had led to charges of racism:

An AP photographer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland took a picture Friday of five activists, including the well-known Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and Ugandan Vanessa Nakate, who were there to discuss climate change. Preparing to send the image, the photographer cropped out Nakate, leaving a picture of four white women before a scenic mountain backdrop.

The initial explanation for the cropping was that it enabled a close-up of Thunberg, and that it removed a distraction — a building behind where Nakate was standing.

The image, shown here solely for educational purposes, gives you both the original (bottom) and the cropped version (top) (via Black Voice News):


The backdrop on the photo is busy, but the crop didn’t solve the problem of making it better. You still have the building in the background, the weird pole thing is still sticking out of the person on the left’s head and you have a tree growing out of the shoulders of the two folks on the right. The only real “crop” that would have solved much of anything would be a slight crop on to the shoulder of Nakate to remove the random person from behind the group.

A similarly bad decision, although with the intention of yielding opposite results, took place at my alma mater about 20 years ago. In attempting to make its student body look “more diverse” on the cover of its application brochure, the University of Wisconsin-Madison PhotoShopped the face of a black student into a crowd shot:


The decision led to viral levels of mockery, including in The Onion, with its “Black Guy PhotoShopped In” story, which explained how a university in its piece had to go through “through hundreds of school-newspaper and yearbook file photos before we found a picture of a black guy.”

Madison initially tried to squeeze through on this one, before eventually deciding to destroy the entire run of “‘Shopped” catalogs and rerun it without the alteration.

If nothing else, these incidents demonstrate the awkwardness that media professionals have while dealing with issues of race and visuals. In the case of the AP, officials there noted that everyone will be engaging in racial sensitivity and awareness seminars of some sort. In addition, the organization is challenging people to better engage issues of race and its portrayal in its media efforts. (In short, I’m guessing the unvarnished message was, “Oh crap… Let’s NOT do something THAT STUPID again!”)

The problem with just calling for “awareness” and “sensitivity” is that organizations like AP already have these kinds of statements in play. If you read the SPJ Code of Ethics, it gives you this:

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.

In addition, the NPPA Code of Ethics includes this:

Be complete and provide context when photographing or recording subjects. Avoid stereotyping individuals and groups. Recognize and work to avoid presenting one’s own biases in the work.

Simply put, the codes of ethics already tell media practitioners to show the whole story, make sure not to mess with reality and be aware of diversity issues. None of this should come as a shock to professional journalists in the textual and visual realms.

Rather than beat up on AP, here a few points that might help you as you examine this situation and look for ways to avoid this kind of problematic outcome for yourself in the future:

Read the codes: This is pretty self-explanatory, but it helps to remind yourself from time to time what your discipline’s instruction manual gives you for guidance.  If you keep up on these and refresh your memory about them every so often, you can make sure you’re doing the best possible work in the best possible way.

Paranoia is your friend: I use this one a lot, and to be honest, it feels a little awkward to use it here. It would be so much better if we all had diversity, compassion and awareness on the front burner of everything we do in media work. I absolutely believe that. I also know that the ideal and the practical often diverge in daily life, so consider this item as a solid back-up plan.

I find myself asking this question a lot when I’m publishing anything, be it a blog post or a book: “How could this go horribly wrong and really screw me?” The answers don’t always lead to brilliant success, but they do help me avoid a lot of really bad failure.

In short, look at what you are about to do and see how many ways your actions could lead to people becoming upset. For me, I tend to spiral out at least three turns, to the point of wondering what people who tweet in nothing but caps would have to say. I then think, “OK, how much of a defense can I put up when that happens?” If I don’t like the odds and the outcomes, I look at the alternatives until I find one that seems the least painful with the best likelihood of success and I go for it.

Not exactly awe-inspiring or speaking to the better angels of media glory, but it works.

Diversity isn’t a buzzword: We’ve talked about this before on the blog, but it bears repeating and it should be expanded upon. The idea of having a diverse set of individuals in a newsroom or an office or anywhere else where media decisions are made is to provide a wide array of experiences that can inform upon decision-making. It’s not about checking a box or looking good in a group photo. It’s so that the people in the content’s decision-making zone reflect the people for whom they are making content decisions.

If you are lucky enough to work for an organization that espouses that kind of goal and has created a workforce to match it, this is where asking and listening can be a huge benefit both now and later. I don’t have a perfect environment of that nature on a daily basis, but I have been lucky enough to work with people over time who make me “open the aperture” of my mind a lot more.

For example, when I’m dealing with issues of gender, I can hear Tracy Everbach’s voice in the back of my head, poking at the choices I’m making. In terms of LGBTQ issues, several folks who have guest blogged for me sit in my mind and let me play out scenarios of what I should say or how I should say it. Former students and colleagues’ words also rattle around in my head when it comes to issues of race, faith and other similar topics.

Better yet, if I’m not 100% sure on what to do, I can call or text or email them and ask for advice.

Media education goes beyond the tools: We talk a lot in both books about finding ways to put “tools in your toolbox” when it comes to media writing and reporting. The idea is that you can learn a skill that will benefit you as you ply your trade in whichever area of the field you wish to enter.

It pays not to take that metaphor too literally, however, as knowing how to nail down the 5W’s and 1H, take photos or capture video isn’t the start and end of journalism. That’s why we don’t call our Visual Media Design class “How To Use InDesign” or our Photography I course “Nikon and Photoshop Proficiency.” The tools help you do the job, but it’s the human beings and their knowledge of the field that matter more.

The decision made in the case of the AP’s photo is a perfect microcosm of this distinction. The “nuts-and-bolts, technical-rule, use-the-tool approach” can clearly justify the idea of cropping Nakate out. Tighter crops are technically better and the goal of eliminating distracting elements is technically better. That “tool” approach could also justify PhotoShopping out the background distractions or digitally moving Nakate closer to the others.

However, journalism says those would all be no-nos.

The “journalism-as-a-craft” approach would clearly say we don’t alter reality to make the images better. It would also say that social and ethical ramifications of the decisions we make should take a front-row seat in what we do. Thus, cropping the photo (or any of the other things I mentioned above) would do more harm than good, so leave it alone.

Your media education is more than the sum of the technical skills you add to your expertise. It’s about seeing both the forest and the trees and knowing when to see each as important.

Dinner with Hitler: How a Q&A with a college newspaper became a national story and an ethical dilemma

While interviewing Grand Valley State University’s new offensive coordinator, the sports editor of the student newspaper threw in the kind of softball question that hundreds of journalists had asked before:

KV: So you graduated from Drury with a degree in History, you’re a history guy. If you could have dinner with three historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? And I’m ruling out football figures.

MB: This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler. It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.

Morris Berger’s answer to Kellen Voss’ question drew national attention to the school, the football program and Berger. It also forced the staff of The Lanthorn to decide what was the best way to handle a story that was quickly becoming a hot potato.

“When you have a Q&A especially, the piece is meant to be raw and personal,” Lanthorn Editor In Chief Nick Moran said Friday in an email interview. “We don’t edit answers and the questions asked help give a glimpse into the source. So when I first saw it, I certainly knew it was an odd, questionable answer, but we ran it with the rest of the piece. Honestly, when we first saw it, our thought was, ‘Why wouldn’t we run this?'”

Moran, a third-year student double majoring in multimedia journalism and communication studies, works with a staff of about 45-50 students at The Lanthorn to cover GVSU’s campuses in Allendale and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In most cases, the coverage doesn’t receive much attention outside of that area, but he soon came to realized that this time, things would be different.

“We first knew it was bound to take off somewhat on Sunday night when Fox 17 ran an online story and broadcast segment on it,” Moran said. “When Fox 17 runs a story here in Grand Rapids, the other two local outlets are going to cover it too. So we knew it would at least get views in the Grand Rapids area, but then it grew. The Detroit Free Press called, making it state-wide. Then we saw it on ESPN, YahooSports, Barstool and more. Then the national media reached out, like the Washington Post, CNN and the Huffington Post. Eventually, it even went international with the Guardian covering it as well.”

Along with the attention came mounting pressure on the publication. An official in the athletic department asked Moran and his staff to pull the story or at least cut the line about Hitler. Initially, the paper acquiesced, something the staff outlined in its explanatory editorial later that week:

When confronted by a university official in a position of influence, the “student” portion of “student journalist” kicked in first. In a lapse of journalistic vision, we removed the portion in question. We quickly realized that was a mistake.

Moran said he worked with his staff and his adviser to determine the best way to decide if The Lanthorn should go back to the original version or stick with the edited version. After discussing the issue with multiple people, including some journalism professors, Moran had the original piece put back on the website.

“From the get-go, I was sure we had to reinstate the piece to its full version,” Moran said. “The support and wisdom around me provided me with the rationale to back up my gut-instinct and the confidence to stick with it.”

The university suspended Berger, pending an investigation into the comments. Berger later resigned, saying he “expressed regret” over the comments he made regarding Hitler.  At each stage, The Lanthorn was at the forefront of the coverage.

“I’m very proud we had the chance to scoop some major outlets,” Moran said. “It was an opportunity for us to show the community, state and country that student journalists can tango with even the professionals.”

Moran said while some outside of the GVSU community have posted negative comments, people on campus have been generally supportive of the paper’s stand.

“In my journalism classes at the very least, a lot of students respected the decision we made to stick to our guns on keeping the comments in the Q&A,” he said. “We’ve even heard from administrators that we made the right call, with the president sending us a letter to assure us.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate to be part of a university that respects freedom of press so openly,” he added. “I know this isn’t the case everywhere.”

Moran said the lesson learned here is to make a decision that can be supported and stick with it.

“As young journalists, we should have an idea of what is the right thing to do, or maybe an organization you work for has those standards,” he said. “In our case (and maybe yours), the ‘student’ portion of ‘student journalist’ may react first, but if you assess the situation as an ethical, professional journalist, there’s time to remedy that. In doing so, be transparent. Your audience may not appreciate if you made a mistake, but many of them will respect you acknowledging it and correcting it if you explain the process.”




4 Things Beginning Journalists Can Learn From the Steve King vs. “Success Kid” Mom Story

Bloch Head shot

Emily Bloch of the Florida Times-Union has long been one of my favorite journalists because of her news sense, her ability to understand an audience and her unyielding dedication to her craft.

Back in 2018, we wrote about how Bloch broke major news about several Florida politicians breaking the law by taking pictures of their ballots and posting them on social media.

In a strange twist of irony, the story ran the same day she was officially “restructured” out of her job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent her “two-weeks notice” banging out that piece, something I still don’t think I’d have the intestinal fortitude to do.

Between then and now, she did freelance work before taking an education reporter position at the Times-Union.

And she’s still hitting home runs with her work, like Tuesday’s piece about a local mom threatening to sue Iowa Congressman Steve King for using her son’s photo in his campaign efforts.

Laney Griner was on Facebook when she received a notification. She was tagged in a post. It’s not a new occurrence for her. A photo she took of her son, Sam, 13 years ago, became a commonly used meme.

Success Kid,” as it’s been deemed online, features a then-infant Sam, staring straight on at the camera, clutching a fistful of sand. The meme has been widely used over the years, Sam’s withering stare being featured by Coca-Cola, the White House and President Barack Obama’s administration, to name a few.

But last week, when Success Kid was featured in an ad for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, Griner wasn’t having it.

Her attorney sent the congressman a cease-and-desist letter early Monday, requesting the meme featuring Sam be removed from all platforms associated with King as well as for a public apology. By Tuesday, the post was taken down.

Bloch’s story is a great one for many reasons, but here are four things you can learn from her efforts on this piece:

READ PAST THE HEADLINE: Here’s the head that ran on the top of Bloch’s story:


If you read the lead of Bloch’s story, you can see how this isn’t accurate:

A Jacksonville mom is threatening to sue an Iowa Congressman for using photos of her son to raise money.

Griner sent King a cease-and-desist letter, which means she’s telling him to knock it off or she WILL sue him. As the update to the story notes, King pulled the “Success Kid” memes from his ads, so the letter had the desired effect.

“There’s a small percentage of folks who don’t understand copyright law, and, of course aren’t reading the whole story that are peeved,” Bloch said in an online interview Wednesday. ” ‘Does she sue everyone that uses the meme?’ She’s not suing. ‘Should I delete my posts that use the meme?’ Obviously not.

(As we’ve pointed out a dozen or more times here, a lawsuit isn’t a lawsuit until it’s filed.)

When you run into a story on any platform, it always bodes well for you (and anyone else) to read beyond the headline. In trying to crunch a nuanced concept (cease-and-desist letter) into headline specs, sometimes a shorter, but inaccurate, word shows up (sues). Always give something like this a deeper look, or at least read two paragraphs into the story.

FIND THE LOCAL ANGLE: Bloch said she saw the story in the Washington Post’s “Morning Mix” and the word “Jacksonville” caught her eye. While every other outlet was focusing on King and the meme, Bloch saw the local angle and figured this would draw her readers to the story.

So in 2013 a bunch of local outlets actually wrote about him, but then it died down again…,” Bloch said. “In 2013 I wasn’t living in (Jacksonville) yet, so them being local was news to me.”

Bloch’s nose for news is important, but so was the idea that this story is more important to local folks who don’t just know of “Success Kid” as a meme, but rather as Sam, the local kid who became an internet legend. Even though other people had touched on the local angle before, both the time that had passed and the time peg of the cease-and-desist letter made for a good reason to punch down a local story here.

“Like I said, everyone wrote about them being from (Jacksonville) in 2013,” Bloch said. “So unless you’re an editor, you had no clue. So most of my Twitter feed is ‘I HAD NO CLUE SUCCESS KID WAS FROM JACKSONVILLE!'”


ASK. IT CAN’T HURT: Bloch could have easily written this story without an interview. The court documents have plenty in there for her to quote and plenty of people have written extensively on the meme and King, so she had no shortage of background from which to draw. However, she decided to take a shot at an interview.

“(I) immediately found the mom’s twitter account and DM’d her,” Bloch said. “Did the interview that afternoon.”

Bloch was able to get a good, strong local explanation from Griner about her experiences with the meme as well as why she wanted King to cease and desist. If you compare Bloch’s story to the national ones, you can see how this not only localized the story, but helped it make more sense, as Griner spoke like a human being, not like a legal document.

The lesson here is that it never hurts to ask for what you need. Griner could have said she was too busy or that everything had to go through her lawyer. She also could have just ignored the “local press,” given the reach of this story. However, she was willing to talk to Bloch that day and really push the story forward for local and national readers.

It’s always easy to assume you can’t get an interview or someone won’t want to talk to you. Give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen in most cases? Someone says “No,” which means you have no more and no less information than you did before you asked.

A GREAT STORY CAN BE A SIMPLE ONE: When I saw Bloch post this, I immediately sent her a handful of questions like an over-excited toddler who saw Santa for the first time. Her reaction seemed to be one of gracious bemusement:

“(It’s) not a sexy story, but hey, they’re not always sexy,” she wrote with an “LOL” to make her point.

I’d like to disagree on that point. It’s an amazing story for about a half dozen reasons:

  • It’s local (Let’s not belabor that, but it’s worth noting. If it’s in your backyard, you should own the story.)
  • It engaged and informed the audience (Her Twitter feed proves that point, as people are starting to realize this kid is in their area, something they didn’t know before.)
  • It grabs most of the FOCII elements: Fame (King and the meme), Oddity (A mom threatening to sue a congressman over a meme featuring her son is likely rare), Conflict (King vs. Griner) and Immediacy (The story was out shortly after the letter was filed).
  • It’s a simple, fun read. (Bloch didn’t try to blow this thing up into some sort of epic battle over copyright or layer on legal precedent. She just told people what was going on in a way they’d understand it.)
  • It inspired additional ideas in her. (In chatting about this, we talked about how old Sam is now, if he’s known around school as this kid, how life has been and so forth. She mentioned wanting to check in on him in 10 years. We then talked about maybe a high school graduation story in five years when he turns 18. Then, I stopped bothering her so she could go do actual work instead of dealing with me…)

I’m sure there’s more here, but the point is, you don’t have to catch the governor of your state funneling cash from the state budget to oversee a human trafficking and drug ring to have a great story. If you can develop a sense of wonder and a nose for what makes things interesting to other people, you’ll have plenty of great stories like this and keep readers wondering what you’ll write next.

Jim Lehrer’s rules matter now more than ever