Throwback Thursday: A shout-out for gender-equity and making sure you’re sure after Baylor’s NCAA men’s basketball title

A lot of hoops-la (sorry, I had to) was made of the Baylor Bears winning the NCAA men’s basketball title this week. The men’s team had never won a title before and was at least seven decades removed from its last championship game.

However, when writers started talking about it, they did so in a way that wasn’t entirely accurate:

Baylor routs Gonzaga as Bears win first national title, end Zags’ perfect season

‘Make a movie out of it’: Go behind the scenes of Baylor’s first national championship celebration

They did it! Baylor Bears dominate Gonzaga to capture first NCAA basketball championship

The problem? Baylor actually had three previous national championships in basketball… all of them on the women’s side.

Some publications did make the distinction for the readers, but more than a few did not.

So with that in mind, we throw back back to another “first” that wasn’t from three years ago to give people a few helpful hints on reporting sports achievements of this type.

 

3 lessons beginning sports writers should learn from the 16-seeded UMBC Retrievers win over No. 1 Virginia

Sports journalism thrives on record-setting performances, amazing finishes and moments when the impossible occurs. As the NCAA men’s Division I tournament began last week, one “unbreakable” record appeared safe: No 16 seed in that tournament had ever defeated a 1 seed in the tournament. In 135 chances, the 16 seed was 0-135.

The Retrievers of the University of Maryland Baltimore County ended that streak on Friday, defeating the top-ranked team in the tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers, by 20 points. People poured on to social media to relish the moment and celebrate the “David” who just took down “Goliath.” However, in calling the Retrievers the “first 16 seed to ever defeat a 1 seed,” people were factually inaccurate.

The women’s team at Harvard came to the NCAA tournament in 1998 as a 16 seed and defeated the number one team from Stanford, 71-67. Thus, the Retrievers were the first men to accomplish this task and yet not the first team to pull it off.

This leads to three simple lessons to take forward:

  • Don’t assume only men play: In a number of sports, men and women participate and women have the edge when it comes to records. For example, the person with the most open-era singles wins at Wimbledon isn’t Roger Federer with eight, but rather Martina Navratilova with nine. The person with the most goals in Olympic soccer history is Cristiane, a player for the Brazilian women’s national team. If you think something is a first, a last or an only, make sure to check both sides of the gender ledger before calling it a one-of-a-kind event.

 

  • Don’t assume  your level of competition is the only level out there: Sports have multiple divisions at the collegiate level (D-I, D-II and D-III), so just because a D-I team hasn’t pulled something off, don’t assume no one else ever has. When an NFL record is broken, keep in mind it isn’t the only “pro” league to ever exist, so if you are making a statement about all professional football history, make sure to check back on things like the WFL and the USFL. Or, just stick to calling it an NFL record.

 

  • Don’t assume that because “everybody said” something that “everybody is right: Watching the “first-ever 16 seed” (a redundancy that was almost as bad as the error itself) story fly around the internet had people piling on until someone decided to set the record straight:Harvard2

 

This leads to the main point of this post and the bigger overall lesson: Say ONLY what you KNOW for SURE. Don’t get caught up in the hype or assume something has NEVER happened just because you don’t know that it happened before or because “everyone knows” that something hasn’t happened. Instead, write what you can prove: No 16-seeded men’s team in this history of the NCAA D-I tournament had beaten a 1 seed in 135 attempts before UMBC defeated Virginia.

Your readers will still enjoy your work, the outcome is still impressive and you will have the benefit of being accurate.

Good Night, Pat Simms

Even when you know something is coming, it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with:

The details are fuzzy after so many years, but as Cliff Behnke remembers, Wisconsin State Journal reporter Patricia Simms was sent one day to cover a supposedly “secret” meeting at the Capitol.

“She strode into the meeting, told them the whole thing was open to the public and sent her notebook around the room with instructions for all the participants to write down their names and phone numbers in case she wanted to contact them later for the story.”

“They complied,” said Behnke, Simms’ former colleague and boss. “Talk about kicking ass and taking names.”

Mention Simms’ name to just about any journalist or power broker active in Madison over the last half-century, and they’re likely to have a story about the veteran reporter who succumbed to cancer Monday at the age of 75 after 42 years covering nearly every beat in local and state government.

The doctors gave her six months, which ended up being about six weeks. She died peacefully, I’m told, with her children at her side. The humane side of me is grateful for her and her family. The selfish side of me wished for a miracle.

I tried to explain before what someone like Pat meant to me, to others in the field and to journalism in general. I don’t think I have it in me to try again.

What I will say is that if you were a young reporter, you could have wished for no better mentor than Pat.

If you were a feminist, there was no better example to follow than Pat’s.

If you were weasel, you had no greater fear than a call from Pat.

And if you were her friend, you could never find one better.

Of all the things people have mentioned about her and all of my personal remembrances, probably the best memory of Pat is going to be my last one. When I sent her daughter that fumbling attempt to tell her what her mother meant to me, Sara read it to Pat.

The response was classic Pat: “She said it was so nice but ‘I’m not dead yet.’ ”

A rock star with a heroin problem, the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” guy and a foul-mouthed cheerleader: The Suicide Squad of free speech court cases

A frequent joke told among lawyers is that the best case is the one with a carload of nuns as your client and a busload of priests as your witnesses. In most cases, however, it seems more like this scene from “The Wire.”

 

When it comes to First Amendment law, it would be great if we had more cases in which polite, articulate young people like Mary Beth Tinker who quietly wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Her choice led to hate mail and threats, but also a ground-breaking Supreme Court case regarding student free-speech rights. And, looking back on it now, people can understand better her underlying concerns about the war as well as her relatively mild statement against it.

Tinker v. Des Moines (1969) established that students do not shed their Constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. It also provided protections for students who wish to express themselves against intrusion from school overreach.

Unfortunately, an upcoming case in which a high school student did her best “Scarface” dialogue on Snapchat could be the case that undoes a lot of those protections in a digital age:

In 2017, ninth-grader Brandi Levy said on Snapchat some version of what stressed-out students have been saying on the back of the school bus since the invention of buses: “Fuck school fuck softball fuck cheer fuck everything.”

The post was shared on a Saturday afternoon during a trip to the local convenience store, disappeared from Snapchat by Sunday afternoon, and caused no disturbance at school whatsoever—except to irritate the cheerleading coach, who banned Levy from the squad for a year.

She filed suit, and in June 2020, a federal appeals court ruled that school authorities violated the First Amendment by disciplining her for the off-campus speech. Now, the Mahanoy district is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling.

The case doesn’t matter in regard to that single incident anymore. Levy is now a college student, the cheer team has had a complete turnover in terms of membership and nothing the court could do would change what happened in regard to the punishment levied at the time.

However, if the court decides to overturn that appeals court’s ruling, it could mean that schools can now actively monitor social media and punish students for ANYTHING that appears to be “objectionable.” If that doesn’t scare you, you probably had one of the six “really cool” high school principals I was always told existed somewhere.

Me? I dealt with a lot of nuns and balding guys who wore short-sleeve shirts with brown ties. This is terrifying…

This leads to the point of the post: It seems like we NEVER get the perfect Supreme Court case that perfectly showcases speech that deserves to be protected for the betterment of society. It’s never the student newspaper that was censored for reporting that the principal had stolen money or the kid with the bullhorn outside the school telling people not to eat cafeteria food because the workers were being abused.

It’s always something with an F-bomb, a nude pick or a drug reference that we get to stand behind and say, “Hey, look… You CAN’T censor this because… well… geez…”

We don’t get Superman, Batman, Aquaman or Wonder Woman as our defenders of freedom.

We get The Suicide Squad:

In other words, we get a “mental defective dressed as a court jester,” a “guy who wears a toilet seat on his head” and a “shark with hands,” to quote the red-band trailer I’m not allowed to show you here…

If you think I’m kidding about this, consider the following court cases on important topics:

The landmark case for online speech and defamation? Rocker/Actress/Woman I’d be most scared of meeting in a dark alley Courtney Love won and survived an appeal of her “twibel” case (Twitter plus libel) in 2014. Love, whose outlandish behavior and heroin abuse have long been the subject of media coverage, stated that an attorney had been “bought off” instead of helping Love recoup parts of her late husband’s estate.

A crucial Supreme Court case regarding speech at school sponsored events? Morse v. Frederick, also known as the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. A student held up a sign at an event proclaiming the cryptic message. When the sign was taken away by school administrators, the student later sued claiming his First-Amendment rights had been violated. The SCOTUS ruled that schools have the right to remove pro-drug messages, even though students have some free speech rights at school.

The case that dealt directly with a reporter’s right to maintain confidential sources? Branzburg v. Hayes, which dealt with reporters being forced to disclose the names of sources who were manufacturing hashish.

And, of course, the case involving satire and hyperbole in regard to public figures comes from the apparent patron saint of this blog, pornographer Larry Flynt.

Now, the question of whether students can get smacked around for writing things on their own time on their own social media that school officials dislike comes down to one foul-mouthed 14-year-old cheerleader.

The problem with all of these cases is that it becomes so much easier to suppress speech that is unpopular, vulgar or otherwise disagreeable.

If the reporters in Branzburg were protecting whistleblowers who had uncovered some sort of dark plot by a foreign government to go all “Red Dawn” on the U.S., it would likely feel better to the courts to support their interests in remaining anonymous.

If the school was trying to suppress speech about the superintendent stealing money from the district to buy weed, maybe a “No Bong Hits 4 Superintendent Smith” sign would have garnered a different outcome.

If Sally Fields had tweeted about potential legal malfeasance (while wearing her “Flying Nun” costume), it might not have felt like the entire future of online free speech hinged on whether the defendant was going to lose her mind on the stand and start throwing things at the jury.

If the cheerleader had done her rant without the f-bomb, maybe the courts would be more inclined to side with her at every level.

However, we don’t get to choose the cases that decide our fate, which is why it’s important to make sure that we stand up for all speech because what one person thinks is a felony charge, others might consider a misdemeanor at best. In the mean time, keep an eye on this one, as it’s got a lot more at stake than a lot of people think.

Throwback Thursday: 4 valuable things I learned from my father that might help you, too

Here’s Dad in his more natural state: Surrounded by baseball cards and constantly tweaking something or other.

Probably the best conversation I’ve had with my father in more than a year came Sunday. We were at a socially distanced, masked-up, bring-your-own-hand-sanitizer baseball card show together for the first time since the pandemic hit. He had been pacing like a caged animal, waiting for people to decide if what we brought was worth buying.

Finally, after a flurry of sales, we had covered our “rent” for the show and it was clear we’d have a decent sales day.

Me: I just sold that guy about two dozen cards.

Dad: Great!

Me: Are you happy?

‘Dad: Yeah!

Me: Good. Tell that to your face.

Dad: You just can’t see how happy I am because of the mask.

Last year at this time, I didn’t get to see Dad for his birthday. This year, we got together and managed to make a card show, to boot. It was fun day that reminded me how important it is to value the little things and take advantage of every opportunity to enjoy life.

So, as I’m still recovering from COVID shot number two, I went back to this post, even though it’s two days past his birthday, for a reminder of that moment. Also, it reminded me of all the good people who are out there reading this thing who took time out of their chaotic lives to wish him a happy birthday and lift his spirit.

Plus, I get to run that photo of him looking like a patriotic table cloth again…

Happy Birthday, Dad: 4 valuable things I learned from my father that might help you, too

DadSuit

It might be hard to believe that a guy who dressed like this could have valuable advice, but trust me, he always does.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode.

Also, if this or anything else I’ve ever done has helped you in any way, please feel free to wish my dad a happy birthday in the comments section. I’m sure it would be appreciated. -VFF)

As my daughter was going stir-crazy the other day, whining loudly about missing her friends, her extracurricular activities and even in-school classes, I told her the one truism I hoped would keep her sane:

“You can’t focus on the things you can’t do because of social distancing. You have to focus on the things you DO get to do. Otherwise, you’ll go batty.”

For me, an introvert with a long-standing aversion to social situations, this has been an easy adage to espouse and obey.

Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.

Like everyone else in this country, Dad is stuck at home with limited contact to the outside world, for fear of contracting a virus that is decimating people at an incredible rate. While this “wait this out at home” rule is rough on a lot of people, it has to be killing my dad, who earned the family nickname of “No-Line Frank” for his disdain of waiting in line for anything. (It probably isn’t any great shakes for my mom, either, as she’s isolated in the house with him like this for at least another month.)

I wish with all my heart I could jet down I-41 and give him a big hug (and a nice bottle of Drambuie) today. The fact I can’t saddens me to the point of distraction. That said, he would be the first one to tell me it’s fine, not to worry and that I should get back to work.

My parents were and still are instrumental in who I am and what I do in life. In honor of dad’s 76th birthday, here are four “Filak-isms” he taught me that helped make me who I am and likely will help me make it through this pandemic unscathed:

HUSTLE WHILE YOU WAIT: I can’t remember when he first said it to me, but I rely on it almost daily: “The best things in life come to he who hustles while he waits.”

Although Dad later told me he heard this in a Credit Union seminar or something, I still attribute it to him because he not only said it, but he lives it. I often joke that I’m a “human twitch” when it comes to keeping busy, constantly writing books, teaching classes, refinishing furniture and doing almost anything else anybody asks of me.

Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.

I can’t remember the last time I saw him watch a whole ballgame or TV show without getting up and looking for something to do. He might be cleaning out the junk drawer in the dining room or sorting some baseball cards or looking for something in the basement, but he’s constantly on the move. Seeing this always inspired me to find more stuff to do and to keep looking for new opportunities to make the most of my time.

If you’re always hustling, the good things will come your way.

 

DON’T BRING SHAME ON THE FAMILY: I know I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating. Dad told me this when I went off to college and decades later, it still rings true. “When you go out there, have fun,” he said. ” But, don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”

The sheer tonnage of stupid things I avoided doing in college, simply based on that bit of advice, could stop a speeding locomotive from moving another inch forward. Even now, when I considered doing something, I would imagine the headline “UWO Professor Arrested for (Fill in whatever stupid thing I thought about doing)” and immediately decided against doing that stupid thing.

Whether it was being a success or just avoiding failure, the goal was pretty simple: When Dad saw someone he knew at the grocery store, it would be great if the person didn’t start the conversation with, “Hey, yeah… Heard about your son… Geez… That’s not good…”

 

YOU ARE NOT AVERAGE: In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card, much to the dismay of my parents. Dad was less than pleased that I wasn’t living up to my potential, whatever that was, and he pretty much knew full well that I fell short because I wasn’t giving a crap.

We were in the middle of a “silent supper,” thanks to my transgressions, when I finally broke the silence with what I thought would be a pretty good argument for my folks to not be so upset: “I read the report card, and it says that a C is average, so-”

Dad cut me off in a firm tone, “You are NOT average.”

I got the point. I could do better. And I knew it.

From that moment, I didn’t get another C on a report card until I hit my freshman year of college. In that case, it was more of a scheduling mistake than a lack of effort, because I took an introductory zoology course that served as the “weed-out” class for the veterinary medicine program at the U.

It’s always easy to take it easy, but that’s not the right way to do things. I was lucky enough to get a set of tools and the ability to use them in a way that matters. I was also lucky as hell to have parents who wouldn’t let me slide because I was good enough to get by or because other people’s kids were doing something worse.

Once that got stuck in my head, I realized that it’s important to always push beyond average whenever possible.

 

FINISH THE WORK FIRST, DRINK BEER LATER: Dad always believed in the separation of work and relaxation. He once told me about my grandfather and how he liked to do part of a job and then relax a bit and then go back and do more of it. Dad fell into the mode that my great-grandfather espoused: Finish the work first, drink the beer later.

What I learned from this was not only the importance of a strong work ethic but also the idea that I could find joy in completion of work. Seeing things get checked off a list or looking at a well-done job brought me happiness that could far exceed the joy of a brief respite and the knowledge that I had to do more work.

Even more, the beer always tasted better when I knew I was done for the day.

Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.

Dad

It’s all fun and games until Dominion Voting Systems sues you for a couple billion dollars

During the 2020 presidential election, multiple people made claims that the voting systems had been rigged to favor Democrat candidate Joe Biden. Several of then-President Donald Trump’s allies and associates took to various media platforms to repeat these allegations, arguing that the voting systems had been compromised and that any outcome which did not place Trump back in the White House was a result of fraud.

Dominion Voting Systems, which produces many of the electronic voting machines used in the election, apparently isn’t too thrilled about this, as the folks there have filed several lawsuits regarding these claims. It’s gotten so bad that some media outlets are keeping track of who is being sued, for how much and for what reason, like ESPN tracking the movement of NFL free agents.

The most recent suit is one that is most likely of interest to the folks reading the blog, as Dominion filed a $1.6 billion suit Friday against Fox News, alleging the company knew it was allowing lies about the election to proliferate:

In the lawsuit, Dominion argued that Fox and several of its on-air personalities elevated baseless claims about the voting company rigging the 2020 election and allowed falsehoods by their guests to go unchecked, including a wild claim that the company’s machines were manufactured in “Venezuela to rig elections for the dictator Hugo Chávez” and that Dominion’s algorithm manipulated votes so that then-President Trump would lose.

“Fox engaged in this knowing and reckless propagation of these enormous falsehoods in order to profit off these lies,” reads the lawsuit. “Fox wanted to continue to protect its broadcast ratings, catering to an audience deeply loyal to President Trump.”

The lawsuit argues that there are actual damages to the company’s brand, but also to the workers who are just trying to make a living. The suit notes that Fox’s conduct not only will cost the company more than $600 million in the next eight years, but also that front-line workers have been threatened.

Fox has noted that it will defend itself, having already filed several motions to dismiss and that the company “is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism.”

Here are a few things to take away from this and several other lawsuits filed in regard to the voting systems:

A FREE PRESS IS NOT A CONSEQUENCE-FREE PRESS: A lot of folks misinterpret the First Amendment to mean you are protected against all sorts of things when you publish content. The truth is that all the amendment guarantees is that the government shall not prevent you from publishing material. That’s basically it.

It doesn’t mean that other people can’t stop you, like the owner of a website where you post content, the publisher of a newspaper or a producer at a broadcast station. It also doesn’t mean you can get away with whatever you want without paying the price.

When you say something that is false and harmful, you can be in a lot of trouble, which is why professors push so hard on students to make ABSOLUTELY SURE on every fact in a story. It’s also why editors pick and pick and pick at stories with reporters, as to avoid any potential landmines.

If I get up on Fox News and tell the world that I have information supporting the notion that the chancellor of my university is running a cocaine ring out of the student union in exchange for getting away with a murder he committed in 1987, I’m going to be in a HECK of a lot of trouble because it’s not true and it’s going to harm him.

It also leads to the second point…

UNLIKELY, UNREAL AND COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE ARE ALL DIFFERENT THINGS: One of the dumber defenses in a Dominion suit is that of former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. The company is suing her for $1.3 billion, arguing she knowingly spread a baseless claim that Dominion and another voting system company were working with the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to rig the election.

Powell has argued in motions to dismiss that her claims were so outlandish that nobody in their right mind would believe them:

It was just conjecture. No reasonable person would conclude those allegations were true statements of fact. Besides, in heated political arguments, people tend to exaggerate. You should dismiss the lawsuit or at least move it to my home state.

That’s essentially the defense offered by Sidney Powell’s lawyers to the $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Denver-based voting Dominion Voting Systems, Inc. Dominion provides voting equipment to more than 1,300 jurisdictions in 28 states including Colorado.

We’ve talked about this kind of claim earlier this year when porn mogul Larry Flynt died. The “no reasonable person” defense was at the core of his Supreme Court appeal, when the Rev. Jerry Falwell sued Flynt for publishing a spoof advertisement involving him. Flynt won the appeal with a unanimous decision, but before Powell pops open the champagne, I’d consider these issues:

  • Flynt was publishing a porn mag, known for all sorts of really outlandish stuff, including a photo of a woman being stuffed into a meat grinder. Powell was on nightly news outlets and other media platforms purporting to deliver truthful information gathered from inside sources.
  • Flynt’s ad claimed that the highly religious Falwell lost his virginity by having sex with his mother and a goat in an outhouse, which is almost the textbook definition of outlandish. Powell was claiming election fraud, something other countries had experienced and something that people within the government were also stating as fact.
  • Flynt was a strip-club owner who published pictures of naked people in magazines that had been banned in multiple cities. Powell had been a counselor to the president of the United States.

When it comes to the idea of hyperbole and satire, or otherwise outlandish things, you have a pretty high bar to clear if you want to be on safe side of that argument. Had Flynt claimed that Falwell stole money from his congregation, he would have likely been on much shakier ground, given that other high-profile preachers had been accused or convicted of such things. The same thing could be said had he claimed Falwell had slept with prostitutes or committed adultery, given the climate of the time. However, nobody reading the Campari spoof thought, “Wow! Reverend Jerry is a really kinky guy! Guess you learn something new every day…”

Powell’s defense in this case is that nobody could have believed a legal expert who worked with the president in regard to voting irregularities when she said the company responsible for voting reliability failed in its task. I’m really interested to see how that plays out, but more out of morbid curiosity to see if the judge can keep a straight face throughout the trial, not because it’ll set a new precedent.

THE MUDDLING OF OPINION AND FACT IS ALWAYS A CONCERN: When I teach basic media writing to students, one of the hardest things for them to figure out is what is an opinion and what is a fact. It often comes down to me scrawling “SAYS WHO?” on their paper 183 times before they understand what they can say and what they shouldn’t say. Occasionally, we would have the discussion of “You are wearing a black shirt. That is a fact. You are wearing a NICE black shirt. That is my opinion.”

Cable news organizations have long muddied the waters of what is opinion and what is fact, almost to the point where people either don’t know the difference or don’t care as long as it matches up with what they believe. I often wonder if a lot of high-profile people end up buying their own BS to the point that they themselves think, “If I believe it, it must be true.”

Journalism pushes harder on people to verify information, clarify where the information originated and remain rigorous in reporting only what we can prove. At least, that’s the goal we have in mind when it comes to separating opinion from fact.

To help us clarify the distinctions a bit better, the U.S. Court of Appeals offered a four-step examination as part of its ruling in Ollman v. Evans (1984) to help people see if a statement falls into the realm of fact or opinion:

Can the statement be proved true or false? Courts have held that factual statements can be proved true or false. A statement like “The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series championships” can be proved true or false by examining their records in the annals of baseball. The truth or falsity of a statement like “The New York Yankees are the best baseball team ever” cannot be determined, because it lacks several key elements for us to examine. In a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove that the material is false, and this can be the case only if the material of a factual, as opposed to an opinion-based, nature.

What is the common or ordinary meaning of the words? People often use euphemistic language in their daily discourse. If you referred to a sloppy person as a pig, that person might be upset, but they can’t win a libel suit by demonstrating that they are not “an omnivorous domesticated hoofed mammal with sparse bristly hair and a flat snout for rooting in the soil, kept for its meat.” The common meaning that the person has poor personal hygiene or fails to keep their home neat and clean is clearly the way in which most people would interpret that remark.

What is the journalistic context of the remark? Who is saying something and the way in which they are saying it matter greatly in determining if something is a fact or not. For example, if you’re telling a joke involving two men walking into a bar, people are clearly expecting something different than if you are testifying in front of Congress. Content published on the news pages of a legacy media outlet is contextually different from a series of blog posts on a goofball-based website that would make the staff at the National Enquirer roll their eyes. The statements made on air during a newscast are contextually different from those made on a “morning zoo” radio show.

What is the social context of the remark? Where we tend to see opinions and where we tend to see facts often help define which are which. For example, a lecture on the biology related to procreation is expected to be based in facts, while two groups of protesters confronting each other outside an abortion clinic will be a more heated and opinionated exchange.

 

 

Four things I learned about the mass-shootings debate after wearing a bulletproof vest for a week

TeachingVest

Nearly three years ago, I decided to live in a bulletproof vest for a week as part of a journalism project to find out about guns, fear, mass shootings and more. (Photo by T.R. Gleason)

Over the past two weeks, the country has suffered two mass shootings: A gunman killed 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado and another killed eight people at three spas in Atlanta, Georgia.

News coverage of these events have examined the motives, the shooters and the “next steps” elements of this in a way that has become all too common in the United States. For me to do so here would be redundant at best, so feel free to Google these incidents and read all about the various elements of these crimes.

A few years back, in the wake of several mass shootings, I decided to take on a project where I dug into things that went beyond what you read in the horse-race coverage after a mass shooting or the political grandstanding that comes with gun-related violence of this nature. Instead of going out to people we normally talk to in the wake of these events, I wanted to talk to people who had specific angles on the various facets of the issue and then just shut up and listen to them.

The project that had been rattling around in my head for three years. After one of my friends noted that her university had become a concealed-carry campus, she expressed concern about what this meant for her safety. After several colleagues weighed in on potential ways to deal with the situation, all to no avail, I made a simple suggestion:

“Wear Kevlar.”

In other words, if you couldn’t play offense, play defense. A bulletproof vest might get people talking about the issue in a different way. She didn’t go that route, but I thought it was worth taking a chance. What followed was a week of personal participation reporting, several months of reporting and eventually a six-part series I called “First-Person Target.”

Here is the link to the main site for that project and all six pieces if you are interested.

After these more recent shootings, I went back and reread what I wrote during that time and found a few minor epiphanies that I thought might be worth sharing. I wanted to note that these are only my opinions based on looking back at what I wrote back then. I wish I had better answers to the bigger questions, but here’s what little I do have:

 

FEAR IS A COMMON THREAD: We often talk about guns as an issue of Constitutional rights or personal freedom or safety. What we don’t talk about, but is embedded in all of these topics and more is the concept of fear.

On a basic level, we do talk about the fear of someone deciding to unleash an internal fury upon a group of unsuspecting people in a seemingly random act of violence. I doubt people who entered a spa or a grocery store earlier this month in Georgia or Colorado thought to themselves, “I’m putting myself in harm’s way by going to this place right now.”

However, once these killers opened fire, many more of us now think about how it could happen to us at any time, in any place. For most of us, the fear will eventually subside when the story is no longer leading the nightly news or filling our news feeds with updates. Then, when the next attack occurs, our fears will be stoked once again.

Beyond that, however, I found that fear is at the heart of every action or lack thereof regarding the gun issue. People who dislike armed citizens fear the havoc guns can create. People who arm themselves do so for fear of not being able to protect themselves. People who oppose legislation that would limit access to firearms fear losing rights they see as sacrosanct. People who could propose legislation to limit access to guns fear the backlash from gun owners and lobbying groups as a result of trying to move the needle.

When I tried to get this project off the ground, fear was right at the forefront. I asked the UWO police chief if he knew where I could borrow a bulletproof vest to wear. He offered me instead a dose of reality:

Vince,

I’m sure you could purchase a vest for yourself, however I do not know of any police outfitter that would loan out this type of equipment.  In fact, if you started inquiring about borrowing a vest it could cause some concern from these vendors on your motives. As you stated people have a heightened awareness because of these mass casualty events.  Sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.

When I sought people associated with firearms to help me understand a topic I really lacked knowledge in, I found fear as well. When I asked the folks in my community for someone to talk to about sales and gun registration and so forth, they all pointed me to one person in Omro, who owned a gun shop. I reached out to him and got an initial response, but after that, all I got was silence.

In talking to other people who knew this guy, the answer was simple and common: “He’s afraid to talk about this.”

Of all the people I talked to during my project, only one really told me they acknowledged the fear that comes from all of this, and it was Tracy Everbach, the professorial colleague of mine from the University of North Texas whose initial concerns helped spawn the project:

“I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if someone in my classroom is carrying a gun anymore or thinking, ‘Are they going to pull it out and shoot you with that?’”

“It’s just a personal thing to me,” she added. “I’ve chosen not to be afraid of it. I figure I’m as likely to have that happen as a car accident or whatever. Anything can happen to anyone at any time.”

 

WE ARE NOT SIDES OF A COIN, BUT FACETS OF A GEM: Journalism always talks about getting “both sides” of a story, as a way of avoiding bias. If someone is pro-X, we need to find someone who is anti-X. When we do, we quote them both and we’re done.

While some stories, like those on sporting events, do follow that pattern, most stories are much more complex than that. Even more, the people behind those stories are far more complex than many of us care to know.

When I started this project, I didn’t want archetypes or the “usual suspects.” I didn’t want a press release from the head of the NRA that spoke in platitudes. I didn’t want a “thoughts and prayers” statement from a politician. I didn’t want to collect soundbites that I could repeat in my sleep and move on.

I wanted real people who could help me understand their lives and interests and positions without fear of judgment or reprisal. I wanted to look into the heart of the issue through their window and see what they saw, whether I agreed with what they were seeing or not.

What I found is that reality isn’t what we see playing out in the wake of shootings on the news or at protests or elsewhere. I didn’t find “gun people” and “anti-gun people,” but rather people that saw their lives intersect with firearms in a variety of ways and how those intersections shaped them in some fashion.

UWO police officer Chance Duenkel carries a gun every day as part of his job, and yet knows that the weapon and his protective gear might not keep him safe in certain situations. In referring to a fallen officer he knew, he explained:

“He had all the equipment, he had the experience dealing with these types of firearms and weapons calls and the cards, unfortunately, weren’t in his favor.”

Nate Nelson, who trains people how to use firearms safely and is an avid hunter, carries a gun as well. He knows better than most the importance of training, safety and respect for weapons of this kind as well as the ramifications of choosing to carry one:

“If you draw that gun you’re probably going to spend six figures in legal defense,” he said. “People need to take that portion seriously on top of the fact of you might end up taking somebody’s life and it might be the assailant that’s bothering you or it might be somebody else that’s innocent because of where those bullets go beyond that.”

Joseph Peterson, a professor at UWO, owns a gun and works with the FBI to help people better understand mass shootings. Peterson was wounded when a gunman entered his classroom at Northern Illinois University in 2008 and opened fire. The shooter killed six and wounded 17 more.

Peterson spent time  learning a great deal about guns and what he refers to as “gun culture,” and found both the fallacies associated with the law and the nuanced nature of people with whom he interacted:

“Gun laws don’t prevent anything,” he said. “Absolutely. Laws don’t prevent anything. It’s that most people agree with them and people agree not to break them. Safety comes from having more good people than bad people.”

<SNIP>

“I think I’ve been in this kind of journey that I’ve been trying to put myself through on this,” he added. “In learning more about gun culture, learning more about firearms and learning to appreciate them for what they are, demystified a bit, I’m learning that there is a lot more middle ground covered. It’s the extreme views that muddy these waters and that’s what’s keeping things from getting done.”

 

LISTENING VERSUS WAITING TO TALK: During one interview, a source (I can’t remember who said it) stopping abruptly to tell me that they found themselves talking way more than they ever have on the topic. The reason, the person explained, was that I hadn’t said almost anything during the interview.

A similar thing happened when I was talking to Nate Nelson. At one point, about a half hour in, he asked, “Are you getting what you wanted from this?”

My answer was honest: “I really didn’t have anything I wanted to get. I just wanted to listen.”

In many cases, we know what we “want to get” from a source. We have questions that need answers and quotes that need to be gathered. I have done it dozens of times, asking the “How do you feel about X?” question to get the “I’m proud, happy and thrilled” answer. I don’t say this with any great level of pride in my reporting acumen, but rather to explain that experienced reporters and experienced sources know how to do the dance.

In this case, I went the completely opposite way. I had questions, sure, but they were more of a “Tell me a story” variety than a “Give me an answer” form. I also came in with as much of a blank slate as I possibly could. My goal wasn’t to poke back at people, but rather just hear what they wanted to tell me. Could they have been blowing smoke up my rear end? Sure, but that goes back to the earlier point about whom I chose and whom I avoided.

In several interviews, I got the sense that the people with whom I spoke weren’t used to people who listened. They were used to people who were waiting to talk.

I understand that passions can be loud and strong around life-and-death issues and that not everyone had the luxury I had in trying to just sit back and let information envelop me. However, when we aren’t listening, we are simply waiting to tell the other people why they’re wrong, and that’s not going to get us anywhere anyway.

In listening, I got to hear important points that made a lot of sense:

  • If people are going to say that mental health concerns are more to blame than guns for mass shootings, they need to be willing to put forth the money, research and resources to deal with that. They also need to be willing to look beyond that issue if this issue becomes a definitive red herring in the issue of mass shootings.
  • We’re often looking at the wrong thing when it comes to guns and death. Although the mass shootings draw the most attention and an ever-increasing body count continues to work people into a media frenzy, guns do far more damage in far less public ways. Gun statistics demonstrate that more than half of the gun deaths in the United States are suicides. Homicides account for another third of those deaths, with the majority of the deaths coming at the hands of people who knew their attackers, as in the case of domestic violence. Less than one-fifth of one percent of the gun deaths in the U.S. come from mass shootings.
  • People who don’t know a lot about guns actually talk the most about guns. Joe Peterson mentioned in an interview that shortly after the NIU shooting, he found himself talking a lot about the topic of guns and mass shootings while knowing much about either. He then did the academic thing and really researched the topic like a scholar would: Open the aperture on the lens, see the full picture and come to some provable conclusions. Nate Nelson mentioned that people get freaked out by the AR-15 because of its look and misunderstandings about the reason the gun is preferred in some legitimate circles. He noted the light weight and limited recoil make it valuable for hunters like his son. I also dug around after our interview to find that he was right about its role in mass shootings: Most mass shootings were committed with weapons OTHER than an AR-15. (For example the shooter at Virginia Tech killed 32 people with a pair of handguns. The shooter at NIU employed a shotgun and a handgun as well.) However, if all you see are social media posts, memes and news clips, you might be left with the impression that banning the AR-15 would solve all of our shooting problems.

I figured out a lot more along the way as well and I find myself pushing back at a lot of things I might have otherwise accepted as gospel before this project. I also figured out that I can understand a lot of things people believe without completely agreeing with them, and vice versa.

WE SUSTAIN MENTAL SCARS THAT NEVER COMPLETELY FADE: Of all the things I heard in doing this project, the one that stuck with me the most came from Chase Cook, a reporter at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. In 2018, a man with a long-standing feud against the paper came to the newsroom armed with a shotgun. He killed six of Cook’s colleagues.

Cook was off that day, but upon hearing of the attack, he went to the office where he began to report on the events of the day. The work of Cook and the fellow survivors earned national honors and praise, including a spot as Time’s “People of the Year.”

As the incident faded from the collective consciousness, Cook continued to deal with the aftermath of his experiences.

“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”

I haven’t spoken to Cook for at least a year now, but I often think about him when a shooting occurs. I wonder if he reads the news coverage. I wonder if he’s been able to enjoy movies again. I wonder if he is OK.

In talking to Kelly Furnas, the former adviser of the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech, I found he also had residual mental scars after dealing with a mass shooting. He mentioned to me simple things, like noticing how certain door handles were replaced because the campus shooter had chained the doors of a building to prevent escape. He mentioned trying to be more aware of certain things but not letting fear dominate his life.

As a newshound of sorts, however, he also found difficulty when it came to reading about each subsequent shooting that occurred in the U.S.:

“Quite frankly when I hear about a mass shooting I read the headline and I mention it to my wife and that’s about it,” he added. “That’s about all I can handle at this point. It’s obviously overwhelmingly sad and it’s frustrating and it makes you angry and upset but it’s also just like not where my energy can be. I think every single time that happens I think back to my students and what they went through and maybe that’s part of it.”

Joe Peterson, who was wounded in a mass shooting, talked about therapy and life changes and other major issues he dealt with. He also discussed minor things like seeking out exits in movie theaters and not being able to sit with his back to the door at a restaurant for a long time. In explaining his experiences, he told me that a lot of those personal difficulties were shared among people who had gone through situations like he had:

“With every one of these tragedies there are more and more survivors,” he said. “We are all members of a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it.”

If there was a single thing I think everyone I spoke with would agree on, it would be that.

Gone Fishin’: Spring Break “Happy Place” edition

 

(We all have our own “happy place” that we can go to when we really need a break.)

During spring break last year, I was doing what most of us were doing: hastily building online components of classes we were going to teach on the fly once we got back and hunkered down at the beginning of the coronapocalypse. I also found that folks needed help, so I built the Corona Hotline page for journalism teachers, where I warehoused a bunch of exercises, links and ideas that people could grab to patch together their courses.

This year? I’m not sure how much of a break I’ll be getting, but I’m going to try to go to a “happy place” here and there. For me, it’ll be the chance to refinish some furniture, rebuild a pinball machine and work on my truck (if we can ever establish supply lines once again and get parts from wherever Ford hid them to where I live).

Thus, I’ll be quiet for a week, or at least that’s the plan. Usually when I try to go dark on the blog, someone says something horribly inexcusable, a superintendent figures it’s a keen time to murder a student media outlet or folks need something desperately.

If so, I’ll be there.

Until next week, take care.

Vince

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

Throwback Thursday: Diet Coke, Fear of Failure and Living Urgently: The “special sauce” of getting stuff done.

I sat out on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week on the blog because every time I tried to write something, I found myself just stopping and thinking, “You’re an UNCLE now!” My sister-in-law gave birth to twin girls this week, which was a wonderful family experience. Little Abigail and Sophia are happy and healthy and adorable.

As an only child, I never thought I’d have the chance to be an uncle, a rather lofty position in our family line. Family friends who were important got the title of “aunt” or “uncle” as well, so I could call them by their first name without being disrespectful and so I didn’t have to call them Mr. So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So. Growing up, I had dozens of “aunts” and “uncles” from a huge spectrum of ages, geographic locations and ethnic backgrounds.

Now, I get to do all the “cool uncle” things I’ve always wanted to do, like buy really obnoxious toys for the girls that will give my brother-in-law a headache and slip the kids a couple bucks here and there when Mom and Dad aren’t looking.

Of course, they’re 3 days old, so I’ll have to wait a bit for that.

With all of that in mind, I decided to end the week before spring break with a throwback post to a time when I was actually capable of getting something done, and others marveled at how I did it.

Hope it helps.

“Uncle” Vince (a.k.a The Doctor of Paper)


 

Diet Coke, Fear of Failure and Living Urgently: The “special sauce” of getting stuff done.

(Editor’s Note: I do my best to follow the 70-20-10 rule for social media, in which only 10 percent is about some form of self-promotion. Today is one of those 10 percent days, so feel free to skip it if you feel I’ve already used up your willingness to tolerate me in promotion mode. -VFF)

Kelli Bloomquist, who was nice enough to do a guest blog for us, tagged me in a post a little while ago that had me feeling a bit awkward:

SecretSauce

The people who liked this (and especially Kelli) aren’t slackers by any stretch of the imagination. Also, I don’t tend to like to reflect on the stuff I’ve done because I feel like I’m always one bad move away from becoming like every band VH-1 ever covered in a the “Behind the Music” episode. (Another way of looking at it is the way Satchel Paige did: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”) That said, there are times (usually when we have to fill out annual reports) that I look back and think, “Good God… That’s a lot of stuff.”

I once posted this photo of what my office looks like when I’m working on my books. It looks like an art museum for people with an organizational-chart fetish:

Wall

I don’t really think I have the “secret sauce” and I’m sure at least half of these things won’t be things everyone can do. Still, I promised that whenever someone asked me for something in relationship to education, media or the blog I’d do my best to deliver, here is the best answer I have in (more than) a few bullet points:

Amy Is Awesome

This is my wife, Amy. She rules.
amy-1339991159-1522284644102.jpg
If it weren’t for her, I’d never be able to do anything close to the amount of stuff I do. She’s the person who has to put up with me 24/7, make excuses for me when I’m on a deadline instead of at a gathering of friends, listen to me ponder whatever the heck it is I’m pondering and more. Above all of that, she’s the person who tells me, “Go do your work. It’s totally fine” and means it. Knowing I can do what I need to do without any more guilt than normally accompanies someone who spent 12 years in Catholic school is a real life-saver. She makes all this possible.

And to answer your question, yes, that is alcohol in her hand and yes, she needs an ungodly supply of it to deal with me, I’m sure.

 

Diet Coke

If you ever see me without one of these, call the authorities. Something is clearly wrong. I would not recommend my Diet Coke lifestyle to anyone, given that I have no idea how many I drink in a day or a week, but I am constantly surrounded by empty 12-and-24-pack cardboard boxes.

I am often accused of surviving on Diet Coke and snark. I plead the Fifth.

 

Fear of failure

I once read a paragraph about Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks and it made total sense to me:

“He grew up on the east side of St. Paul, the son of an insurance underwriter, and the only thing he ever feared was failure.”

I understand that failure happens and believe me, I’ve failed a lot. When I do, I try to learn from that failure to make sure I don’t end up repeating it. However, above all else, I make absolutely sure that I always put myself in the best possible position to not disappoint other people. That often means putting off stuff I’d rather do so I can meet a deadline or changing plans at the last minute to help someone in desperate need.

The downside of this is that I always feel like instead of succeeding, I’m avoiding failure. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of this approach to life, but like I said, it does help me get a lot of stuff done.

 

I’m not chasing someone else’s dream

What is good for other people isn’t necessarily good for you and vice versa. This was a big problem around a couple schools where I taught: If your classmate got an internship at a 50,000 circulation paper, you HAD to get one at a 100,000 circulation paper. If your roommate got a job doing TV in a top 50 market, you HAD to find one in a top 25 market. And on and on it went.

This happened in grad school for me as well: If someone got a conference paper accepted, you had to get two. If that person got published in a top-tier journal, you needed to get an article somewhere even more exclusive, even if the “publish or perish” lifestyle wasn’t what you wanted.

For a long time, I got caught up in that and I couldn’t see what it was doing to me as I tried to out-do other people. On the other hand, as I watched my former students chase each other up a never-ending staircase of glory, I saw several of them become more and more miserable.

It finally crystallized for me when a great kid who had been a business reporter and and had been happy at it, ended up in Kentucky, covering the night-cops beat because, “Well, everyone ELSE was going some place bigger, so…”

Eventually, I settled in here at UWO. It’s a great school and I love my students, but it’s not a “name” institution and I don’t care. I also have no interest in being in administration, even as my former doctoral cohorts and good friends become chairs and deans. I’m glad that’s what they like and if they’re happy, God love them for it. However, for me, that would be like getting a root canal with a meat cleaver.

Which is the point: I get stuff done because I like the stuff I’m getting done and I’m not worried that I’m not doing it at the Lord Almighty School of Journalism and Deification. I’ve turned down jobs elsewhere because I wouldn’t get to teach as much or I’d have to trade the newsroom for a suit coat and a gig shaking hands with rich donors.

If you like that stuff, that’s great. I’m just not going to be chasing you up that ladder.

 

“The Human Twitch”

I come from a long line of people who have difficulty sitting still. My father can’t watch a whole movie or ballgame without getting up and doing about nine other things during the process. If I ever see him laying still on the couch for more than 20 minutes and not snoring, I need to see if he can still fog a mirror.

My mother spent 45 years teaching grade school and middle school. She also directed plays, ran special programs and coached track well into her 60s. She retired a couple years ago, but does substitute teaching several times per week.

Put those two individuals together and you have me, the person once dubbed, “The Human Twitch.” I have a hard time sitting still and an even harder time doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’m also trying to write a blog post while waiting for the stain to dry on the furniture I’m refinishing in the next room.

I also like to tinker, in the sense that I want things to work. I will often pull over to grab a broken lawnmower or vacuum cleaner someone left on the side of the road. I don’t need it, but I need to see if I can fix it. One year during a blizzard, a friend dropped off his dead snowblower to see if I could eventually get it to start. I stopped blowing my own snow, rebuilt his carburetor in sub-zero weather and got the thing running. I then used his snowblower to clean my driveway, just to make sure it would stay running.

Another time, shortly after I bought the Mustang, I discovered its heating system wouldn’t work. Was I ever going to drive this car in the cold? No. Did the car run just fine without heat? Yes. Thus, it made no sense for me to pursue this problem with the fervor of Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. However, that’s exactly what I did and when I got it working after three days of effort, I drove around with the heat on full blast, giggling like a demented clown.

It was about 90 degrees outside at the time.

 

Living Urgently

Amy and I had this conversation recently:

Me: I wish I knew exactly how much life I had left to live. I mean, like a cyclops does. It’d be great to know how much time I have so I could plan life better.
Her: You wouldn’t plan better. You’d obsess about the date to the point that you’d get nothing done. It would drive you crazy.
Me: No, I mean if I knew I’d be gone next year at this time, I’d panic less about getting another book done or meeting a deadline or something.
Her: Bull#%@%. You’d work twice as hard to make the deadline.
(Pause)
Me: Yeah, I bet I could squeeze in one more book…

I believe that there is an uncertain brevity to life. I have no idea if I’ll be around tomorrow or next week or next month or whatever. Then again, maybe I’ll be like my great-grandfather and live an active, independent life until I turn 100 and then die peacefully in my bed after a glass of nice top-shelf booze. (True story.)

The goal of some people is to leave behind a legacy or a monument to what they have done. My goal is to make sure I didn’t waste what I was lucky enough to get and to make sure I share it with whoever wants it.

The point is, because of that, I have this overwhelming desire to live urgently, to complete as much as I can while I’m here, to make other people glad they knew me, to help out in every way I can.

So that’s what I got. I don’t know if it’s the formula to success or a “secret sauce” to getting this stuff done, but it works for me.

Why “when asked” is the dumbest thing you can write and ways to avoid using it

(Are you the most important thing in the story? Probably not. So stop telling me you asked people stuff…)

 

One of the weaker writing trends that’s been popping up in a lot of writing lately has been the use of “when asked” as part of a lead-in to a quote, or in some cases, as part of a quote:

When asked if he supported the bill, the mayor said, “Not this stupid version.”

When asked about the how best to improve relations between the university and the town, the chancellor said, “We need to work together on this.”

When asked if New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, President Joe Biden had this to say.

Here’s What Alex Rodriguez Said When Asked If He Was Single Amid Jennifer Lopez Relationship Drama

This is dumb for about a dozen reasons, but here are a few that might matter to you as a journalist:

  1. It’s passive voice: “When asked” implies “by someone,” which means you’re introducing the quote from a weak grammatical position.
  2. It’s first person: “When asked by… ME! LOOK! I ASKED A QUESTION!” Are we that thirsty that we need to mention that we had the temerity to ask a guy at the fair how the corn dogs were this year?
  3. It’s a “No duh” moment: Of COURSE they said it when they were asked. Isn’t that how this normally works in life? Think about how weirded out you’d be if some random stranger just ran up to you and said, “Hey, I just wanted to tell you and all the readers of whatever story that you’ll be publishing that the corn dogs at this fair are FRICKIN’ AMAZING!” I don’t know about you, but I’d be backing away slowly or reaching for some pepper spray.

In the examples above, we have a few other problems as well:

  1. The setup incorporates lousy quoted material: In the first two versions, you get really bad quotes that don’t do a lot for the piece or for the reader. Neither of those quotes add value or quality in a complete quote kind of way. The chancellor quote is lame, while the mayor quote isn’t a full sentence. You can actually make these better through the use of either straight paraphrase or a partial quote:
    1. Mayor Jane Smith said she sees value in a voting-security bill but “not this stupid version,” which would require citizens to cite the pledge of allegiance backwards before casting a ballot.
    2. North Texarkansas State University and the city will continue to clash over parking restrictions unless the city council and the college can work together to resolve ticketing protocols, Chancellor Arlene Selridge said Tuesday.
  2. The set up tells me that you’re going to tell me something: In the latter two, you have actual examples of journalists telling us that they’re going to tell us something. In the Cuomo example, the build up to what the president had to say is the bulk of what’s going on in the sentence. It then leaves us with a “commercial cliffhanger” for that second paragraph. In the A-Rod/J-Lo one, we don’t even get the decency of a full chunk of information as to what that “drama” entails.

    Think about it like this: If your professor walked into the classroom and said, “I have graded your midterms.” Would that be the ONLY thing you’d want to know? Probably not. Then imagine the professor saying, “I have graded your midterms. When asked by my wife how well people did, here’s what I had to say!” Is it getting any better or are you thinking, “Can I use The Force to pull mine out of the pile or an X-power to read his mind and just get my damn grade?”

The reason that paraphrase-quote works well is because each chunk of that structure has a job: The paraphrase tells you something important that will get you deeper into the piece. The quote then provides flavor, color and “sparkle” to that topic of interest while not repeating what you already know.

“When asked” takes away the best parts of both of those elements.

At least, that’s what I’d say if I were asked…

Throwback Thursday: Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

A friend of mine sent me a message about how her students were struggling with lead writing because they kept thinking chronologically, missing bigger issues or generally just wandering through the news like a kid who lost their mom at Walmart.

So, for this Throwback Thursday, I picked through all my lead-writing posts for something inspirational and I think I found it.

Of all the lead suggestions I have given over the years, this one might be the best: Look for the “vomit moment.” I hope it helps.


Trouble finding a lead? Look for the “vomit moment.”

Trigger warning: Don’t read this near breakfast, lunch, dinner or especially a snack table.

 

After almost a semester of media writing, some of my students still have trouble finding the lead for their pieces. I get the “held a meeting” lead, the “chronological order” lead, the “date it happened” lead, “firefighters arrived at the fire” lead and a dozen other cliche or problematic leads we discuss in the books.

Of all the stories I dealt with on Friday, whether I was grading papers or sitting through meetings, only one of them really nailed the point of getting to the point.

And it started with vomit.

Zoe spent the whole day at school, where she had tests and homework to make up from her extended Thanksgiving break. She then volunteered to serve dinner to help raise money for the high school’s madrigal choir, as part of her eighth-grade service requirement. It was about 10 p.m. when I picked her up from the school and this was our conversation:

Me: “So how was your day? How did the tests go? How was the dinner? Did you get to wear a costume? What kinds of things did they serve? Was it fun?”
Her: “Mason puked at the end of the dinner and a couple other kids were feeling sick too.”
Me: “Um…”
Her: “I didn’t eat anything so I didn’t puke, but after Mason puked, everyone else seemed to feel like they were gonna…”
Me: “YEAH! HEY! Let’s see what’s on the radio…”

Say what you want to about the subject matter, but she nailed that lead.

It didn’t matter that the kid threw up at the very end of the day. It was the first thing she noted.

It didn’t matter how cool the costumes were or how much she worked or even if she finished her test. Those things happen all the time. Vomit, however, is odd, immediate and has an impact (pun intended). You could even argue conflict (stomach vs. gullet) fits in there and that fame will now follow “that one kid who puked at the madrigal dinner.”

It seemed that every time someone decided to “reverse course on food consumption,” that’s all the kids talk about. I remember picking her up from 4K one day and all I heard about was how “Katie puked on the snack table during morning snack, so we couldn’t have snack and I was hungry, but they wouldn’t let us have snack because of the puke on the snack table.”

She nailed the 5Ws and 1H pretty well there. She also aided and abetted my desire to avoid Goldfish crackers for a few months.

The point is that kids don’t bury the lead and quite often they figure out what it is that makes something memorable pretty quickly. Somewhere along the way, we lose that ability or we figure that since it’s college or formal writing that we need to stuffy up the structure and lead into the key elements with 19 other things before we get to the “Great Snack Table Debacle of Tuesday Morning.”

When you strip away everything else, lead writing is basically just this: Tell me what happened and tell me why I care. Look for action, uniqueness, immediacy and relevance.

In short, look for the “vomit moment” and you’ll be in pretty good shape.