Throwback Thursday: The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

For me, this week has been like falling down a never-ending flight of stairs: It’s painful, random and you want it to stop. At a certain point, it’s like, “Either get me to the bottom or just knock me unconscious so I don’t have to deal with this…”

My students have been disappearing like crazy, thanks in large part to testing positive for COVID-19 or being around someone who has. Yesterday alone, I answered five emails for one of my 13-student classes, explaining how online-only instruction works because the sender was going to have to sit this one out until the test came back. My kid’s cheer team had three kids test positive, so we had to get her tested and isolate her. Her dance coach tested positive. At least three high schools around us have gone online only. Every time I turn around, something else has blown up or thrown up and I have no idea what’s coming next.

And when we thought it couldn’t get worse, yesterday, my kid’s rabbit died. So there I am, digging a hole under an aspen tree near the back of our property to give Clover a proper send off.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who could use a little humor, so I dug this post up for the sake of a laugh. I hope it helps:

The five conversations journalism professors have in hell.

Growing up as a Catholic kid, who spent way more time near nuns than is now recommended by the FDA, I found the concept of hell horrifying. Conceptually speaking, it was a place of fire, brimstone and evil where you went after you had sinned without repenting, angered God through evil acts or accidentally ate a Slim Jim on a Friday during Lent.

Later in life, I asked a priest who was a little more “new school” about the faith for his views on eternal damnation. He told me it was probably more of never-ending sorrow and sadness than the torture outlined by those who grew up before the Vatican II era. It was a a longing and pain for better things and regret over what we should have been. In other words, hell is more individualized and accounts for what we did and who we were.

If hell hits somewhere in that “sweet spot” between those points, I’m sure I know exactly what I’ll be getting myself into if I’m not a decent human being. Since I’ve invested most of my life in teaching and journalism, I know that hell will involve reliving certain conversations I’ve had with students over the past 20 years that continue to sap my will to go on.

So without further ado, I bring you the five conversations journalism professors have in hell and how you can help us avoid them while we’re still alive:



Look, I get it. Textbooks are expensive. In fact, the entire premise of this blog is that textbooks cost too much, change too often and usually have the lifespan of a mayfly. That said, we assign them for a reason: They actually contain stuff you’ll need to know. This is particularly true for books like the AP style guide. Here was an actual conversation I had with a student half way through the semester:

Student: How much are these books?
Me: What do you mean?
Student: This AP book, how much does it cost?
Me: About $20-25. Why?
Student: It must not have been listed on the criteria for the class. I think I’ll go buy it though.

OK, let’s pretend that I hadn’t mentioned it about 10,002 times already and that I didn’t include it as a required book in the syllabus and that I didn’t mention this as a MUST HAVE for the class (as in, “If you are broke, don’t buy the textbook, but buy the AP book.) AND that it wasn’t stocked at the book store.

Every other student in that class had the book. What, they were clairvoyant and just figured I wanted them to have it?

Making things weirder, a student in the very next section of that class, sitting in that very same seat asked the EXACT SAME QUESTION about the AP book, swearing he had no idea that this thing would be important. I think I need to call in some sort of holistic medicine person to burn sage on that chair or something…

Still, this pales in comparison to the year I told the students in WEEK 12 that they should bring their AP style guides to class, only to have one student reach into his backpack and whip his out. “GOT IT!” he said, proudly displaying the book he was supposed to have read by that point in time.

It was still shrink wrapped.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Buy the books and read them. If you are REALLY broke (as in, stacking pennies for Ramen broke) and you CAN’T afford them, talk to the professor and see what is absolutely essential and what you might be able to dodge. However, do this somewhere before the midterm.


The constant yelling of old people (read: me) about “damned kids these days” come from the fact that we often wonder how hard students really tried before giving up all hope and saying, “Just give me the answer.”

Damned Kids

Case in point, here was a conversation I had about a midterm question in which students were asked to rewrite a lead on one of four stories. Each story included a specific time peg, so I told students to use the day specified in the story (e.g. The game happened Saturday, so use “Saturday” as your “when” element.) when they wrote their lead. About an hour into the test, here was the conversation:

Student: I know you said that there is a time element we need to use with each of these stories, but I honestly can’t find one in this story I’m using.
Me: OK, pull it up and let me see. (he does)
Student: I looked through this whole thing and there’s no time element.
Me: Really?
Him: Yes, I can’t find it anywhere.
Me: Read the first sentence out loud for me.
Him: Oh.

Yep. Right there in the lead was that elusive time element he sought. I suppose I was lucky the student didn’t have trouble finding his pants before showing up in class…

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Don’t give up so easily on figuring things out. There is something to be said for figuring stuff out on your own. Print it out or magnify the text or whatever you need that will help you consume the content. Also, if you really CAN’T find the content, when you ask, do so in a way that doesn’t immediately insinuate your professor is an idiot who failed to include the content.

Trust me, this is a great fear of many instructors and there are days we can’t remember what we ate for lunch, so screwing up a test is always a possibility. We then panic when you are “so sure” that whatever it is you’re looking for isn’t actually there. Finding out that, no, it actually is present and, no, we don’t have early onset dementia, is both a relief and a moment of “What the hell is wrong with kids these days?”



Rules are put in place to assure fairness, standardize procedures and give everyone guidance on how to proceed with a test, an assignment or a project. If you want to curdle a professor’s soul, explain to him or her that, yes, you understand rules exist for all those reasons, but the rules really only apply to other people.

Student: I know you said we can’t interview relatives for this assignment, but I was wondering if I could interview my mom.
Me: OK, what does your mom have to do with (the story topic)?
Her: Well, she’s a parent of a college student…
Me: But that’s really not what the story is about and even if it was, there are like 14,000 students on this campus, many of whom have parents. Does she have some special insights that none of the others would have had?
Her: Um… I don’t understand what the problem is. Why can’t I just interview my mom?
Me: Again, she has nothing to do with the story and I need you to get out of your comfort zone and interview people that you don’t know. It’s a skill you’re going to need as a reporter.
Her: So that’s a no?
Me: Yes. That’s a no.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Start by assuming that the rules, however arcane, have a reason behind them. Envision that “Karate Kid” moment where Daniel realizes that he hasn’t just been an indentured servant, but rather has been learning karate:

Also, realize that we WILL give people special dispensation for certain things, but it has to be germane to what we’re doing and provide a rare glimpse into something no one else could provide. If you’re doing a story on what it’s like to be an NFL referee and your uncle is an NFL referee, we might think, “That would actually work.” However, if you’re doing a story on how bad parking is on campus and you want to interview your best friend because he owns a car, think twice before asking on that one.

Nothing sounds worse to a professor than a student essentially saying, “Look, I know you told me what to do here, but you have to understand that rules don’t really apply to me because I want to do it my way and obviously that’ll be better for me, so can you just rubber stamp my demands? Thanks!”


Professors have a ton of stuff to do and most of them feel like they’re not doing it well enough to make anyone happy. The ability to focus well enough to deliver a two-hour lecture on something you will need to know to succeed in the class is the Educational Dream of the Millennium.

When you blow it off, fail to take notes or get way too into a SnapChat battle with your roommates during lecture, it can be irritating to us. When you then ask us to “fill you in” on what you “missed,” We tend to have this reaction:

Actual email:

I was just wondering what exactly the group interview project is again and what needs to be turned into you by Friday! I don’t quite remember everything you said at the end of class yesterday so if you could remind me that would be great.

At least that guy showed up, unlike the student who blew off class, skipped an assignment she knew about and then sent this:

Sorry, I was not able to attend class today. What did I miss? When is the interview paper due?

Perhaps my favorite one was years ago when I had a student tell me she spent six hours in the ER with a kidney infection and that she was way too sick to attend my 3 p.m. class. I explained I understood and that these kinds of things happen.

Later that night, my wife and I were at the local journalism bar and guess who walked in? Yep. The student.

She saw me, got a freaked-out look on her face and practically dove into the party room next to the entrance.

The conversation that followed the next class period was epic:

Her: Hi, I was wondering if I missed anything in class…
Me: Well, it’s been said that the appearance of impropriety is worse than impropriety itself, which is what I thought about when I saw you walk into the Heidelberg the other night, four hours after skipping my class.
Her: Oh! I can explain that!
Me: I’d love to hear it.
Her: Well, it was my friend’s birthday and I was feeling much better at that point so I just stopped by for a drink.
Me: With a kidney infection?
Her: Oh, yeah! I have my doctor’s note for you. Let me get that!
Me: (feeling aneurysm building in my brain, fueled by her complete lack of self-awareness) Um… That’s OK… Let’s just start class.

HOW TO PREVENT THIS: Go to class. If you don’t go to class, get notes from somebody before asking us to rebuild a lecture for you. If you went to class and forgot to write something down, ask a classmate. If you are going to class, writing stuff down and still failing to remember major things, seek help immediately.


Me: Hello? Anyone out there?
Voice: Welcome to hell. I am Lucifer, the fallen one, evil incarnate, the lord of the underworld. Do you know who you sinned against to land you here?
Me: Do you mean, “Do I know against WHOM I sinned to land here?”
Voice: Oh great. Another journalism professor. Y’all are down the hall, third door on the left.


A toolkit for journalists to fight misinformation and disinformation during the election season and an interview with the person who built it (Part II)

As we discussed on Tuesday, to help journalists and citizens alike, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Journalism Ethics are working on a nonpartisan collaboration to support election integrity.

The organizations are also hosting a free webinar based on this resource featuring  Howard Hardee of First Draft News and the WCIJ as well as Kathleen Bartzen Culver of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Information and registration for that event are available here.

Howard Hardee is the election integrity reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a local fellow with the international journalism nonprofit First Draft News. He most recently was a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in Northern California, and was a 2017 Environmental Reportage fellow at the Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Alberta.

Hardee, who built a toolkit to help fight disinformation and misinformation during the election season, was nice enough to do an email interview for the  blog, the first part of which we ran yesterday. Here’s the second part of the interview:

I recently read a piece on Poynter that argues we should not be teaching objectivity to students, but rather focus their efforts on their experiences and “truth-telling.” I know several folks who think this approach has value, especially in the disinformation age where getting Side A and Side B isn’t really fair to reality. I also know teachers and professors who believe that if we give up on objectivity, all we really have are talking heads with their own viewpoints screaming at each other. I would really like to know where you come down on this issue, particularly given your work on disinformation.

“I think there’s still value in practicing objectivity. I get the argument that the only real ‘truth’ is from first-hand experience, but part of the problem with the social media sphere is that it’s full of people who can’t see outside of their own perspectives, and surround themselves with voices and content that reinforces those perspectives. Recognizing that it’s impossible to be totally unbiased and removed from a story you’re writing, young reporters should work on developing the ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. It’s not easy or automatic, and only comes from sitting down with people from all walks of life and listening to their stories.

“Objectivity doesn’t mean presenting ‘both sides’ as if they’re equal. That’s a classic young reporter’s mistake: You get a quote from a climate scientist, so you think you need a quote from a climate skeptic to ‘balance’ out your story. That’s nonsense. A reporter’s highest purpose is telling the truth. Don’t provide a platform for falsehoods in some misguided attempt to be fair to all the interested parties. Get as close to the truth as you possibly can, and back up your findings with accurate documents and expert sources.”


Based on your experiences, what are the key things you think I should be teaching my students going forward. Is there a list of things that this next generation of journalists should have as tools in their toolbox that will make them successful?

“I believe that the training I’ve received through First Draft will benefit my reporting career in the future regardless of whether my future positions involve tracking misinformation. Digital tools like Tweetdeck (for monitoring Twitter) and CrowdTangle (for monitoring Facebook and Reddit) are excellent ways to keep tabs on conversations and public figures related to your beat. Everybody (not just reporters) should know how to run a reverse-image search with a tool like TinEye; it’s probably the fastest and easiest way of telling whether a post is trying to fool you. Another interesting one is Twitonomy, which gives you a 40,000-foot view of individual Twitter accounts and their posting habits.

“Such tools will surely prove handy in the lightning-fast news cycle of tomorrow, but they’re continually getting updated and deleted, and none of them are foolproof in the first place. So, it’s important not to get too attached, and to be adaptable when the tools change or go away.

“It’s also worth noting that many old-school reporter’s tricks still apply in the digital age. Verifying social content is basically just digging until you find the source, which often involves picking up the phone and making some calls. And nothing can replace a reporter’s healthy sense of skepticism. Developing a discerning eye without becoming a hardened cynic has always been important for reporters, and that hasn’t changed at all.”


As student journalists get ready for what is likely an unprecedented (to use the buzzword of the year) election, what sage advice would you want to impart to them? Is it any different than what you would tell more experienced journalists at this point?

“I’d tell them that this madness isn’t going away after Election Day. Disinformation tactics on social media are here to stay, barring government regulation. So, young journalists shouldn’t treat these monitoring techniques as trendy or a passing phase in the field. I actually regret not diving into this stuff sooner, because I would have been in a much better position to hit the ground running during this election year. Picking up these skills will give a big boost to your early career. At this point, every newsroom needs reporters who are versed in social media literacy.”

A toolkit for journalists to fight misinformation and disinformation during the election season and an interview with the person who built it (Part I)

With an incredibly contentious presidential election just over a month away, journalists’ most important task remains the ability to separate fact from fiction. With deepfakes, polarizing memes and disinformation campaigns flooding the internet, the question as to how best to deal with misinformation without feeding it becomes a large part of this discussion.
To help journalists and citizens alike, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Journalism Ethics are working on a nonpartisan collaboration to support election integrity. These entities are providing a variety of resources for citizens and journalists that will allow them to be informed as they decide how to vote and what to believe.
A large part of this, from a journalistic standpoint, is a  comprehensive toolkit on how media organizations can identify and stop the spread of fake news they see online. This toolkit draws from the work of communications scholars to help reporters cover misinformation and disinformation on social media responsibly.

Howard Hardee is the election integrity reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and a local fellow with the international journalism nonprofit First Draft News. He most recently was a reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal. He has written extensively about government, natural disasters and forest health in Northern California, and was a 2017 Environmental Reportage fellow at the Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Alberta. (Photo courtesy of the WCIJ and Howard Hardee.)

Journalist Howard Hardee of First Draft news and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism developed the toolkit with the goal in mind of assisting journalists and journalism students in thinking critically about the information they see all around them. Hardee was nice enough to agree to an interview for the blog, the first part of which is below in a Q and A format :

In researching a bit about you, it seems like you’ve had both a variety of experiences and a focus on the deep-dive work that goes to the heart of informative journalism. Could you give me kind of a mini-bio of your “greatest hits” in terms of your school and work history?

“I gravitated toward journalism in my teen years, with lots of encouragement from my parents and teachers. Writing essays was my saving grace in college. I wasn’t a very serious student until my senior year at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, where a couple of professors showed me the importance of investigative work and the power of good storytelling.

“I graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and got an entry-level job at an alt-weekly newspaper called the Chico News & Review in Northern California. I spent about six years honing my writing and reporting chops by focusing on news features. I mostly covered the city council, poverty, and environmental issues, with some arts and culture coverage mixed in.

“My career took a turn in 2017, when I landed a fellowship with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta. I spent a couple of weeks working with a cohort of world-class environmental writers (including Naomi Klein), focusing on a reported piece about forest health and wildfires in Northern California. That story ended up running in a few different alt-weeklies in California and Nevada, and opened my eyes to the wide world of publishing.

“The following year, I became a full-time freelancer, working on news and music features for about a dozen different alt-weeklies all across the country. It was a difficult time in terms of earning a living — I really had to hustle — but it was great for learning how to pitch stories to new publications, working with a variety of editors, and just getting my byline out there. During this period, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and started working regularly for Isthmus, the local weekly.

“That gig led me to write a profile of Dee and Andy Hall with Wisconsin Watch, which put me on their radar as a local freelancer. I had been actively seeking more high-level mentorship, and was delighted when Dee approached me about applying for a fellowship with First Draft.

“Being part of the five-state fellowship has been an incredible experience. It really feels like a grad program with an all-star cohort. I’ve taken a deep dive on mis- and disinformation in an absolutely critical election year, allowing me to produce important public service journalism and progress in my career. In July, we landed Craig Newmark funding to launch the Election Integrity Project, a collaboration with First Draft and the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison.”

You have reported in two areas in which a lot of disinformation tends to propagate: politics and environmental policy. Were there any particular experiences you had in those areas that galvanized your efforts here with the misinformation toolkit? Did you find yourself dealing with people or situations that had you thinking, “We are living in alternate realities here…” and push you toward the work you do with Wisconsin Watch and First Draft News?

“I wouldn’t point to any specific experience that got me on this path. But I’d say there’s a pretty clear line from my interest in environmental reportage and my current work on elections. Both subjects are so vitally important to the health and functioning of our society, and both have become so polarized by people with ideological and political motives. I’ve felt the same sense of urgency while writing both about climate change and disinformation on social media, and that it’s important to join others in sticking up for the truth.

“I’d rather not spend so much time monitoring social media. It’s dirty work. These platforms are truly toxic places, and I believe they are tearing our social fabric and doing terrible harm to our democracy. But as a reporter who is dedicated to accuracy and truth-telling, I can’t ignore fountains of falsehood in my own backyard. It’s my job to go there and report back.”


Could you give me a walk-through on how you came up with the ideas you included in your toolkit and why they have value to journalists, particularly student journalists who are just starting out in the field? Many of these students have grown up in the age of partisan reporting, living in media bubbles and deepfakes. What does your toolkit give these folks in terms of doing the job right?

“Putting together this toolkit felt like a capstone project that incorporates everything I’ve learned this year. Most of the concepts discussed in the toolkit are things I’ve picked up through ongoing training and discussions with the First Draft fellowship, and through my social media monitoring and reporting efforts. I’ve had to grapple with a lot of these questions myself, especially when the timing is right for a reported piece, so that definitely informed the advice I offer in the toolkit. Interviews with several experts on misinformation and visual examples from my monitoring work kind of rounded out the piece.

“I think the most important takeaway for young reporters is getting into habits of mind like measuring the ‘tipping point’ and weighing the harm disinformation campaigns could inflict on vulnerable communities. Somebody lying on Twitter is not newsworthy; it happens all the time, and you don’t want to call more attention to misinformation by writing about it prematurely. You have to demonstrate that the falsehood has the potential to reach a wide audience and do real-world damage before you even think about reporting on it. Until you reach that point, it’s better to watch and wait — and take plenty of screenshots.

“For example, while I was reporting this piece about a conservative think-tank misrepresenting COVID-19 case and fatality statistics in Wisconsin, I waited until the message was getting amplified by an influencer with a wide audience (in this case, radio talk show host Vicki McKenna). That was the tipping point where I felt the benefits of a reported story outweighed the risk of potentially amplifying the false narrative.”


Do you ever get frustrated with people or society at large when you find yourself having to push back against disinformation again and again and again? I can’t imagine having the patience necessary to constantly tell people who are SO CERTAIN that Obama was born in Kenya or that a shark was swimming on the freeway during a flood that, well, no, that’s not right. What keeps you going at a time in media history where reality seems outgunned and understaffed?

“I know that my stories will be routed into deeply partisan channels on social media, and probably won’t reach the audiences that most need to read them. Even if they do, they’ll be dismissed as “fake news” in some circles — even though Wisconsin Watch’s editorial team meticulously fact-checks each story. I’ve watched it happen in real time, and it can be incredibly discouraging. So, you have to accept that you won’t get through to some people with a high level of conspiracy ideation. Some people can’t be convinced, no matter what you write.

“When I first started monitoring what people were saying on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram in Wisconsin, I found the scale of the problem really daunting. There’s just no way an individual journalist or newsroom can counter all of the falsehoods they see online. In my opinion, this is such an existential problem for journalism, our electoral system, and the general public’s perception of reality that lawmakers absolutely must step in with some form of regulation. I’m not sure what that would look like, but these platforms can’t be allowed to wreak such havoc on our society.

“Part of what keeps me going is believing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I also continually remind myself that social media is not the real world. The loudmouths on Twitter aren’t representative of the public at large. And I take heart that so many smart and fair-minded people are still fighting for the Enlightenment ideals of science, knowledge and truth.

“Not to mention, I’m in an incredible position to make a difference in a critical swing state. Wisconsin Watch has an audience of millions — far greater than the typical social media influencer. Keeping that in perspective helps me remember that my work can have a big impact.”

5 things I learned rewriting a textbook that might be helpful to your writing students

As Yogi Berra said on a day celebrating his career, I want to thank you all for making this necessary. Enough people found the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” worth buying that SAGE thought it was worth updating. The second edition is coming out in January, and it’s got some neat new features like a whole section on freelancing and some great help from additional pros.

My only real regret is that I’m losing my favorite cover of all time. That thing was beautiful. Still, this one is pretty cool and doesn’t have that polyester 1970s, this-won’t-age-well vibe of some other books:

I learned a lot writing the book initially, like how to fit 10 pounds of stuff into a 5-pound bag, what the phrase “implied agreement on ancillaries” meant and that I still can’t figure out the “affect/effect” distinction. In basically rewriting it, I discovered some different things that might be valuable to students who have to read this thing when it comes out. Here are five things I picked up in the rewrite:

Keeping up with social media is impossible: One of the things I remember most about the first edition of the book was that we were literally on the press (and I do mean LITERALLY) when Twitter decided to up its character count from 140 to 280. After a mild panic (read: complete and total mental breakdown), I begged and pleaded enough to get SAGE to pull the book back and let me rework some stuff. If you read the chapter, you might notice that some of the sentences sound like they were translated from English to Sanskrit to German and then back to English. That’s what happens when you’re trying to exchange content in a character-for-character basis.

That was the fourth critical revision of the social media chapter in less than two years since I wrote that draft. The reason for all those changes was twofold: 1) SAGE wanted to showcase that the book HAD a social media chapter, so the editor at the time asked me to write it first. That allowed SAGE to put it out as part of a review package to see if anyone would be interested in ever using this book in a classroom before SAGE invested any time or money into me writing it. 2) Social media changes platforms and approaches as much as Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.

Here is a list of stuff that no longer exists (or is on life support) that made the cut for the first version of the original social media chapter:

  • YikYak
  • Storify
  • Vine
  • Periscope
  • Ping
  • Google Buzz
  • Meerkat
  • Digg

(I brought up YikYak to students in my writing class last week, and you’d have thought I asked them, “Are you old enough to remember the assassination of Abraham Lincoln?”)

This, of course, doesn’t count the changes on various platforms, like Twitter’s shift to more characters and visual options and Instagram’s movement to more text-based storytelling. Trying to be “up-to-date” on a book you update every three years is like trying to catch yesterday’s rainstorm.

However, what I did learn in looking back at this graveyard of social media is that the approaches I took in the book as to how best to employ social media still holds. In addition, elements of these dead-stick platforms continue to have value in new incarnations. (Vine begat TikTok in a way, while Storify’s approach to storytelling is now everywhere, even though the platform itself is dead.)

You can always count on the consistency of people’s stupidity: One of the big risks when it comes to including timely examples is that they’ll go stale. The other is that you’ll never find another example of that “one thing” so you’ll have to rewrite a ton of content and change your position entirely on a topic.

These risks are overstated when it comes to journalism textbooks, primarily because people continue to do dumb things in ways that mirror the dumb things people did in previous eras.

Case in point, the issue of “Twibel,” also known as libeling someone on Twitter, took on particular significance in the mid-2010s, as courts were deciding what was or wasn’t legal. Singer/actress/person-I’d-least-like-to-run-into-in-a-dark-alley Courtney Love was at the center of a crucial case that brought this issue to a head and demonstrated that, yes, people can sue you for stupid things you say on Twitter.

Love won, and the appeals court upheld her victory, so that made the first edition, but I was worried about finding a decent update. Fortunately, Love not only repeated some of social media misbehavior, but billionaire Elon Musk put himself in the middle of a similar situation when he referred to a cave explorer as a “pedo guy” during a social media post. The lawsuit’s resolution timed up nicely with the new edition…

Sex scandals, criminal actions, stupid behavior and other forms of entropy will always come around again, much in the way the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west. If nothing else, that should be helpful to those of you wondering why you’re learning the legalese associated with covering crime as part of your reporting education.

Grammar still makes no sense: As part of the writing process, the book goes through a copy editor who picks everything apart to make sure I don’t sound like an idiot. Jim Kelly (not the hall-of-fame quarterback, but he’s a hall-of-famer in my book, anyway) is the guy who always gets my books and he’s been a lifesaver every time. What’s funny, though, is that since we’ve been working together, we find that we’re going back and forth on things that there should be rules for, but there apparently aren’t.

Jim’s a grammar guru, so he’ll pick at something in a paragraph that needs a comma or something, and I’ll pretty much go along with him. Occasionally, though, I’ll look back at what we did in the previous edition and ask, “Wait, we went the other way last time. I’m fine with whatever, but what’s the rule?” Jim and I then spend about five emails trying to figure out why we did what we did the last time and why it is that we are trying to do something different this time. In the end, it kind of comes down to, “Hell… I don’t know either…”

A lot of what we do together, he can explain to me in perfect and simple ways that help me remember it. (He’s gotten the closest of anyone ever to helping me figure out “affect/effect.” When I screw it up, I feel like I’m failing him… Catholic guilt, I know…) However, even people who take on grammar, style and punctuation as a career can occasionally become befuddled.

I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse.

Nothing you write will ever be perfect: I get a goodly amount of notes from folks when I post on the blog, most of which let me know when I spelled something wrong, a link is dead, a word is missing or I did something else that looks like a random mishap. I’m always grateful for that, because everyone needs an editor (or 12) and basically on the blog, it’s just me.

With books, it’s a completely different story. I have multiple editors, copy editors, query specialists, production specialists and more. Here’s a simple walk through of a chapter from draft to book:

  • I write a draft.
  • It goes to my editor, who sends it back to me with notes.
  • I rewrite the chapter.
  • It goes to my editor, who sends it back to me with notes.
  • I finish rewriting the chapter.
  • It goes back to my editor, who edits it and sends it to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor sends it to me with notes and suggestions.
  • I edit it and send it back to the copy editor with changes and questions.
  • The copy editor sends it back to me with answers so I can make additional changes.
  • I make the changes and send it back to the copy editor.
  • The copy editor moves it to production, which edits it some more and lays it out.
  • I then get a first proof set, where I try to fix anything else I missed the first 12 times.
  • I send it back to production, which fixes the issues and sends it back to me with additional queries.
  • I answer the queries and check the fixes before sending it back to production.
  • They send any final queries and suggestions on a final proof set.
  • I answer the queries, do a pencil edit on the entire book and send it back.
  • It gets published as is, presuming Twitter doesn’t try to screw me over again.

Now, realize that even after ALL THAT, mistakes still get through and none of us has any idea how the hell that happened. Case in point, a professor in New Mexico offered his students extra credit if they could find any errors in the text and then email them to me. At least one person did and it was a stupid typo (theie instead of their) and I went back about six generations into the edits and have no idea where we screwed that up.

No matter what we do or how hard we work, nothing is ever perfect, so enjoy whatever level of “pretty good” you can get based on the amount of time you have to work and the general expectations of the people for whom you work.

“Done” matters the most: Steve Lorenzo, the first journalism instructor I ever had in college, used to yell at me when I was dinking around with something in lab, trying to get five more minutes out of him before I had to send the final version of whatever I was writing.

“Journalism is never done,” he’d say. “It’s just due.”

He was right about that and he was right about basically everything else in life as well. I could torture myself for hours and hours about making a mistake or missing something important or puttering around with commas and nothing would ever get done. Instead, you put the bat on the ball, make the damned deadline and good stuff will happen.

Fear of failure can paralyze the hell out of anyone. So can the desire to be perfect to the detriment of the “it’s as good as it’s gonna get.” I also find that if I persist and just getting something out of my head and on to the screen, I can always improve it later. The harder I work at just moving forward toward a goal, the more likely it is I’ll make the goal with room to spare.

In typing that, I realized there’s some truth in something I told my kid recently:

“You will never be the smartest, the fastest, the strongest or the whatever -est out there. There will always be someone smarter, faster, stronger or whatever, so you have to kind of get over that. What makes the difference and what will help you succeed more than anyone else is your work ethic and your level of commitment to getting the job done.

“Just outwork the bastards. Good stuff will happen when you do.”

Throwback Thursday: A look back at the Covington Catholic Kids vs. Native American Protester situation

While many of us spent the summer trying to figure out how to build a course for potential online, in-person and hybrid formats, Nicholas Sandmann was getting paid:

New York (CNN Business: July 24) The Washington Post settled a lawsuit filed by the family of a teenager who was at the center of a viral video controversy, the newspaper and an attorney representing the family said on Friday.

“We are pleased that we have been able to reach a mutually agreeable resolution of the remaining claims in this lawsuit,” Kris Coratti, a spokesperson for The Post, said in a short statement.

Coratti declined to disclose the terms of the settlement. An attorney for the student, Nicholas Sandmann, also declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

“Nicholas Sandmann agreed to settle with the Post because the Post was quick to publish the whole truth—through its follow-up coverage and editor’s notes,” Sandmann’s attorney, Todd McMurtry, said in an email. “The terms of the settlement are confidential.”

Sandmann was the Covington Catholic High School student featured in a video that showed him face to face with Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and activist, who was playing a drum on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in January 2019. Legacy media and social media exploded with rage over the video, as allegations of racism and threats emerged.

The Sandmann family sued multiple media outlets over their coverage of the incident and the Post was the most recent to settle. CNN settled its suit back in January, while others continue through the legal process.

At the time, we posted a piece that looked at some of the problems associated with how perceptions were being treated as facts, with the overwhelming attitude at the time being, “How the hell can you DEFEND THIS KID?!?!?!” The answer was, well, we’re not, but we need more information before we decide that this kid is doing what you’re saying he’s doing.

Below is a look at that piece, written about a day after the video emerged. Also, here’s a link to one of my favorite pieces: “Become a ‘non-denominational skeptic:’ Three follow-up thoughts on the “Covington Catholic kids vs. Native-American drummer” situation



Three things student journalists can learn from the coverage of the Covington Catholic Kids vs. Native-American drummer situation

The video of a white, male high school student wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, facing off against a 64-year-old Native-American man, who was drumming and singing went way beyond “viral” this weekend. In case you missed it, even though I have no idea how that would be possible, here is some background from the early stories on this situation.

From Indian Country Today’s website came one of the first looks at this:

Yesterday, following the first annual Indigenous People’s March in Washington D.C., YouTube user KC NOLAND released a video showing a large group of youths wearing “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hats and other Trump paraphernalia taunting a Native American elder playing a ceremonial drum and singing a song.

According to reports, the youths were in attendance for the March for Life, a pro-life action occurring at the same time as the Indigenous People’s March. According to organizers of the Indigenous Peoples March present for the exchange, Phillips was aggressively surrounded by more than 30 counter-protesters.

Many, like the Washington Post, relied on an Associated Press wire report, to outline the conflict:

The Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday coincided with the March for Life, which drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters, including a group from Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills.

Videos circulating online show a youth staring at and standing extremely close to Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Native American man singing and playing a drum.

Other students, some wearing Covington clothing and many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and sweatshirts, surrounded them, chanting, laughing and jeering.

The New York Times followed with a narrative approach to the story, using movement and tension to lead into the main topic:

They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.

He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.

They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

The episode was being investigated and the students could face punishment, up to and including expulsion, their school said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.

In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.

What also followed was the news media starting to reconfigure its position a day later, as you can see in this add to the top of the NYT’s original news story:

Interviews and additional video footage have offered a fuller picture of what happened in this encounter, including the context that the Native American man approached the students amid broader tensions outside the Lincoln Memorial. Read the latest article here.

The Times then followed with this story:

A fuller and more complicated picture emerged on Sunday of the videotaped encounter between a Native American man and a throng of high school boys wearing “Make America Great Again” gear outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Interviews and additional video footage suggest that an explosive convergence of race, religion and ideological beliefs — against a national backdrop of political tension — set the stage for the viral moment. Early video excerpts from the encounter obscured the larger context, inflaming outrage.

Other media outlets also did something between a backpedal and a retraction, now seeking “nuance” or “a broader understanding” for the incident.  Nick Sandmann, the student who is now infamous for his face-to-face encounter with Omaha elder Nathan Phillips, issued a lengthy statement to media outlets on Sunday, in which he states that he was not mocking or insulting Phillips. A longer video from another vantage point includes the interactions between the students and a third group, which had made hate-filled and racist comments toward the students.

As news consumers, the degree to which you believe any particular position taken by any of the groups or individuals in terms of who did what to whom is entirely up to you. That said, as student journalists, there are three learning moments you can take from the media coverage of this event:


Fast is good, accurate is better

The speed at which this whole story hit mainstream media makes the adrenaline shot in “Pulp Fiction” look measured and nuanced by comparison. The NY Times, the Washington Post and other venerable outlets seemed to run from pillar to post, looking for reaction from everyone who ever touched a keyboard or attended Catholic school.

As that happened, everyone tangentially attached to this, from the school’s administration to the mayor of a city that doesn’t actually contain that school, issued statements condemning the unholy hell out of the students as quickly as possible. People tried to identify as many of the students as possible online. Each outlet appeared to try to add something “extra” to the story, relying on tidbits of varying value.

The problem? A lot of stuff wasn’t accurate. For example, a publication quickly identified the wrong student as being involved in the face-to-face moment, only to have the Lexington Herald Leader issue a correction for the internet at large. In addition, an internet troll claiming to be Nick Sandmann’s mother made disparaging comments via the @gauchoguacamole Twitter account about Native Americans and smallpox, which led to more confusion. Twitter also suspended an account that purported to be from a California teacher, but was not, that made “deliberate attempts to manipulate the public conversation on Twitter by using misleading account information.”

Who was “legit” and who was trying to just mess with people? Nobody seemed to know, but a lot of it managed to leak into varying media outlets on the web. Even more, the Times and others tried to excuse themselves from their roles in this disaster-bacle by stating “a fuller and more complicated picture emerged.” (Saying something “emerged” is a nice way of absolving yourself of something and roughly translates to, “Hey, we didn’t find everything necessary to understand the whole story, but now that everything is a toxic waste dump out there, let’s slow up and take another shot at this.”)

Even the March for Life, the organization the students arrived to support, had to issue a statement backing off of its original condemnation, noting, “We will refrain from commenting further until the truth is understood.”

That’s a pretty good policy for people in general and journalists in particular: Don’t write something if you don’t know it to be accurate. It’s easy to figure, “Hell, the information is out there so it MUST be true enough to use for my piece,” but that’s not how journalism works. Your job is to find out what actually happened, write as much of it as you possibly can in a coherent and accurate way and, when you’re sure your work is ready to undergo the crucible of public scrutiny, publish it.

If you can do all that quickly, fine. If not, slow down and get it right first.


The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish

One of the big debates online was if the students in the video, particularly Sandmann, should be identified. Some media outlets chose not to do this, while others seemed to treat this as sport:


(It’s “Allegedly Racist Pokemon!” Gotta catch ’em all!)

One particularly long Twitter thread outlines the way in which the author got information on Sandmann and then chose not to “out” him by name. The rambling (and somewhat sanctimonious) nature of this thread aside, the author does bring to bear a bigger issue: Just because you get the information, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should publish it.

Each time you write a story, you are actively engaging with the material in a way that leads to a particular “frame.” You provide your readers with certain information and discard other information that may not see the light of day anywhere else. In many cases, these choices are easy or run very little risk.

However, in cases like these, you can find yourself battling different instincts. You want to add something to a story, but you don’t want to hurt someone. You want to shine a light on something important, but you aren’t sure about the quality of a source. You feel pressure to “get the story out” but you don’t know if you have adequately considered all the ramifications of your actions.

Those thoughts, and others like them, are all completely normal and do not make you a bad journalist. In fact, they make you a pretty good human being.

This doesn’t mean you should be a wimp when it comes to your reporting, nor does it mean you should go all Vic Mackey from “The Shield” on people. Report to the best of your ability and ask whatever questions you need to get as much information as you can. However, before you put anything before the public, review what you have and decide how important you think it is. Then, make choices about what gets published and what doesn’t. Just because you got the information doesn’t mean you should publish it. That’s what we call editorial discretion.


Objectivity is still an admirable goal

This is a truly odd time to be a journalist. The term “fake news” gets tossed around a lot. The public seems to have less trust in us than at any other point in recent history. Media outlets (and I use that term loosely) do not always abide by the same ethical and professional norms you learned in your Intro to Mass Media class. “Everyone” is an expert and yet “nobody” knows what they’re talking about. The idea of “gathering information from all sides” seems quaint to some and almost villainous to others. To say, “I’m not sure yet” or “We need to hear from everyone” will sound to some people like you’re an apologist, a coward or a hypocrite.

Don’t worry about all that. Stick to the basic tenets of journalism and you’ll be fine.

Objectivity is like perfection: You will never truly attain it. However, as Vince Lombardi once noted, it’s important to relentlessly pursue it, because you’ll get something pretty good along the way: Excellence. It can seem pointless to hold back a name if “everyone” is publishing it or to “balance” a story when the truth seems so clear.

That said, journalists are paid to be fact-finders and skeptics. The job is to be nosy, find the facts and give them to your readers and viewers. They may not like it and they may not entirely believe you because “other people” have said more or have woven in stronger bits of unsubstantiated content. However, when you turn out to be right more often than not and the other sources implode, thanks to their own hubris, people will come around.

When is a smile a smirk? When is a cheer a jeer? When is contact a confrontation? I have no idea, but what I did know was that some people extrapolated based on their own preconceptions and ended up regretting it later.

The goal here is not to pick sides and fight for only the people on it. You need to figure out what happened and report the content. In a standard news article, you should stick to the facts, gather as many of them as you can and present them to your readers in the most direct way possible. Then, THEY can decide for THEMSELVES if the kid was smirking or trying to defuse a situation or if the noises the students were making were in the furtherance of school pride or blatant racism.

You’re not Superman. You’re Clark Kent.

Corona Hotline Update: More grammar and writing exercises for journalism professors as we “pause for the cause”

“Corona Hotline… No, I don’t know what a two-week pause is supposed to do in this pandemic either, professor…”

For those of you who weren’t with us last year when everything shut down and everyone was scrambling for assignments, exercises and general help, we established the “Corona Hotline” page as kind of a stockpile of stuff that I had built and folks were willing to share. You should feel free to click here to peruse it. All the stuff is freebie and I hope it helps.

For those of you who know all about it and are suddenly going on a “two-week pause,” (at least they didn’t call it an “inflection point”) and you need some additional help, I’ve added a few things to the page today:

  • Two lectures on blogging that I do. The topics are audience-centricity in terms of finding out whose out there and how to serve them as well as a deep look at the concept of “Why you?” in terms of what you should figure out before you pick a blogging topic to see if you can deliver value.
  • A blog-building exercise: It’s not tech stuff (if you want that, I can point you in a few directions), but rather kind of a pre-launch assignment that has the student analyze what’s out there in the area in which they wish to blog, determine what kinds of things they can put into their blog effectively and more. Think of it as kind of a “pitch” like they would have to make to a company if they wanted to start up a blog for those folks.
  • Grammar exercises:
    • Antecedent-pronoun selection
    • Who vs. Whom selection
    • Active vs. passive voice (I’ve had this for years, thanks to the late, great Patty Atwater)
    • A “medley” exercise that mixes all sorts of stuff in grammar.

You can get all that on the page as well. It’s up at the top. Hope it helps.

May the odds be ever in your favor, even when they’re not.

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

Actual Malice: An open letter to college administrators regarding COVID-19

Dear chancellors, presidents and other top administrators of U.S. colleges and universities,

If you want to see what kind of college experience you are providing to your students, I would invite you to spend your morning where I did on Monday: In a line on campus for a COVID-19 test.

I had two emails over the weekend from students I met with on Wednesday who told me they either were in contact with someone who had tested positive or were exhibiting symptoms of the illness.

My wife, a nurse who works with an elderly and immuno-compromised community of people, demanded that I get tested, in spite of my explanations that I had sanitized, I was masked, I was distanced, I only saw the students once and more. I had done everything my university had told me and yet, there I was, outside of Albee Hall at 10:30 a.m. with a burgeoning line of undergraduate students.

You need to go out where your kids are being tested for COVID-19, administrative folks, as I lack the ability to adequately capture the eeriness of our “new normal.” The only normal thing about this experience was that everyone in line was typing on their phone.

The line was mostly socially distanced as it bent through the wide pathway where students often crowd between classes. Aside from a few stragglers walking out of the student union and one kid wandering in and out of the library in about 10 seconds, we saw almost no one. Campus felt deserted and tense.

Nobody in line spoke and no one really spoke to anyone in line. The silence was such that not only could I hear the soft chirps of a few birds in a distant tree, but I could hear the wind ruffling the environmentally friendly grasses and plants that dotted the walkway. When a student recognized me and we began a conversation, it seemed like I should lower my voice. I kept feeling like I was yelling during a funeral visitation, even as I spoke at a relatively subdued volume.

One by one, students walked out of Albee, wiping their noses with tissue or folding up paperwork. Some had friends who came to be tested while others brought someone for moral support. One younger woman slowly walked out of the testing site, her shoulders slumped slightly and her demeanor one of exhaustion. Her friend approached her and for a second looked like she was going to give her what she desperately appeared to need: A hug. The friend seemed to catch herself just in time and stopped short. They then left the area, walking together, but at least three or four feet apart.

The line moved slowly inside where a crew of more than a dozen people had donned the kind of things you’d expect to see in a movie about aliens. Shields, gloves, gowns, masks and more. They were plastified to the nines.

The signs on the door, apparently left over from last year, told students to enjoy the updated athletic facilities. Plastered over the top of some of them were printouts that explained who could or couldn’t be tested for the coronavirus. Each student was asked, “Do you have an appointment?” An alarming number of them said, no, they didn’t, but they called a university hotline to explain their circumstances and were told to report immediately to testing. Some had appointments later in the week, but symptoms appeared and they were told, “Get here. Now.”

So, to Albee Hall they came, at 10:30 on a Monday morning, less than one week into their first week of the semester, to find out if they would test positive for an illness that has already killed enough people in this country to fill Lambeau Field to capacity more than twice.

Welcome to college.

In the courses I am teaching this term, we discuss the concept of culpability as it relates to libel and it often comes down to one of two standards: Negligence and actual malice.

Negligence is easier to prove. The concept is that the defendants in the case either did something they shouldn’t have or failed to do something they should have to prevent the harmful outcome. In other words, you did your job in a sloppy fashion and thus created the problem.

Actual malice is tough to prove, but it isn’t impossible. Defendants accused of this, essentially,  knew something was wrong and did it anyways. It’s a conscious choice to act in a way that creates harm, knowing full well the problematic outcome that can follow.

The question we ask in this situation is, “Did you have a reckless disregard for the truth?”

If we had to apply those standards to the reopening of colleges in this country, it might not be a hard case to prove negligence against administrators who began school in the late weeks of July or the early weeks of August.

You know social distancing is required to keep this illness from spreading, but your institutions have spent years trying to cram students into classrooms, libraries, dorms and other facilities to maximize enrollment and thus increase institutional income.  You stack bodies like cord wood where possible and rely on communal bathroom facilities in many living quarters.

(Dorms have changed a good deal since I was in school, but the stories I hear from students tell me one thing is still true: You’re basically on top of your roommate whenever you’re both in the room.)

You pushed faculty to offer in-person classes or classes that could at least have an in-person component. Classes that drew students to campus and put butts in classroom seats were valued. You created all sorts of untested hybrid options with the idea that some personal interaction was better than none. Faculty objected and students went with online options when possible, but still you persisted.

You created pokazukha websites and plans and fliers for your students and faculty, complete with testing sites and “dashboard numbers” of tests and cases. You told them that “We’re all in this together” and that things would be fine because you were locked and loaded for this war.

Then, you passed the buck to a group of 18-to-22-year-olds and told them, “We want you to have a normal college experience” in the same breath that you layered on admonitions and restrictions that made such an experience impossible. You also told these students to act in a fashion that belied your decades of experience observing students, even as you lacked the resources or structure to enforce such edicts to the extent necessary to avoid case spikes.

Administrators, flip your calendar back to any point in your entire academic career. Mentally recall the scene at a campus-area bar on Friday. Think back to your memories of one of your more raucous “party places” (frats, sororities, BMOC homes or whatever matters on your campus) on Saturday.

(Hell, look at what happened when states “relaxed” stay-at-home orders and thousands of chuckleheaded so-called adults poured into bars, restaurants and anywhere else that served food and booze with a side order of dangerous proximity issues.)

Now think about what you told students to do to avoid this plague. I don’t think Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was as optimistic as you all were about the likelihood of this succeeding.

Could these early adopters have crossed all your fingers and toes, thought, “Maybe the kids are going to game up” and hoped for the best? Sure, but that level of naiveté is still enough to make an argument for negligence.

As for those of you who brought students to campus in the past two weeks? I could imagine Dick Wolf doing a “Law and Order” special “ripped from the headlines” episode about actual malice in this case.

You relied on the same sanitation methods, the same masking requirements and the same social distancing efforts that led other schools to fail miserably, and yet you went ahead and opened your campuses anyway.

You saw the spikes happening at school after school, just as everyone with a brain predicted, and instead of rethinking your approach, you pressed forward.

You saw the dead canaries piling up at the entrance to the mine shaft and you said, “My canary will be fine. Onward.”

You saw those schools that tried to make a go of it fail and fail and fail again and yet you refused to accept reality.

As W.C. Fields famously noted, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damned fool about it.”

You weren’t fools. You were reckless.

You were reckless with the physical health and safety of your students, faculty and staff, most of whom, I would imagine, find themselves pondering every cough, sniffle and sneeze.

You were reckless with the physical health of those people’s family and loved ones, because they might carry home with them an undetected case of COVID-19.

You were reckless with the mental health of everyone in both of those groups. I bet I’m not the only one who spends countless hours worrying about everything from catching this thing to figuring out how to immediately “go online” the minute someone above my pay grade decides the tuition checks have cleared or the numbers look too bad to persist. Between furloughs, increased class loads, shifting platforms, delivery shifts and more, I find myself panicking more now than at any point in my two decades in higher education about my ability to do my job.

As I wrote this, my email inbox popped up with a new message. My results came back as negative.

No quarantine or isolation for me. Amy says I don’t have to sleep in the milk house to keep her and the kid safe.

At least, until I get another email, from another kid, telling me about another set of symptoms and another crest of anxiety builds within.

If you want to discuss this cycle of disaster further at that point, you know where to find me.

In a line outside Albee Hall, hoping for the best and praying it’s not the worst.


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


3 thoughts on the ethical debate over Bob Woodward’s “Rage” revelations on the coronavirus

Bob Woodward has done more journalism than any three people I know, and yet that doesn’t mean he’s beyond reproach. Woodward’s latest book, “Rage,” covers a variety of topics involving the Trump administration, including what the president knew and when he knew it in relation to the coronavirus.

Woodward made a splash when early teaser parts of his book showed that President Trump was admitting to him that COVID-19 was a big, airborne deal even as he was downplaying it to the rest of the country:

“I wanted to always play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic,” Trump told Woodward on March 19 in excerpts of audio interviews obtained by CNN.

In interviews with Woodward between December 2019 and July 2020, Trump discussed the threat of the coronavirus with a level of detail that he had not yet acknowledged to the public, noting Feb. 7 that it was “deadly stuff,” and “more deadly than your – even your strenuous flus.”

Woodward’s work has come under scrutiny in the journalism community for good reason, as Poynter’s Al Tompkins points out with a simple headline: “Was it unethical for Bob Woodward to withhold Trump’s coronavirus interviews for months?

So we now know that the president knew and believed that a pandemic was coming. Still, on Feb. 28, Trump called COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.” In that same speech in South Carolina, he downplayed COVID-19 as being comparable to the seasonal flu. But Woodward’s reporting shows he knew that what he was saying publicly was not the whole truth.


The journalism ethics question here has to do with loyalty. Critics are already lining up to accuse Woodward of withholding vital information — information that might have stopped COVID-deniers in their tracks — in order to sell books in the weeks before the election. Critics essentially cite Woodward’s loyalty as being toward his book, not reporting news that the public needed to know at the moment.

Tompkins’ piece is worth a deep read, as he covers the majority of the angles through various sources: Did Woodward agree not to say anything prior to the publication of the book? (No.) Did Woodward think what he did cost lives? (No.) Do people disagree with him on that? (Hell yeah…)

Al always does everything better than I can so, I’m not going to essentially write a rip off of his piece. Instead, I’ll just poke at a few key things to consider:

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback: I like that Al’s headline is a question, which is a rare thing for me to say, in that most question headlines (question leads, rhetorical questions etc.) make me want to scream. This one works because there is no actual answer to it, despite what defenders and detractors on both sides of the Woodward argument have to say.

I’m sure lesser journalists, weaker players and self-important chuckleheads are getting a joyful moment of trying to kick a media giant in the groin over a perceived failure. I’m also sure that nobody out there is above screwing up, not even Bob Woodward. (It doesn’t get mentioned enough, but one of the biggest debacles in fraudulent journalism initially had Woodward as one of its key champions.)

Woodward isn’t untouchable in this regard, but I have a hard time being able to say what I would do if I were in that situation. You have a president who lies like most of us breathe, telling you that there’s this thing out there that most of us have never heard of at that point that can kill us all.

Right. Like we’d all just take that as gospel and stop the presses without a thought for that story? That’s some serious self-aggrandizing, post-game BS there and a number of the folks making that case that they would have done it (cough… cough… Charles Pierce… COUGH…) are members in good standing in the “Well, if I were the person involved…” club.

Just like anything else, it’s easy to come down on the right side of history once it’s written.

Even Michael Jordan occasionally passed the ball: One of the weaker points of Woodward’s defense was that he was “still working on” the story when it caught fire in the media:

Asked why he didn’t share Trump’s February remarks for a fellow Post reporter to pursue, Woodward said he had developed “some pretty important sources” on his own.

“Could I have brought others in? Could they have done things I couldn’t do?” he asked. “I was on the trail, and I was (still) on the trail when it (the virus) exploded.”

At that point, Woodward explains, he kind of did the “Oh well… On to the book” thing.

I get it. Bob Woodward isn’t a night cops guy who files stuff on deadline any more. I also get that doing a one-source dump piece on a burgeoning pandemic is probably not where he spends most of his time.

Which is why, like any other person with the title of “editor” at any other media outlet, you pass the ball to someone for whom this is in their wheelhouse. Do they have better sources than Woodward? Who knows? Could they have done more than Woodward did? Who knows? I bet that in the D.C. beltway, Bob Woodward can run circles around almost anyone out there. That said, if a story needed an Omro dairy farmer as a source, I’d have a better shot at getting one than he would.

In this case, give the ball to someone in the WaPo newsroom with political and/or medical experience. Give it to someone with a few backdoor sources, like Woodward used to have. Hell, give it to a kid reporter with nothing to lose.

The “Gee, I never thought of that” response gives weight to those folks who are pressing the point that Woodward was holding onto the bombshell for the book money. It also smacks of an oxymoronic arrogance that says, “If I, the great Bob Woodward, couldn’t nail this down, then no one could! But clearly others did, so I didn’t think of troubling anyone with what I knew.”

It’s not about you: In all of those interviews Al Tompkins collected, I saw a running theme that should bother people who work in journalism:

Again, Woodward said he believes his highest purpose isn’t to write daily stories but to give his readers the big picture — one that may have a greater effect, especially with a consequential election looming.


Woodward said his aim was to provide a fuller context than could occur in a news story: “I knew I could tell the second draft of history, and I knew I could tell it before the election.”


If I had done the story at that time about what he knew in February, that’s not telling us anything we didn’t know,” Woodward said. At that point, he said, the issue was no longer one of public health but of politics. His priority became getting the story out before the election in November.

“That was the demarcation line for me,” he said. “Had I decided that my book was coming out on Christmas, the end of this year, that would have been unthinkable.”

In each of these cases, as well as other spots in those discussions with Woodward, the answer seems to be that Woodward says he is who he is and he does what he does. He got the info, he made the call and that’s that.

Not even close.

If you call yourself a journalist, you have people to whom you MUST answer. Most of us think of our peers, our colleagues and our bosses as being front and center in the “justify your existence” realm that matters.

I get that some reporters get more leeway than others, but everyone has to answer to SOMEONE in the food chain. It’s not about what I think as a single actor, but rather what I do or say as part of a larger company of players. He basically said, “Nobody at the Post would deal with this better than I could, so why bother mentioning it to anyone there?”

However, the largest group of people you must answer to are readers. If Woodward were completely independent, he could tell the audience of the Washington Post (and thus the rest of the world) to stick their ethical debates where the sun doesn’t shine.

He’s not.

He has the connection to the Post and that benefits both sides in many ways. However, in keeping that connection, he owes something to the audience there. (I’d even argue that as a lion in winter in a field that’s taking a beating, he owes it to the rest of us to show the world that we still matter.) You don’t get to determine who in your audience matters or which audience should be served first: Those who chip in their buck each day for the newsprint or those who can fork over 30 bucks for the hardcover edition.

You do the job for the readers. The readers aren’t there for you, otherwise.

If it’s not “new,” it’s not “news:” 3 ways to fix bad time pegs

The word “news” has the word “new” baked right into it, so it shouldn’t be hard for anyone to see why we tend to value immediacy as a key interest element. Fresher content always matters more, which is why Tuesday’s story in the Oshkosh Northwestern about the financial hardships at our area outlet mall gave me pause:

OSHKOSH – A court has appointed a receiver to oversee the finances and operation of the struggling The Outlet Shoppes at Oshkosh.

Winnebago County Circuit Judge Barbara Key appointed the receiver in late August in connection to a foreclosure lawsuit brought by Wilmington Trust, National Association, a Buffalo-based financial services firm.

In the lawsuit, Wilmington Trust claims BFO Factory Shoppes LLC has not made a mortgage payment since March on a $54.7 million loan it used in 2015 to finance the Oshkosh mall and several other properties. The July 28 foreclosure action demanded immediate payment of the loan’s $52 million outstanding balance.

The lead lacks a time element, which isn’t always a deal-breaker for longer stories. However, when we get into the second and third paragraph, we get some pretty weak time pegs, such as “late August” and “July 28 foreclosure action.”

We used to joke around the newsroom that stories were like fish: Fresh is best, but after they get a couple days old, they really start to go bad. To that end, here’s another “don’t sniff too hard” story that ran Tuesday, this one about one of our senators discussing the chaos in Kenosha:

MADISON – U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in a recent interview said those responsible for violence and destruction in Kenosha may be using pandemic unemployment benefits or are being funded in other ways to travel around the country to create havoc. 

Johnson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, said groups that set fire to buildings and looted in Kenosha are likely part of a coordinated effort. 

“They picked up stakes and probably headed out to D.C. to harass the people who went to President Trump’s acceptance speech including people like Sen. Rand Paul,” Johnson said of violent and destructive protesters after more National Guard troops were deployed to the area. “This is an outside insurgency.”

Johnson made his comments in a Thursday appearance on a conservative talk radio show hosted by Vicki McKenna.

The “in a recent interview” is an attempt to freshen the lead, something we often do in writing. That said, this was like trying to spray a half can of Axe Body Spray on the rotting carcass of a dead salmon. That’s especially true when we get all the way down to the FOURTH paragraph where the writer kind of quietly notes that this happened almost a week ago.

The question I had for all of this was, “Why am I learning about this now?” You better have a reason for that question other than, “Well, I just figured this thing out that has been happening for about a week and a half, so I figured I’d go for it…” Reporters joke that including the word “recently” in a story meant “I lost the damned press release.”

If you don’t have a good reason for running the piece now, you probably want to hold onto it until you do. Truth be told, you can always find a good reason to run a story. Since being timely matters a great deal, consider a few pointers in regard to improving the time pegs with your stories:

Answer the “why now?” question: In many cases, there is a time peg in the story. You just have to work harder to find it than if you caught the story on the first bounce. Look at what’s coming up next in the story. It could be a new court  element that’s coming up:

The Oshkosh Outlet Mall faces a total closure by Christmas if a court hearing next week/month/Friday/whatever finds the receivership group can’t stanch the bleeding.

Very few stories of any consequence start and stop with a single event, so dig into what’s there and see what is going to happen next or what’s happening now. Don’t be content to bury the time peg because it’s terrible.

Freshen up your reporting: If you find that you got beaten on a story, or that a story was going on for quite a while while you were pondering the mysteries of some other universe, you can always find a way to freshen it up. It just requires additional reporting. For example, on the Ron Johnson piece, pick up the phone and ask someone in the senator’s office for some clarification on his comments. That can give you something like this:

Sen. Ron Johnson has proof that a liberal group of “gypsies, tramps and thieves” is responsible for destroying Kenosha, a representative for his office said Tuesday.
“He wouldn’t have said it on live air if he didn’t have proof,” spokeswoman Wanda Thinkaboutit said, referring to Johnson’s Thursday interview with conservative talk-show host Vicki McKenna.

You can also go to get “the other side” of this, reaching out to the people accused of whatever the heck Johnson is accusing them of:

The rage felt in Kenosha is real, not a liberal conspiracy, members of local civil rights groups said Tuesday in response to Sen. Ron Johnson’s accusations last week.

You can also do more reporting to advance a story, like looking at the people involved in it a bit more deeply and interviewing them. In this case, the story notes about 732 paragraphs in the name of the receivership group and that it declined multiple requests for interviews. OK, fine. Go the other way and interview the court folks. Or interview someone from the mall’s ownership group. Or find an expert:

It could take more than two years to sort out the financial mess that placed the Oshkosh Outlet Mall into receivership, a bankruptcy expert said Tuesday.
“It took five years for them to get into this mess, so it’ll take at least twice that long for a receiver to get them out of it,” Longfellow of Finance professor James McDougall said. “There’s no real way to know what goes into a business that complex.”

THEN you can dig back into the stuff that happened a while back.

Find a trend: If you are already late on the story, figure out if the story is bigger than the one you missed. It could be something like the death of outlet malls, the end of brick-and-mortar stores, the ownership company’s track record on these things or whatever.

As far as the Ron Johnson story goes, it could be a long line of weird stuff he said to radio hosts. If you are already behind, dig in deeper behind the story and see how you can make it longer and better.

In either case, you could strongly improve the work by showing that this wasn’t just a one-off situation. The important thing about telling stories is to always have the best picture possible when showcasing whatever it was that you wanted people to know. If that’s a bigger picture, great. If that’s a worm’s eye view of something, hey, that works, too. The goals is to do more than tell people, “I found this thing. It might or might not have value.”


May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor: Coronapocalypse University Edition

We start school today and that always feels weird, given that most of my colleagues have already got a couple weeks under their belts by this point in time. I usually feel like the guy in “Spinal Tap” who can’t get out of the pod, watching the rest of you deal with what’s going on while I’m stuck in limbo:

That said, this year, I feel like the last miner into the shaft, looking around me and seeing an awful lot of dead canaries, and thinking, “Hmm… maybe they’ll decide I shouldn’t go in there….”

Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, pretty much everything we’ve watched this year has involved numbers, percentages, odds and more. With that in mind, here are some odds and numbers to consider as we continue our college/university journey through Coronapocalypse 2020:

87 – Percentage increase of students who request a completely online version of your 8 a.m. class when compared to your noon class.

4 – The over/under mark for number of weeks you are doing in-person classes before a COVID spike moves you completely online. (Take the under.)

5:1 – Odds of the student who asked for online accommodations for “health-related concerns” ends up on a YouTube video licking a doorknob at a frat party.

2:1 – Odds that despite your school’s edict that only essential personnel are on campus, and that nobody come to campus who isn’t needed, and the proclamation that “We are all in this together,” Parking Services will ticket you for being 6 inches over the line in a semi-empty parking lot.

10:1 – Odds that your university will create a mandatory two-hour weekly meeting of some kind that is supposed to help you deal with all of the extra work and anxiety you are feeling right now.

1,001:1 – Odds that group will make things better for you.

9:2 – Odds the carrots you left in your office before everything shut down in March have developed language skills by now.

8 – Number of professors who will be fired for accidentally uploading a sex tape instead of a lecture file because they never bother to label any of their video files and they stick them all in a file folder marked “Stuff” on their hard drive.

1,020 – Percentage increase in successful Title IX complaints, thanks to Zoom lectures providing video evidence of what everyone at your school has been complaining about for years.

247 – Dollars you will spend out of your own pocket to record your lectures and post them after your university has stated it will “provide any and all equipment you deem necessary for online learning, free of charge.

11 – Percentage of student put on quarantine trying to tunnel out of their dorm room like Andy Dufresne in the “Shawshank Redemption.”

0.03 – Percentage of students who are old enough to understand that reference.

3:2 – Odds at least one student forgets a mask each class period.

47 – Percentage of faculty members looking for “that adapter thingy that came with my recorder” before every live lecture.

0.47 – Percentage of faculty members who will find it.

87,351,842:1 – Odds your school makes national news this year for anything other than a coronavirus outbreak or a student getting stuck in a Taco Bell drive thru window after being shorted a chalupa.

754 – Number of times your university president or chancellor uses the word “unprecedented” in every email or speech this year.

Even Money – Odds the student who skipped every lecture, swore they saw them all online and “worked really hard” in this class, will fail with a score almost too low to compute.

8:1 – Odds you will be able to identify at least half of your students after the mask mandate is repealed.

7:1 – Odds you are able to identify at least half of your students in any given semester.

12 – Percentage of professors who will ask, “Instead of using (fully supported video software program the university has used for years successfully), why can’t we use (glitchy video program only six people know about on Earth, but they read about in The Chronicle of Higher Education and think will somehow be better)?”

5:2 – Odds the professor on a video lecture isn’t wearing pants.

83 – Percentage of professors who want to do live streaming lectures because “they’re more authentic,” that will be interrupted at least four times by pets, kids, the mailman or a door-to-door Bible salesperson.

96 – Percentage of students who say they watch every video lecture entirely.

0.96 – Percentage of students who actually watch every video lecture entirely.

92,249:1 – Odds your school stays open all year without a single problem.

100 – Percent of school administrators who will “express surprise and disappointment” that they were unable to keep their schools open all year, even after watching dozens of other schools crash and burn all around them.

Have a great semester, everybody!