The SCAM method to better personality profiles

Personality profiles are often heavy on the “profile” but lack “personality.” The ability to go beyond “So and so is not your typical college student…” takes effort, research and most of all observation.

The goal of a good profile piece is to have your readers able to see the subject in their mind’s eye. The ability to visualize the person both physically and beyond is crucial to understanding the individual and the value this person has as as profile subject.

One of my first professors taught me to work on observing a profile subject through the acronym “SCAM.” I have no idea where he got this or if it was original to him, so if you find the original source, I’d love to know it so I can give credit where credit is due.

Here’s what it means:

SETTING: Good writing appeals to the senses. To make that happen, you need to make sure you can explain what’s going on around you. What do the person’s surroundings look like?

  • If it’s a desk worker, how clean is that desk?
  • What type of information is on the bulletin board?
  • If you’re at a person’s home, what kind of décor are we looking at? Is it high-end quality furniture of antique vintage of is it three beanbags with duct tape on them and a giant wooden spool for a table?
  • Does the person have pets running around or is it very cold and empty? If they’ve got pets, what kind of pets are they?
  • What does it sound like? (What kind of music does the person listen to? Imagine going to meet the head of your university and all of a sudden that person turns on the radio, and out pours death metal or gangsta rap.) What sounds surround the person? (A drill in a dentist’s office, the clang of a construction crane)
  • What does it smell like around this person? (Cigarette smoke? Heavy perfume? Hog farm?)

CHARACTER: Who is this person you’re describing? In society we usually start with the physical.

  • What does your source wear? Shirt and tie? High fashion? T-shirt and jeans?
  • What is the height, weight, build of the person? Hair neat and simple or wild and stylish or is it utilitarian?
  • What do their eyes look like? Bright and engaging or do they look dead?
  • What do they drive? What do they own? What do they wear that tells you something important? (An important piece of jewelry?)

The internal stuff is a little harder to get at but is possible. How do they react to people who are important vs. people they view as subordinates? How do they act in public? How do they act in private? What type of language do they use? (prim and proper or cussing that would cause a sailor to blush?) Look for ways to help me understand this person’s inner-self.

ACTION: What does your source do? This can be as simple as tapping a pencil while he or she is talking on the phone or as complicated as explaining the painstaking precision of the bakers on Ace of Cakes.

  • How does your source move? Is it frantic or slow or smooth or ragged?
  • How does your source physically respond to certain things? (Do they always take things in stride or do they freak out?)
  • What kinds of things does your source do when speaking to you? (Do they sit still or are they doing other things? Do they attend solely to you or are you an afterthought?)
  • What actions do they take related to who they are? (Athletes who stretch or limp due to injury or action? People who are hunched from years of specific activities?)

MEANING: You need to make sure that these things matter. You mesh the character, action and scene along with quotes and reporting bits and suddenly you’ve got enough to reveal your source’s personality to the reader. Remember, as Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so don’t overreach for this. Look at what you’ve collected and make an intelligent statement about your source based on what you’ve seen and learned.



The “Smell It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Smell It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of smell from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. Here’s a simple walk through:

Each year, I change up the smells. I try to find variations in terms of things being “heavier” or “lighter” in terms of the smell or “fresher” vs. “dirtier.” In most cases, I tend to pick something “industrial” from my garage (as long as it doesn’t say on the bottle that breathing it in will cause brain damage or something). I also like to pick between my woodcrafting stuff (wood oils, stain), my wife’s essential oils for the fall (spicy, cozy), cleaning products (citrus, soapy) and some sort of food product. I stick with oils or liquids, as I can’t hide the items well enough and still keep them in a plastic bag to use actual items. One year, I used beef jerky, which was great for the smell, but students kept saying, “This smells like beef jerky” because they could see it. A chunk of cloth with a bit of liquid on it works a lot better.

To make the process fair, I have three bags and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “smell” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they smelled in the bag. Here’s how it works, with a few edits:


Once the students get done smelling, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:


Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same bag and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:

The students then list all their words on the board under their bag’s number:


Once it’s done, we debrief. I reveal what was in each bag and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the bag. (In this case, it was a splash of a hazelnut-vanilla liqueur, a dose of 2-stroke 50:1 motor oil and a sampling of doTERRA (an essential oil made of citrus and spices/herbs).

Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

“You are the only thing stopping you from doing great work:” Spotlight Fellow Jaimi Dowdell talks about her two-year project, investigative journalism and how students can succeed in publishing tough stories.

The Boston Globe’s coverage of the FAA’s long record of lax oversight and poor management has become a national story. The two-part series, Secrets in the Sky and Flight plan for Failure,looked at the ways in which planes were registered in ways to hide their origins and how pilots with dangerous track records were given free reign over the skies.

The Spotlight project grew out of the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicled the paper’s work to expose the child sexual abuse scandal associated with clergy in the arch diocese. Participant Media, Open Road Films and First Look Media created the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, which provides recipients the ability to do their own investigative work at the Globe alongside the Spotlight crew.

Jaimi Dowdell, who previously worked as the senior training director for Investigative Reporters and Editors, was one of the journalists working on this project. She explained in a follow-up piece in the Globe how she and co-author Kelly Carr ended up spending two years of their lives on this piece.  She also served as a “pro” for the Reporting book and shared info on how to see if a “big story” is worth it. On Tuesday, she was nice enough to give me an interview for the blog, where we talked about the genesis of stories, how she got into this, what matters most in terms of sticking with a story and the advice she had for students. Our Q and A (edited for typos and clarity, most of which were mine) is below:

Q: You mentioned that you developed this “strange hobby” of collecting information on the registration numbers, but I didn’t catch exactly HOW you came to this hobby or what made you think it might make a good story. What piqued your interest for this as a story topic?

A: When I was a trainer for IRE, one of the most common questions I’d get was: How do you find story ideas? My answer was typically something like, “If you aren’t bumping into story ideas left and right, you might be in the wrong business.” It’s a little harsh, but I believe it is true. When reporters open their eyes and operate out of curiosity, I promise they’ll find ideas are everywhere. This project is just one example of how that can pan out.

In the fall of 2015, Kelly and I were poking around a state business registry database looking for information on a couple of companies completely unrelated to this project. While I was analyzing that database we stumbled upon something called an aircraft trust. Kelly’s business reporting background helped us out a lot here and she instantly started doing research on what, exactly, was an aircraft trust.

In the meantime, I downloaded the FAA’s aircraft registry database to see if we could learn anything there. That’s when we discovered that the number one city for aircraft registrations was in Delaware. Strange. Even more confusing was the fact that a Texas town with 2,500 people and no airport was in the top 15 with more than 1,000 aircraft registered. We soon realized that Onalaska was connected to that initial trust we discovered and we wanted to know more. This is what led us to our late-night and weekend searches of airplane registration numbers. Really, it was all about curiosity. No one asked us to do this, we weren’t getting paid, we just needed to understand more about what we were finding.

That’s when we started uncovering examples of U.S. airplanes connected to shady things. It became a bit of an obsession to find more companies and planes.


Q: You said this was a two-year project in your write up about the stories. Is this common for the stories you have done that were long-form or investigative pieces or was this an anomaly? Could you walk me through the timeline a little bit in terms of what elements took up what amounts of time and how you worked through this process?

A: One of the reasons this project took two years is because we had other jobs and responsibilities. Had we been able to focus solely on the project I think it would have gone faster. Then again, I think this is how a lot of good projects develop. At first, we had no idea if it would even be one story, but we kept digging and digging and it grew. We picked away and gathered little pieces until we could string together something that was meaty.

I think the key to some of these longer-term projects is to just tackle little things each day or each week. That way if it doesn’t pan out you aren’t out on a ton of time. Just give yourself 10 minutes a day to check in on records requests or make the necessary phone call to move things forward. Sadly, sometimes you’ll have to do it on your free time. If you’re passionate about what you do that won’t be such a big deal. These projects are a gamble and sometimes you need to put in that extra work to show others that the gamble will pay off. It’s also important to always have something to work on that makes you happy. If your long-term project doesn’t make you happy in some way then find another long-term project.


Q: In story you both wrote that explained how you came to create this story, you talked about the “obsession” you and Kelly shared about this topic. I often tell students who work on larger pieces that they have to really love the topic and feel strongly attached to it… How important was that element of desire you both had to get to the bottom of this and your overall love of the topic in making this story come to fruition?

A: You’re right. This story never would have happened if we wouldn’t have developed a desire to know more. Aviation is not a hobby of mine and it isn’t something I ever thought I would have dedicated years of my life to covering. But as we kept digging, we kept finding more that alarmed us.

There were many times that we thought about quitting or wished we’d never searched those first N-Numbers. But we knew there was a good chance that if we took a pass on telling this story, it might remain untold. After learning about how the issues we uncovered had impacted people, quitting just wasn’t an option.


Q: What were some of the bigger “road blocks” you hit along the way and what made them problematic? How did you work around them or how did the inability to get past them impact the story?


A: Some of the examples in the story took a long time to run down. We may have spent a month trying to get documents and back-up information that would eventually become one sentence. In addition, we were dealing with multiple countries so that added a layer of complexity for us.

We did so much research that the sheer amount of information we were dealing with became one of the biggest roadblocks. Figuring out how to manage all the documents, data and interviews was tough on its own. But then we had to figure out how to organize all our various examples without losing the readers in print.

To tackle this, we created a lot of timelines and wrote a lot of memos leading up to the actual drafts. We also had some difficult conversations about which examples and facts really moved the story forward and which ones had to be left out. We cut just about as much as we included which was tough but necessary. Our editor deserves a lot of credit for taking our initial copy and working with us to make it something we could all be proud of.

Another major roadblock was getting information from the Federal Aviation Administration. We worked hard to establish a dialogue with them, but they took a long time to respond to most of our questions. In the extreme, it took the agency 11 months to answer a specific question we’d asked in 2016. In addition, there were a couple of times that their online FOIA system simply “lost” our requests. These types of delays were common and we just learned to work through them. While this made things more difficult, it strengthened our resolve to find information. Persistence is important.

Q: The media has really latched onto this topic after you published the series. What has been the general reaction to the piece and what has been your take on how it might influence policy etc. going forward?

A: The reaction to the series has generally been positive. We’ve gotten some interesting tips that we’re following. In addition, Rep. Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts introduced the Aircraft Ownership Transparency Act of 2017 earlier this year after we shared our findings with him. That bill is co-sponsored by Peter King and Carolyn Maloney.

Another Massachusetts congressman entered our report as part of the record in a recent subcommittee meeting and asked a representative from the Transportation Safety Administration about the gaps we uncovered in FAA information.


Q: What’s next for you (and Kelly if you’re still tag teaming it)? Any big projects on the horizon?

A: What’s next is a great question and I bet I’m like many your students who are currently asking themselves, “What will I do when I grow up?” Right now, I see my goal as finding ways to support what I’ve come to call my journalism habit. In the meantime, I’m following this story and am excited about whatever is next.

Kelly and I are both thankful to the Spotlight Fellowship and The Boston Globe for providing the opportunity and forum for us to share our work. Really good investigative work doesn’t just happen. It’s important that newsrooms and outside organizations like Participant Media, one of the funders of the fellowship, continue to provide the necessary support for reporters to do their jobs the right way.


Q: What advice do you have for student journalists who are working on bigger projects that require tenacity and often include roadblocks from administrators or other record keepers? Any thoughts on keeping them motivated and preventing them from giving up?


A: The advice I have for student journalists is simple: You are the only thing stopping you from doing great work. You don’t need to be backed by a powerful newsroom or have some lengthy resume to tackle important issues. Some of the best stories I’ve done began at home after work (or after class in college) when I was just curious about something.

Don’t get me wrong, there will be roadblocks – a ton of them. This kind of work isn’t easy, but easy isn’t much fun. Follow your instincts and don’t think you must do it alone. Talk to mentors and professors you trust for guidance. And two is always better than one: Get a partner. While Kelly and I were both nutty enough to follow this through, what made our partnership great was our complementary skills. The combination of both of our strengths allowed us to see the whole picture more fully.

At the end of the day, hard work and resilience is key.

A legal eagle’s look at the Jemele Hill suspension, ESPN’s position and what students need to know about “the law” vs. “the contract.”

ESPN journalist Jemele Hill was suspended Monday for two weeks after she spoke out on Twitter once again on issues of racism and discrimination. In mid-September, Hill used Twitter to call the president a racist and stated that President Trump was “the most ignorant, offensive president” of her lifetime. More recently, she offered advice on social media to people who opposed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ stand on benching players who “disrespect the flag.”


Rather than dealing with the issue of if Hill was right or wrong from a content perspective, I wanted to look at the legal issues surrounding this in hopes of providing guidance to journalism students. As we mentioned in both books, the First Amendment, freedom of speech and punishment for speech are all often misunderstood. With that in mind, I contacted Daxton “Chip” Stewart, an expert in free speech and the First Amendment to walk through this situation.

Stewart, an associate dean and associate professor of media law in the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, said he has discussed the Hill situation in class, both in terms of the law and the societal role of journalists. He said the first thing he often has to explain is that Hill’s suspension is not a violation of her First Amendment rights.

“This is a private company and a private deal,” Stewart said. “ESPN isn’t the government, so there’s no First Amendment issue here at all.”

He said broader free speech issues are of interest here, such as how a private organization allows its employees to engage in speech activities, but non-governmental institutions like ESPN can set policies that limit speech.

“If I violated a (similar) policy and if TCU punished me, I wouldn’t have a case,” Stewart said. “This is a private contract matter… In this case, ESPN has a social media policy and if she breaches it, she can be punished.”

Even if she were tweeting on her own time or adding a disclaimer about her tweets not representing anyone but her, Stewart said this wouldn’t matter as far as ESPN and the suspension go in relation to the First Amendment. That said, other rules and laws protect individuals rights that are outlined in the First Amendment.

“When you get beyond speech, there are federal anti-discrimination laws,” he said. “ESPN can’t say they’re only going to hire white men for jobs or something like that because that would clearly show a violation.”

“You can’t exclude people because of race, ethnicity or gender or ESPN couldn’t force you to go to a church as a part of your job,” he added, noting some exceptions to the “church” situation exist for people employed by some religious organizations.

The simple fact of employment, Stewart said, is that most people are “at-will” employees, which means they can be fired for almost any reason that isn’t clearly outlined as illegal in those anti-discrimination laws.

“You can be fired for any reason as long as it’s not discrimination or because you’re a whistle-blower or similar reasons in law,” he said. “A private university, for example, could fire you for doing something it didn’t like. Even if we think it’s a valid free speech activity, they can fire you because they just don’t renew your contract.”

That said, the “it’s not illegal but can still cause you problems” angle the book outlines for situations like this can cut both ways. Journalists have come to Hill’s defense and Stewart said the ramifications of this move are bad for ESPN.

“Nothing good is going to come from this for ESPN,” he said. “It’s really really bad optics and a really bad practice but it’s not illegal. They can absolutely make this choice.”

“Some of these sorts of incidents have a lot of collateral damage,” he added. “A lot of employees might be afraid to talk about it… They don’t want to be next. It’s a job. It’s a great job and who wouldn’t want to work for ESPN? But when ESPN disciplines an employee for something like this, a lot of people are going to clam up.”


  1. Know the rules or ask before you break them: Jemele Hill is a smart, qualified journalist who knew what she was doing both times she sent the troublesome tweets. Other people don’t always know what a policy says or what a rule allows for. Thus, if you are considering a job somewhere and you have already built your social media brand, it would behoove you to figure out what the rules are and if you are willing to abide by them.
    “Anticipate potential conflicts and talk to your boss,” Stewart said. “See if you can get clearance. At least have that discussion or that argument ahead of time. If they ask you to sacrifice more than you are willing to give, you might decide to walk away from the job.”
  2. You are in an impossible situation: One of the big points Stewart wanted to make was that students going into the field will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this kind of thing. Media organizations hire people who have a voice and a point of view because they engage the audience and draw a following. However, when the wind blows the other way, things can get dicey.
    “You need to engage with your readers and social media is part of your brand and the news media encourage this,” he said. “They expect you to be a person and an interesting person, but don’t you dare step into controversial topics. It’s an impossible line. It’s like ‘Be authentic, but not on these things.'”
    “Your voice is important until people start complaining and then we want you to stop using your voice until we tell you to use it again…” he added. “It places an unfair expectation on students going out there but never the less it is the expectation.”
  3. Ask yourself, “Is this the hill I’m willing to die on?” Hill not only understands the topic upon which she is speaking, but she lives it as well. Stewart noted that her voice and her perspective on broader issues has great value to her employer and likely contributed to her hiring. She also understood this was a controversial topic and one that would likely put her at odds with her employer.
    She did it anyway and took the suspension.
    She hasn’t said as much, but I’d gather she felt the juice was worth the squeeze on this and that this topic mattered more than whatever ESPN would do to her.
    Not every topic on Twitter, every post on Facebook or every photo on Instagram fits that bill. When deciding if it’s worth it to take that stand, know beforehand what the punitive outcomes are likely to be and if you can live with them if they happen. Also, know how you would feel if you didn’t take that stand and how you would feel having failed to do so.
    Weigh the consequences and then make your decision.


Local newspapers and trash-sniffing bears: How audience-centric journalism works

Whenever I travel, I tend to grab a copy of the local newspaper to see what matters to the readers of that area. In the larger metro areas, you get a lot of the same types of things: crime, governmental wrangling, national news, international news and big-time sports. Over the years, I also noted a trend of unfortunate similarities among regional papers because most of them are now owned by a single company, Gannett. Thus, you get a lot of “USA TODAY NETWORK – (FILL IN YOUR STATE HERE)” bylines on stories that have a general local feel, but lack a clear connection to the specific town or city in which the paper lives.

Still, a number of true “local” papers exist in various parts of various states, including mine. When my in-laws used to live in a place called Beecher, Wisconsin, we would often visit them and a stop at a gas station along the way gave me a chance to sample the local press. The one vivid memory I had was during a spring trip “up north” at a time of heightened international tensions, some sort of congressional shriek-fest and a lot of worries about an upcoming state election.

The front page story on the local paper? Six tips on how to keep bears emerging from hibernation from getting into your trash.

I couldn’t find a single story on Obama or Europe or even our state legislature on the front page. It was about the local fishing forecast, a festival at a local church and, of course, the bear thing. The publishers of those papers were local folks, writing about local things that mattered to local citizens.

Sure, things like peace in the Middle East and who was likely to do what in the U.S. Senate mattered to those people in a broader sense, but the local press figured (probably rightly) that people who read their paper would have gotten that stuff from CNN or FOX or some big-news website. They didn’t have a reason to rehash that stuff. On the other hand, it was a pretty safe bet that Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity wasn’t going to run a series on how deer were in heat and thus leading to more car accidents on Highway 141 (a real concern around these parts).

Here are a couple local papers I grabbed on the way to work:


Top story: How local bridge work isn’t going to hurt the fishing in the area. Other stories? The building of a new assisted living community, how the local schools are doing in state tests/budgets, local zoning laws and an upcoming Oktoberfest walk/run.

I’m not going to endorse or admonish the writing quality or design approach on either of these publications, but I will tell you that I’d bet a dollar to a dime that the content matters to the area readers. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I live in Omro, a city of about 3,300, and my wife desperately wants to raise chickens in our yard for reasons past my understanding. She’s always keeping an eye on zoning changes that might allow for this. I pray that this never happens.)

The big take away here is that you need to know what matters most to your readers and then provide content that meets the needs of those readers. It might seem “unimportant” to cover things like this, especially when other people you know are writing about political unrest in Russia or North Korea’s missile program.

However, if you ever walked out to your trash and saw a 300-pound black bear pawing through your garbage, you’d probably want to know how to keep that from happening again.

Put your copy on a diet and give it a haircut: How to fix sentences that are too long and too heavy.

Consider this sentence from a sports story that ran Thursday:

Eyebrows were raised when Francona picked Bauer instead of Kluber, and the eccentric right-hander, perhaps best known for slicing a pinkie open while repairing a drone during last year’s postseason and bleeding all over the mound in Toronto, delivered a performance that started October just right for the Indians.

And this one from a news story about the sentencing of a defendant:

Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 15, were 12 when they were charged as adults after telling detectives they plotted to kill their friend Payton Leutner to placate Slender Man, an internet boogeyman they said would kill them or their families if they didn’t carry out the act.

And this one from a crime story:

Murphy of Milwaukee is charged with two counts each of fleeing and eluding, causing great bodily harm, two counts each of hit-and-run, great bodily harm, two counts of driving with a suspended license, causing great bodily harm, two counts of resisting an officer, causing injury, and car theft.

And this lead on a bankruptcy story:

In a busy day in Bankruptcy Court Tuesday, the UW Oshkosh Foundation filed a legal action against the University of Wisconsin System, won preliminary permission to pay out $500,000 between now and the end of the year and expressed confidence that 1,200 pages of documentation it filed with the court would keep endowed and other restricted funds away from creditors.

The common thread is that each of these sentences is too long and too heavy. Each one is a minimum of 47 words and lead is a whopping 60 words. Information of value exists in each of these sentences, but it is almost impossible to extract it from the writing itself.

The concept of “length” and “weight” are important in journalistic writing. Depending on your area of the field, what constitutes too long will vary. Broadcasters write in the shortest sentences (8-15 words usually) while text-based publications like newspapers and news websites run about 20-24 for body copy sentences and 25-35 words for leads. Magazine writers can go longer, but usually that’s for effect, using the length of a sentence to create pace or set a mood. In the sentences above, the length creates confusion and buries crucial concepts deep in the verbiage.

Weight, however, is primarily based on feel, word choice and sentence content. In counting length, the word “I” and the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” each counts as one. Obviously, in terms of adding to the complexity of the sentence, these words are not equal. In addition, the weight of a sentence can increase dramatically when a writer stuffs too many facts, numbers or concepts into a single story, thus weighing down the reader with information. Heavier sentences feel unwieldy and can leave a reader confused.

Here are three tips to identify problems like these and keep your writing lighter and and tighter when it comes to weight and length:

  1. One sentence, one concept: The reason you should start with a noun-verb/noun-verb-object structure and build outward is that you remain focused on the core principles that matter in the sentence. Each sentence should have a main assertion or a key message that you capture in the NVO core. Just like every paragraph in an inverted pyramid story should build upon and reflect the lead, every element you add to a sentence should build upon and reflect that NVO core. When you try to do too much with one sentence, you end up with sentences like the one you saw above. If you have multiple concepts, pull each one out and see if it can stand on its own as a single sentence. It’s better to have several shorter, easier-to-digest sentences than one long one that no one can get through.
  2. Read it out loud: One of the best tricks you can use to find grammar problems, structure problems and length/weight problems is to read the sentence aloud. If the sentence flows smoothly off your lips and clearly tells the story, you’re fine. If the sentence makes your tongue feel like it’s falling down a flight of stairs, you need to work on it. When it comes to length and weight, take a normal, human breath (not like the Titanic is going under and you’re trying to survive) and read the sentence out loud. If you get to the end and your chest starts feeling tight and you’re running out of air, it needs a trim. If you run out of air before you hit the end, you definitely need to go back through this and give it another look.
  3. Edit for your audience: In a lot of cases, we write from the perspective of journalists and other experts in the fields we cover. That’s where jargon, overly specific content and other problems tend to emerge. After you write something, go back and read it from the perspective of your audience. For example, if you wrote a story for your college newspaper about a student injured in an accident, you might include the phrase, “Smith was transported to a nearby medical facility for treatment of injuries sustained in the crash.” Does that sound like anything you would ever say? Have you ever gotten seriously hurt and yelled to a friend, “Hey Bobby! I need you transport me to a nearby medical facility!” Probably not. “Taken to a hospital” works a little better.
    In the court story above, the listing of the charges could be better handled in a simple breakout box where the author would list them out in bullet points. The lead on the bankruptcy should be two sentences, with a more generic explanation of the documentation in the lead if it needed to stay there. Also, you can get rid of throwaway terms like “in a busy day” or “the eccentric right-hander.” In each sentence, ask yourself if you are telling your readers what they need to know in the best way possible. If so, leave it alone. If not, make it so.


The “Feel It” Lab

Writing detail-oriented pieces, such as profiles or other bits of narrative journalism, requires detail-oriented reporting. In many cases, students struggle with this because they have learned to rely on only a few sense: They hear sources speak and they see the activity going on around them. When those students have to create a deeper or more nuanced “word picture,” they often lack the feel in their reporting and the nuance in their vocabulary to make it work.

To help students better attend to other senses and find better descriptors, I developed two labs: Smell it and Feel it. Today, my feature writing class did the Feel It lab and I captured key moments of it. I also recorded some explanation as to how to go about doing this if you want to give it a try in one of your classes.

The basic idea is to find a way to isolate the sense of touch from the other senses and then force the students to describe the tactile nature of what they were experiencing. I do this with what has lovingly been deemed “The Box of Doom.” Here’s a simple walk through:


Each year, I pick various things for the holes. I try to make them varied in texture, ranging from dry and gritty to wet and sloppy. I usually shop for groceries shortly before the lab, so I look for stuff that’s got an interesting tactile nature (as well as stuff that’s cheap and on sale). I have used peach pie filling, mincemeat, applesauce, sugar, sand, salt, baby formula, powdered milk and a dozen other things to make the holes change from year to year. I also like to mix them up so that the students don’t tip each other off from year to year. The one year a kid was told to go for Hole 3 because it wasn’t bad, he got a surprise: I changed the order around.



To make the process fair, I have three holes and 15 students, so there are only five slots per hole. This means that every “hole” will have five students who are all working independently and then collaboratively to come up with what they felt when they put their hand in the hole. Here’s how it works, with a few edits. I made sure to include at least two students experiencing each hole:


Once the students get done cleaning up, they need to come up with a list of 10-15 descriptive words that capture their experience. I allow a few short descriptive phrases, but I try to keep them at single words when possible to have them better focus on the specific sensation:


Once they have their own lists, they meet up with the other folks who had the same hole and they try to come up with a list of 20-25 words upon which they agree. They will need to compile that list for everyone else to see:


The students then list all their words on the board under their hole:



After we get all the words on the board, I reveal what was in each hole and we go through the list of the words and determine how well those words align with the material that was in the hole.


Once the students are done with this, I have them write up about a 1/2 page to a full page that includes those words as part of their description of the tactile experience. This is the outcome element I use to assess the entirety of the process. If you want to try it, feel free to include the write up as graded, or a check-off item or something else.

As always, I learn something from every experience like this. Today’s lessons include:

  1. Never buy generic dog food.
  2. Watch out for things in which the smell will create a big problem. That dog food was atrocious.

Hope this was as enjoyable for you as it was for me and my students. If there’s one thing they always say they remember, it’s the “Feel It” Lab.

3 things to learn from the “Tom Petty is Dead” debacle besides “check your facts.”

Rock legend Tom Petty died Monday at age 66 after suffering from cardiac arrest. What should have been a simple story got horribly complicated because a few news sources jumped the gun and declared him dead before he actually was.

TMZ, CBS and Rolling Stone were among the publications that reported Petty died in the afternoon. It turned out he was clinging to life but he was still alive. He died later that night, with an official confirmation from his spokesman that this was true, this time. However in the four hours between the first report and the actual death, the internet was flipping back and forth between him being alive and him being dead. Celebrities were providing condolences, which led other people to think that either he HAD died and the star knew something the rest of us didn’t or that everyone else knew something the star didn’t.

In short, it was a mess.

When it comes to a “teachable moment,” the obvious one is “Make sure you check your facts” or “Know what you’re talking about.” (Some reports called Petty’s ailment a “heart attack” which it wasn’t. Congestive heart failure, heart attacks and cardiac arrest are all somewhat different and here’s how.)  However, here are three other things journalism students can take away from this debacle:

  1. Once you press “send,” you can’t get it back: The line about false information attributed to Mark Twain was pretty accurate- “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In today’s world of social media and digital speed, that lie has an even bigger head start. This is why we should always treat that “send” button like the “big red button” it is. Everyone out there issued corrections immediately upon finding out that the LAPD clarified Petty’s status, but that still didn’t stop the deluge of “Petty is dead” content. “Send” is serious business and one you send it out there, you can’t ever really undo it.
  2. You are part of an information ecosystem: Grade-school science classes show you how a bug eats some poison and then the bird eats the bug and the snake eats the bird and so forth, each time passing the poison along. In media, especially these days with easy access to other media outlets’ content, we operate in much the same way.
    Even in “pre-digital” times, we still had an ecosystem that could get messed up pretty easily. On more than one occasion, a reporter at a newspaper wrote a story that was really wrong. A reporter at a second newspaper in that town couldn’t get all the facts that first story had (mainly because it was wrong), but didn’t want to fall behind, so he “cribbed” information from the first story and then included it in his story with a vague “sources said” attribution. The morning radio news folks saw the story in BOTH papers so they did a “rip and read” approach and just rewrote the story for the morning newscast using that info. Suddenly, EVERYONE is reporting something that is factually inaccurate.
    You have a duty to your audience to be accurate, but you also have a role in a media ecosystem to maintain. If you put poison in to the system with lousy reporting, or if you perpetuate poison by passing along information you didn’t independently verify, you’re destroying that ecosystem and ALL OF US in that system will be worse for it.
  3. Real people can get really hurt when we’re wrong: In the case of Petty’s death, you could argue in a reductive sense that the publications weren’t really wrong, but instead they were early. The guy had congestive heart failure, he wasn’t recovering and hey… it was only four hours, right? Not even close.
    AnnaKim Violet Petty, Tom Petty’s daughter, was one of the people dealing with the situation when reporter of her father’s death began to roll in. He wasn’t dead, even as more and more people kept reporting it. In response to the ongoing throng of misinformation, she sent several messages and made several posts that show exactly how painful this was for her. Other family members and friends also likely experienced that painful dissonance based on media reports and their own knowledge of his condition.
    Journalists often want to break news, be first and show what we know to our audience. There isn’t anything wrong with that as long as we’re right, responsible and decent about it. As much as we think of famous people as being in the public domain, they have kids, spouses and friends who can get hurt if we overstep bounds or fail to fact check in our search for fortune and glory.

The horrifying revisions of my textbooks: Chapter by chapter, shooting by shooting

The first draft of what would become the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” featured a sample chapter written in 2008, discussing at length the Virginia Tech shooting. I was pitching a reporting book to another publisher when the rep for that company asked for two chapters that could help her sell the book to her acquisitions committee.

Kelly Furnas, then the adviser at the student newspaper at VT, had done a session at a student media conference about his newsroom’s efforts in the wake of the attack. I knew Kelly through friends and helped book him for that session. I also was able to talk to him after the session for this chapter, assuming that the magnitude of this event would never be equaled.

It turned out I was wrong about that, much to my continuing dismay.

The arguments of when is the right time to discuss broader issues are beginning to emerge in the wake of Monday’s attack in Las Vegas. So are the calls for all sorts of regulations, restrictions, restructuring and more. It is hard to see the carnage wrought upon the citizens of this country and remain dispassionate or above the fray when it comes to the continually evolving topic of attacks like this one.

As a reporter and then an editor and then an adviser, I always believed in the simplest of ideas when it came to covering something like this:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Provide facts and let them speak for themselves.
  • Don’t try to oversell it.
  • Just let the readers know what happened.

This blog isn’t a podium or a pulpit, nor will I use it to advance whatever agenda or whatever “side” some displeased readers would disparagingly note I must be on as a professor, a journalist or whatever other label was convenient.

That said, it struck me tonight as I thought about the morning post that the two books featured here, “Dynamics of Media Writing” and “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” catalog the expansive nature of violent outbursts, here and abroad. Even more, they do so in a way that shows me something exceedingly painful: My continual endeavors to update these volumes in a meaningful way as they relate to these horrific events is an ongoing, losing effort.

After a few years of discussions, the book in which the Virginia Tech shooting story was included did not come to fruition. The proposal was scuttled when the publisher decided to “go another way,” corporate-speak for “we didn’t really think this was worth the time.”

About three years after that happened, I met a rep from SAGE while at a journalism convention. I was looking for a book to use in my writing across media class, while Matt was trying to convince me to write one instead. In writing the pitch, I built two chapters for him, one of which was on social media. I included a reference to the Aurora, Colorado shooting, in which a gunman shot up a theater during the midnight showing of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” The point there was not to show the magnitude of the attack, but rather what can happen when people are inept at social media: The hashtag used (#aurora) to keep people abreast of the unfolding situation was co-opted by a fashion boutique to promote the Aurora dress.

After reviewing the pitch and the chapters, Matt came to the conclusion that I really had two books: one for general media writing and one for news reporting, so he signed me to both. This was 2014 and I had already written several chapters for each book. Almost by accident, I had layered in references to additional shootings.

In my initial discussion of the importance of geographic referents in the audience-centricity chapter, I tried to explain how a reference to a “Cudahy man” who had killed six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin drove me to a fit of anxiety. My mother taught grade school and middle school in that town for 40-odd years at the time, so I feared some level of connection between Mom and a monster. (As it turned out, there was none as he had moved to the area more recently. In addition, the whole explanation was overly complicated, so I cut it during one of the draft chapters.)

In the reporting book, I referenced the Charlie Hebdo attack in my discussion of hashtags. In the media writing book, I included a reference to Sandy Hook in discussing magnitude. In a law chapter for one of them, I discussed the Boston Marathon Bombing and the “Bag Men” cover that essentially libeled two guys who just happened to be at event.

At one point, I added and cut references to the Northern Illinois shooting, in which a grad student killed five and injured 17. I knew the DeKalb area, as my grandfather had been a police chief there for years and I had interviewed for a job there about four years before the shooting. The adviser at that student paper was also a friend of mine at the time.

I remember thinking when I cut it that it was because it hadn’t been “big enough” for people to easily recall it. It galls me to think that five dead and 17 wounded could be prefaced by the modifier “only.” Unfortunately, it was accurate: Sunday’s attack in Las Vegas had fatalities ten times that one and injuries scores and scores beyond that attack.

Somehow, and I honestly don’t know how this happened, I was between edits or editions of both books when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in 2016. I could find no reference to this in any draft chapters and it defies logic that the murder of 49 people somehow slipped past me or didn’t make the cut in one of these books.

However, in finalizing the Reporting book, I ended up coming back around to the story Kelly Furnas told me all those years ago. I was building a section on obituaries and realized I never actually published the story he told me about how his staff wrote literally dozens of obituaries for a single issue of the paper. He had long left VT, but I found him and got his permission to finally publish this incredible explanation as to how his extremely green reporters gritted their teeth and met this challenge.

That book is currently in press and is already out of date as a result of the attack in Las Vegas. However, the Media Writing book is in the completed draft phase of a second edition, so this information will likely supplant some previous horrifying event and make the cut. At the very least, I’m going to include the Jack Sins incident to outline the importance of fact checking, even when it feels almost slimy to do so.

In looking back, it’s not so much the number of these incidents or the magnitude of them that disturbs me in an inexplicable way. Rather, it’s that I have recounted these events not by impacted memory but rather a search through my hard drive, using key terms like “shooting,” “dead,” “killed” and “attacked.”

Each time I added one of these “recent events,” it was fresh, clear and horrifying. As I review them now, it is more like looking through a photo album that provided refreshed glimpses and renewed recollections of vague people and places.

Each incident wasn’t so much of a “I’ll never forget” moment as a “Oh, now I remember” one.

3 things journalism folk should learn from a troll during the Las Vegas shooting

Many people awoke Monday to the news that a gunman had killed 50 people and injured 400 more in Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Mesquite, Nevada who police have named as the shooter, was killed on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel after the attack.

Police said he fired repeatedly from the hotel onto a country western music festival happening across the street along the Las Vegas Strip. Witnesses said the shooting was relentless and police have no motive for the attack at this time.

For some people, it was a time to question who we are as a nation. For others, it was frantic search for loved ones and a time to mourn those they knew who died or who cling to life.

For still others, it was time to be an a-hole.

A Twitter user posting under the name “Jack Sins” posted that he was desperately seeking his father, who was missing after the attack:


It turns out that this was a fraud. The profile photo was the same one used elsewhere to pull the same stunt during the Manchester attack. In addition, it’s an internet meme. The “lost dad?” He’s porn star Johnny Sins.

Mashable reached out to this user to find out why he would use a horrific shooting to do something like this. His answer is almost more repugnant than his actions:

Mashable reached out to the troll to ask why he’s spreading misinformation during such a critical time.

“I think you know why,” he replied. “For the retweets :)”

He also said he’d probably do it again.

The point of the post isn’t to shame this guy, as that’s got to be impossible, but rather to provide a learning moment for journalism students who are starting off in the field and might be inclined to rely on social media for information. Consider these three takeaways from this situations:

  1. If your mother says she love you, go check it out: Part of the thing that separates journalism folk from some other media users is a dedication to separating fact from fiction and providing accurate information. Early reports in the wake of a chaotic event are almost always inaccurate at some level, so journalists always have to proceed with caution. Even in this case, media reports note erroneous reports about additional shooters at other properties along the strip. Some of those are based on honest errors while others are simply rumors that spread. Your job is to go out there and figure out what is right and what isn’t before publishing it. That’s especially true of things you see from sources you don’t know, which leads to point two…
  2. Sources matter: One of the big things we push in J-school is the use of official sources acting in an official capacity for a couple reasons: a) It protects you in case of information being erroneous or potentially libelous, thanks to the issue of privilege; b) Official sources have names and titles you can verify and they also tend to be much more conservative with what they say because they know they will be held to account for it. However, in cases like this, it’s not possible to ignore the human angle and simply churn out police-report-level data. This is why interviewing people who survived, people who escaped and other similar “real people.” The biggest thing you should do is verify your sources before you publish them. The people at the scene have a somewhat easier time doing this, as many reports noted people covered in blood or hunkering near injured friends. It’s hard to fake that, even if they wanted to. However, social media users can be sending information from anywhere and can do so with impunity.
    To that end, you really need to fact check the heck out of your sources when you can’t do a face-to-face interview. Look at how long the source has been on that platform, how many followers they have, what other posts/tweets they have made and what other topics they have covered. Treat this vetting the way you would any other “anonymous tip” that comes to you from a source you don’t know. Unless you are sure, don’t repost it. It’s your reputation and the reputation of your news organization on the line.
  3. People can be a-holes: If you read the interview between this troll and Mashable, it’s a pretty safe bet your thoughts will be somewhere along the lines of, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” Most people have gotten some level of internet hoax or email blast where a king in Naganaworkhere has a squillion dollars in gold that he wants to give you, once you send him your bank account numbers and we know that’s crap. It’s also a pretty easy thing to explain: Somebody wants to dupe rubes out of their money.
    When it comes to something like this, the question of “Why?” is less obvious. The retweets aren’t going to be all that helpful in a lot of ways. Sure, there are ways to monetize heavily trafficked social media accounts, but beyond that’s going to be a one-hit wonder at best.
    As much as many people want to believe in the best in people and help people in a time of crisis, there are some folks out there who just want to screw with you for no good reason. As an individual, that can feel like a sting when you realize you contributed to the spreading of false information on a “gotcha” prank. As a journalist, there are far larger impacts. It never feels good to question people in the time of crisis, but if you remember that not everyone has the best of intentions, you can reasonably and tactfully apply a healthy level of skepticism to claims like this.