An Iowa newspaper faces financial ruin because it held a police officer accountable for hitting on teenage girls

The concept of a “free press” is really a misnomer, in that what we mean is that the press should operate unfettered by government interference. When we hear “free press,” people incorrectly assume one of the following things:

  1. Journalists can write whatever they want with impunity.
  2. The press can exist without fear as long as it tells the truth.
  3. It won’t cost you anything to defend yourself as long as you are right.

The truth of the matter is a lot more nuanced, as we explain in the law chapter of both the reporting and the writing books. Journalists have to be right if they want to publish content and not get smacked by the law. Reporters who tell the truth don’t always get embraced for it, with readers crying “Fake News” at stuff that they don’t like to hear.

Even more, the public’s right to know can be costly when news organizations are dragged into court for no good reason:

The Carroll Times Herald in the small town of Carroll, Iowa, heard from a source that a local police officer was having inappropriate relationships with teenage girls.

It was exactly the type of accountability journalism that co-owner and vice president of news, Douglas W. Burns, thought the paper should be doing, and before long, reporter Jared Strong was chasing leads. He spent at least two months gathering Carroll police officer Jacob Smith’s personnel records, private messages and other public documents, interviewing the teenagers and others — until finally, just as the Times Herald was ready to publish, the officer resigned.

And then he filed a libel lawsuit immediately.

Now, even though the newspaper handily won the case, the legal expenses have left the family-owned local newspaper in financial peril…

(You can read the Times Herald’s story here to see what it was that got the paper into this tussle.)

This approach to using the frivolous law suits to threaten or bankrupt media outlets is known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP. Several states have anti-SLAPP laws on the books that allow media defendants (and others) to recover financial legal losses related to suits like the one the Times Herald faces.

Unfortunately for the paper, Iowa isn’t one of them.

Burns started a GoFundMe fundraiser to try to cover the $140,000 in court costs and other losses the paper sustained as a result of this incident. As of this morning, the paper has raised about $81,000, much of it coming in small donations from thousands of donors.

And, according to Burns’ most recent update, that money has made a huge difference to the paper:

I had a tearful interaction Friday with a talented young reporter who can remain on our staff as a result of this funding. This reporter produces excellent accountability journalism and asked me for an expanded role in that regard. This not only boosts our paper but benefits others as the reporter has an enormously promising career and will no doubt excel at other newspapers someday.

We will continue to post updates and links to the work we do.

Journalism has a lot of risks associated with it, even when it is done well and right. Some of the largest cases of outstanding journalism that your professors celebrate in reporting or law classes carried with them serious ramifications for the journalists and their publications.

If you watched the movie “The Post,” you can see how a lot of the concerns associated with the publication of the Pentagon Papers dealt with the way publishing this content could destroy the paper financially. For some people in that film (and the real life it depicted), it was less about “Is this journalism?” and more about “Is it going to kill us?” in those discussions.

Think about this and then realize less than four years later, that same paper went into some particularly dark territory again to break the Watergate story. The risks were the same, if not worse. Even more, although we now lionize Woodward and Bernstein for their acts, they weren’t “name” journalists at the time and they took a few swings that missed as they kept the story alive.

In the case of Burns’ paper, it was clearly right on the money. This wasn’t a case of a newspaper pushing a vendetta against a cop over some speeding tickets. This wasn’t a case in which there was levels of nuance to the situation. It was quite literally exactly what the paper thought it was: A cop who was doing some shady and sketchy stuff.

If I lived in that area, I’d want to know if an officer was abusing his power. If a police officer out here was cruising the high school for the next Mrs. Shady Cop, I’d REALLY want to know what’s going on (and I’d probably start homeschooling Zoe…). The degree to which I know about a situation like this one should not be dependent upon how much cash the local newspaper has in the bank or how scared it would be about losing a lawsuit.

I often push for donations when possible, and pony up myself before I ask for help from others, but even if you don’t (or can’t) contribute, this story is an important one to keep an eye on.

Today’s Motivational Poster For Absent Students

In a desperate attempt to keep from getting any more, “Hey, I’m going to be missing class today… Am I going to miss anything important? Could you send me the notes?” emails, I’ve plied my limited artistic abilities for this motivational poster. Feel free to steal, share and/or frame it if you think it will help you or a colleague:


Back Monday with what I hope will be fuller classes.

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

The Perfect Pitch: A look at what journalists want PR pros to know

When it comes to the “frenemy” relationship that seems to exist between news reporters and public relations practitioners, the question that gets asked a lot is, “What do you want from me?” News reporters are naturally suspicious and see any attempt of PR pros to offer them tips, story ideas and other suggestions as problematic. PR professionals often note frustration that their work doesn’t yield results in terms of news coverage.

I have worked with multiple PR classes as a guest speaker and the questions they often have are along the lines of “How do I get you to trust me?” and “What does it take to get you to pay attention to my stuff?” In news classes, I often find that beginning reporters have awkward or weaselly experiences with PR pros, thus breeding an “us vs. them” mentality.

Muck Rack, a PR software company, conducted its “State of Journalism 2019” study recently in an attempt to bridge the gap between these groups that thrive under symbiotic conditions. Here’s a great look at what they found in terms of the things journalists say they want and don’t want from their PR counterparts:


If you want the whole report, you can connect with them at this link.

(H/T Teachapalooza group and Al Tompkins for alerting me to this.)

Journalism-ese that needs to die: A look at cliches, euphemisms and other dumb things we write

Journalism is a field that combines storytelling and word-smithing for the benefit of an engaged audience. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Within those stories, however, we tend to find that certain stupid phrases, euphemism, cliches and other awkward terminology tend to crop up in our copy.

After a headline managed to touch on two of my least-favorite euphemisms (“Diverse group” and “civic-minded citizens), I asked the hivemind to give me some of the worst our field has to offer in this regard. It didn’t take long for them to take me up on this:

I had a knock-down with an editor once about a phrase – “combed through the ashes” – he (they!) inserted in a lede. (“Combed through the debris” is disaster-coverage ubiquitous, too.) We always looked for a “pool of blood” in one competitor’s copy. The rumor was it was inserted into a strangling story once. Apocryphal. Also, I used to collect “ship of state” quotes from politicians. Reagan had quite a few.

Whenever I hear about “combing through” something, I go back to this scene:

In any case, here’s the list of what we came up with, why it’s bad form to use these things and how to say what you want without resorting to these terms:


Euphemistic language: My complaint against “diverse group” includes several beefs, starting with the idea that it’s exceptionally vague. What is “diverse” to one person isn’t necessarily “diverse” to someone else. The last time we all probably agreed on what accounted for a diverse group was while watching the cantina scene from “Star Wars:”

The primary problem is that the writer wants to say something like, “Look! It’s a group of people not totally comprised of rich, straight, white guys!” without actually saying exactly that. Usually describing a group gets you off the hook when it comes to vague descriptors, but that becomes a problem here, too. (Nobody is going to want to look like Archie Bunker describing a “balanced ticket” in politics.)

The solution comes in a few basic parts. First, figure out to what degree this descriptor adds something to the overall telling of the story in the most basic sense. In other words, why is it important to tell the readers that a group is “diverse?” What does the diversity aspect add to the telling of the story, especially at the point of using the descriptor? Second, if you figure this idea does matter, get more specific: HOW is the group diverse? Age? Race? Gender? Politics? Socio-economic status? Then, lay that out specifically and make it clear why that matters. A quote from the folks who put the group together might help here.

A journalism educator hated the term “inner-city” for similar veiled-language reasons, and a former journalist also took issue with “wide array of backgrounds.” In short, if you’re unsure what you’re saying, don’t say it. If you know what you want to say but you worry you’re going to sound like a dink if you say it directly, rethink what you’re trying to say and why you want to say it.


Poli Sci lingo:  The concern about “civic-minded citizens” goes along with “concerned citizens,” “taxpayers,” “interested parties” and other similar euphemisms for “people.”

(The “taxpayer” thing always bugged me after a friend of Amy’s had an interesting take on our lives. Amy had just taken a job at the U and her friend said, “It must be nice that you guys don’t have to pay taxes anymore.” Amy was stunned and asked what she meant. “Well, you and Vince both work for the government now, so you don’t have to pay taxes.” Um… No… Amy tried to explain how that wasn’t true, but the woman continued with “Oh, no, I know how this works! We’re the taxpayers and you’re the ‘takers!'” Good grief…)

I’m sure there is a better way of saying “people” without actually saying it, but this isn’t an Athenian democracy in which people in togas are making proclamations from the floor of a marble-lined acropolis. It’s a group of people in flannel who are trying to save the spotted owl or folks who think they pay too much already in taxes. Let’s not write them into a Shakespearean play.

Others had trouble with “traded barbs” as a euphemism for politicians who use the media to make fun of each other. (Unless, literally, they’re playing with Barbie dolls and they agree to exchange them. That might be the closest we get to a “traded barbs” moment. I would also pay to see that on C-SPAN.) For one former journalist, the phrase “ignited a firestorm of controversy” had her “up in arms.” As she put it:

NOTHING IGNITES A FIRESTORM OF CONTROVERSY. Somebody says something and some other people get pissed off, say who, say what, say why.

A journalism educator had similar problems with “doubled down” as a phrase used to describe when someone says something stupid and then reinforces his/her stupidity with further stupidity. The term actually comes from the game Blackjack, where a player can double a bet for a single card down with the hopes of attaining a nearly perfect hand.

I would be OK with the use of this term if we applied it accurately: Person says something stupid and “doubles down” on it. We provide that person with one, and only one, chance to make the winning point. When that doesn’t happen, we get to take all the money and ignore that person until next time.


Cop Talk: People aren’t “transported to a nearby medical facility” unless they’re in “Star Trek:

Speaking of medical problems, one of our hive had problems with “fatal injuries,” as she noted “you can’t be hurt when you’re dead.” (I had similar issues in thinking about when people report on thing like airplane crashes: “The crash left 83 people injured and 12 dead.” Do the dead count as injured as well, only, well, fatally injured? Or do the injured have to survive to be counted as injured?)

The police are always looking for a “person of interest,” which sounds like the worst way to describe yourself on Tinder.

In situations involving guns, a friend mentioned “assault weapon” as being a loaded (pardon the pun) term meant to vilify certain guns. It was like saying, “Big scary-looking gun thing!” I felt the same way about “assault rifle,” “the suspect is armed and dangerous,” “dangerous weapon” and other similar lines of thought. I can’t imagine non-dangerous weapons (“He attacked me with a Nerf knife!”) or armed and not-so-dangerous people who just robbed a store (“He was so friendly, I almost forgot he had a gun and was robbing me.”)


A parent’s worst nightmare: Worst means top-of-the-mark and singular, so unless you have something that applies to all parents and we can all agree on it, you can’t be right with this cliche. (Even if parents mostly agreed, there’s always that one idiot who would be able to say, “Actually, what would be WORSE would be…” like raising children is a game of “Would You Rather?”)

Completely destroyed: Destroyed means completely, so if it’s destroyed, it’s game over. Other redundancies include “extremely unique,” “armed gunman,” “deadly fatal accident” and “disappointing Cleveland Browns season.”

Packed courtroom: How much human density is required to move from just having a full gallery to a packed courtroom? Is there like a sweaty quotient or a “dude is leaning on me” vibe to help us distinguish these items? Unless you have everyone in the courtroom with a suitcase and plane tickets to Cabo, we can skip this one.

The White Stuff: A former journalist and current PR practitioner hates this one when it comes to snow. Trust me, there are more of these and none of them are any good.


Throwback Thursday: A look back at the Las Vegas shooting and the troll who made it worse

It’s hard to believe this was only two years ago, but a lot has happened since then. One thing that remains constant is the way in which some people use social media for their own weird purposes. Some are harmless, or even occasionally helpful, as you might have noticed with the “Venmo for Beer” guy at the Iowa/Iowa State game last month. Still, those folks are outweighed by the trolls who use other people’s misery to find joy in their own sad little lives.

Here’s the throwback post: A look at what a troll did in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting and what you can learn from what this chucklehead did:

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.

GAME TIME! AP Style Quiz: Fall Grab Bag Edition

It’s been a while since we rolled out a new one of these, so here’s your chance to score some points and impress your professors.

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

Think you have a handle on AP? Here’s a quiz based on some fall themes.

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

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

Click here to begin.

College newspaper scoops the world on Trump-Ukraine scandal

Tell me again how student journalists are just “playing reporter” when they ply their trade…

ARIZONA— News broke Friday night that Kurt Volker would be stepping down as U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine after appearing in the recent whistleblower complaint involving President Donald J. Trump and a telephone conversation with the president of the Ukraine

But this report didn’t come from the usual national players; rather it came from The State Press, the student newspaper at Arizona State University, Phoenix.

Namely, it came from managing editor Andrew Howard, a junior who’s worked at the paper since his first semester on campus. He first reported Volker’s resignation on Sept. 27, beating the heavyweights of the Trump-Ukraine coverage — The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Howard told the Student Press Law Center that the State Press broke the story through basic, determined reporting as he and his crew found both international news and a local angle:

The process for how this scoop came to be wasn’t much different for Howard, who said by sticking to their reporting instincts, The State Press could get the story first.

“We saw that Volker was a director, or is still a director of an ASU program — the McCain Institute, and so we just decided to pursue the story and began asking the university what his future would hold here at the school, or at the State Department, and that was really it,” Howard said.

“We knew something was there and we wanted to find out what it was,” Howard added. “We just pursued it the same way as we would do any other story, and I think that’s why we were successful, because we didn’t try to take a different approach, because it was a big story or because we thought it had the potential to be a big story, we did it because we were trying to serve the community.”

A couple things popped into my mind when I read about this:

    • This took guts. It’s not every day a major angle of an international story shows up on the doorstep of college students. When it does, I’m guessing it’s almost like, “Wait, am I being Punk’d here? Did we really get this and beat everybody?” While it’s the dream of every journalist I’ve ever met to be first, there is also somewhere between a tinge of fear and a full-blown panic attack, thinking about publishing something like this and maybe becoming the laughingstock of the world if you’re wrong. To get the story, believe in the story and publish the story is courageous.
    • This had to be thrilling. When I worked at student papers and advised them as well, the idea of beating the crappy local daily to a story felt like the greatest thing in the world. I have no idea what it’s like to be on a story like this and be first, but it must have made the staffers feel like Rocky on the top of the steps.
      Usually, when student media is in the middle of a big story, it’s a tragedy, like the shootings at Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois or a dozen other places. It’s hard to celebrate or be thrilled about being on a big story when your classmates are victims. This time, it must have been just pure elation.
    • This serves as Examples A through Z about how to do journalism: Think about all the elements that Howard listed here that professors preach every day.
      • Know your audience.
      • Stay local.
      • Report the hell out of things.
      • Publish when you’re sure.
      • Tell a good story.

Congratulations to the staff of the State Press. This one is a keeper.


Apparently “freaked-out journalists” is also hyphenated: AP retools its policy on compound modifiers once again

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one pondering the quagmire that was AP’s decision on hyphenation lately.

As much as I’d like to think I had an impact, I’m not delusional enough to think anyone of journalistic import reads this blog. I’m guessing in this case, the quantity of complaints and freak outs had them reconsider their ideas on “first-quarter touchdown” and other hyphenations.

Here’s a brief update on AP’s position on compound modifiers and the use of hyphens, via Poynter:

“Thanks to input from our users, we are reversing our decision to delete the hyphen from ‘first-quarter touchdown’ and ‘third-quarter earnings,’” AP Stylebook Editor Paula Froke told Poynter in an email. “We agree that, for instance, ‘first-half run’ should be hyphenated. So to conform, we are returning the hyphen to the ‘-quarter’ phrases.”

In a March Stylebook update, Froke said, the AP noted the difference between commonly recognized noun phrases and compound modifiers in phrases. Her example: “Chocolate chip cookie” doesn’t need a hyphen. “French-speaking people” does.

“To correct one misperception: The updates we announced in March did not call for fewer hyphens or no hyphens in compound modifiers,” Froke said.

I could argue with that last point, but the bigger issue is that AP did the smart thing: It listened to its readers and users and made a point of acknowledging their concerns. The AP approach is the perfect example of how to understand one’s audience’s needs and to meet them, as opposed to arrogantly refusing on the grounds of being “in charge.”

Kudos to AP on this one.


THROWBACK THURSDAY: A year later, I still miss my friend

A number of people I know have been dealing with a number of losses in their lives: family members, friends, pets and more. The grieving process is different for everyone, so it can be difficult for people who want others to “get on with life” when those folks clearly aren’t ready to do so.

I was flipping through the posts from about a year ago to see what would make for a good “Throwback Thursday” post and I was stunned to find that this one was a year old. It didn’t seem possible that Susie Brandscheid has been gone for that long.

This may seem stupid to some people, but even though I wasn’t in frequent contact with Susie as much as I once was, I miss knowing that she’s there. It’s hard to explain, I guess, but maybe revisiting what I wrote will help make more sense of it.


Had it not been for Susie Brandscheid, I probably would have been a pretty decent reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.

That thought kept rolling around in my head when I found out she died Wednesday at the age of 70.

Susie was the assistant to the director for UW-Madison’s School of Journalism as well as the graduate student adviser there for decades before retiring a few years back. She also was the keeper of knowledge, the fixer of foul-ups and the soother of students’ battered souls during her decades of service in and around Vilas Hall. Faculty, staff and students sought her advice, her insight and her help each and every day.

She always had the answers we all needed and she seemed to be effortless in her ability to get them for us. It was like having a computer crammed with every conceivable solution to any potential problem mixed with a treasure trove of institutional knowledge.

And she was damned funny, to boot.

She had a special sense of humor that defies explanation. I would camp out in her office whenever possible and trade amusing anecdotes. She would tell me stories about her husband, Pete, a man I never met but whose Quixotic endeavors had me laughing until I cried some days. I would tell her about the weird police-beat stuff I had to cover for the State Journal and she’d turn those dark moments into even darker humor.

There was always something bitingly humorous when it came to Susie. I can still remember one “sympathy” card she had pinned to the cork board on the wall behind her desk. It was black with red lettering that read, “Sorry to hear you’ve been depressed…”

Taped to the inside of the card was a razor blade.

Of all the people who worked in School of Journalism during my six years there, she was the only one I invited to my wedding. She came and it turned out to be another funny story we shared.

About six months after the wedding, I get a call out of the blue from Susie.

“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry,” she said.

I had no idea what she was talking about. It turns out, she had spent the previous few months wondering why she never got a “thank you” card or a note or anything for the card and the check she gave us. I never expected a gift from her, as her showing up was more than enough for us. Also, we were moving, I was finishing my doctorate and we must have sent off a jillion cards, so it never really dawned on me that I hadn’t sent one to her.

A day or two before she called me, she went to put on the outfit she wore to the wedding and she realized she had stuck the card in her jacket pocket instead of dropping it on the gift table. She asked for our address so she could send it out in the next day’s mail.

We had a long laugh about that one.

Any time spent with Susie was like going to confession, visiting a psychiatrist and getting a mental reboot. She kept me sane. She kept me focused. She kept me happy.

She also kept me out of Baraboo.

I was in the first six weeks of my master’s program, and things were not going well. I was working multiple part-time jobs to keep my head above water financially. I was living in a one-room hovel on the end of Bassett Street that was essentially one giant building-code violation. A chunk of the ceiling fell into my bed during a rain storm one night, and the plumbing turned my water so brown that I begged for a Brita pitcher for Christmas.

I also didn’t understand any of my coursework. Each day, I entered a certain professor’s class, swearing up and down that I was going to comprehend him and his theories on the media. Each day, he lost me in the first three minutes and I spent the next hour or so doing the crossword in the student newspaper.

Out of frustration, I applied for a job at the Baraboo News Republic, a daily paper for the hometown of the Circus World Museum (among other things). The editors met with me on a Saturday and the offered me a full-time gig with benefits and a salary that would get me off the “Ramen and such diet.” All I had to do was drop this pointless degree and go to work.

That Monday, I went to tell Susie that I needed to drop my classes and see what I could do about getting some of my tuition money back. Instead, we started talking about why I was going to Baraboo and why I even got into the grad program in the first place.

“I did this so I could teach,” I told her in frustration. “I wanted to see what it would be like to run a classroom and I know I can’t do that without a master’s.”

She paused for a moment and then said, “What if I could give you your own 205 class to teach next semester? Would you stay with the program?”

J-205 was news writing and reporting class of about 15 students, taught in one of the school’s computer labs. Teaching gigs like that were impossibly difficult to get. They went to doctoral students for the most part. Even more, most TA jobs were essentially indentured servitude for professors who taught giant pit classes. A boatload of grading coupled with no actual teaching was basically the gig. Handing a J-205 class to a first-years master’s student wouldn’t just ruffle feathers; it would be like putting an ostrich in a blender.

“I would do anything for that kind of chance,” I told her. “Can you really do that?”

She told me she would make it happen somehow. I believed her. Later that day, I called Baraboo and turned down the job.

It is a rare moment when a person can say with absolute certainty that someone completely changed his or her life without even a hint of hyperbole. That’s what Susie did for me at that point.

Without her, I’m not a college instructor at the age of 22.

Without that experience, I don’t get the job at Mizzou or the doctorate the followed.

Without those two things, I don’t get a tenure-track job at Ball State and my first newsroom advising gig.

I sure as hell don’t end up a tenured professor, a textbook author or an award-winning anything.

Instead, I get to be the most popular cops reporter in Baraboo, Wisconsin.

I have a really hard time trying to quantify how monumental Susie was in giving me the life I have today. I also can’t even begin to imagine how many thousands of other people have a “Susie saved my life” story just like that.

Maybe that’s the thing that made her so special: Even though I was one of 100 things she had to deal with on any given day, she had this knack of making me feel like I was the most important one. I never felt like a bother or that I was just filling time for her until something more important came along.

My life and where it went mattered to her. I hope she always knew how much her life mattered to me.

So, goodnight, Susie. The world is a lesser place without you.

But everything you gave us will continue to help us better it.



Kisses, Snowballs and Worse: The perils of going live as a broadcast journalist

(Hat Tip to the Teachapalooza crew, specifically Melissa Harrison of TCU, for the head’s up on this issue.)

When broadcast journalists go to the scene and report live, everything seems to be up for grabs, thanks in large part to the dumber elements of our society. Case in point: A reporter for WAVE-3 in Kentucky was doing a live shot about a bourbon festival when some chucklehead decided to get his 15-minutes of fame by kissing her:

Reporter Sara Rivest dodged several people trying to disrupt her live shot before a guy eventually dove in for a kiss. Rivest responded, “That’s not appropriate” and she was right: At best it’s creating a problem for a journalist in a work environment. At worst, it’s sexual assault. In either case, it’s pathologically stupid.

Rivest talked about the incident on WAVE-3, outlining the issues she faces as a reporter in the field, including the ways in which men seem to think she’s there for their touching pleasure. She also explained that she’s not the only woman who has faced this kind of thing (I didn’t notice this until she said it, but the first time this guy hops into the shot, he was apparently pretending to grab or smack her rear end.).

She said she used nervous laughter to try to power through the segment, even though she felt powerless in that situation. She also said, clearly, that this kind of intrusive behavior is not OK.

Broadcast journalists go live for a wide variety of reasons, including covering breaking news events or trying to put a fresh touch on an earlier story. In doing so, they run a risk of having the public decide to be antagonistic toward them.

When the Green Bay Packers were in Super Bowl XXXI, the State Journal sent me down to State Street, an area near the UW-Madison campus where a great deal of alcohol is consumed and celebrations occur, to get some “color” for a story. As I wandered among the drunks, completely incognito under my giant parka, I saw a Channel 3 news truck parked on the road, with the reporter about to go live.

A group of revelers had gathered and the reporter, Rick Blum, was telling them that when he went live, he would love it if they all started cheering. Blum was standing on top of the truck with his videographer so they could be out of the crowd and yet still have the crowd as a big part of what he was doing. It looked like the fans were going to cooperate, but quickly things turned ugly.

First, some idiots started throwing snowballs and ice chunks at the journalists. Next, someone got a chant of “RICK BLUM SUCKS!” going. As it looked like the group was about to start shaking the news van, Blum and his videographer got down and went inside the van. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing they never got the shot.

Other broadcasters have run into similar problems along the way, like this journalist in Mexico who was covering a protest. My Spanish is horrible, but this moment about a minute and a half in doesn’t need much translation:

I have no hope of translating any of this, but again, it’s clear what happens to this broadcaster in the Ukraine:

Perhaps the worst of all situations involving journalists being harmed while live on a scene was this situation from WDBJ in Virginia, where journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed by a disgruntled former station employee.

After this situation, a local news crew interviewed me as part of a localization story and they asked me what I tell students in terms of how to avoid these kinds of outcomes. My answers didn’t fit their narrative, which was about how to do things safely, going in pairs to things and knowing when to leave.

I tried to explain that, yes, I tell students it’s important to be safe on any scene, and yes, they might have to improvise/adapt/overcome when it comes to stuff going sideways, and yes, you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times…

BUT, you are literally at the mercy of the public when you enter any public space. The guy in the Spanish-speaking clip was reporting on the scene of a protest, so there’s clearly going to be some adrenaline flowing from those people, but it’s not like he knew he was going to be punched.

Rivest and Parker were going life on two of the most vanilla stories possible: a local festival and something for the morning show about the chamber of commerce. One got kissed, the other got killed and neither should have expected either of those outcomes.

These people could not have prevented these outcomes if they wanted to do their jobs well, and that’s a scary thing to consider.