Rebuilding and rethinking your journalism class, Part II: A focus on grades and grading

EDITOR’S NOTE: A couple friends and colleagues were wondering aloud on social media about issues related to grading structure, class building and other similar concerns. When I mentioned I’d been kicking this around for a while for a potential post, at least a half dozen other people hit me with a “please tag me when you get it done” note, so I figured I’d better get this done. Regular posting will resume later this month — VFF

89 Grading/Teaching LOLs ideas | grading papers, teaching, teacher humor

In the first part of this look at building back better in terms of course construction, I outlined key tenets associated with improving student buy in for a class. I also looked at some ways in which you can connect what you want them to learn with the field itself.

If you missed it, here’s Part I.

As much as I said in the first part that you want to shift the focus away from grades, I get that grading is still a crucial part of every course, so let’s look at some ways to deal with grades that don’t come at the expense of learning and skill building:

EXAMINE GRADE APPORTIONMENT: One of the main things that tends to freak students out is the impact of any one assignment, test or project in a class. Students have told me how professors have often used only three or four graded items to determine a class grade. One kid showed me this class breakdown:

  • Test 1: 25%
  • Test 2: 25%
  • Final Project: 40%
  • Participation/In-Class Work: 10%

To me, that seems insane for a couple reasons.

First, if you screw up the first test, you are down one-quarter of the whole class and fighting your way uphill the rest of the way.

Second, if you aced tests one and two, you can still totally screw yourself by bombing the final, as that is almost worth as much as the previous two tests.

Third, in terms of the amount of time involved in relation to the outcomes, it’s completely out of whack. You’re in a classroom, participating and doing work for let’s say 27 class periods (15 weeks, two classes per week). You are in a classroom doing tests for 3 class periods (assuming the final project is like a presentation or a final exam). Is that proportionally logical?

When I started rebuilding my writing for the media class, I did it this way:

  • Small assignments: 30%
  • Big 3 assignments: 30%
  • Midterm: 15%
  • Final: 15%
  • Participation/professionalism: 10%

It probably doesn’t look that much different on its face, but let’s break down how this works:

  • They get about 5 or 6 minor assignments (leads, briefs, AP assignments etc.) that we do in class or out of class, so that’ about 5 or 6%  per assignment.
  • The three big assignments get dealt with both in class and out of class, and they are each worth 10%
  • Each test is only 15%, meaning you can have massive test anxiety and barely muddle through, but still do well in the class if you are more skilled in the small and/or big writing areas.

This approach of spreading the grade gives you the opportunity to help students learn along the way, penalize them for mistakes as you see fit without crippling their grades and generally lowering their anxiety over one big thing.

I have also found that this approach tends to limit cheating. The more value any one part of a course has, the more a student is likely to try to ace that part by any means necessary, which often includes cheating.

LIMIT THE IMPACT OF A FINAL: Classes have almost always placed a significant amount of value on a final exam or a final project, in which the students are required to showcase all of their skills for a huge chunk of the grade.

When it comes to certain disciplines, it completely makes sense to have comprehensive and cumulative finals that are worth a serious amount of a grade. The last thing I want to hear in a doctor’s office is my surgeon or a nurse say, “Yeah, I aced that class. I totally bombed the final, but I racked up a ton of participation points.”

However, that paradigm makes a lot less sense in a lot of classes. Students have told me that some of their history, philosophy, sociology and other gen-ed classes often value the finals at 40, 50 or up to 70% of the course grade.

To me, that’s ridiculous.

I try to keep the finals to as little of the grade as possible, while still making the students value the material that will be on them. I’ve found that in my basic classes, 15% is often good for exams with maybe 20% at most for any bigger pieces at the end.

I also try to lessen the amount of work that goes into a final or a project for a number of reasons:

The kids are burnt to a crisp at the point their finals roll around. This is especially true in the coronavirus era. They’re hanging on by their fingernails, so to hit them with an exceptionally arduous project or drill them with a test that covers the entire semester just seems like a recipe for disaster. It also feels cruel.

I’m burnt to a crisp at the time finals roll around. I’ll admit it: In many semesters, I know I’m not the best version of myself when we get to week 15 out here. I’m tired, overworked, overwhelmed with requests for letters/references/job searches, bleary eyed and cranky. I doubt I’m alone. So if I make a test or project worth 30 or 40% of a grade, I find myself grading each piece like I’m disarming a bomb. Each point I deduct carries so much meaning. I strain to remember if told a student to do something or not do something that now is in the paper and could be costing them points. I worry about everything. That’s not a good environment in which to drop a significant portion of a grade.

The kids have 93 other things they’re doing. Finals week is a conceptually dumb idea to me, in that it says, “Let’s have every class our students take force them to do a major thing, worth a giant portion of their grade, all at the same time.”
It also doesn’t help that students are usually either a) planning for a set of holidays that require them to do a ton of extra things for family and friends or b) planning for a summer/graduation in which they are starting internships, starting jobs, moving out of one apartment, moving into another apartment or otherwise engaging in some sort of life upheaval.
Why should I add to this chaos by doing the same dumb thing as everyone else is, namely, putting a major chunk of a grade into that overly stressful time period and expecting excellence?

Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re moving 10 boxes into the second-floor office of your newly purchased home. Three of the boxes are light and full of pillows, four are somewhat heavy and full of office stuff and the other three are heavy as hell because they’re filled with books you couldn’t stand to part with even though you haven’t read them in 20 years.

How do you approach this? Do you save the heavy as hell boxes for the end, when you’re dead tired and really don’t want to do anymore work? Do you grab the heavy as hell boxes first, when you don’t know the best route through the house or if you can get the boxes where they need to go?

I’d probably pick up a light box, try the route out and see if there are problems. I’d fix the problems, grab another light box and try it again. If the process worked well, I’d grab medium and heavy boxes while I still had some strength left and get through all that stuff as best I could. I’d likely save a light and a medium box for the final couple trips.

That’s the logic I apply when it comes to finals as well.

REVERSE PROCESS OF DRAFTING FOR GRADES: When I took classes from some writing professors, they had us write a story on a given topic and turn it in for a grade. Once we got it back, the thing was usually a mess of copy-editing marks, point deductions and random scrawl in the margins, along with a pretty lousy grade.

We were then told we could rewrite the draft for an improved grade.

What this was supposed to do was show us our problem areas and then give us a chance to improve upon them. What this approach taught me was how to do enough work to grab back enough points in the least amount of work required to get the grade I wanted.

In other words, if the professor deducted 10 points because they thought I needed to go interview another source, I’d let that one go. However, if the professor deducted 2 points for every AP style error and I had 10 of them, I’d just do the style fixes, take my 90 points/A- and move on.

That’s probably why when students would ask me after a poor grade, “Can I rewrite this for a better grade?” what I was hearing in my head was, “Look, I know I did a crappy job here, but if you give me a second chance, I’ll do just enough work to grab back the points I need to get out of here without really pushing myself.”

That’s also why I decided to reverse the process when it came to drafts and grading.

For each assignment, I have them do an ungraded draft. They then turn it in and I take all the drafts, remove the names of the students from them and put them up on the overhead for class review. If they’re short assignments, like leads or briefs, we review everyone’s full assignment. If they’re longer assignments, like stories or press releases, I’ll grab chunks from each person’s draft that represent something good or something bad that a lot of people did in the draft.

After we review the drafts, they get another bite at the apple. They redraft in class, where they have peer editing opportunities. I offer suggestions and I give them at least one set of office hours they can use to sit with me and do more editing. THEN, the final, graded version is due. Not only do they learn more this way, but it eliminates the claw-back approach to lost points.

MARK “COMPLETE,” NOT A GRADE ON YOUR LMS: One of the surest ways to get students to obsess about grades while not learning a damned thing in your class is to post their grades through the Learning Management System (LMS) you use to track them. Canvas, Blackboard, D2L and others all have a grade presentation function that allows you to input the grade for an assignment once it’s done.

If you have an option to just mark something as complete or incomplete in the system when you return graded work to them, I highly suggest you do so.

At one university where I taught entirely online courses, I was required to input the grade in the system and return to the students a marked-up version of their paper as well. About six seconds after I would punch down grades, I’d end up having an email conversation like this:

Student: Dear Professor, I just saw my grade and I don’t understand why it’s so low. I did the assignment and worked very hard on it. I can’t understand how I lost so many points!

Me: Dear (STUDENT), Did you look at the file I sent back to you with all of that information in there? Every error and its point deduction is noted clearly so you can improve the next time. If this still doesn’t make sense after you read through what I wrote, please reach out to me.

Student: Dear Professor, I didn’t bother to look at the file. I saw the grade and I was very upset. I would like you to tell me why you think this grade is representative of all the effort I put in.

Me: Dear (STUDENT), All of that information can be found if you open the file that contains your story and my comments on it. After you read that, please let me know what other questions you have…

(Repeat for at least two more rounds or until I copy and paste the whole (EXPLETIVE) file into an email.)

I set up my Canvas to track assignments as complete or incomplete, which helps students see if they’re missing something. I flip the switch to “complete” when I return the graded piece, which I tell them has the grade in it.

This does two things I think are important:

It forces them to open up the graded story and actually look at what I had to say. They can then see each thing that cost them points or even (gasp!) positive feedback I gave them on certain parts of the assignment. Even if they skip to the bottom where the grade is, there’s usually a good chunk of general feedback there they will run into whether they plan to do so or not. This approach pairs the grade with the rationale and usually makes for a better grading experience.

It stops them from having a grade to stare at the entire semester. In “Ball Four,” Jim Bouton used to joke that he could calculate his earned run average down to the fourth decimal point after each batter he faced. That’s not the approach I want my students taking when they think about grades in my class.
I hate that Canvas calculates a total course grade from a few simple assignments I’ve put in there at any given point in the term. It basically has the students staring at this thing every time they open up Canvas to submit an assignment, check an announcement or otherwise poke around in the class modules. I want them to be less obsessed about their grades in a minute-by-minute fashion, and more concerned about how they are developing in the course.

Students who really want to know what their grades are can actually calculate them by applying their grades to the percentages in the syllabus and doing some basic math. Students who are really concerned but can’t do the math are always welcome to check in with me from time to time as needed.

However, staring at that  89.499382 and wondering nothing more than how to get it up to a 90 for that coveted A- isn’t doing anyone any good.

GRADE FROM POINTS UP INSTEAD OF PERCENTAGES DOWN: If you have to include grades in your LMS, here’s a simple way to make it feel less punitive: Grade from points up instead of percentages down.

Here’s what I mean and why it works better:

If you start with zero points for everyone, and you give them points toward a final grade, this additive approach feels like they’re gaining ground toward something they want (a good final grade in the class).

If you rely on percentages, the fluctuations will almost always lead to lower and lower scores, so it feels like you’re taking something away from them and they’re losing ground (After two easy quizzes, they have 100%. Then they turn in an assignment and get a 90%. Suddenly, they see the grade “drop” overall and they feel like they lost something.)

Here’s the best analogy I have for this: Fantasy Football League scoring.

Every skill player starts with zero points. When a quarterback throws for a touchdown or a certain number of yards, they get points. Same thing with the running backs, receivers and kicker.

The defense, however, starts by giving you 10 points at kickoff. Each time, the opposing offense scores against your defense, you “lose” points from that 10 points. I can’t tell you how many times I was really ticked off at my team because my defense was “losing” me points, even though I knew full well there was no way my D would shut out the other team. Sure, I could gain back points through sacks, turnovers and defensive scores, but that felt more like I was getting back something I had already earned as opposed to receiving additional points.

If you can avoid the sense that you’re “costing me points” through your posted grades, the better the kids will feel about it.

 

I’m sure there are other things that will come to mind about six seconds after I post this, but I’ll end this here for now. If you have specific questions, please feel free to reach out to me and I’ll be happy to answer them.

Best of luck at the start of your semester!

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

Rebuilding and rethinking your journalism class, Part I: Coursework approaches and philosophies

EDITOR’S NOTE: A couple friends and colleagues were wondering aloud on social media about issues related to grading structure, class building and other similar concerns. When I mentioned I’d been kicking this around for a while for a potential post, at least a half dozen other people hit me with a “please tag me when you get it done” note, so I figured I’d better get this done. Regular posting will resume later this month — VFF

 

In discussing my teaching philosophy and the ways in which I try to help students learn, I rely heavily on the concept of Self-Determination Theory and its tenets associated with motivation. I wrote an extensive post on how this works and why it has value about two years ago when the pandemic started, so you can go back to this and read it for additional help and thoughts.

As much as I wanted to nail this down in one take, I realized the piece had gotten overly long, so I decided to cut this into two basic chunks:

  • Part I: How to best set up the class so your students can succeed
  • Part II: How to approach grading and such as to not let it undermine your class

If you have any questions about any of this, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to work with you.


I have come to realize that the more I can simplify a concept, the better I’ll be at conveying it and getting my students to remember it. With that in mind, everything I do or don’t do when it comes to grades, assignments, penalties and more comes down to me looking at the thing I’m pondering and answering two simple questions:

  1. What am I trying to do here?
  2. Why am I trying to do it?

For all of my classes, which are in the “practical journalism skills” category (writing for the media, reporting, advanced reporting, feature writing, blogging, freelancing across disciplines etc.), I answer those two questions in this way:

“What am I trying to do here?”

I am trying to give the students specific tools to put in their toolbox that they can take with them to the next course in the sequence. These tools can go with them as well as to student media/organizations to hone and improve upon. These tools are the ones that they’ll most frequently use in the field in which they intend to seek employment.

I am trying to help them see things from an audience-centric perspective, regardless of what part of a field they’re entering. I want them to write in a fashion that gives people what they need to know in a way they’ll best understand it and so they can use that information effectively.

I am trying to give them valuable lessons, both through their successes and their failures, that they can carry with them. Their experiences, good and bad, should put them in a position to do better work in the future and continue to seek new opportunities to learn.

“Why am I trying to do it?”

Journalism is a practical field, in which the ability to use the tools in your toolbox is more important than if you aced a multiple-choice test. They need to get these tools and learn how to use them so they can be successful. Everything I’m trying to do should be geared toward getting them ready to deal with tasks, situations and potential problems in their professional lives. If I can’t identify a specific need in the field or tool for their toolbox in a particular assignment, I either need to fix or eliminate that assignment.

The understanding of audience has never been more important than it is now. We can no longer do the “All the news that’s fit to print” approach and expect the readers to fall in line and genuflect at the altar of our awesomeness. They have choices and options when it comes to what they consume, how they consume it and when they consume it. If I can’t get the kids to think about the audience, it doesn’t matter how good they are at anything else. They’re totally screwed.

I have learned more by failing in life than I ever learned by succeeding. The scars left behind give me a lasting memory of what I did, how badly it hurt and why I should never do that thing again. My students need to be OK with falling on their butts, but they have been trained for more than a decade’s worth of schooling to never accept failure or learn from it. It’s “A’s or bust” in so many of their minds that the minute they face adversity, they fall apart. I need to find ways to break down that wall in their heads and help them see the value of what mistakes can teach them.

If nothing else in this post matters to you, I hope that bit of introspection might help guide your approach.

Beyond that, here are are a few things I hope can be helpful to you all who are looking for ways to rebuild, reconfigure or re-imagine your approach to grades, assignments or class building:

HAVE A REASON FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO AND BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN IT WELL: This is the most basic rule I have for myself when it comes to covering concepts, assigning tasks and grading homework. It comes down to two basic reasons for me:

I hate busy work. I never liked it when I was a student and I was given something to do that lacked meaning or value. This often happened when we had substitute teachers in grade school, who would give us a word search or a crossword puzzle and tell us that we had to do it. I’d work really hard on the thing, get it done and turn it in with the idea that this was contributing mightily to my final grade.

Three weeks later, when I would ask the regular teacher about the assignment and what my grade was, I’d often get the, “What? Oh… I’m sure you’re fine…” response. It was then that I would realize the point of the assignment was to shut the class up and keep the sub from having to do actual teaching.

“Because I said so” isn’t an answer. The quickest way to sap someone of their autonomy, and thus undercut any chance you have to reach them, is to rely on power of position to dictate their behavior.

When I give presentations to student media editors, I often explain it this way: When you were in high school, you probably wanted your parents to let you stay out later, go to a party, borrow the car or something else like that. You’re articulating all the reasons why you should be allowed to do this, when all of a sudden Mom or Dad just says, “No.”

When you ask “Why?” and they say “Because I’m your parent, that’s why!” did that answer ever really seem satisfactory to you? Probably not. You didn’t go, “Oh, damn! I totally forgot about that! Thanks so much for reminding me. I’ll be up in my room cleaning up my pigsty and eating some broccoli while I’m at it. Good talk!”

 If I’m giving a student something to do, I need to make sure it has value and that I can explain what that value is. If I’m docking a kid a half-grade for a mistake or failing the kid on a particular assignment, I need to be able to articulate what went wrong and why it matters this much. This reinforces the lessons behind the assignments and grading and it also helps the kid remember it better.

LET THE PENALTY FIT THE CRIME: The rules professors have for their classes can vary from a couple suggestions to something that would make a lawyer blush. I have colleagues who deduct daily participation points for each minute a student is late. I also have colleagues who don’t care if the kids show up at all.

When it came to how to govern my classroom, I kind of liked the late John Madden’s set of rules for his Oakland Raiders’ teams:

  1. Be on time.
  2. Pay attention.
  3. Play like hell when I tell you to.

I’m sure each of us has a good reason for the rules we espouse. (If not, go back to the previous point…) The one thing that’s important, however, is to make sure the punishment fits the crime.

I tend to rely on my Catholic upbringing when it comes to metering out punishment, in that I tend to distinguish between venial sins and mortal sins. When it comes to venial sins, I want to penalize them enough to create awareness, but not so much as to really harm them.

In the case of a single assignment, I set the “venial” pain at a level in which a student can make an error or two and still find themselves in that low A/high B range. Frequent visits to Venial City, however, can really do a number on their grade.

When it comes to mortal sins, I want it to hurt so bad they never do it again, but I don’t want to essentially kill them for their transgressions, either.

Case in point: Fact errors.

I have heard a wide array of options for punishing students who misspell a proper noun, get a number wrong or in some other way fail to be factually accurate. When a number of professors got together and this came up, it sounded like a game of “Oh yeah? Top this!” Punishments included:

  • A failing grade of 50% on the assignment
  • A zero for the assignment
  • A failing grade for the course
  • A first strike toward expulsion
  • Whatever this is

I consider fact errors to fall into that “mortal sin” category, so I’m not opposed to whacking the crap out of a student who makes one. However, if you hit someone with the death penalty right out of the gate, you’re never going to give them a chance to learn from the mistake.

Also, if we’re supposed to be preparing people for jobs in the “real world,” I somehow doubt a transposed number in an address or a typo in a name would cost someone a job without some extreme extenuating circumstances. (On the other hand, something like plagiarism, making up a source or similar malfeasance would likely cost someone a job. Thus, I have no problem with breaking out the death penalty on those.)

A fact error that would require a publication run a correction costs one of my students about one-sixth of their total grade on that assignment (Don’t ask. It’s some weird math that would take a bit too long to explain). In some of my classes, I also have the students write a correction for me that they have to submit before they get the points the story would earn.

 

SHIFT THEIR FOCUS OFF OF GRADES: I hate grades and grading, primarily because these things don’t matter when it comes to practical journalism.

One of the first things I tell the students is that when they apply for a job in journalism, no one will ever ask them what their grade-point average is. (As mentioned in an earlier post, it’s now up to two people who ever came back to tell me that grades were mentioned, so maybe ALMOST no one is a better way of saying this...)

These people care about what you can do as a writer, reporter, photographer, videographer, blogger, podcaster, social media manager or whatever. The fact you got an A on a fire brief because you cajoled your professor to the brink of a mental breakdown isn’t going to impress them. (Also, your GPA can be buoyed by gen eds and I doubt any decent newspaper, TV station or website is going to be blown away at your ability to instantly recall the key reforms associated with the Council of Trent.)

Your institution might require a certain grade in a certain class to move on to the next one in the sequence. Here at UWO, you need a C or better to move on or you have to take the class again, and I tell them that right up front. I also tell them this:

“You need a C or better to get out of here alive. The way I have structured this class, this grade is entirely possible for anyone in here to achieve. You really have to try to fail my class, which a number of people have managed to prove in spectacular fashion.

“However, the way I built this, no one assignment can kill you and no one assignment can save you. It’s hard to get an A, because you have to demonstrate consistent excellence. However, it’s hard to get below a C, because you have to turn in consistently bad work.

“But here’s my promise to you: If you show up at every class, turn in every assignment on time, ask for help when you don’t understand something, come to office hours if you need more help and basically keep working at getting better, the grades will come and you’ll get out of here just fine.”

In a similar vein, I don’t push students to get A’s when I realize it’s not in their best interest to do so. Between the stress of the pandemic and any of a dozen personal crises, some kids are reaching their breaking points. If I can’t make the situation better, the least I can do is not make it worse.

When a kid needs a C to get out of a class alive or a D- at worst to pass the class and graduate, there is no shame in telling the kid, “Look. Get the job done the best you can. Don’t do something illegal/unethical in your work because you wanted to cut a corner and see if you could get away with something. Just turn in something functional and move on with life.”

It might not be a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment, but at least it’s honest and helpful.

 

Gone Fishin’: Finals Week Edition

As we enter finals week out here in the frozen northland, I’ll be putting the blog into hibernation for a bit. I should be back up and around on a regular schedule starting in late January, but if anything comes up that needs attention, I’ll make sure to punch it down for the good of the cause.

If anyone is looking for anything specific that you all need for a class lesson or whatever else, just hit me up and I’ll be glad to build it for you. Also, I really enjoyed my time doing Zoom sessions with a couple classes this year, so I’m planning to open up my schedule for more of these!

If you’re looking for another educator to swing by and tell the students something you’ve told them 73 times before but they still don’t believe you, please let me know. I’ve found that wisdom in the minds of our students only exists in people who are not actually teaching the course day in and day out.

Have a safe and wonderful end of the term.

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

THROWBACK THURSDAY: 5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie

In my media writing class this week, we covered the basics of libel and defamation, which inevitably led me to break out the cautionary tale that was the coverage of Richard Jewell. I still haven’t seen the Clint Eastwood movie that brought the security guard back into the journalism lexicon, but I still show the “30 for 30” episode to my reporting class each year.

The Jewell saga is a good one to remind journalists that “everyone knows” isn’t good enough to turn a supposition into a fact.

Here’s a look back at the important things that get lost in the mess of the film and why the whole situation still deserves attention in our journalism courses


5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie

 

After reading Tracy Everbach’s excellent review of, “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood film that looks at the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Bombing, it became clear that the film missed the opportunity to provide a new generation with important lessons.

In the wake of the movie’s release, multiple groups have dialed in on the film’s key failures. The discussion of how Kathy Scruggs, and by implication female journalists, was portrayed has people upset with the trope that women trade sex for tips in journalism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spoken out about the Scruggs issue, as well as how the movie fails to show that the journalism the paper did that helped turn the tide in Jewell’s favor.

I have long used the Richard Jewell story as an example of what can happen when “EVERYBODY KNOWS!” becomes, “Um… Whoops…” in journalism.

I show, and will continue to show, the ESPN 30 for 30 Short “Judging Jewell,”as it covers the case from all angles, including having representation from the AJC. It’s about 30 minutes and it’s worth the time. So is the “60 Minutes” piece on Jewell from 2002:

 

I have not seen the “Richard Jewell” movie yet, so I can’t say what it actually did or did not do. What I can say is that the film’s approach has enough people upset about the issues listed above (and a few others) that several key things got lost along the way:

 

It wasn’t one reporter or one publication that created this clustermess: The focus on Kathy Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the media coverage feel like a game of one-on-one between Scruggs and Jewell. It wasn’t even close to that.

The Olympics were in town and you had participants from 197 countries present. That put thousands of journalists in that area at the time of the bombing, thus leading to a giant pack of TV and print reporters chasing one big question: “Who did it?”

Pictures and video taken outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment had photographers, videographers, reporters and more swarming the area as Jewell went to work the day after the attack. As the FBI showed up to interview him, and later to search the apartment, the media was all over the place with all sorts of equipment. (In one interview, Jewell said there were at least five satellite trucks in the apartment’s parking lot.)

(Scruggs wasn’t even the only reporter from the AJC to be on the story. In a review of the news coverage that came out after the infamous, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” story, I found nearly a dozen names of journalists attached to stories about the attack.)

People everywhere seemed to be piling on. Entertainers and tabloids called Jewell, “Una-Doofus” and “Una-Bubba,” a reference to the recently captured Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This was a global story.

To pin any one thing on any one journalist or one publication is more than a stretch. As Henry Schuster, a former producer at CNN, noted, “This thing just goes nuclear.”

 

Attributions matter, so use them: The courts that heard Jewell’s cases against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed statements made in several articles in which Jewell was identified as the key suspect in the bombing. In a 2011 Appeals Court Ruling in favor of the AJC’s reporting, the court noted:

On July 31, in an article entitled “`Hero’ denies planting bomb,” the AJC reported that, “[i]nvestigators now say… they believe [Jewell] placed the 911 call himself.” Likewise, in the same August 4 article referenced in Division (III)(A), the AJC stated that “[i]nvestigators have said they believe Jewell … phoned in a warning to 911.”

Again, we cannot agree with Jewell that the challenged statements are actionable. Although the July 31 article repeats the opinion of investigators who reportedly believed that Jewell may have placed the 911 call, it includes within its text the factual premise of that reported opinion.

In other words, the reporter properly attributed the information to an official source, who was acting in an official capacity, thus giving the paper protection against a claim of libel. (This concept is often referred to as “qualified privilege.”) Several other sections of the court’s ruling note similar attributions protecting several of the paper’s other stories.

This is one of the many reasons why I often write “SAYS WHO?” on statements my students make in their stories and why I’m a major pain in the keester about attributing information to a source. It can keep you out of a hell of a lot of trouble.

 

You are a reporter, not God: The one story I kept looking for was the original piece Scruggs and fellow reporter Kent E. Walker published in that July 30 “Extra” edition of the paper that declared, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” I noticed it wasn’t mentioned in the appeals and it wasn’t in the archives I had access to. Jewell stated in multiple interviews that this was the piece that really started the entire whirlwind of controversy about him.

After paying for access to the AJC’s archives, I found it and I could better understand why he thought so. If attributions are like armor and shields against an attack, this story was butt-naked. Consider the first three sentences:

The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police “wannabe” who seeks to become a hero.

This whole opening gives me hives, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one afraid of it. CNN actually read the paper’s piece live on air, making absolutely certain to be clear they were just telling people what the AJC reported.

Who made up this “profile?” How was it conceived? How many other people might “fit” that profile? Who says Jewell is “frustrated?” A “wannabe?” Not a single sentence here is attributed to anyone, least of all an official source acting in an official capacity. Also, by not having ANY attribution, the story reads as if the paper itself is saying the guy is not only the focus of the investigation but he fits the profile of a bomber.

Journalists only get away with those kinds of statements when they are of the “water is wet” variety, so when the AJC states this, it’s like, “Water is wet, the sky is blue and Richard Jewell, a man who ‘found’ a bomb, fits the pattern of the kind of guy who would plant one.”

In a case study of the AJC’s coverage, the author notes that the managing editor, John Walter, made the decision not to attribute the information:

Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the “voice of God” approach when it came to attributing the information. The voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to unnamed sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.

As Walter explained later, he didn’t think attributing the story to unnamed sources “was fair.” The reason, he said, is that “once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there.” In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.

 

A couple things:

  1. I have always found the “Voice of God” approach to be stupid as hell, as it essentially says, “Look, just take my word for it. I’m a journalist and I know stuff.” It removes possible protections you might have and it really does put the media outlet at risk for anything that might go wrong.
  2. I reread Walter’s explanation a dozen times and found it to have the same internal logic as saying, “I smelled gas in a dark room and I didn’t feel safe not knowing where it was, so I felt it was important to light a match and see what I could find.” It reminded me of the way in which our student newspaper editors at Ball State would say stuff like, “Oh that photo/graphic/story is way to bloody/naked/unproven to run in the print paper. Just stick it online.”
  3. You’re not God. You’re a journalist. Act like it.

Again, this wasn’t just the AJC who decided to play God when it came to laying out information. NBC, which ended up settling out of court with Jewell, ran several pieces in which Tom Brokaw took on the “Voice of God,” including one particular exchange he had with Bob Costas, live on air:

“The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case, in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now. Probably enough to prosecute him but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There’s still some holes in this case.”

Brokaw explained to Mike Wallace in a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview his reason for making the statement he did on air. It sounded like a word salad that a drunk puked onto a passing bus:

Brokaw later in the interview said that he had multiple sources in high places in law enforcement telling him they were focusing on Jewell.

Fine. Then say THAT:

“I spoke with multiple law enforcement officials who said Jewell is the primary suspect in the bombing. They also told me they plan to arrest him if and when they get enough evidence together to convict him of the bombing.”

How hard is that to say?

In short, don’t let a sense of either self-importance or general knowledge get in the way of nailing down your facts. If you have a “water is wet” fact, tell it to me straight up. If it’s a “Vince Filak is a great professor” fact, you need an attribution on that thing because, God knows, a lot of folks are going ask, “Says WHO?”

 

A key court ruling about Jewell’s status made a huge difference: Lost in the argument about the accuracy of the reporting was the courts’ decision that Jewell was viewed as a limited-purpose public figure. The initial court ruling, as well as the 2001 appeals court decision, explained why this mattered:

The central issue presented by this appeal is whether Jewell, as the plaintiff in this defamation action, is a public or private figure, as those terms are used in defamation cases.   This is a critically important issue, because in order for a “public figure” to recover in a suit for defamation, there must be proof by clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendant.  Plaintiffs who are “private persons” must only prove that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence. Jewell contends the trial court erred in finding that he is a “public figure” for purposes of this defamation action.   We disagree.

Had Jewell won this point, all he would have needed to show to win the case was that the AJC should have done a better job than it did during its reporting on him. His standing as a limited-purpose public figure meant he had to prove actual malice, which means that the paper knew what it was doing was wrong and did it anyway because the folks there wanted to mess with him.

Private citizens get a lot more protection than public figures in a lot of ways. For example, journalists have frequently reported on allegations that President Donald Trump cheated on his wife with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to keep it quiet. As a public figure (and maybe the MOST public figure in the United States), this kind of stuff is fair game for journalists.

If I, as a private citizen, were to cheat on my wife like that today, the first time the media would be justified reporting on it would be in my obituary that would run the day after Amy found out about it, or in a story about her being charged with murder.

 

Regardless of who was right or wrong, the Jewell case is an important cautionary tale: The movie has a lot of stakeholders trying to shore up their positions: The producers, the AJC, other media outlets, the FBI, Jewell’s family/attorneys and more. When that happens, we tend to find ourselves arguing about what kind of bark is on the tree in front of us instead of seeing the entire forest.

The FBI was under pressure to get this situation resolved, but folks who dealt with the Jewell investigation knew that some agents cut corners they shouldn’t have. In several interviews, Former US Attorney for the Northern District Kent Alexander noted that the FBI tried to trick Jewell into admitting things he didn’t do under the pretense of creating a “first-responder video.” Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen outline a lot of this in their book, “The Suspect.”

The AJC didn’t settle its case while other outlets quickly folded and paid off Jewell. The paper was convinced it reported the news in a legitimate and legally protected fashion and the courts agreed. However, the folks at the paper stated, in retrospect, that there were issues in how everything came together in the reporting. Former Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton explained in his “Judging Jewell” interview that he still isn’t entirely comfortable with the way attributions were or weren’t used, as well as some of the choices the paper made in terms of phrasing.

Last month, Roughton wrote a first-person essay about the movie, the book and his own experiences and it really does leave journalists and journalism students with something to take with them every time they ply their trade:

For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever.

We owe them our best work.

 

How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist

After I ran Thursday’s post on the mass-shooting event in Michigan, a fellow journalism educator posted a note and a request:

I want to get your Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing to read your thoughts on covering shootings.
I teach near Philadelphia, the City if Brotherly Love, that surpassed an annual record of 500 people shot and killed—in 11 months. I am very sad a Temple University student returning from Thanksgiving weekend was shot twice in the chest in broad daylight by a 19-year-old who was trying to carjack him.
Whether shootings are individual or en masse, we must be sensitive to victims and families while seeking answers to curb the killings.
As I’ve said before, if someone asks for something, I will gladly blog about it, so here we go…
I teach crime reporting and breaking news as part of my junior-level reporting class, but I always include a caveat up front:

Reporting on things like shootings, hurricanes, car crashes and other sorts of mayhem doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of guidelines. I can tell you what I’ve done or what I’ve seen, but at the end of the day, how you react to something is entirely your own doing. While we can read press releases and talk about crime, you never know how you’ll react once you’re on the scene of something.

Until you’ve seen a man get pulled out of a thresher or stood 3 feet from a shooting victim’s dead body, you really don’t know how it will impact you in the short term or the long term.

That said, experience has been a pretty good teacher for me, as a crime reporter, a criminal justice editor and a student media adviser, so here is my best advice on how to work a shooting or other chaotic event for the first time.

We’ll look at what to do (or not do) during your reporting phase, your writing phase and your “afterward” phase.

REPORTING PHASE:

PRIMARY REPORTING ADVICE:

Here are two key pieces of advice when it comes to covering these types of events:

Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.

A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.

Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those efforts conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a shooting or other similar event. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.

You need to understand that the shooter might still be out there, which can be dangerous or deadly for you or other people. Even if the shooter is dead or captured, police are likely still in a state of high tension, looking for other shooters or dangerous devices. You wandering around where you’re not supposed to be can create serious problems for them and you might be mistakenly viewed as a danger to them or others.  Adrenaline and watching too many “journalism movies” can make us feel emboldened to break the rules to get a major scoop.

Don’t.

Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand up against a burning building to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out.

Whatever is going on around you, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

OTHER REPORTING ADVICE

Use official sources when possible: When we talk about privilege in law, what we are talking about is the right to quote official sources, who are acting in their official capacity, without fear. This generally applies to judges rendering verdicts, congress-folks making proclamations from the floor and probably the pope. In some cases, it also applies to law-enforcement officials and fire folks who are working the scene of what’s going on. Relying on those folks can keep you out of trouble if facts turn out to be less than accurate.

(The law can get squishy here, so it’s always wise to check the rules.)

Even if the law itself isn’t providing you with a shield, interviewing these folks can be better than relying on witnesses or participants when it comes to the big-picture items. Regular folks get rattled when a shooting occurs or a car slams into a wall in front of them. They’re pumping adrenaline and freaking out, so their version of reality isn’t as solid as a crime scene investigator who has seen all this before. Even more, officials tend to have more of the entire picture in hand before they speak, which is beneficial to you as you try to make sense of this.

(Again, this doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over by the officials at some level, especially if they’re hiding something. However, you can REALLY get screwed over if a regular citizen decides to accuse someone of murder on live air. Yes, that actually happened…)

Engage in empathy during interviews with those involved: Trying to interview someone who is the victim of a shooting, a bystander/would-be victim of a shooting or those who are essentially collateral damage (family, friends etc. of a victim) is a ridiculously difficult proposition.

It can feel ugly and vulture-esque to bother people who just went through a chaotic and traumatic event. In some cases, a reporter’s desire to get the story can get them to push sources for information and exacerbate the trauma. Some publications have lousy editors who lean on reporters to dig into the situation with grace and dignity of frisking a dead body for valuables.

I have had a number of interviews in which I’ve had to approach a family member or friend of someone who just died or was injured in a terrible way. In one case, it was the family of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his best friend. In another case, it was the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died after slamming her car into a tree while drunken driving. The first family wanted nothing to do with me; the second talked to me at length. Neither was a pleasant experience.

Empathy and caution go a long way to making this less painful for everyone involved. I tell my students that we’re like waiters at a fancy cocktail party who walk around with hors d’oeuvres on a tray: We offer people something and if they don’t want it, we walk away quickly and politely.

The best example of how to think about this came from Kelly Furnas, a professor of journalism, who was advising student media at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shooting. More than 30 people died during an attack in which a student opened fire on campus. Furnas and his staff at the Collegiate Times had to not only cover the story, but eventually write obituaries for each of the fallen.

A quote he gave me years ago still sticks with me:

“The students I talked to were terrified of the fact that they would need to call these families and I said, ‘You don’t assume that these families don’t want to talk.’ That’s a very important thing to these families to tell the story of their son’s or daughter’s lives. That’s a very important thing. A lot of people not only want to do it, but expect to do it.”

He said the students were told to do their best and just give people a chance to speak. If they were outraged by the reporter’s questions, the reporter was to apologize and walk away.

In the end, however, very few people rejected the request for an interview, he said.

Don’t bail out on your duty to report because you are afraid of what people might say. Give them the chance to say no before you do it for them.

 

WRITING PHASE

Primary Writing Advice

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: When you are working against the clock, trying to break news and pushing back against competitors and social media folks, it can feel like the weight of the world is on you to get SOMETHING out there.

In the olden days, as in before everyone could be online in 3 seconds after they saw something, we could hang on for a bit before having to produce content for public consumption. Broadcasters got the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts to inform folks. Print journalists could wait until press time to get the best version of reality, or update things between editions.

Today, you are live 24-7, so it can feel like you’re always under pressure to convert whatever you gathered into something for the public.

In the case of chaos, you need to balance that urge against your journalistic training to be accurate above all else. Fast and wrong isn’t doing anyone any good.

If you don’t have something you feel is accurate, supported and clear, don’t pump it out there and figure you’ll fix it later. You can always publish something later. Once you toss something out there, you can never really get it back.

 

Additional Writing Advice

Play it straight: You are likely living through an emotionally turbulent situation, one unlike anything you’ve faced to this point in your career. Your emotions can run the gamut of fear and anxiety to the sense that you’re about to write the Greatest Piece of Journalism Ever ™ so it’s time to shine.

There’s a reason we teach you the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism, namely so that when faced with something completely out of the ordinary, you can rely on your training to do things right. This is one of those times, so don’t overdo anything.

Tell the people what happened and why they care in the most direct way possible. It’s what good pros do:

A 15-year-old opened fire at his Michigan high school Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding eight others, authorities said, in what appears to be the deadliest episode of on-campus violence in more than 18 months.

Don’t start slathering on adverbs. Don’t hype it with opinions. Don’t turn this into a narrative lead that shifts the focus toward “dig my writing” and away from what happened.

Tell people what happened in the most direct and clear way possible, based on what you can prove.

Speaking of which…

 

Stick to the facts: In the film “And the Band Played On,” researchers at the CDC are trying to pinpoint the cause of a strange malady that is killing primarily gay men. Their quest to identify the AIDS virus as well as its cause and spread had the virus  hunters relying on a simple mantra: “What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” Unless they could hit the “prove” stage, they refused to state something publicly with certainty.

This approach is a good one for anyone covering chaos, especially something that continues to unfold, like an active shooter situation.

If you can stick to the facts and the material provided to you from reliable sources, you can keep your readers informed and avoid spreading misinformation. If you don’t know how many people were shot, don’t guess. Don’t rely on terms like “arguably” to cover over your limited knowledge, saying things like “This is arguably the worst shooting in U.S. history.”

Say only what you can prove at the time, and that also means taking care with how you are stating something.

For example, police can say something like, “The shooter is no longer a threat.”

OK, does that mean he’s been captured? He was killed? He ran out of bullets? Also are we sure the shooter is a “he?” (Make sure in the reporting phase to check these things, as well as other details before publishing.)

Good work on the front end and sticking to what you know on the back end can lead to simple statements like: “Police Chief John Smith said the shooter, a 15-year-old male student at the school, is ‘no longer a threat.'”

 

Attribute everything you can: One of the key things you should note in the Washington Post lead was the attribution. Even though “authorities said” is vague, the rest of the story was able to fill in specifically who those authorities are and why we should trust them.

I always try to make the point that attributions are like anchor points when you’re climbing a rock formation: You might not need all of them, but it’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I also note that I’ve never met anyone who has been fired or sued for over-attributing, but more than a few people have ended up on the short end of the stick for under attributing.

When you are writing a story like this, it’s important to look at each statement you type and ask, “Says who?” If the answer is a specific person, include that in the attribution (County Coroner Jill Smith, Police Chief Doug Jones, Superintendent Raul Allegre etc.). If the information is more general, as in you got the same story from multiple people or documents, make that clear as well (Several police officers said the hallway was littered with spent shell casings from an AR-15; Court documents state Principal Helen Carter repeatedly filed reports with the district on this issue; An email chain between the boy’s parents and teachers show that while school officials were worried about his behavior, the parents said ‘Guns are part of his life, so back off.'”)

If you DON’T have a specific source or collective source, where did you get this stuff and how sure are you that it’s right? That’s where people usually screw up, because they assume they know more than they do and they fail to look it up or find a source worthy of attribution.

If you can’t find a source worthy of an attribution, wait until you can before you publish it.

 

Have someone else read it before it goes out: After you read and reread and reread something again, you can find yourself blind to your work. You also probably cut and pasted a half-dozen things in a half-dozen spots and then undid at least half of that. By the time you think you’re done, you lack any sense of what is actually in there and what you SWEAR you wrote instead.

A fresh set of eyes are a godsend in this kind of situation.

An editor or a colleague who hasn’t read this before will give you a good chance of catching things like if you swapped the name of a victim and the shooter or if you skipped a first reference to a source. It’s something worth doing because you want to make sure you’re right.

My personal stupid thing was that I always got the day wrong for every story I did. For reasons past my understanding, I always wrote that something happened Monday. Didn’t matter what day, week, month or year something happened, I always made it a Monday.

I caught a lot of those on second or third reads, but it was usually up to my editor or a colleague to ask, “Are you sure this happened on Monday?”

Again, you can’t beat a fresh set of eyes.

 

AFTERWARD PHASE

Never assume you’re done reporting: The thing about chaos is that it doesn’t operate on a schedule. It doesn’t show up as expected or finish up neatly at the end of an hour, like a TV crime drama. You have to make sure you’re frequently checking in to see what’s going on and if you’re still telling people the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Whatever was right as rain at 9 a.m. is completely wrong at 2 p.m.

The arrest that happened last night turned out to be a case of mistaken identity the next morning.

An early body count ends up being much larger or smaller than once was thought.

Assumptions become facts or become worthless as police continue to investigate.

I remember once following up on a story for a fellow reporter who had filed and gone home after her shift was done. The story was about a toddler clinging to life after falling into a creek. The whole story was about hope and prayer and this boy’s will to live. She was a great reporter and a great writer and this was one of those amazing stories she always told.

My job was “just to make sure” if something changed, so about 10:30 p.m., I called the hospital to get an update that might or might not make the paper.

The PR person was kind of half talking to me and half talking to someone nearby when I heard her say, “So… We can tell him then?”

The kid died five minutes earlier when they took him off life support.

I asked about four really bad questions, that ended up having this woman shouting at me something like, “Everything possible was done to save this child’s life!” (which sounds a lot better in print without the anger in her voice). As she’s talking/yelling, I wrote “KID DIED” on a legal pad and held it up for my editor who was across the room.

He saw it and came rushing over as I finished the interview.

“Oh shit,” he told me. “You have four minutes to rewrite the story.”

Long story short, it got done and we got it subbed in for the first edition of the paper. I didn’t get a byline, but I got a hell of an experience and a valuable lesson: Chaos doesn’t operate on your schedule. Make sure you’re constantly checking in.

Engage in self-care activities: One of the easiest things to forget when you’re in the middle of a chaotic event is that you are human and that things do affect you. The job allows you a kind of shield against feeling things or coming to grips with what you’re witnessing at the time.

Don’t kid yourself. You’re taking a beating, whether you know it or not, and you need to heal yourself a bit.

The truth is, you will see things that will gag a maggot, horrors that will haunt you for years and truly inexplicable acts that have you asking “Why?” more times than a 4-year-old after ingesting a pound of sugar. Those things DO leave a scar, whether you want them to or not. They’re there, whether  you realize it or not.

You will need to do some serious self-care activities to keep from sustaining serious damage.

This can be simple decompression things like clearing your mind or coming to grips with things you’ve seen or written. It can be talking through your feelings and emotions with colleagues or looking for things that can help you reset your mind and body.

These things can also include therapy or professional help. Acknowledging and coping with what your work has done to you does not make you weak or soft.

It makes you a human being who wants to take care of their own needs before they can take care of their audience’s.

 

The 3 A’s of self-editing for the big picture

Editing your own work can be extremely difficult because if you didn’t think it was right in the first place, you probably wouldn’t have written it. Add that to the fact we have spell checks, Google and more, we tend to think that we’ve got everything covered.

That is, until someone else reads it, finds 138,025 problems and we end up looking like idiots.

Throughout the process of editing, you should be looking for all errors, large and small. (A post that says, “Make sure stuff is spelled right” or “Always check your facts” is a tad reductive at this stage of the semester. That said, I’m still seeing those kinds of errors, so do both of those things first and then come back to this post.)

Beyond keying in on the basics, you should also spend some time looking at the bigger picture when it comes to the value of the story. Since students like to get all A’s, here are a few A’s to consider when looking at a story.

Accuracy: You want to make sure that you’re not just fact checking but accuracy checking the bigger sense of if this is actually accurate and representative of reality.

For example, the statement “Vince Filak has been an owner of two professional sports teams” is factually accurate: I own a share of Packers stock and when the Cleveland baseball team went public back in the late 1990s, I had 10 shares of that as well. I was “an owner” of two teams, both of which were professional teams. (Although some days with Cleveland, it wasn’t always the case.)

That said, this isn’t really representative of reality because it leads people to believe I might have been in an owners box, giving Jerry Jones grief over the play of the Cowboys.

When you read through your work for accuracy, ask yourself, “Could someone conceivably misinterpret what I’m trying to tell them?” If so, try to rework it to better represent things in an accurate and clear fashion. Just because something “sounds good,” it doesn’t follow that you should keep it as is.

Advantages: Journalists love being first to provide people with information. “The big scoop” drives many people in the field to push for big stories. In most cases, those stories don’t mean as much as the everyday stories that can impact people’s lives. Valuable content can also be lost in stories amid a sea of glib quotes and tortured prose.

This is one of the more difficult things about self-editing: You tend to get really deep into the topic, to the point in which you forget that your readers are getting this for the first time. They don’t know all the stuff you do, nor do they have a strong sense of why they should care. To that end, you want to make sure you are highlighting key advantages in the story you are writing.

During your self-edit, look for ways to tell people “This matters to you because X!” or “Here’s why you should care!” Look for ways to showcase those advantages for your readers.

Accessible: The reason people go to a website, pick up a newspaper, thumb through a magazine or use any other form of media is to be engaged, entertained or educated.  The only way any of these things can occur is if the reader can understand the material itself.

In the self-edit, go back through and look at every term that you think your mom or your kid brother wouldn’t understand from the jump. If the jargon is unfamiliar to them, it might be unfamiliar to your readers.

That doesn’t mean you’ll cut every term that doesn’t make sense to common folk. You will often write for readers who are as attuned to a topic as you are, if not more. That said, you should question the degree to which your audience can follow along with what you’re trying to say before you just let the abbreviations and “inside baseball” terms slide by.

If they can’t read it easily, they will go elsewhere for their information. Shape your stories so they reflect the vocabulary, knowledge base and tone you expect your audience to embrace. Make your stories good reads, and people will continue to consume your content.

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

A school shooting in Oxford, Michigan this week left four dead and seven others wounded. A 15-year-old boy named Ethan Crumbley is charged with murder and terrorism, after he was accused of exiting a school bathroom with a handgun and firing it repeatedly at his classmates.  News reports state that Crumbley’s parents were at the school earlier that day, discussing the boy’s disturbing classroom behavior with school officials.

In looking for a throwback post today, I just searched “mass shooting” on the site and found an unfortunately large number of posts I’d written that included that term. There were pieces about how the Pitt News covered a shooting at a local synagogue. There were pieces regarding the Virginia Tech and Las Vegas shootings. There were “how to cover this” explainers for people involved in breaking news of this type.

The piece I picked out, however, was the piece I forgot that I had written. When you write a textbook, they tell you not to pick such specific types of examples that you won’t be able to update a second or third edition easily with a fresh version of it. In other words, if you’re pinning a whole section of a chapter on this one time this one thing happened that likely will never happen again, you’ll be in trouble.

What I found in looking back, unfortunately, is that I referenced a number of mass shootings in my texts and that I never seem to run out of fresh examples. If you don’t believe me, read on and also realize that four years after I originally posted this, I had forgotten about a lot of these incidents myself. And I know that I’ve updated both books without missing a beat when it comes to fresh shooting examples.

I find that heartbreaking.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Recording of “The Last Lecture” by Vincent Filak

A number of folks asked if there was a recording of  “The Last Lecture” I did for the UWO Greek community. Adviser Angie Zemke was nice enough to send me the file of the event and I did a cut-down of it to make it work on YouTube.

Here’s my 38 minutes of fame in all its glory. I had a fantastic time doing this and from what I heard, the students laughed a lot more than I could hear up where I was. Of course, all I heard was the blood pounding in my ears as I tried not to curse, so there’s that.

Enjoy and thanks for your interest!

 

The Junk Drawer: Thanksgiving Leftovers Edition

At least I don’t THINK we’ve stored extra turkey in here…

Thanksgiving is a time of family, friends and food for most people. For us here at the Filak Farm, it’s “At least we didn’t end up going to the emergency room this year,” kind of day. Not to get too deep into the details of weirdness for us here, but let’s just say my Boy Scout training came in really handy this year and that burning plastic smells terrible.

Since leftovers are the course du jour these days, here are a few bits and bites from the past couple weeks.

From the “Know Your Audience” department:

We were supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with my brother-in-law’s family, but the kids all came down with some sort of strange virus at the last minute. I called my mom to see if we could slide in by her house, and she and dad were overjoyed at having us.

I felt bad that we were basically doubling the number of people who were coming to dinner, and told mom that I was worried we’d make it so she wouldn’t have enough food.

She admonished me in the best way possible: “Vincent, get real. We’re Polish.”

And then I remembered our family motto: “If you leave a party we throw and you’re hungry or sober, that’s your fault.”

After all were fed to bursting, everyone still had leftovers to take home and mom basically filled her fridge as well.

It was a good reminder to remember my audience.

Speaking of which…

From the “Oh, buddy, did you knock on the wrong door” department:

I get that when you’re trying to launch some quasi-innovative project, you tend to blanket email everyone with your “special TV offer,” but when I got this one, I just had to laugh:

Let’s have fun with this:

  • Telling a textbook author that people find textbooks “expensive, bloated, and unengaging” has the same internal logic of telling someone you meet at the bar, “Damn, are you ugly! Wanna dance?”
  • I went to find this company’s “proven track record” of doing what it says it does. It’s a pretty short record and a pretty short track.
  • The bolding and underlining of one line really brings home the point that he’s not trying to sell me a textbook. I would really hope not, given his assessment of textbooks. This has the same internal logic of when you’re eating with someone and they say, “Dear GOD, this tastes terrible! Here, you try it…”
  • Spoiler alert: I did not sign up for my introductory meeting. Go figure.

This wasn’t the first time we covered something like this on the blog, but it bears repeating: Know your audience before you pitch something to the folks in it.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice-cream-related litigation

If you want to find an amazing story that goes way, way, way down the rabbit hole of the quest to get McDonald’s to have functional ice cream machines, here’s a piece from Wired that is truly amazing.

The author goes digs deep into court documents regarding an ongoing battle between a tiny startup company, a soft-serve-machine manufacturer and the fast-food giant itself over who can tell franchisees how to fix an ice cream machine. It also digs into potential corporate espionage:

Now the discovery documents from Kytch’s lawsuit seem to confirm Taylor’s specific attempts to replicate Kytch’s features, contradicting a statement it sent to WIRED in March that claimed that “Taylor has not imitated Kytch’s device and would have no desire to do so.” They show that in a May 2019 email, Taylor vice president of engineering Jim Minard—since promoted to chief operating officer—asked another Taylor staffer to “please buy a [Kytch] kit and provide me a written evaluation on the hardware and software.” Minard added in the email, “Seems we might be missing something in our approach to our connected equipment.”

Yet one more good reason to stick with Culver’s Custard.

For your “reading pleasure”

While in an Arizona bookstore a couple weeks back, I came across a book that warmed my heart:

I’m a huge fan of properly executed partial quotes, which is why it drives me batty when people use them in the dumbest possible way. Bethany Keeley’s collection of misused quotation marks is a total keeper, and still available on Amazon.

And finally…

From the “Do you know your ass from a plant in the ground?” department:

A student from my Mizzou days posted this notice about her work as a copy editor:

In case you’re not quite clear on this, here’s a quick John Oliver segment to help you out…

Good luck on your run to the finish line of the semester.

See you tomorrow.

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

Catch a livestream of my “Last Lecture” (and amuse yourself while you’re watching)

This will be the last post until after Thanksgiving, as a couple important events are conspiring to keep me off the blog for a bit. I have a trip to Arizona this week to see my grandfather, a massive maelstrom of grading and the annual “How did Thanksgiving get here so fast?” trek of visits to family and friends.

The big event, however, is happening before all of that.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 6 p.m. Central, I’ll be delivering a “Last Lecture” to the fraternity and sorority folks out here at UWO. I was invited based on student recommendations and I have to admit this is one of the biggest thrills of my professional life:

(In case you are unfamiliar with the “Last Lecture” concept, it was made famous by Dr. Randy Pausch, a professor who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. With less than three months to live, Pausch offered his audience a view on how to achieve their childhood dreams as his “Last Lecture.”)

If you are interested in watching me try not to curse accidentally in front of a ballroom filled with students, the link to the livestream is here.

(If you want to dial in from one of about a squillion places, here’s the full 4-1-1 on all that.)

To make this a bit more fun for some of you, especially those of you who know me well, I’ve created two BINGO cards you can use to keep track of my “eccentricities” during the speech:

Hope it helps. I’ll be back after the Thanksgiving break to help close up the semester. As always, though, if you need me, hit me up through the contact page and I’ll be there.

Have a great holiday!

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