Translating “The Dance” between professors and students over final grades

As the term winds to a close, students and professors engage in what I refer to as “The Dance” over grades. It’s a tactical, nuanced discussion that involves trying to beg without it looking like begging, trying to answer an email without promising anything and basically engaging in nuclear-treaty-level diplomacy. If we were all trapped in a “Liar, Liar” world, it would essentially look like this:

Student: Pass me and stop being a jerk, you asshat.

Professor: Oh, now you care about this class, you little twerp? Go to hell and take a left.

However, since we have to “Eddie Haskell” it on both ends, here are the legendary begging statements I’ve gotten from students over the years or variations on those themes provided by the hivemind. I’ve added a few “internal thoughts” your professors have had over the years when it comes to responding to these pleas. Enjoy:

“Could you just add XX small points to my final grade?”

First, all points are created equal. Second, that figure has ranged from 1 to about 100, depending on the level of desperation. Third, when you kept doing the same stupid thing over and over again because instead of reading my comments, you just looked at the grade and thought, “Screw you, dude” you might not need those “small points.”

 

“I’m graduating this term…”

Not if you need to pass this class, you’re not.

 

“Is there anything I can do?”

Can you invent a time machine, go back in history and tell the earlier version of yourself to turn stuff in on time, not skip every third class and generally give a better overall performance than a disinterested Jay Cutler on a trick play? If not, no.

OR

Prayer can help, although I’m not certain how strong God’s will is to help you out here.

OR

Sign up for the next semester I teach this class and give a crap a little sooner in the term.

 

“Is there extra credit?”

Sure, because when the syllabus said, “There will be NO EXTRA CREDIT in this class, so plan accordingly,” I clearly included a loophole for people who didn’t care about anything until the very moment they realized they were screwed.

 

“Could I rewrite (half of the assignments) for additional credit?”

Sure, because nothing says, “I’m ready to do a good job,” like not doing a good job on anything all term and then expecting to make all of that up in 72 hours before grades are due with no real interest in learning anything other than how many points you need to slide by.

 

“Could you bump me up just this little bit?”

Sure, because I’m sure that won’t tick off the six other people in your class who sweated bullets to get a passing grade through hard work on that assignment you blew off to go to Cabo and party on the beach.

 

“Could you possibly round me up?”

I could. Now ask me if I will. Welcome to the grammar lesson you skipped.

 

“I had some issues this semester…”

Yeah. No kidding.

 

“Your class is very important to me…”

Um… I believe a lot of things people tell me to make me feel better about myself. This isn’t one of them.

 

“I don’t understand why you downgraded me…”

You mean the page and a half of comments I included in the body of your paper didn’t clue you in that this random series of unattributed content, fragmented sentence, shifted verb tenses, incorrect word choices and cripplingly bad structure didn’t help? This wasn’t a news story. It was a disaster movie filmed out of sequence.

 

“This isn’t fair that I should have to take your course over again.”

It isn’t fair I had to grade this pile of sheep dung you referred to as “completed assignments,” but we all have our crosses to bear, I suppose…

 

“I need (A/B/C grade) to (pass/maintain my scholarship/keep my ego afloat)…”

This is not Burger King. You don’t get it your way.

“I don’t like it” isn’t the same as “You are factually inaccurate:” Four tips for when people say they’re going to sue you for something you wrote

I spent part of Wednesday afternoon on a conference call with students from Oshkosh North and the attorney for Hans Nelson, the school’s former vice principal. The story the North Star wrote about Nelson and his unceremonious transition from high school VP to a special-needs educator elsewhere in the district was at the crux of the whole censorship debacle last month.

In one of the articles on the Oshkosh North situation, Nelson’s lawyer, Charles Hertel, stated that the article was inaccurate and intimated a lawsuit might be forthcoming:

On Friday, Charles Hertel, a partner with the Dempsey Law Firm in Oshkosh, provided a statement to the Journal Sentinel on Nelson’s behalf. He called the article “factually false and defamatory.” He said Nelson is considering legal action against Doemel and possibly others.

“What he is doing is not privileged,” Hertel said.

The students, still pursuing a story to try to find out what happened to Nelson, were told via emailed letter that Hertel would speak for Nelson and that a call should be arranged. One of the students asked me to join, so I sat quietly for most of the call until at least the second time Hertel stated with certainty that the story was somehow false or inaccurate.

I asked Hertel to outline the factual inaccuracies, so the students could either correct the record or investigate this more clearly.

Hertel first stated that Nelson hadn’t been terminated. I asked the students if the story stated that. They said no. He then said Nelson hadn’t resigned. We quibbled over language a bit, noting that if he doesn’t have his previous position and he now has a different one, how could that be characterized as not resigning something?

After one more question, in which an inaccuracy did not emerge, Hertel noted he didn’t have the article right in front of him. He also said he didn’t think the students had a source (which, again, would not be an issue of factual inaccuracy). At that point, I suggested we move on.

This isn’t the first conversation I’ve had like this in my career as a reporter, editor and adviser, in which there seems to be a basic misunderstanding between the concepts of “I don’t like what you’re saying” and “What you are saying is factually inaccurate and libelous.” Since I spent much of my pro life on the crime beat, I had a number of people who were arrested or family members of the accused calling me to threaten lawsuits.

I vividly remember once having said the sentence, “Ma’am, it’s not our fault your son was involved in a shoot out at a Taco Bell Drive Thru.” This did not placate the woman, who continued to scream that our publication of the incident made her son (an adult) look bad. (I would argue it was the shooting he engaged in at the drive thru that made him look bad, but I figured she didn’t want to hear that.)

I took a call from a bounty hunter in Missouri, who was outraged that we wrote about his arrest. Police told us that he had spotted a person who was wanted for some outstanding traffic tickets, so the bounty hunter engaged in a high-speed chase that eventually flipped the suspect’s truck onto its roof. The truck came to rest on some active railroad tracks. If memory serves, the bond amount was no more than a couple hundred bucks. He, of course, threatened to sue us. It’s been about 20 years and I’ve yet to be served.

One guy who ran for the school board argued that we had factually misrepresented numerous things, including his military records. I remember being in a conference room with this guy, our head editor and the reporter who wrote the story. The guy had this giant binder of information that he said clearly outlined everything that was wrong. When the editor asked to see it, the man declined and said we’d see it in court and he didn’t want to talk to us (that despite the fact he was the one who requested the meeting). Again, I’m still waiting on that one to make the court dockets.

If you’re worried when someone says “I’m going to sue you,” you are completely normal. Legal stuff can get freakish and panic is easy when the word “lawyer” is bandied about. That said, here are four tips from the book that might help you when you are dealing with this:

  • Remain calm: Just like when you are in the field, a panicking reporter is a useless reporter in this situation. You need to realize that the threat of a lawsuit is just that: a threat. It is highly unlikely that the person will sue you at all, let alone sue you successfully. However, you should take every call or email like this seriously and keep your wits about you while you do.
  • Determine the problem: Just because someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have grounds for legal action. The key thing is to determine what has upset this person so you can figure out your best course of action. For example, if a caller says something in the story is wrong, you can determine if there is a factual error or if the person just disagrees with a source in your story. This will help you see if you need to run a correction or if you need to explain how reporters gather information from sources.
  • Don’t make a promise you can’t keep: When a person is yelling at you on the phone about how you screwed something up, the “fight or flight” instinct can kick in pretty quickly. You might feel like the best way to get out of the situation is “flight,” where you apologize profusely for everything and assure the person everything will be fixed right away. This can lead you to make promises you can’t keep, such as changing a story, pulling something off the web or something else to make this person back off. In other cases, you might go into “fight” mode, where you push back at the caller with some anger of your own. This can further enrage the person and lead to even worse consequences if your publication eventually has to correct an error or apologize for a story. You probably won’t be the final arbiter of how your publication will deal with these situations, so don’t promise action when it’s not yours to promise. The only thing you should promise is that you will do your best to look into this and inform your superiors.
  • Get contact information: You will almost certainly need to do a bit of digging before you can solve any problem. Even if the problem isn’t yours to solve, you want to make sure you have the contact information from the person who raised the issue. With email, this is easy enough, as you can forward the complaint to the reporter involved in the story (if it’s not you) or to your editor and the person’s email address is right there. In the case of a phone call, make sure you get the person’s name and number so you or someone else at your office can get back to him or her as needed.

 

 

The New York Times 144-word correction on a prominent politician’s obituary and what you can learn from the situation

When Indiana’s legendary Richard Lugar died last week, the New York Times managed to crank out this 48-word monstrosity of a lead:

Richard G. Lugar, who represented Indiana in the Senate for 36 years and whose mastery of foreign affairs made him one of only a handful of senators in modern history to exercise substantial influence on the nation’s international relations, died on Sunday in Annandale, Va. He was 87.

And yet, that paled in comparison to the 144-word mea culpa the paper had to write once the folks there realized they massively botched the piece:

LugarFail

I imagined this to be the conversation at the New York Times last week around the obituary desk:

Obit Writer 1: Man, we’ll never screw up another obituary any worse than we did when John McCain died…

Obit Writer 2: Hold my beer.

If you look at the mistakes in there, you can see that a lot of this came down to fact checking. People can argue about nuance, such as if someone “resigned” or merely “left a job,” but the date something happened is one of those things we can all figure out if we try really, really hard.

With that in mind, let’s look back at a few of the points we made when the times ran its mega-fail obit of John McCain and see how they still apply here:

Assume everything is wrong. Fact check accordingly: This one still works wonders here, especially up at the top of this thing. The date he entered the service, his rank and the date of his marriage are all fact-based items that could easily have been checked against a dozen sources or digital documents. As noted in the McCain piece, when a person takes on a particularly important level of distinction in the world, newspapers like the NYT will usually start an obituary file for that person, so this thing has been on hand for a while.

That said, who knows who actually wrote that first draft of it or to when it was last reviewed? You shouldn’t grab something out of an old file and figure, “Well someone wrote it so it must be right” any more than you would grab an unmarked pill bottle out of a stranger’s medicine cabinet and figure, “Well, I’m sure a couple of these will probably help my headache.” As much as we venerate the “golden era” of the press, which consisted of a lot of typewriters clicking, lead-type machines and the concept of smoking indoors, those folks were people, just like us. They could have screwed up, just as easily as we can.

How you state something matters: When I taught sports writing, I provided students with statements to prove true or false and two of my favorites were:

  • “In the Open Era, which runs from 1968 to present, the person holding the most Wimbledon singles titles is Roger Federer with eight wins.”
  • “The team with the most NFL championships is the Pittsburgh Steelers, winners of six Super Bowls.”

The first one is something half of the students get wrong because they look up Federer, see he won eight singles titles, see no one above him on the list of winners for men and say it’s true. However, the word “person” isn’t synonymous with “men.” The athlete (or person) with the most is Martina Navratilova, who won nine singles titles. The second one is wrong because the Green Bay Packers won 13 NFL titles (most of them in the pre-Super Bowl era), so even thought Steelers have more Super Bowls, the Packers have more titles.

The line in the obituary for Lugar that got some criticism falls along these lines. Lugar pushing for something didn’t mean it encountered heavy resistance. That’s probably at least part of the problem associated with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program correction, although I’m not entirely sure how they missed by more than a decade.

Beware of “-est” statements: The obit’s correction didn’t have any of these errors, which was the case with McCain’s, but that might have just been a fortunate bounce, given the use of “-est” statements:

His greatest legacy, though, remains his work toward reducing the threat of nuclear arms.

Security was upgraded at nuclear weapons sites, at a time when the greatest fear was that a terror group would take advantage of the chaos in Russia or in one of the former Soviet states and buy or steal a weapon.

Friends said that this was Mr. Lugar’s most significant exposure to geopolitical thinking, and probably the single greatest source of his fascination with foreign policy.

In these statements, the writer’s good luck had him attempting to quantify things that could not be accurately quantified, such as a “greatest” fear” or “greatest source.” People can quibble with those. In the case of the McCain obit, calling the fire on the Forrestal the “deadliest” incident could be measured (and proven wrong, as it was).

As a word of warning, you need to make sure that you have something nailed down perfectly before you issue an “-est” statement. The “deadliest” attack. The “longest” game. The “greatest” comeback. Those things need to be quantified and verified. Any time you see an “-est” in a story you are editing or you include one in a story you are writing, make absolutely sure you are correct.

Ask for help: One of the many benefits of newsrooms is the presence of other people who know stuff. You might worry that asking for help or having someone look over your should could make you look stupid or weak. However, what’s a worse crime: Looking dumb in a newsroom (and spoiler alert- you won’t look like that when you ask for help) or looking dumb in the general public? If you don’t know something, ask. It really works.

UNC-Charlotte shooting presses students at the Niner Times back to work

As we’ve noted here before, journalists are never really off the clock, given that news can happen at any point in time and it needs to be covered. Students at the Niner Times experienced this first hand when a gunman opened fire on their campus during the last week of school:

THREE HOURS BEFORE A SHOOTING WAS FIRST REPORTED on University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s campus, Alexandria Sands tweeted that she was “officially a retired college newspaper editor. Thank you for letting me tell your stories, #UNCC.” At around 5:42 p.m., as she was sitting in the last class of her college career, she saw a message in a group chat for the Niner Times’ college newspaper staff. “There’s a shooter on campus in Kennedy,” it read.

Two people died and four others were injured, including Niner Times sports writer Drew Pescaro. The Niner Times stated that Pescaro had surgery for his injuries and was recovering at an area hospital.

Police arrested former UNCC student Trystan Andrew Terrell, who has been charged with two counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder. Police are still investigating the situation and are releasing additional information as it becomes available.

In the mean time, the Forty Niner staff continues to release information on its website, and via social media.

The Junk Drawer: Welcome to the land of Sex Tourneys and Trained Whales

As we noted in an earlier post, the Junk Drawer is usually full of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else but you still need, so let’s enjoy a few of the more awkward moments sent in by the hivemind and other friends out there:

I’M GOING TO AUBURN!

AuburnSEX

Either they meant the SEC (Southeastern Conference) Tournament, or they’re going to start a hell of a recruiting war with Alabama. I’m pretty sure the University of Southern California Trojans and the University of South Carolina Gamecocks plan to take part in next year’s tournament.

IN OTHER ODD FETISH NEWS…

DeadPorn

Either this is a horribly misplaced modifier or this husband is a porn channel vigilante. “One man stands for the murder of porn channels… Joe Don Baker stars in, ‘The Porninator.'”

Speaking of modifier problems…

 

ARE WE JUST NOT DOING PHRASING ANYMORE?

A friend passed this along from a grading session:

Filledtocapacity

To be fair, I’m sure I’ve done some of my best work while filled to capacity… Another friend followed up with this gem:

My favorite example to illustrate the point is “Ugly or not, the team will take the victory.”

Speaking of ugly…

YOU MIGHT WANT TO FIRE YOUR MARKETING DEPARTMENT:

I get that people want some sort of cute, kitschy vibe for their group, but this is what can happen when you don’t really think this through:

Succs

(A special note of thanks to the person who used the very last erg of her battery to send this to me. I don’t think my phone is capable of getting that low without giving me a “Really? You don’t know what a charger looks like?” look.)

Speaking of things in “Ouchtown”…

I DO NOT THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS

A friend ran across this in a court story:

“His arrangement will be Tuesday in circuit court.”

It will likely include several roses, some peonies and 8-to-10 for breaking and entering…

Speaking criminal intent…

WHY IS THE TRUTH ALWAYS STRANGER THAN FICTION?

Whale

Question: How do Russians train whales to harass specific ships? The bigger question: How do you become an “expert” in whales that have been trained by Russians to harass ships?

Until next time,

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

Privacy, Free Expression and Instagram: UW-Oshkosh deals with another “hate speech” moment

There are many times I am wistful that I do not advise the student paper at UW-Oshkosh anymore, but Friday definitely was not one of them.

OSHKOSH – University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh leaders say they’re investigating viral social media posts that show photos of racist and homophobic messages and hateful symbols they believe involve students.

The images, which appear to show messages posted in off-campus student housing, prompted calls for expulsions and drew the attention of state lawmakers.

A social media post of three photographs, taken at a party the previous night, attempted to “out” the party hosts (UWO students) for racist and homophobic elements that were on display at their home:

Racism

(Editor’s note: Both students were named, but I blocked them here. That’s not because I believe in hiding racism, but rather because I couldn’t independently verify that these guys lived there etc. More on this later.)

Very few things will lead to the chancellor of a major university cancelling everything he or she is doing that day to call an impromptu open forum to deal with something. Even fewer of those things are positive events. An infinitesimal number of those things will pack a giant ballroom with students on a Friday afternoon like this one did:

Matesic

Then again, this wasn’t the first of these social media posts to paint the university’s citizenry in an awful light. During the student government elections in March, a student posted on social media his support for a particular slate of candidates, noting “UWO Vote for these guys today unless you want a lesbian or a hmong to win.”

The editor of the student paper told me his social media had been blowing up all night over this incident. He said he’d been getting DMs and more asking if the Advance-Titan was going to cover this and what it was going to say. Before he reached out to me, I had been emailing with Frank LoMonte, a legal eagle who formerly served as the executive director of the Student Press Law Center and now runs the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, on this topic.

My questions to Frank were for the blog, both in terms of lessons to learn and how to keep my own keester out of the fryer while writing about this issue. I gladly shared the answers with the editor as well, because this kind of situation deals with all sorts of legal and ethical issues. Here are a couple things I pondered and things Frank told me, written in a loosely structured format, that might help some of you in the future:

Clearly the speech here (a laundry list of racist and homophobic ideals as well as a giant Swastika painting) is not something the university supports or enjoys having associated with the institution. That said, I knew that there were issues involved here about this being a public institution, this happening off campus and so forth. Essentially I asked Frank, are these students and their speech still protected?

“There’s an especially aggressive strain of First Amendment case law, which I think is completely incorrect, that says if you’re enrolled in a pre-professional program, you have near-nonexistent First Amendment rights and your university can punish you if your speech falls short of the standards of what would be acceptable workplace behavior in the profession…

“The better-reasoned view is that students have at least as much First Amendment protection online as they do in the hallways, so that means at a bare minimum they have the Tinker v. Des Moines level of protection — if not more, since the Supreme Court has never limited college students to the Tinker standard.

“I think it would be quite hard for a college to show that just saying ‘I hate [fill in the blank minority]’ is an act disruptive of the campus, absent a threat to actually act on the animus. Once speech becomes threatening, yes, it loses its First Amendment protection and can be punished, but if someone does no more than express racial or religious hatred, there is no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, particularly not off-campus on personal time.”

I knew other colleges and institutions have dealt with this before. We’ve detailed a number of these things on the blog, including Harley Barber’s infamous rant on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. One incident that made major national news was at the University of Oklahoma, where a video surfaced of  SAE fraternity members singing a racist chant. The chapter was banned from campus and at least two students were expelled, although one of their attorneys said the student withdrew prior to being expelled. Again, neither of these incidents, or the one at UWO was good, but do universities have the power to expel students based on off-campus things like this? Frank’s take:

“I think the reality today is that most colleges do in fact either impose disciplinary sanctions or strongly encourage the students to ‘voluntarily’ withdraw and start over somewhere else. Colleges know that these cases are quite hard for student speakers to win, and if you’re really caught saying something so boneheaded that you’d be humiliated to continue living with it every day for the next 24 months, you’re not going to sue over it. You’re probably going to slink away in humiliation, close your social media accounts, and hope nobody at your new college Googles you.

“You can look at what David Boren did to the fraternity pledge who sang the racist song on a video that went viral. That speech was almost certainly not within the school’s authority to punish constitutionally — it was incredibly offensive, but not threatening, and there’s no “offensiveness” exception to the First Amendment — but Boren calculated that the price of not doing anything would be worse for him than the minimal risk of a First Amendment lawsuit. And he was right, nobody sued and his expulsion held up.”

Aside from the issues of free speech, I was curious about the issue of someone entering a house, taking a couple pictures and then putting people on blast via social media with those images.

We’ve discussed invasion of privacy topics both here and in both books, but those are usually clear-cut examples: If the chancellor at your university is running down Main Street like Will Ferrell in “Old School,” you have every right to take pictures of the chancellor and publish them. If you climb up the drainpipe of my house and lean inside to take pictures of my kid while she’s sleeping, you’re in deep trouble.

This situation felt a little murkier, so I asked Frank about issues pertaining to privacy and open displays of stuff within an off-campus home like this:

“Everything depends on the factual details. First, was this a gathering with a large number of people, some of whom were not intimately close friends-and-family? If it’s a roomful of 50 people and half of them barely know each other, it’s quite hard to argue that something you willingly displayed in front of dozens of strangers is ‘private.’

“Second, was the act of taking the photograph open or concealed? If I see you snapping the photo openly and conspicuously and I stand by and do nothing — and if other people are doing the same — then I can’t very well complain that you took the photos against my wishes.

“But let’s assume those things aren’t true. Let’s assume it’s 10 people who all know each other very well and the photo is snapped surreptitiously. In that event, then yes, I think there’s an invasion-of-privacy claim. When you’re inside of a private home, you have an expectation of privacy, and that’s even true to some degree if you’re a house guest rather than the owner.”

As a journalism nerd, the question that most rattled around in my head (and that of the editor, I’m sure) were about what should people publish in regard to this story. Some media outlets blurred out the faces of the people in the photos. Others blurred out one or more words on the white board. Still others didn’t run the images, but rather summarized the content.

In some cases, those were issues of taste, while in others those were issues of risk. Naming the guys runs a huge risk for a number of reasons, including that you need to make sure of your source. For example, when I posted about the Oshkosh North situation, I pretty much laid out the whole story that Brock Doemel wrote and did so with almost no fear. The reason was, I spoke with Brock, I trusted Brock as a source of that information and I knew that the blow back about his story had nothing to do with factual accuracy.

In this case, however, I’m getting a third-hand (at least) photo of an Instagram post compiled by someone I do not know. The risks are much higher. In addition, I don’t know if maybe these guys have a third roommate who put the stuff up there and they have nothing to do with it. (One of the students called out in the post initially posted on Twitter that he had nothing to do with this. He has since deleted his account.) I also couldn’t prove these photos were taken at this house and that these guys live there and more. In other words, a lot more unknown elements made naming these guys a lot riskier, so I was more cautious.

What to publish and what not to publish in terms of the images and the post gave me pause. I also was sure there were other things I wasn’t thinking about as potential landmines, so I asked Frank to give me a map to the landmine field here:

“I think it’s powerful in a situation like this to show the audience: ‘Here’s exactly what this looked like to the people attending this gathering in the apartment. They were big, clear, legible words in a visible place that couldn’t help but be noticed.’ The picture helps you get that across.

“Where I would be really careful is in over-characterizing or over-describing beyond what you can say for sure based on firsthand observation. For instance, maybe the photo shows Jane Jones standing and smiling as she looks at the words. I wouldn’t say ‘Jane Jones stood by without doing anything,’ because for all you know, Jane immediately ran up and erased the words. This is the issue we saw with adding interpretation to the video of the Kentucky high-school Trump fans who got into a confrontation outside the Lincoln Memorial. Is the smiling student expressing his smug superiority over the Native America protester, or is he trying to remain stoical in the face of insults shouted at him? If you don’t know, don’t speculate and don’t guess.

“I don’t think it’s a bad editorial call not to use the photos, if there is concern over people who were innocent bystanders being targeted for blame. That’s not impossible. Maybe Joe walked in for 30 seconds to pick up his roommate, and in those 30 seconds his picture got snapped, but he didn’t have any involvement in the writings and he barely stopped to look at them. Again, it comes down to what you know, ideally from people who were in the room at the time, and not what you infer.”

 

Write all you want, but then edit the hell out of it.

 

During a writing lab session, a student asked me how it is I could come up with tight and clear sentences off the cuff. The truth, I told him, wasn’t so much in the writing, but in the editing. I was essentially doing in my head what he was doing on the computer, which took me a lot of practice. Even more, I told him, when I do write sentences on the computer, I mostly spend time just dumping the stuff out of my head and then going back to shape and polish them. In short, I explained, write all you want, but then go back and edit the hell out of it.

Here are a couple examples of what I mean:

Here is a 46/47 word lead on an ongoing investigation about a UW chancellor and her husband’s behavior:

WHITEWATER – An independent investigation commissioned by the University of Wisconsin System into how administrators responded to sexual harassment allegations against Pete Hill, husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper, found “Hill’s behavior was a blind spot for the Chancellor,” according to documents obtained by the Journal Sentinel.

Start by picking this apart. What’s the first thing we learn? That there was an independent investigation commissioned by the UW system. Is that the most important thing you want to tell people?

What’s the last thing you learn? The newspaper got some documents. Is that important enough for the lead?

Let’s focus on what matters most:

  • husband of former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper
  • accused of sexual harassment
  • reports calls accusations credible
  • report finds she didn’t know about it
  • report finds she didn’t ask him about it
  • Kopper didn’t retaliate, but people still felt awkward

 

Pick through those elements and you have a much stronger lead:

Former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper likely didn’t know about her husband’s sexually harassing behavior on campus, but she didn’t proactively respond to the allegations once they arose, an independent investigation found.

It’s 31 words and gets you closer. Then, if you want to talk about how you got the records, the formal title of the investigative group and the “blind spot” quote (which gets mentioned twice in three paragraphs), you can do that later.

Just so you don’t think I’m picking on the pros, here’s a nice, tight lead that similarly works off of a major report from that same publication:

MADISON – Wisconsin has seen a steep decline in net migration of families with children and this could be problematic for efforts to replace the state’s aging workforce, according to a new report.

Again, it tells me what happened and why I care right up front, pushing the name of the official report and committee and all that stuff way down below.

Check out this body-copy sentence from a story about a contract between a state entity and a private corporation:

Evers and Foxconn officials are in talks to rewrite a contract that lays out what size investments Foxconn must make in Wisconsin in order to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies — a deal that currently requires Foxconn to hit targets in job creation before any state tax credits can be paid.

An edit to this can make a 48-word sentence a little clearer and cleaner:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. Under the current deal, Foxconn must hit job-creation targets before receiving state tax credits.

Two sentences, 32 words and much clearer. If you want one sentence, try this:

Evers and Foxconn officials are discussing contract revisions to determine what Foxconn must do to receive taxpayer-funded subsidies in an attempt to reshape the job-creation targets Foxconn must reach before receiving state tax credits.

It’s still beefy at 34 words, but it is tighter and clearer.

These would get better with more editing, but the point is that instead of trying to be perfect on the first pass, get the stuff out of your head and onto the screen. Once you have something there, you can work with it. Until then, you just have a blank screen with a blinking cursor that is mocking you.

 

High school heroes: The PLD Lamplighter burns Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for the lack of access to an open event

Last week’s coverage of the Oshkosh North Star censorship situation provided a digital version of the vintage truism about not picking a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. When student media and information suppression mix, it can be an explosive combination, much to the consternation of folks who think of high school journalists as only “playing newspaper reporters.”

The student journalists at the PLD Lamplighter found themselves at odds with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Kentucky Gov. Mat Bevin when they attempted to enter an “open press event,” only to be told they weren’t allowed inside.

DeVos and Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin on Wednesday appeared at a roundtable discussion of school choice advocates at Bluegrass Community and Technical College about DeVos’ federal scholarship tax credit initiative.

But the Dunbar students said they were turned away by a man wearing a BCTC badge when they arrived to cover the event, told that it was invitation-only. PLD Lamplighter is a student-run news publication at Dunbar.

The students tried multiple times to get in to cover the event AS PRESS, only to be denied each time. When push came to shove, the students could have simply groused about their inability to gain access. Instead, they thought of their audience, the irony of the moment and how best to communicate their predicament. The result was an editorial titled “No Seat at the Roundtable” that slammed home the point:

It was heartbreaking to us, as young journalists fired up to cover an event regarding the future of education, to leave empty-handed. But as we researched we learned that we were not the only ones who were disappointed and frustrated.

There were social media posts that exhibited confusion from parents, students, and educators—especially because no public school representatives were participants in the event.

We emailed FCPS Superintendent Manny Caulk to ask if he had been invited, and he answered that he had not.

Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky that deal directly with students, none were represented at the table. Zero. This is interesting because the supposed intention of the event was to include stakeholders–educators, students, and parents.

The closing is one of those things that writers dream about writing:

There was a lesson in this experience, though. We learned that the job of a journalist is to chase the story by any means necessary. We learned to be resourceful and meet our deadline even if it wasn’t in the way we initially intended. And we learned that although students aren’t always taken seriously, we have to continue to keep trying to have a seat at the table.

What followed was attention from pretty much any media outlet you can imagine. The local publications took a look at this issue, as did the Washington Post. As is the case with most times the excrement hits the whirling wind-maker, everyone involved immediately started exclaiming how unaware of the students’ plight they all were:

U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Liz Hill said in an email Friday morning that “no one from the Secretary’s staff was made aware that student journalists were attempting to attend the roundtable. We welcome student journalists and would have been happy for them to be in attendance. We are looking into what, if any, miscommunication might have happened between other staff on site for the event.”

BCTC spokeswoman Michelle Sjogren said Friday that “our security people were working off of instructions from Secretary DeVos’ team, they were told there was an invitation list.”

“The instructions we were given were …whoever is coming in needs to be on the list,” said Sjogren. “We had an RSVP list.”

Sjogren said she was made aware of the editorial Thursday night and sent an email to Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains.

“I said, …Dunbar students and any high school students are welcome on our campus at anytime. This was not our event and we did not set the protocol for it. We were just following instructions. It wasn’t our decision,” Sjogren said.

This wasn’t so much of a miscommunication as it is a representation of the unfortunate state of how too many people tend to view “student media.” This is why it always matters when we can shine a light on how any one of us is being treated in the media world. How one of is is treated reflects on all of us.

Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

I got a giant wad of reviews for a book proposal that I put into the field a few weeks back. The idea of people reviewing work you haven’t done yet to decide if it’s worth doing gives me hives, but it does help me understand what professors want and what they think their students need.

Amid all of the helpful suggestions (and a few that made me wonder if they were reading another person’s proposal instead of mine), this rhetorical question stuck with me:

Is it possible to write in simpler language? The authors do not have to impress the other professors.  The goal should be to reach the student.

Of all the things I’ve received in reviews throughout my life, this is one chunk of text with which I wholeheartedly agree. Believe me, if I was trying to be impressive, I’d be totally screwed.

Whenever I try to write a book, I consider the students who had to plunk down their cash to buy this thing and now are forced to use it for something besides a doorstop. I will often think of one of my current or former students and then imagine I’m trying to tell that particular student whatever it is I think matters in a way I think he or she will best understand it. (I then go back and edit out the cursing, the “y’knows” and any reference to the 1980 USA Hockey Team.)

The point is: I try to know my readers before I write to them. I’m also not trying to impress anybody with my wide range of vocabulary or ability to recall a key moment from a “Full House” episode that foreshadowed Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin’s role in the admissions bribery scandal.

I want you to learn how to write well, communicate effectively and reach an audience. If I’m not doing that in my textbooks (or at least trying to), I’m either a hypocrite or an idiot. With that in mind, consider these key pointers when it comes to writing simply for an audience:

  • If you wouldn’t read it, don’t write it: A  major problem happens when you flip from the “reader” side of a story to the “journalist” side of the storytelling relationship: You forget what it’s like to have to read whatever it is you’re writing. The purpose of journalism is to reach your audience with quality information in a clear and coherent way. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Approach your content accordingly and if you wouldn’t enjoy reading something, don’t write it that way.
  • Tell me a story and make me care: Far too often, our desire to gather quotes or or grab basic facts can overwhelm the journalist, thus putting the storytelling aspect of the job on the back burner. Instead of treating journalism like you’re fighting through a “honey-do list,” focus on the concept of telling stories in a way that makes your readers care about them.The idea of a story drives our desire to read, listen, watch and interact with content. It’s why we search for characters, threads, plots and elements in the media output we consume for entertainment. News is no different in that regard, so find ways to make your work tell people a story that is relevant, useful and interesting to them.
  • The harder the story is to understand, the slower and simpler you should tell it: I remember seeing this on a sign in our Ball State newsroom one year and I wish I could find its source. (I’m sure someone will tell me about 11 seconds after I post this, complete with a link I should have easily located…) Its point is a fantastic one: When things get harder, slow down. We do it when we’re driving through a snowstorm or working through a difficult math problem. We do it when our parents or grandparents call and ask, “How do I stop the computer from doing this one blinky thing?”However, when we write stories for our audience, we often blaze through the jargon, speed through the complexities of a proposal or rush through a series of actions that barely make sense to you. Instead of flying along like my wife on a freeway, jamming out to the “Hamilton” soundtrack, slow down and incrementally explain each important detail as if you are communicating to a child. Or a parent asking about that “blinky thing.”

Throwback Thursday: The Four-Word Interview

(With the weather continually failing to cooperate with my desire to pull the Mustang out of storage, I decided to pine for “Betsy” openly with a throwback post to 2017. It’s a good reminder that the point of interviewing is to gain information that is important, to not overthink your interviews and that some day soon, summer is coming. — VFF)

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(The subject of a four-word interview.)

I stopped off to get gas this morning when a man in his 70s approached me.

“What year?” he asked, pointing to the Mustang.

“’68.” I told him.

He nodded. “Nice.” He then got in his truck and drove away.

In the simplest of terms, this was a perfect interview and the whole thing took four words.

In all the reporting and writing classes I have taught, the biggest problem students tell me they have is interviewing. They don’t know what to ask or how to ask it. They feel awkward talking to other people or they get the sense that they’re being pests. They would rather just email people and hope for answers instead of approaching people in public and talking to them. This is why interviewing features prominently in both the Dynamics of Media Writing and the Dynamics of News Reporting & Writing.

Interviewing is a skill and like any skill, you need to practice it to become better at it. That said, it is important to understand that every day, you conduct dozens of interviews, so you are probably better at it than you think you are. You ask your roommates how their day went, you ask the waitress what the special of the day is and you ask your professor, “Will this be on the test?” If you don’t think of these interactions as interviews, it’s because you are overthinking the concept of interviewing.

The purpose of an interview is to ask someone who knows something that you need to know for the information you seek. When you get that information, you do something with it. The guy at the gas station wanted to know one thing: What year Mustang was I driving? He figured the best source was me, the owner of the car. He asked a question that would elicit the answer he sought. He got his information and he moved on.

Interviewing as a journalist can seem much more complicated than that, mainly because you have to do a lot of preparation, you need to troll for quotes and you need to figure out how the answers fit in the broader context of your story. That’s all true, but if you start with the basic premise of “What do I need to know?” your interviews can feel more natural and less forced.