Two simple ways to determine if you are doing audience-centric journalism or pandering to your audience

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: As part of its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, Dominion Voting Systems filed court papers earlier this month that included emails, text messages and other communication at the network, clearly stating Fox’s leadership knew Trump’s election fraud claims in 2020 were untrue.

Hosts like Laura Ingram, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity privately acknowledged many of the election-denying guests were “lying” or “insane” but continued to support them because they didn’t want to upset their audience.

The brief shows that Fox News stars and executives were afraid of losing their audience, which started to defect to the conservative cable news alternatives Newsmax and OAN after Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden. And they seemed concerned with the impact that would have on the network’s profitability.

On Nov. 12, in a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion.

“Please get her fired,” Mr. Carlson said. He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Making things worse for Fox, Rupert Murdoch admitted as part of a deposition that he knew his hosts were falsely promoting this stuff and chose not to stop them from doing so.

Dominion’s filing casts Mr. Murdoch as a chairman who was both deeply engaged with his senior leadership about coverage of the election and operating at somewhat of a remove, unwilling to interfere. Asked by Dominion’s lawyer, Justin Nelson, whether he could have ordered Fox News to keep Trump lawyers like Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani off the air, Mr. Murdoch responded: “I could have. But I didn’t.”

Background and recap:

  • We covered the suit here when Dominion first filed it back in March 2021, in which the company stated Fox folks knew Trump was lying, but refused to say so on air.
  • Dominion’s suit for defamation noted Fox’s actions were reckless and created true harm to the company and its workers. Not only did the company stand to lose about $600 million over the next eight years, but it stated that many Dominion workers received threats from people who believed what Fox was selling.
  • Fox responded that the company was attempting to be fair and balanced and did not knowingly lie to its audience.

Dynamics of Writing Flashback: When we first pitched the “Dynamics of Media Writing,” the idea of audience-centricity was at the core of the model we were pushing. One of the earliest reviewers of the book pitch took us to task for essentially “pandering to an audience” instead of doing actual journalism.  In having to “sell” the book to the powers-that-be at SAGE, we had to address this issue both in the response and in the front of the book, so that people better understood what we meant.

The key point we wanted to make was that people have choices on where to go for their information and we can’t just tell them whatever it is we want to say and figure that’s good enough anymore. We need to understand who is out there using our content, what makes them connect with us so we can better connect with them and how best to present the information to them in a relevant, useful and interesting fashion. That’s helping your readers, not pandering to them.

TWO KEY WAYS TO KNOW WHICH ONE YOU’RE DOING: If you aren’t clear on how to tell the difference between catering and pandering, consider a couple thoughts below:

Seek Balance Within Reason: One of the things that protects journalists in presenting information that might turn out to be incorrect is the fair reporting privilege. In short, courts have held that if reporters are telling both sides (or however many sides are clearly present) in a fair and equal fashion.

If you have Group A telling you Group B is trying to kill the environment with its housing project, did you talk to Group B about those accusations and give those folks a chance to respond? If you are told a police report shows the mayor of your town is running a cocaine ring out of the back of the local thrift store, did you make every reasonable attempt to get that report and interview the mayor? These are all reasonable things.

The “within reason” portion is where we provide kind of a buffer against the need to interview people who think the reason the Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade is because they’re Illuminati Lizard People who are attempting to turn humans into a colony of breeders whose offspring will feed the reptile race on their home planet. There is a limit, but letting people blather on about things you know not to be true (especially any person you call “a nut job” behind the scenes).


Tell people what they need to know, not what they want to hear: The key aspect of audience-centricity is knowing what the audience needs to know and making sure you deliver that content. People don’t always LIKE to hear things they NEED to know, like if taxes are going up, why eggs now cost more than Taylor Swift tickets or how many more months the highway they take will be under construction. The most popular part of the news around here is the weather, which pretty much sucks from about late October until God shows mercy sometime around Memorial Day. Still, people NEED to know if the should plan extra time for a trip, plan to put away a little more money for the IRS or switch from eggs to something less pricey, like lobster.

The pandering folks at Fox were more worried that if they told their audience things they didn’t want to hear, the audience would go somewhere else where a different group of hairdos would. Fox knew instinctively that they didn’t have an audience that loved them. Instead, they were basically “sugar dating” a group of people who would dump them once they no longer got what they wanted.

I’m quite certain Walter Cronkite wasn’t all that thrilled to tell the country that JFK had died or that it was clear the Vietnam War was unwinnable, but he did it anyway, because people needed to know these things and he felt an obligation to his profession and viewers to say them. And I’m sure more than a few people weren’t thrilled to hear these things, but Cronkite had built up enough credit at the Bank of Credibility that those folks stuck with him.

As my first journalism teacher once told me, “If you want to be loved for doing your job, go teach kindergarten, because you’re not going to get that here in journalism.”


Scott Adams’ racist tirade leads newspapers to drop his comic strip, “Dilbert” (A free-speech primer)

The “Dilbert” website is still up and running, complete with the cartoons that were slated to run in the papers Sunday and Monday. This might be the last place on earth you can find Adams’ work after his racist tirade last week.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: Dilbert creator and artist Scott Adams released a racist screed on his YouTube channel last week, leading multiple newspaper chains and independent media outlets to cut ties with him and pull his strip from publication.

Newspapers across the United States have pulled Scott Adams’s long-running “Dilbert” comic strip after the cartoonist called Black Americans a “hate group” and said White people should “get the hell away from” them.

The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the USA Today network of hundreds of newspapers were among publications that announced they would stop publishing “Dilbert” after Adams’s racist rant on YouTube on Wednesday. Asked on Saturday how many newspapers still carried the strip — a workplace satire he created in 1989 — Adams told The Post: “By Monday, around zero.”

Things got even worse for Adams on Sunday, when his distributor, Andrews McMeel Universal, publicly stated it severed ties with him.

Andrews and Sareyan said Andrews McMeel supports free speech, but the comments by the cartoonist were not compatible with the core values of the company based in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We are proud to promote and share many different voices and perspectives. But we will never support any commentary rooted in discrimination or hate,” they said in the statement posted on the company website and Twitter.

Catch Up Quickly: Adams has been slowly sliding into various danger zones since the mid-2010s.

  • In a 2011 “men’s rights” blog post, he noted: “The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone.”
  • In 2017, he said in a  podcast that he supported family separations at the border
  • After the 2019 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, he tweeted an offer to anyone who witnessed it, allowing them to “set your price” on the purchase of his app.
  • In 2020, he stated that his “Dilbert” TV show was canceled after one season because he was white, adding “That was the third job I lost for being white. The other two in corporate America. (They told me directly.)”

Why You Should Care: This is another perfect example of how the First Amendment actually works and doesn’t work. We covered this when Spotify and Joe Rogan got into a tussle last year around this time.

The First Amendment does:

Prohibit the government from suppressing unpopular speech or unpopular press. City, county, state or federal officials cannot exercise prior restraint on publication or speech in almost every situation.

It does NOT:

Cover everything ever said or printed. The law has deemed some forms of speech (fighting words, words that create a clear and present danger etc.) to be unprotected. The law has also deemed some content (child pornography, for example) to be irredeemable in any way and thus not be afforded protection under the law.

Prevent the speaker (or writer) from ramifications from free expression. Free speech does not equal consequence-free speech. If you express yourself in a way that legally defames a person, you can be sued for it and lose a boatload of money, if found to be guilty. If you engage in speech or publication that leads to imminent lawless action, you can be held accountable for the damage caused and charged with certain crimes.

Stop private businesses from suppressing or punishing speech.Private institutions are perfectly capable of hiring or firing people for a wide array of reasons. In the case of Scott Adams, the publications that once paid to run his comic are choosing now not to. That’s not censorship, a violation of the First Amendment or even “canceling” someone. Adams has the right to find other venues for his thoughts and artwork, of which he noted on Twitter he plans to avail himself. These publications can choose to run “Peanuts” in perpetuity instead of ever letting “Dilbert” back in the paper. Both of these actions are completely legal and in no way violate the First Amendment.

Force other people to listen to you or be happy about what you say.  Constitutionally speaking, Scott Adams can stand on a street corner and scream his theories about “Black People, Hate Group” into oncoming traffic. That doesn’t mean other people have to enjoy his blather. They have the right to shout him down, ignore him or scream about how “Dilbert” has really started to suck lately.

Promote “cancel culture.”  As we noted during the Joe Rogan debacle last year, the thing about the First Amendment is that it’s essentially content neutral. You want to tell people you hate dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you love dogs, that’s fine. You want to tell people you want to eat dogs, that’s fine. It’s gross and you’ll likely be home alone a lot on weekends, but it’s not against the law.  With the legal exceptions outlined above (and a few others), the type of speech doesn’t really play into whether that speech should be “free” or not.

It’s important to understand that free speech was always supposed to work this way, in which bad or dumb speech got knocked on its keester by good or smart speech. The whole concept of a “marketplace of ideas” is to give everyone a chance to speak so we could pick out the best ideas and use them as we saw fit. The ones that were dumb got discarded and the people who proclaimed those dumb ideas could either stick with their dumbness and be alone or come around to better ways of doing things and be part of those better ideas

CLASSROOM EXERCISE: Find recent examples of how public or private enterprises have dealt with unpopular speech or press. Follow the basic “5W’s and 1H” approach to outlining the situation (who was involved, what did they say, when/where did they say it, how did this shake out etc…). Then, discuss the ways in which this is similar to and different from the Scott Adams situation. This could be in regard to the speech taking part in a public institution, which affords speech more protections, or the topic at hand, or anything else. Try to come up with a sense of what kinds of patterns exist in how this speech is dealt with and if/how the person who created that speech eventually dealt with the situation (apology, bounced back years later, still living in an undisclosed location).

In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, here are a few tips on gaining access to public records (A Throwback Post)

In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, today’s throwback takes a look at how to get important public records released when folks in power are reticent to do so. The folks at the Student Press Law Center have a number of great things happening today, including open virtual sessions with Mary Beth Tinker (of Tinker v. Des Moines) and Cathy Kuhlmeier (of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier).

For more on these and other events, check out this link.

Now, on with the show…


A few tips on how to fight the good fight for open records

Open records and open meetings laws are among some of the most powerful tools available in trying to figure out what is really going on with many public institutions. Many big stories come out of open record requests and document digging. My favorites include the Journal-Sentinel’s “Cashing in on Kids” series, which looked at the way some people were gaming the state’s childcare system, and a series the Sun-Sentinel did years ago on deaths associated with plastic surgery.

Student journalists are often doing some great work in this regard as well. The Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kentucky has been locked in a protracted legal battle regarding the release of information pertaining to sexual assault allegations against a professor. Students at Duquesne clashed with student government officials about the publication of budget information lawfully obtained in the course of a public meeting.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, the paper I advise, the Advance-Titan, is currently engaged in a legal fight over the release of documents pertaining to a professor who was removed from his teaching duties in the middle of last semester. The rub here is that the university believes it SHOULD release the documents, but the professor has filed suit to prevent this from happening. A court ruled in the paper’s favor, but the professor has appealed.)

Open records requests are great tools because while people can deny things or decline to comment on issues, documents are pretty much the unvarnished reality in black and white (if you’ll pardon the pun). Here are a few recommendations for you if you are taking your first steps into this area or you are a pro at this and want some validation:

  • File frequently: Much like any other mechanism or muscle, open records efforts don’t work well if the system has atrophied. The more of these requests people see, the more likely they are to know how to address them properly. This doesn’t mean turn your record keepers’ office into a paper dump every day, but consider doing a couple requests a month to see what you can find and to get the offices you want to use used to how this works.


  • Follow up: States have various rules pertaining to how long they have to get back to you or to fulfill your requests. In some cases, they spell this out while in other cases it’s “as soon as reasonably possible,” which is akin to when your parents used to say “We’ll see” when you were 6 years old asked if you could get a pony or a rocket ship. As the deadline draws near, check back via phone or email with the record keeper to see where your request is.


  • Don’t back off: When people tell you “no,” that doesn’t mean you are done. In some cases, people will say no for no good reason. Again, the answer has to be rooted in law and completely explained. This can’t be like when you were in high school and you asked for something and your parents just said “NO!” and when you asked “Why?” they answered “Because I’M A PARENT! That’s WHY!” Maybe mom and dad could get away with that but public officials can’t. Make sure the law is clearly stated and that they aren’t trying to snow you. (One open records case we dug into found the university’s lawyer telling us that they didn’t have to produce the documents under some obscure Indiana state law. It turns out they basically were trying to assert that information they wanted to share with the entire campus, but not the newspaper, was an “internal memo” not meant for public consumption. The state arbiter eventually ruled in our favor, but it was because we pushed the issue and didn’t take the first “no” for an answer.)


  • Ask for help: Students often feel they get the shaft on this kind of stuff because the state, the university or whatever public institution has resources beyond their reach, including access to legal advice. If you can’t afford Ramen and Diet Coke at the same time, how the heck are you supposed to afford a lawyer? The answer is that the Student Press Law Center can offer you some assistance. They have experts on duty to give you free advice on how to proceed. They can also arrange to get you a lawyer in some cases to help you pursue your quest. (Again, disclosure, they’re helping our paper out in this case and I’ve chipped in to them on more than one occasion.) You can find the group’s website here. It’s full of all sorts of great information, including how to file a request, what states are doing what  in regard to the law and stories about students fighting the good fight for open access to stuff. It’s worth a read.

“Print isn’t dead until we say it is.” Catching up with The Battalion at Texas A&M one year after the administration tried to kill the paper

(I know adviser Doug Pils probably DIDN’T approach the situation this way, but I still like to imagine this is how he and his newsroom reacted when the administration dropped the bomb on them, declaring their print days to be over.)


Good news seems to be in short supply these days, so it’s nice to see a reminder that once in a while, the good folks win.

The Battalion at Texas A&M University celebrated the fact they are still printing one year after the university declared print on campus dead and demanded the paper stop putting out a dead-tree edition.

The editors wrote a fantastic piece on their opinion page recently to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the event by showcasing all the great stuff they had done since that point in time:

The Battalion has dominated the national awards stage, earning eight Pinnacle awards from the College Media Association, ranking first in Associated Collegiate Press’ Fall 2022 Clips and Click Contest and winning the first-ever Student Press Freedom Award from the Student Press Law Center — just to name a few.

Hard-hitting journalism such as “The Rudder Association” reached readers everywhere and even made The Texas Tribune’s “The 2022 stories Texas Tribune journalists wish we’d had” alongside work by The Houston Chronicle and The Marshall Project.

Our own coverage of the Memorial Student Center losing its status as an early-voting location last year informed the local community and directed eyes from all across the state to College Station and the importance of ballot access.

But The Battalion, and student journalism more broadly, is about so much more than the headlines that reach national proportions — it’s about telling the story of our community, Aggieland, authentically.

Being run by students, for students, allows us to pinpoint the stories that matter most to our audience, explore these issues with passion and sharing it to Aggies everywhere.

Last year around this time, the administration at Texas A&M was trying to kill the print edition of The Battalion, the student paper on campus. President M. Katherine Banks demanded the venerable publication cease printing immediately because… um… digital stuff…? When asked about her rationale for making the move, this classic quote emerged from her brain stem:

“I’m not a professor of journalism, I don’t understand exactly why [print media] is important to the field.”

Then-adviser Doug Pils worked with the students to keep the spotlight on the issue while working with administrators to try to figure a way out of the Land of Stupid Decisions. In an interview right after this move, he noted that student media operations were doing digital work, putting out multiple publications and turning a profit, to  boot.

Pils said the continued support from a variety of sources has helped buoy the staff members’ spirits as they persist in their efforts to save the print edition. He also said he doesn’t know what it will take to get Banks to fully retract her order.

“Do I have honest hope for it? I don’t know I think we raised enough ruckus that we might have a chance, but not knowing this person at all, and only knowing a few people who do know her, I’m not certain… but I certainly do hope.”

After getting a brief reprieve to the end of the semester, the situation kind of just kept on keeping on.  The editorial reflects that and it’s a great way to capture everything student press should entail:

While our staff is committed to embracing new mediums and ways to reach our audience, make no mistake; Print is not dead until we say it is.

The Battalion has been printing for 130 years, and today, we are committing to yet another. So here’s to another year of print journalism, of commemorating Aggieland and telling stories about students, by students, for students.


Here’s to another 130 years. Congratulations and thanks for the inspiration!

Based on a true story = We made up some stuff

Amazon spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 million during the Super Bowl for a minute-long teaser trailer of “Air,” a movie that tells the story of how Nike came to land Michael Jordan as a client. The Ben Affleck/Matt Damon flick follows a familiar trend these days, as it is “inspired by true events,” which is just a fancy way of saying, “We made up a bunch of stuff.”

Movies like “Elvis,” “Blonde,” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” have seen varying levels of post-hoc fact checking that call into question certain parts of the films, with film buffs rebuffing these concerns as mere “dramatization of controversial and contested historical events.” Still, these situations are small potatoes when compared to how some films and limited series have taken liberties with reality.

“Winning Time,” HBO’s look at the late 1970s/early 1980s rise of the L.A. Lakers, created massive amounts of controversy with the way in which it played fast and loose with the truth. Given the relatively recent era in which the events took place, the degree to which sports information is retained and a quality text from which to draw, it seemed almost purposeful that the series got so many things factually wrong, including places, dates, opponents and scores. This isn’t even accounting for how the athletes, including Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar , publicly denounced the way in which they were portrayed.

Even more, Jerry West and his legal team have demanded an apology and retraction for the way in which the series portrayed the Laker legend, noting that the producers engaged in “legal malice.”

The New York Times did a deep dive on the cottage industry that has streaming services building mini-series around actual events, but then jazzing up reality to make life seem cooler than it was. The piece cites West’s portrayal as a “rage-aholic” as one of the more egregious cases of taking liberties with reality. It also points out that Linda Fairstein, the prosecutor in the “Central Park Five” case, is currently engaged in a lawsuit against HBO for its portrayal of her in the series “When They See Us.”

The defamation attorneys the Times quoted made it clear that these cases aren’t always easy to win, because the First Amendment does provide folks with the ability to create fiction based on true people. However, there are limits to this kind of thing:

Sometimes disclaimers are enough to protect a studio from legal liability, especially if they are prominently displayed in the opening credits and offer detail of what has been fictionalized — beyond a generic acknowledgment such as “based on real events,” legal experts say. The First Amendment offers broad protections for expressive works like film and television productions that depict real people by their real names.

But if someone can convincingly claim that he or she was harmed by what screenwriters made up, that is grounds for a strong defamation suit, said Jean-Paul Jassy, a lawyer who works on media and First Amendment cases in Los Angeles.

“A disclaimer is not a silver bullet,” he said.

This is in some ways akin to the way courts have afforded opinion pieces and reviews protection under the fair comment privilege. This allows writers to provide “pure opinion” that cannot be proven true or false without fear of falling afoul of defamation laws. That said, merely stating something is opinion isn’t a silver bullet either.

If you say, “In my opinion, Vince Filak is a lousy professor,” it falls into that opinion realm. It’s stated as such and there’s no way to define “lousy” so that a court could determine if I fit that definition or not. Plus, in defamation suits, the plaintiff (in this case, me) would have to show harm: Did I get fired? Did my classes shrink to the point I had to teach Medieval Basketweaving to maintain the course load in my contract? Did a group of random professors follow me around and mock me to the point I needed therapy? Probably not, so I’m not going anywhere with this.

However, if you say, “In my opinion, Vince Filak stabbed a student in the face with a fork during his 8 a.m. Writing for the Media Class on Feb. 20,” now you’re in trouble. It’s not an opinion, for starters, as we can prove it either happened or didn’t happen. It’s accusing me of a crime, which furthers my case. Plus, if that thing gains steam, I’m likely to get fired.

Writers, editors, producers and directors have always taken SOME liberties with reality when it comes to how they portray real people in fictional or semi-fictional stories. What makes this recent set of efforts more concerning is the degree to which they are bending the truth and the ways in which the fictionalization has the ability to warp public perception of real people in some harmful ways.

As for me, I’m looking forward to “Air” for the bad 1980s clothing and the Affleck/Damon banter that most of their collaborations pull off quite well. I’m also looking to see if anything gets dinged on a fact check, especially because, as anyone with any experience with Michael Jordan will tell you, he’ll take it personally.

The Kids Aren’t All Right

The front page of The State News, the student media outlet on the campus of Michigan State University on Feb. 14.

The Michigan State University community is picking up the pieces of its shattered existence this morning, after a gunman killed three students and critically wounded five others Monday night. Authorities say the 43-year-old man had no tie to the East Lansing campus and his motives for this attack are not entirely clear.

The shooting victims were going about their daily routines, never once thinking, “These are likely the last moments of my life.” As a friend  who survived a mass shooting once said, it’s not like what people tend to think of when they think of a situation like this. It’s not like The Doors music starts playing to let you know what’s about to occur.

However, kids of this generation know that death in this fashion is not rare for their peer group. As much my students don’t like to admit it, they have occasionally let it slip that they know something like this could happen to them at any point in time. More than a few have told me over the years they had concerns about the “one kid” in a classroom or a residence hall who “wasn’t quite right.”

The choices in how to proceed become frightful for them:

Is the kid just odd or a true threat? What if I report them and they decide to come after me?

What if I don’t speak up and something terrible happens?

So many of the basic choices these kids make every day can have fatal consequences that no one could ever see coming.

Get the wrong roommate? They could be killed.

Go to sleep after a night out with friends? They could be killed.

Go on a class field trip? They could be shot to death.

Go to work at a crappy retail job? They could be shot to death.

Go to a night class on Cuba? They could be shot to death.

Today’s students move through a society in which shooter after shooter, killer after killer sees themselves as righteous grievance collectors, people who have been wronged and feel justified in avenging their perceived slights against any target they see fit. For them, violence is strength, death is justice and a body count is a measure of valor.

Mass shootings have become so ubiquitous for kids today that educational institutions begin training students how to be ready for them, starting at the pre-kindergarten level. I still can’t get the image of my then-13-year-old daughter waggling her hand back and forth as she described how she was taught to run down the halls of her school in a zig-zag pattern in case a shooter entered the building.

“If I run in a straight line, it’s easier for the person to shoot me,” she said in such a matter-of-fact tone, I still can’t process it.

What she and so many of her generation are forced to endure should be astounding to any reasonable person, whether they ever face a situation like the one at MSU or not.

It is no wonder that the kids aren’t all right these days.


The often-cited line about today’s students is that they exhibit more anxiety than institutionalized mental patients of the 1950s did. While that statement is somewhat misleading, given the study from which it is drawn, very little would convince any reasonable person that the mental health of our youth has gotten anything but worse. Studies show that reports of fear, anxiety and trauma have risen steadily among students over the past decade.

Even without those studies and diagnoses, I see so much of it every day in their behaviors.

Fingernails all chewed down to the quick, with the skin surrounding the edges of them bitten and bloody. Students twisting locks of their hair until some falls out and they shake it free from their hand and begin again. Kids picking constantly at the burgeoning acne patches on their faces and arms, unaware of anything but their stasis of stress and the momentary release they receive from the tiny nips of pain.

When they get a break during a class, they dive into their phones with quick, purposeful movements that remind me of the way students a generation earlier would dive into their cigarette packs during breaks. The device pours content into their eyes at a speed and volume that no one has ever encountered before, with researchers still uncertain as to the totality of damage this has yielded to their still-forming brains.

The world they consume on those devices is one of pure bifurcation. One world is bursting with impossible dreams of aspirational lives. Social media images make everyone seem like they have more money, more friends, more experiences and more of every other amazing thing than they do. Even more, the filters on these social media apps make everyone look thinner, prettier and cooler as well.

The other world is soaked in tension and coated with anguish, just one spark away from exploding at any point in time, like a Molotov cocktail left near campfire. Mistakes aren’t just brief learning experiences. Thanks to the ability for information to spread like a virus, one wrong move can have a battalion of keyboard warriors attack them without warning or mercy. A post on social media, an ill-timed text message or a poorly conceived moment of levity could create a wave of devastation that could lead to incalculable losses, up to and including, their lives.

All of this doesn’t even take into account all of the other ways in which the world has repeatedly bludgeoned these kids.

This generation of students has just survived a once-in-a-century pandemic that took what little normalcy they had in their lives and tossed it about like a rag doll. They studied in isolation to complete courses that were hastily pushed online. Educational institutions sent them between home and school, never really knowing if the risk public gatherings presented to their physical health mattered more than the risks that isolation had for their mental health.

Both during and after this epidemic, college students worked two or three jobs to maintain any semblance of life, as they pay ridiculously high rents and bloated tuition fees, all so they could hear a professor with an incomprehensible sense of ego drone on about the importance of Viking pottery during the Middle Ages. Why? Because that blowhard got a Ph.D. on that topic and then convinced an entire institution of higher learning that this was an essential element of students’ “general education requirements.”

When they graduate, they know they are entering a world in which they will never be able to live as well as their parents, something that used to be the benchmark of generational success. Housing has become an investment commodity, making even a basic home out of reach for many college grads. Student loan debt continues to cripple borrowers, even as the government tries to stabilize things for them. Current students will face the same problems, knowing that not only will they not receive similar help, but also prior generations will scoff at them for being “fiscally irresponsible.”

Where is their port in the storm? Where is their “good life” that each generation was promised for “doing the right thing” and “playing by the rules?” Isn’t that what the students of MSU were doing Monday night? They were showing up for class, taking notes, getting the grades and pursuing the degree.

All to be “members of a club we don’t want to be a member of and we don’t want any more members in it,” to quote the friend I mentioned earlier. He meant the growing collective of people who are physically, mentally and emotionally scarred for life by the act of a violent domestic terrorist.

And that’s only if they were lucky enough to survive.

If all we can be is responsible for ourselves and all we can do is find ways to make incremental differences in the lives of those around us, it has to start here. If we can’t stop these terrifying events, we should at least find ways to help these kids exist better in the world in which the events occur.

It starts with grace and forgiveness for missteps and social faux pas that come from trying to balance far too much on too fragile of shoulders.

It starts with compassion and empathy for these students, who might not always look like it, but who are actually doing the best they can with what they have.

It starts with admitting the truth about the reality of our surroundings.

The kids aren’t all right. They need us to understand that.

NewsNation Reporter arrested at an Ohio press conference for doing a live shot

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert was arrested at Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s press conference on Wednesday after law-enforcement officials said he should not have been doing a live shot while the governor was talking.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — While Gov. Mike DeWine and other local, state, and federal officials were announcing the lifting of the East Palestine train derailment evacuation order on Wednesday, a reporter at the briefing was taken into custody.

The reporter, identified as Evan Lambert of NewsNation, was apparently trying to do a live report as the news conference was taking place inside the gymnasium at the East Palestine Elementary School. Video captured by 3News shows law enforcement surrounding Lambert and ordering him to leave.

Short Recap:

See it: The Ohio State Highway Patrol released the body-cam footage of the arrest, which starts in the gym and continues for several minutes after Lambert is led away:


Fallout: NewsNation condemned the arrest immediately, with multiple other groups, including the Society for Professional Journalists and the East Liverpool/Wellsville NAACP Chapter, issuing statements that condemned the way Lambert was treated.

The police issued a statement as well. I won’t say it’s totally self-serving crap, but I will say if you watch any of the video versions of what actually happened and read this press release at the same time, you will find limited congruity:

Dynamics of Writing Flashback: We had a similar incident a number of years ago that we covered on the blog, with journalist Alex Crowe explaining how he was arrested covering a protest in Milwaukee. At least the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Department had the good sense to release him at the scene instead of marching him off to jail.

Key Takeaway: The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press, but not freedom from people who are in power and choose to take matters into their own hands. In this case, Crowe’s case and other similar cases, officials can get bent out of shape because they don’t like the way we’re doing our jobs, so they overreach and do stuff like this. In short, you shouldn’t end up in jail because of something like this, but you need to be prepared for it all the same, unfortunately.

CLASSROOM EXERCISE: Watch the bodycam footage as a class and discuss the incident, putting yourself into the shoes of the reporter (or the officials if you are so inclined). At what point would you have decided to back down, or would you have at all? What issues do you think played a role in this arrest, based on the footage and the statements issued by the various organizations cited above? Also, would you be willing to go to jail in a situation like this?

I love student media, and here’s why I want everyone else to love it, too. (A Throwback Post)

It’s been 28 years since the Daily Cardinal halted publication amid a sea of financial mismanagement. To commemorate that moment, every Feb. 7, I check in on the Daily Cardinal’s website, just to make sure it’s still there. It always is and based on the strength of fundraising through the Daily Cardinal Alumni Association and the passion of the student staff, year after year, I have great faith that it always will be.

What I have come to realize over all of those years is that I love student media. It has become my life, my passion and my purpose. Student media  gave me the life I love so much now, and the venue it provides me to help others find their way to the life of their dreams.  I also learned that I’m not alone in how I feel.

Today’s throwback post takes a look at a situation involving the potential death of a student media outlet brought about by short-sighted administrators and stupid budgeting. Beyond that, it gave people from many walks of life a chance to learn, laugh and love in an environment that gave them freedom and responsibility.

(SPOILER ALERT: The situation at Doane University got worked out and Doane Student Media kept on rolling.  You can see all the great work students there continue to do through this link.)

Enjoy this look why student media matters so much to so many people.

“It gave me a purpose and quite literally saved my life a few times.” Why Student Media Matters

The Board of Trustees at Doane University approved of President Jacque Carter’s suggested cuts and mergers during its Monday meeting, meaning that Doane Student Media is on a downward spiral to financial insolvency. Editor in chief Meaghan Stout has been covering the situation since the cuts were first announced, which is a lot like being asked to serve as a pall bearer for your own funeral.

According to former Doane student media adviser David Swartzlander, the cuts don’t go into effect until July 1, which gives Stout and others about nine months to raise unholy hell about them, something we’ve asked you all to do throughout the week.

If you’re thinking, “None of this makes any sense. She’s graduating in a month, so she’s done with this place. And why are you dedicating so much time and energy blathering on about student media cuts at a university the size of your high school? You don’t have a horse in this race….,” well, I get it.

From the outside, this looks pathologically stupid.

If you’ve ever spent any time in student media, this makes all the sense in the world.

I asked people I know who have gone in myriad directions after their educational careers came to a close if they ever worked in student media and, if so, why it mattered to them. One of the best journalists I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with, a wordsmith and a storyteller unlike any other, didn’t disappoint:

My high school had no paper. I started one, called “The Cardinal Chirps.” There was news, sports and jokes on four mimeographed pages. (Smelled great!) It may have lasted three issues. The jokes were filler and I learned that not everyone has the same sense of humor. Don’t print jokes. Working at that paper was a revelation. I could find something that didn’t make sense – a section of the lockers were inexplicably located in a dark room with one narrow door – and write about it. It wasn’t safe for those who had their lockers in there. The principal and school board took note and changed it. No had ever brought it to their attention. The learning was true: You can’t fix something if you don’t know it is broken.

I expected a few responses from a few other people, but not much.

I was stunned when I got dozens, like this one from a journalism professor with a background in news:

I graduated from a small rural high school that didn’t even have a school paper. My interest in news grew from my mom’s obsessive consumption of newspapers (we subscribed to two and sometimes three), news magazines (I think we got four), news talk radio (on constantly), morning/noon/evening local and national TV news, public affairs shows on PBS and all the Sunday morning news talk shows, and my own growing awareness that there were other places in the world far from Tonganoxie, Kansas, that I dreamed of seeing someday. It seemed wise to understand what was going on in them before going. And before going, I had to have money. I understood from my good friend that one could be paid actual money for fixing errors in news writing by being something called a copy editor. The University Daily Kansan and my professors with newsroom experience showed me how to be that.

Another higher-ed friend who works as a student media adviser had a similar life experience:

Working in college media was the step for me that solidified how I could attain my dream to work as a professional journalist. Before my college media experience, the concept was very abstract. Moving from dreaming to doing via my student newspaper made it real for me. I am forever grateful to those who gave me the opportunity and helped me see I could do it.

Folks who took the path out of news and into corporate communications, consulting and other similar fields found that student media benefited them as well:

I wanted to write books before I signed up for journalism class in high school on kind of a whim. In that class, I found that I had a knack for journalistic writing, most likely from reading the local paper and my dad’s influence as a TV journalist. Taking that class and continuing that path led me to attend J-School at MU and altered my career path. It also gave me an understanding of and appreciation for the importance of LOCAL journalism.

These responses made sense: Student media was like an internship and a training center for going on to do great and mighty things in the field itself. However, I also saw how the people who went into fields that had nothing to do with news or PR still found amazing value in student media:

I draw from my experience at the DN almost every day. I’ve worked for two law firms and a dental office since college. I’m comfortable asking questions, I’ve learned how to build relationships and I have a better understanding of how government works. The most important thing I have learned is that no matter how much effort you put toward your day, something could change and you need to be ready to shift your priorities and maybe undo all you’ve just done.
My boss at SAGE, who puts up with an awful lot from me, apparently found her muse through student media as well:
Basically shaped my entire college experience. Learned the basic responsibilities, ethical implications, and work ethic of a journalist. Being on the paper motivated me to write about things I was interested in, when I already had to write so much for school…Also I got to interview some really interesting people!
The one common thread, I saw overall, however, was that student media was more than a thing people did. It was who they were. The newsroom wasn’t like a classroom where they HAD to go. It was a place that gave them something special and they WANTED to be there:
It was my happy place. The place where I always knew what I was doing, and why. The place where everything just made sense. Why else would someone finish a shift, go home, get their books and go back to the newsroom to study. Because that’s where I was always focused.


It was my home away from home. And it allowed me to experiment with what I wanted to do.


Genuinely don’t know where to start. The friends, the experiences, now I’m working in media. Joined junior year of high school and haven’t looked back since. It gave me a purpose and quite literally saved my life a few times. I could go on and on.
And so many other people did as well, sharing stories of life-long friendships that developed thanks to pressure-packed deadlines, no sleep and a sense of belonging they never found before or since. At the risk of becoming hyperbolic, student media provides people with something that borders on magical, a familial bond forged in a way that never truly seems to break.


I understand why Meaghan Stout is fighting like hell, against all common sense, for her student media family, because 25 years ago, I was her.


I remember sitting in my journalism adviser’s office six weeks after our student newspaper closed under the weight of $137,700 in debt. My adviser was also my teaching assistant for Media Law, a course I was essentially flunking because I had poured all of my time into fixing the Daily Cardinal.


“You need to quit the paper,” she told me. “You’re going to fail.”


In retrospect, I think she meant the law class, but that’s not how I heard it.


I then listened as she told me how when she was in college, her student newspaper was moving from a weekly to a daily and how she was pressured to put the paper first and everything else second. Instead, she stuck with her classwork and got her degree. Besides, she explained, even if I managed to fix the problems, the paper was likely to shrivel up and die after I left, so what was the point?


In the abstract, she was right. Take care of yourself. Get the grades. Besides, there was another student newspaper on campus I could work for, so what made this Quixotic journey so important? I couldn’t explain it, but even if I could, I doubt she would have understood.


So, I let her finish, told her I’d think about it and then I went back down to the newsroom and kept working on fixing the paper. By the next semester, we’d pulled it back from the brink of collapse and started printing again.


It’s still running to this day.


For me, my student media experience wasn’t about the articles I wrote or the editorial positions I held or the arguments we had. (We often joked that we were a family in the newsroom, in that we drank a lot and hurt each other…)


It wasn’t that, without that paper, there’s no way I would have gotten this far in life, and I’d probably have had a heck of a career as a fairly decent auto mechanic. It also wasn’t the life experiences it gave me either, although without the paper my kid would likely have different godparents and I would have been deprived of the opportunity to return the favor.


I still can’t adequately explain what it is that makes student media matter so much, whether it’s the paper I worked for, the papers I advised or the papers I never ever knew of before a crisis threatened them.


What I can say is that I love reading the articles the students write, as I wonder how much blood, sweat and tears went into just getting that inverted-pyramid piece to hold together. I love seeing those 20-somethings I knew through my media conference presentations or newsroom visits doing great and mighty things as reporters, editors, copy editors and more. I love it even more when I see them finding joy in life outside of the field, moving into politics, social work or psychology.


I treasure the photos I see of engagements and weddings that bloomed from seeds planted on a production night. The houses they buy, the babies they have, the lives they develop… Somehow, it all comes back to that moment they found someone else who had the weird sense of humor that grew from spending too much time in a windowless bunker that smelled of old newsprint and burnt coffee.


In all my time at all these institutions of higher learning, I’ve yet to come across another student organization or activity that even came close to what student media does, both for the campus and for its practitioners. This is something people like Jacque Carter don’t understand, because to them, it’s a pain in the ass that costs money and points out things they don’t want pointed out.


To us, it’s life.


P.S. – I passed law with a C that semester. Even if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

MAGA hat is protected speech, appeals court declares

When is a hat more than a hat? When free-speech issues are involved.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In an attempt at “less is more,” we’re trying out the Axios approach to working through some of the more “event-based” posts. Tell us what you think in the comments. — VFF

The Lead: The ninth-circuit court of appeals in January ruled in favor of a teacher who wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat to his school’s racial bias and sensitivity training. The court found that wearing the symbol of Trump America was protected speech:

Ultimately, the events of that week led to the Wy’east Middle School principal resigning and to Dodge pursuing legal recourse. Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Dodge’s favor, deciding that displaying the hat as he did was speech protected by the First Amendment.

The appeals panel determined that “while some of the training attendees may have been outraged or offended by [Dodge’s] political expression, no evidence of actual or tangible disruption to school operations had been presented.”

Short Recap:

  • Dodge wore a MAGA cap to the event, took it off before things started and just kept it near him.
  • In response to complaints, the principal told Dodge to “use better judgment” in regard to wearing the hat. He wore it the next day and teachers started freaking out, texting the principal to do something about it.
  • She did, Dodge stated in court filings, as she called him a number of unsavory names and told him he was being insubordinate. If he wore the hat again, he was told, he should bring his union rep.
  • School board meetings, resignations and eventually the lawsuit followed, with Dodge winning the key point that his First Amendment rights were violated.

Key Takeaway: The bar for suppressing First Amendment rights in most situations is pretty high. The Amendment is there to protect ALL speech, especially the speech people DON’T like. Unless we’re talking about imminent threats or child porn, courts are usually going to favor the speaker, not the suppressor.

Doctor of Paper Hot Take: According to the professor who ran the event stated she was “traumatized” by the hat, while some teachers cried or complained that the hat “triggered” them. Really? A hat can do all that? And I thought the sorting hat at Hogwarts was amazing.

I’m sympathetic to people who feel speech has harmed them, which is why even though I support the concept of free speech, I find speech like that of the Westboro Baptist Church reprehensible. In this case, though, Dodge’s speech didn’t rise to the level of threat or obscenity. We can argue if he should or shouldn’t have worn the hat, but that’s ethics, not law.

Statistic of the Day: According to Trump campaign officials, more than 1 million licensed versions of the hat were in circulation four years ago. Add four years and the knock-off market to this and it’s impossible to imagine a world in which these people wouldn’t have seen one before.

CLASSROOM EXERCISE: Put yourself in the position of the principal or of Dodge and talk about how you might have handled this situation differently to avoid the lawsuit. Think  about ways in which you could balance the concerns some of the participants had with the First-Amendment rights of the individuals.

Lead Writing 101: Start with the “holy trinity” and move outward

Today’s coverage of the earthquake that decimated Turkey provides an opportunity to discuss some lead-writing basics

Here is a lead from CNN (and a second paragraph) that demonstrates how passive voice and weak structure can undermine a lead:

More than 1,500 people have died and rescuers are racing to pull survivors from beneath the rubble after a devastating earthquake ripped through Turkey and Syria, leaving destruction and debris on each side of the border.

One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the region in a century shook residents from their beds at around 4 a.m. on Monday, sending tremors as far away as Lebanon and Israel.

The lead has potential, but it’s buried (no pun intended) in the middle of the sentence (earthquake ripped through Turkey and Syria). The other problems come in here:

    • Two sets of passive voice/helping verbs kick off the lead (have died; are racing)
    • Redundancies (rubble, destruction, debris)
    • Lack of context (a lot of earthquakes do damage. What makes this one special?)
    • Missing the “when” aspect

With that in mind, let’s go back to the basics of lead writing:

    • Tell me what happened
    • Tell me why I, as a reader, should care (usually done by focusing on the FOCII interest elements)

Then, let’s apply the “core-out” approach, starting with the “holy trinity” of noun-verb-object

    • Earthquake kills people

Add in the next layer, which is probably going to add impact details and focus on the “where” and “when”

    • An earthquake killed at least 1,500 people between Turkey and Syria on Monday morning

Look for things that add value in terms of impact and oddity. We have impact (1,500 people), but the oddity factor could be helpful in providing context:

    • One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the Turkey-Syria region in more than a century killed at least 1,500 people Monday morning.
      (NOTE: I have no idea how the folks at CNN are defining “one of” or “the region,” so I’m a little hamstrung with this lead. If I had the core info about this, the descriptors would be tighter and clearer than “Turkey-Syria region.”)

Then polish out some additional elements regarding the continuing efforts on the ground:

    • One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the Turkey-Syria region in more than a century killed at least 1,500 people Monday morning, as rescue workers continued digging through rubble to free survivors.

Perhaps not the greatest lead of all time, but it gives you a few key interest elements (Oddity, Immediacy, Impact), it works in active voice (earthquake kills people) and it has a goodly amount of the 5W’s and 1H.

EXERCISE OPPORTUNITY: Have your students pull a story on the earthquake (or if something else is happening in your area that has a lot of coverage and interest) and see how well the author did at nailing an active-voice, N-V-O lead. Then, have the students rewrite it, working from that core NVO and moving outward. It would also help to share the leads among the class, with the students explaining what they did and why they did it. It could also be helpful to have them explain why they think their work is better than the original piece.