Throwback Thursday: Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

This post came to mind this weekend after a few last-second wins in the NFL, including my beloved Browns pulling out the win on a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.

The stories that emerged after that game and several other comebacks included tons of opinion disguised as fact, with terms like “glorious,” “impossible” and “miraculous” dotting the prose of writers.

Unless you see a guy at the 50 yard line multiplying loaves and bratwursts to feed the entire stadium, feel free to skip the mentions of “miracles.” As for the rest of the hyperbole, I hope this refresher will explain why you can cut that out of stories as well.

Don’t Believe the Hype: Why weaving tiny bits of opinion into stories can undermine your purpose

A group of my sports writing students were asked to write a story about a football game between two fictional college rivals, in which one comes back from a huge deficit to win on the last play of the fourth quarter. A good number of them attempted to hype the story rather than tell it, especially in the lead:

Thanks to an unbelievable fourth quarter capped by a 28-0 run, (WINNERS) came back to defeat (LOSERS), 31-28.

It seemed like (LOSERS)had the game wrapped up going into the fourth quarter, but in football, you must play all four quarters to the best of your ability if you want to win the game, no matter what level you’re playing at. 

In Wild and Wonderful  fashion, (WINNER) roars back to score 31 unanswered as they knock off (LOSER) in the closing seconds of regulation.

The (GAME) ended in extraordinary fashion with a last second touchdown.

Others wrote about it being “incredible,” “super,” “amazing” and so forth. And, yes, according to the information they received it was the largest comeback in conference history, so it might well have been all of those things.

However, your job is to show the readers what is going on by presenting factual information, not trying to sell them something by hyping it up. If you do the former, you’ll notice that your readers will come to the conclusion you want them to all by themselves. If you do the latter, you’ll find that the readers will resist your efforts to get them to see the situation in the way you want them to.

Don’t believe me? Consider the Joke Theory.

My wife and I laugh about how we’re always so competitive. But I know I always laugh more.

OK, that’s a lame joke, but I was hamstrung a bit by trying not to insult men, women, college students, professors, animals, trees and some frat kid named Chad’s little brother. That said, a few of you might have laughed at that. I at least had a chance.

Now consider if I started it this way instead:

I’m going to tell you a really funny joke. It’s probably one of the best jokes you’re ever going to hear. You’re going to be laughing so hard, you’ll cry. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you retell it to everyone you know. OK, here we go…

The hype kills the hope that I’m getting a laugh, just like the hype undercuts your position with your readers. Don’t tell them something is funny, amazing or whatever else. Show them the thing as it is and let them come to that conclusion.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Read this version of a story about a man caught breaking into a couple’s home, eating their food, wearing the wife’s Christmas “onesie” and dressing his cat, named Spaghetti, in a cashmere sweater he stole. What drives this story is the straight-up fact-based reporting that has you wondering, “What the heck is wrong with this guy?” (Well that and quotes like this: “No one leaves a dressed cat in a crawl space unless they’re coming back or they’re still here,” Smith told the paper. “So I got out and shut the door.”)

Now, if the writer, instead of doing this, had started commenting on this throughout the story, here’s what you might get:

“In the most bizarre case of burglary and home invasion ever known, a 38-year-old man was arrested Sunday night.

The odd fellow, who named his cat Spaghetti, which makes no sense, was caught in a crawl space in the home. A creepy crawler, indeed!

The weirdo put on the wife’s “onesie” night dress, which the woman obviously said she didn’t want the police to bring back for her. He also dressed Spaghetti in a cashmere outlet the couple had for one of its Chihuahuas, just adding to the weirdness of the night.”

Which version does the job better? Clearly the first one.

The point is that you need to have faith in your readers that they’ll see what you see when you write, without having to poke or prod them via commentary or hype. You also need to have faith in your own writing that you’ll get your point across well enough without having to use hype as a crutch to do the job.

Why should a reader care? A question you need to answer in all media writing

As part of a book I’m putting together for introduction to mass communication courses, I decided to break out key events and important people in an expanded timeline. In doing this, I added a chunk of text under each one of the points that I titled, “Why You Should Care.”

The folks at SAGE, and at least one reviewer, thought this was kind of jarring, almost a snarky affront to educational standards. Me? I thought it was common sense, given that if I can’t tell you why you should care about something, well… Why would you?

In today’s media climate, more and more sources are disseminating more and more messages  more and more frequently and in louder and louder ways. The idea, at least based on what I’m seeing out there, is that if we scream something loudly enough and do it often enough, people will eventually start to think, “Well, I guess that’s important.” In truth, we have often found that this repetition becomes more of an annoyance than anything else, plus once we stop bludgeoning people with those messages, they eventually stop caring about them.

When it comes to all forms of media writing, you need to be able to tell people not just WHAT happened, but also the “So What?” aspect of it, as one of my old bosses would say. If you can’t do that, you’re not coming at the content from an audience-centric perspective. You’re just cranking content out of a grist mill.

Here are two conversations I had with people this week who work in the field that really drove that home for me:

The first was a conversation with a student who is graduating and currently works as the main reporter at a small-market local news operation. He was grousing about how hard it is to get people to see value in his paper and his stories.

He told me that people care about certain things in the region he covers and he writes about those things, so why is it more people aren’t reading what he’s writing?

“How do you know that?” I asked him. “How do you know that they care about X, Y or Z?”

“Well, they SHOULD care…” he replied, leading me to understand what the problem was.

Journalists have long adopted the philosophy that we know best when it comes to what matters to our readers. For quite some time, we were right about that, almost entirely by accident.

Reporters lived in the areas they covered, earned wages similar to the people for whom they wrote and dealt with the same problems as their readers. In addition, they were integral members of the community, so people TOLD them things that mattered to them and thus the reporters used that insight to cover things of interest.

That’s not the case anymore today, so we have to work a lot harder to figure out what matters to the readers and we have to compete with a lot more voices that are drowning us out.

It’s no longer enough to write about a city council meeting and figure that our readers are going to figure out why it matters or what happened of value. We can’t assume that readers are going to look at the paper or our website and think, “Hey, I bet these folks have all the answers. Let me carefully and deliberately examine their content and assess it through a high level of critical thinking.”

As fast as things move these days, you have to tell people, “Hey, look over here! This matters because….” It’s like trying to feed your dog a pill some days, but once you get good at it, it becomes easier the next time, as people will continue to use media that shows them value.

The second conversation was with a colleague who teaches PR in our department. We were commiserating over the way in which students were writing stories and press releases.

What we both realized was that our students were going in one of two directions with their opening paragraphs:

  1. “An event is occurring. You now know this.”
  2. Welcome to hyperbole central, in which we make the intro to “The Muppet Show” look subdued by comparison.

When she told the students to dial down the hyperbole, they essentially went back and wrote the “An event is occurring” paragraph. They then groused that the opening was boring.

“Well, you better find something that makes it interesting,” she said she tells the kids. “If you don’t care about something, why should a reporter?”

It’s a good point and one that can go even a step further: If the reporter actually goes to the event and only can report that the event occurred, why will the readers care? There has to be SOMETHING that made the reporter think the event was worth covering or SOMETHING that came out of it that can be of value to the readers.

If you can’t find that as a writer of any form of media, you’re in trouble. Advertisers can’t just write, “Buy my stuff. It’s available.” News writers can’t put out a story that says, “Something happened and I went there to look at it.” PR professionals can’t send out press releases that note, “Our client is doing a thing that you can look at. C’mon over.”

This is why audience centricity and the interest elements of Fame, Oddity, Conflict, Immediacy and Impact need to be at the forefront of your mind as a writer. What do you know about your audience’s needs and what interest element or elements might grab their attention so you can fulfill those needs?

In other words, tell people why they should care in a simple and direct way. After that, they’ll keep coming back for more.

Need writing exercises for your media-writing class and sick of talking about COVID? Welcome to the Corona Hotline

“Corona Hotline… Yes, professor, we still have a land line…”

Each year in my writing for the media classes, I have students write a couple stories based on things that interest them. The problem I always faced was how to do this, because this course was an “everyone” course, not a reporting course and this was the first time a lot of these students were having to converse with other human beings for the purpose of garnering content that had to be spot-on, word-for-word accurate. Thus, having them each go out and do a handful of interviews was likely to end poorly for all of us involved…

What I did was have them pitch topics and I’d put them up on the white board. Once we had exhausted their interests, we would have a kind of an Athenian-democracy-meets-The-Hunger-Games kind of session in which we’d cut down the list to about eight topics. Of those eight, each student could vote for three, which would get us to the topics that we’d write on.

The students self-selected into groups based on interests. As I had 15 kids per class, the minimum per group was four and the max was six. They then had to discuss how they viewed the topic and who might make for a good interview subject. Each of them only had to interview ONE person, but they needed to make sure they all weren’t interviewing the SAME person (lotta calls from the police chief asking what the hell I was doing, after I forgot to mention that caveat one year after a particularly rough Pub Crawl Season…)

So, let’s say the topic was Pub Crawl, our twice-per-year event involving way too much day drinking that drives cops nuts and makes the kids do crazy stuff (one year, a young woman dove off her second-floor porch toward a kiddie pool in a back yard. She missed, but survived.)

Here’s how this would go:

Bobby: “OK, I know the police chief so I’ll interview him about what they’re doing different this year and what they want students to do.”

Susie: “Cool… I know a bouncer at The Drunken Clam who has to work on pub crawl and he’s worked the last five, so I’ll talk to him.”

Janie: “I know a girl coming down here for her first pub crawl from way out near Crivitz, so I’ll ask her about how she found it and why she’s coming.”

Nate: “Nice! I know two people who go every year, so I’ll get both of them!”

Clare: “My landlord has buildings all along Main Street and they always get trashed during Pub Crawl. I’ll talk to her about that.”

Troy: “I know a bartender at St. Elmo’s so I’ll interview her about her experiences at Pub Crawl.”

Each of these students then goes off and interviews their person and they send me the transcript of those interviews, along with any other information they found that they want to share. This could include links to previous stories on Pub Crawl, background on the sources and other such things.

I then put all of that material together into one big file for that group and call it something like “Pub Crawl RAW” so they all know it’s the raw material. Then, when they come to lab, they have to write a draft of a story based on whatever is in there that they want to use. They only need to do a two-page, typed, double-spaced piece on that topic. They can pick any angle they want. They only need to include TWO sources, but they can include as many as they see to be helpful in telling the story.

It’s like the old “pot luck suppers” we used to have at church or family gatherings: Everyone brings something and you can eat whatever you want.

That means that Bobby might decide not to use his interview from the police chief, but instead take the info from the bouncer and the bartender and do a “What it’s like to work on Pub Crawl” story. Clare might use her landlord and the police chief interview to talk about the negative aspects of Pub Crawl. Others might do the “why we love Pub Crawl” stories from the perspectives of the student interview.

After they file their stories, we go through the typical drafting processes with edits and suggestions and so forth.

This year, it was a bit tougher because a) half of my students were missing and b) it was hard to get interviews with people because students couldn’t go anywhere. What we came up with was kind of a compromise:

They went through the pitch process and got it down to three topics per class. I then agreed to either pull old interviews from previous classes and “freshen” them with updated information about life these days, or I agreed to make up content out of whole cloth after interviewing them a bit on the topic and digging around for other information. I then made up the names of the people, so there was no confusion, and they went about writing the stories.

I freely admit, I wish I could give them more experience in interviewing. However, in talking to them, I got the sense that they were afraid of going places (we’re a hot, hot, hot spot for the virus) and if they did this, the interviews would likely be weak as hell, which would impact the writing.

Still, this seems to be working, so I thought I’d share the stuff with anyone who needs it. The four topics (Spring Break, General Education Courses, TikTok and Movies/Theaters) are at the top of the Corona Hotline for Journalism Instructors Page, so feel free to grab whatever you want and use it however you want. I did some work to eliminate names and local references, but you might want to give this a look before you ship it out to the kids and they ask, “What the hell is a Kwik Trip?”

Hope this helps. Feedback is always welcome.


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

Accuracy vs. Honesty: A look at the New York Times correction on “Women for Trump”

The difference between  honesty (or truthfulness, if you’d rather) and accuracy can come down to the answers to this question:

“Do you know what time it is?”

Answer A: “It’s 7:30 a.m.”

Answer B: “Yes.”

The first answer is more honest and helpful while the second is simply accurate. This scenario is one that lawyers in TV shows use to explain how defendants should testify to keep themselves out of trouble: Answer the question, but volunteer nothing more. This kind of demarcation in the answers led to a correction on a New York Times story about “Women who still back Trump” late last week:

(h/t Diego Aparicio for the correction and the info.)

You can skip past the bottom two points, as they’re clearly just dumb mistakes that should not have gotten past a rookie reporter for the Beaverton Shopper-Ledger, let alone a political reporter for the country’s “paper of record.” The first two concerns have led to questions regarding the way in which the Times approached its story.

Dan Froomkin of Salon noted that this wasn’t the first time the Times had quoted Republican movers and shakers as just regular folks in one of its stories. Froomkin’s position is that this approach wasn’t accidental:

The New York Times has been caught, once again, passing off Republican operatives as “regular” Republican voters in an article intended to show how effectively Donald Trump is maintaining his support.

It raises serious questions about whether Times editors and reporters, rather than actually trying to determine how voters feel, are setting out to find people to mouth the words they need for predetermined story lines that, not coincidentally, echo the Trump campaign’s propaganda.

In the latest case, an article posted on Wednesday headlined “Around Atlanta, Many White Suburbanites Are Sticking With Trump” by Times national reporter Elaina Plott initially misidentified two of the four allegedly run-of-the-mill voters who supported the article’s thesis: That Trump’s unfounded fear-mongering along the lines that “ANTIFA THUGS WILL RUIN THE SUBURBS!” is working.

The problem with that thesis is that there ARE actually women who support Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. And to be fair to Elaina Plott, she DID actually find a few that apparently weren’t running the Republican Party of Greater Atlanta or whatever, like this woman:

Mr. Biden has said that he has no desire to defund the police, and Amanda Newman acknowledges that. But Ms. Newman, 51, who lives in the suburbs and works at a law firm in midtown Atlanta, also thinks Mr. Biden’s personal views are irrelevant — that a vote for Mr. Biden is in fact a vote for his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, as well as for progressives in the Democratic Party like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have pushed for policies like the Green New Deal. “I don’t think Joe Biden has an opinion until somebody tells him what it is,” she said.

Ms. Newman said she’s been put off by Mr. Trump at multiple moments in the past four years, calling him at times “unpresidential” and comparing him to “a 2-year-old pitching a fit in a candy store.” But she said she feared how “radical” and “crazy” the Democrats had become.

And this one…

“It’s been very unnerving,” said Lori Mullee, 54, referring not to police brutality or Mr. Arbery’s death but the “riots in my backyard.” Ms. Mullee, a University of Georgia graduate, works in marketing and lives in Stone Mountain, a small city in the Atlanta suburbs that in August was essentially put on lockdown as white supremacist groups and far-left counterprotesters clashed at the city’s Confederate monument.

Ms. Mullee said she used to exercise in the state park surrounding the monument, but no longer feels comfortable doing so. (As for the monument itself, she said she did not support efforts to “take down history.”) She is voting for Mr. Trump in part, she said, because she feels the left has stoked division in cities like hers and beyond.

Also, if you take a look at any Trump rally, you do see women, as well as a spectrum of people from other groups that you wouldn’t necessarily consider the hard-core, stereotypical angry, straight, white male Trump supporter. A story that looked into why these folks are supporting this guy would seem to be in the wheelhouse of a political reporter for a major media outlet.

In short, if I had to put money on what happened here, I’d be more on the “We screwed up” end of this as opposed to the “nefarious plot to parrot deeply entrenched Republicans to further their agenda” end of it.

In acknowledging biases, I suppose it would be important to acknowledge my own: I’ve had to cover random weird-ass events that required me to go find “regular people” who were willing to talk to me. That part of the job absolutely sucked, as people who were at Fourth of July parades or county fairs seemed to view me as a KGB operative or worse. As we mentioned in previous posts, some reporters have even faked the “real people” to get out of the drudgery of this part of the job.

Me? I would try to find the people who looked like the most obvious candidates to talk and get what I could get out of them. For example, I once covered the final day of operation for the Lake Delton dog-racing track. I needed to find people who worked there and bet on dogs for this “color” piece. The workers were easy, as I knew a couple people in advance from a previous story, who helped me find others as well.

In terms of “regular people,” I started looking around and found the journalistic equivalent of fast food. This guy was a mountain of a man, probably at least 6-foot-5 with a barrel-shaped body. He had on a really loud shirt and a hat that said something about dog racing. He also wore a license plate on a string around his neck. The plate read: “I BET K9S.”

He was talking to people making bets, roaring with laughter and drinking a beer. That might have been the easiest “real person” interview I ever conducted.

Did I think he might be an investor in the dog track or somehow tied to a larger representative collective that might undermine his credibility as a regular guy? No.

Did I consider that he was a white man, likely straight, and might not be representative of a broader spectrum of potential sources? No.

Did I ask the guy a dozen questions about himself like I was doing an “OK Cupid” profile on him to make sure I hadn’t missed any entangling alliances he might have? No.

I was just grateful to have a human source that said something quote-worthy.

Granted, this was in the time before everyone had the internet and we had a cottage industry of people digging into the work of other people for sport. However, I would be willing to bet I’m not alone in the, “OK, thank God I got that done” vein of journalism that likely exists still today.

I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I’ve use the “B” answer a few times to keep conversations friendly. A lot of my neighbors in various stops were quite conservative and didn’t think highly of commie, liberal, pinko professors who were in their ivory towers at whatever university was in town. When we moved into a given neighborhood, they’d often see me working on my car or doing yard work and stop by to say hello.

When they asked me what I did, I’d respond with, “I work at the U.”

It was accurate, but the truth was, I had hoped they assumed I was a janitor or something. If they got to know me and liked me, I figured the topic would come up in a future conversation and my “professoring” would be unveiled.

In the end, there are limits to what you can do as a journalist when it comes to this stuff. Your hope always is that people will be honest and truthful. It would have been great if the person had said, “I’m involved in politics in XYZ ways,” so the reporter had a fuller version of reality. However, she wasn’t lying to the reporter when she said she was an interior decorator or a graduate from the University of Georgia, so she was accurate.

I’m sure I could turn this into a cautionary tale on how to avoid this problem in the first place, but it seems to be like trying to take out a fly with a rocket launcher. I would wager that, at best, there are three things I could tell you that you probably already know if you’ve read the blog and/or stayed alive during any journalism writing class:

The other two stupid mistakes we skipped past earlier would indicate that the reporter was sloppy, so… y’know… don’t be sloppy in your reporting.

The fact other people were able to figure out who these people were in about six seconds on Google tells us… Do a quick Google search of sources before putting them in your story… I guess?

The correction set the record straight, so when you do screw up, make sure you own it. So there’s that…


Throwback Thursday: Don’t let the chuckleheads win

My friends in student media are taking a beating these days. One of them had almost her entire staff walk out, blaming her for all sorts of things that a) she didn’t do and b) weren’t her fault. Another of them had the administration at her institution basically kneecap her and toss her out, and the silence from her staff, to which she gave so much of her life, was deafening.

They’re not alone. It seems every day, those of us in academia are told to “eat cake” when we note that we’re doing more with less, our students are at a breaking point and all we seem to get is criticized. We’re learning to live with permanent stress headaches and teach through foggy glasses, all because… well, most of the time we don’t know why.

Students are in the same boat: Working multiple jobs to stay financially afloat, pouring tons of extra time into online-only classes that are variable at best in their effectiveness. And, of course, dealing with people who decide that they get to take out their personal dissatisfaction regarding their station in life on a 20-something who is literally hanging on to everything in life by a thread.

What I have learned about myself over the years is that I am not the smartest, the fastest, the best or the whatever else -est out there. What I do have is a stubborn streak, born of a Bohemian lineage and love of cheesy sports movies, which often leads to me cussing an awful lot as I drag myself forward, thinking, “There’s no way these (expletive, expletive, expletives) are getting the best of me.”

If you have no aversion to some cussing, here’s a clip from the old TV show “Deadwood” that I often play when I think I want to quit at anything:

If nothing else, read the throwback post from a few years ago. I hope it helps.


Don’t let the chuckleheads get you down

(NOTE: “Chucklehead” is one of my favorite “Filak-isms” as a replacement for my more traditional outlandish cuss words. I’ve been asked to keep “unnecessary swearing” off of the blog, so I’ll be using “chucklehead” from time to time and only relying “necessary swearing” elsewhere.)

I was perusing my Facebook feed near the end of the year when the Timehop feature pulled up something from about four years ago:


I had completely forgotten about this review someone did on my first book pitch to SAGE. At the time, it was something that really felt like it was going to end my book-writing career before it ever got started. Now, it serves as a reminder why it’s important not to let the chuckleheads out there beat us down.

Back then, the acquisition editor and I were trying to figure out how to put a book together that would teach the basic skills of journalistic writing to students across all media disciplines. We were also coming to grips with the model of “We write, you read” was outdated and didn’t fit with what we were seeing. The ideas of how to do this were scratched out on a random piece of Renaissance Hotels stationary in my almost incomprehensible scrawl and grew to become a giant pitch for how to do this.

After this review came through along with several others, I got a call from Matt Byrnie, the editor who had asked me to build this pitch. I was waiting for the inevitable conversation that said, “It’s just not the right time” or something else that would dismiss me and get him off the hook for this thing.

“I’m not really seeing a book here,” Matt began. “I mean… I actually see two books here…”

In short, he was doubling down on this idea of reaching the audience. He wanted two specific pitches: One for a media writing text and one for a news reporting book. It was a huge leap of faith on his part. It was also a huge leap of faith on my part.

Neither of us knew if the reviews would be any better the second time or if Matt was right about two books being better than one. Even more, I’d never written one book on my own, so what made him think I could actually write two? On my end, I wasn’t under contract for anything at this point, so I found myself pouring a ton of work into not one potentially pointless project, but two. Still, I promised I’d meet his Feb. 1 deadline and I started hacking apart that pitch and rebuilding it into two.

Four years, a ream of wall-sized Post-It Notes full of deadlines and an incalculable number of Diet Cokes later, it’s all finally done and ready for public consumption. The first book, Dynamics of Media Writing, turned out to be a hit (well, as much of a hit as a textbook can be… I’m not going to shove J.K Rowling off the best-seller list or anything). The tone, the features and the vibe matched what Matt and I were trying to accomplish: Give all media-writing students a set of tools they can use regardless of their area of interest or specialty in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. That came out about two years ago and a second edition will hit the shelves in the next year or so.

(The office walls with giant Post-Its full of deadlines… Yes, this is crazy…)

The book that would be “pandering to… students’ interests” comes out tomorrow: The Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing. Even before the Media Writing book started selling, I was working on this book. Again, SAGE took a huge leap of faith, in that they decided to go big with this: Full color, lots of art and more. The workbook and blog became outgrowths of that faith, in that the goal I had was to make absolutely sure this book was going to be worth all that.

Will it be? I surely hope so. Either way, I wanted to make absolutely certain that whatever that chucklehead wrote about me wasn’t going to be true.

And this is what I wanted to tell you all leading into this new year: Don’t let the chuckleheads win. In many cases, people like this are negative for no real reason other than their own insecurities, their lack of ability to do anything better or just because… well, just because. Constructive criticism is helpful, but stuff like the review above doesn’t do anything of value.

Each time you face adversity in the form of one of these people, realize that their sole purpose for existing is so that you can use them to drive you to do more and better work than they believe you can. I like to think of them as the “nobody believed in me” part of the story I tell after I succeeded.

In actuality, the childish part of me actually wants just do this to the person:

It’s a new year, a fresh start and another opportunity to prove some chucklehead wrong.

Go get ’em.

A quick 2020 post script: The first book this chucklehead hated made it to the top 5 in Amazon’s best sellers in journalism and will be hitting a third edition next year. The other one I mentioned? A number one new book on multiple lists and a second edition hits the shelves in two months.

Eat it, chucklehead…

The Junk Drawer: Keep Your Hands Satanized and Off Your Weenus Edition


I know I had some soy sauce in here somewhere…

Welcome to this edition of the junk drawer. As we have outlined in previous junk drawer posts, this is a random collection of stuff that is important but didn’t fit anywhere else, much like that drawer in the kitchen of most of our homes.

With signing students up for classes and monitoring midterms, it’s been a bit chaotic, but there’s always time for a post:

From the “Maybe Wait Until After Work” department:

As we detailed here at the start of the pandemic, Zoom meetings can be disastrous, something journalist Jeffrey Toobin found out earlier this week when he was caught masturbating during a break in the action:

During a pause in the call for breakout discussions, Mr. Toobin switched to a second call that was the video-call equivalent of phone sex, according to the two people familiar with the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Asked Monday afternoon about reports that he had exposed himself, Mr. Toobin said in a statement: “I made an embarrassingly stupid mistake, believing I was off-camera. I apologize to my wife, family, friends and co-workers.”

“I thought I had muted the Zoom video,” he added. “I thought no one on the Zoom call could see me.”

I’m not going to tell anyone how to live, but if you’re bored during a video chat, maybe, y’know, play cribbage on the other screen? Also, I’m sure the instructions for future breaks in Zoom calls at the New Yorker will no longer be: “We’re breaking for 10 minutes, folks. Do whatever you need to do and then come on back.”

Speaking of returning to the scene of the crime…


Toobin: I got caught on a sex call at work. This is the worst thing ever.
New Orleans: Hold my beer.

In journalism we look for oddity in things to kind of “spice up” our day-in, day-out coverage. Sometimes, we don’t have to look that hard for it:

A kinky sex romp between a New Orleans priest and two dominatrices on a church altar has led New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond to set fire to the altar where the “deplorable” act took place, The New Orleans Advocate reports.

The headline on the follow-up story is one of those you only get to write once in a lifetime, if ever:

Attorney for dominatrices says group sex with priest was legal

Speaking of things that might be legal but you really don’t want think about anyway…


Way to really target your audience:

I explained to my blogging class that you rarely, if ever, get comments or feedback from readers of your blog. Today, I got this email from a “reader” who “liked” my blog and had a few thoughts for me:

First, that opening line and that closing line don’t give me a lot of confidence in your ability to write something for this blog.

Second, and more importantly, please tell me what kind of vibe I’m putting out there that makes you think, “Hey, this guy’s blog is where ALL the people are coming to learn about increasing female libido and ‘wife-taking’ tips!” I need to fix that before I get arrested and/or every small religious school that adopted my textbooks decides to use them as kindling for a bonfire.

Speaking of things that clearly missed the mark…


Viva L’Otters and people who spell right:

Found this through a friend on Facebook and I’d gladly credit the original source (and interview them for the blog about it).

And speaking of terrifying times and fear…


From the “It’s Too Bad That New Orleans Altar Isn’t Available For This Kind of Thing” Department:

Make sure to keep satanizing and stay safe out there.

See you tomorrow.


A.K.A. The Doctor of Paper


Writing 101: We’re still not using the right damned words…

Journalism is about using the right word in the right way all of the time, a task we fail at far too often as we saw with last week’s “Throwback Thursday” post on using the right damned word. When this post first ran, some editors chimed in with a few of their favorite errors, but not much else happened.

This time, the post hit the academic circuit, where instructors of all kinds found themselves sharing the “greatest hits album” of errors as well, proving once again that it’s not just journalism where wordplay can turn ugly.

(One reader chastised me, noting that “learning disabilities make it hard for some people to recognize their errors,” and that I should think twice about posting such a list. I have taught hundreds of students with diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities over my decades in higher ed. I’ve also worked closely with the various offices that serve these students so I could assist my pupils and recognize signs that students may need this kind of assistance. I can assure you that I would never make fun of a student, or the student’s work, in such a case. I can also assure you that what we’re talking about here sure as hell ain’t that.)

So, with that out of the way and with all of this in mind, here’s an expanded list of word failures educators seem to be seeing more of these days:


ethnic: Related to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origin or background. “Leaders of ethnic communities met Thursday to discuss bias complaints against community police officers.”

ethic: A set of moral principles, especially ones relating to or affirming a specified group, field, or form of conduct. “People admired Stan for his strong work ethic.”


barely: By a small amount; almost not. “After that final exam, I barely passed statistics.”

barley: A hardy cereal plant that is used in various cooked dishes. “Ethel added barley to her beef soup to make it thicker and more delicious.”


(Speaking of cereal, the “c” version of this is meant to denote certain grains used in food or breakfast foods made, in part, from those grains. The “s” version, as in “serial,” means in an order or a pattern, like the sequential numbers on money or the specific way certain people kill. Thus, if you hear read the phrase “cereal killer,” it’s time to watch out for that damned leprechaun on your Lucky Charms box.)


insight: The ability to understand or comprehend something at a higher level than others can. “Because she studied royal protocol for years, YaVonda had a keen insight as to how to behave when she met the queen.”

incite: An attempt to get others to act in a violent or lawless fashion. “If Bobby goes down to that peaceful protest, he will incite the crowd to riot.”


Spainders: Not a damned word.

Spaniards: People from Spain.

Spaniels: A dog breed with long silky hair.


Coulda/Woulda/Shoulda: What your mother tells you after you screwed up.

Could of/Would of/Should of: Not damned word couplings.

Could have/Would have/Should have: What you could have, would have or should have written in your paper instead of the previous two sets of words.


highschool: Not a damned word, unless there’s a drug euphemism I can’t locate online. “Jimmy had trouble rolling a joint, but after Susie took him to highschool, he was a master of the Zig Zags.”

high school: Where kids in the U.S. go from ages 14-18 (or more) to learn stuff. “If I had paid attention in high school, I probably wouldn’t be making all these word-choice errors.”


trial: A court hearing in which people are found to be guilty or not guilty on charges brought against them. “Liam was found not guilty after his recent murder trial.”

trail: A path or roadway you hike on. “The cowboys agreed that after the cattle drive, they’d meet at the end of the Chisholm trail to camp for the night.”


manor: A place people live. “Batman’s Batcave was hidden under the stately Wayne Manor.”

manner: A way of being. “Jim’s off-putting manner made the women in his office feel awkward when they were near him.”


saleing: Despite what your marketing professor is trying to make happen, it’s not a damned word:

selling: What people are actually doing when other people are actively buying stuff the marketing people are promoting. “These Melon Patch Dolls are selling like hot cakes this holiday season!”

sailing: A boating activity that takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be… Just a dream and the wind to carry me…


Weeknd: Something that used to not be a damned word until Abel Makkonen Tesfaye came along and created some truly bangin’ music.

weekend: The time at the end of the week, in which some people who aren’t teachers or professors, get to relax and enjoy themselves. “I can’t wait for the weekend to get here so I can sleep late.”

weakened: Something that has deteriorated in some way from its previous position of strength. “Luis is worried about COVID-19 because he has a weakened immune system.”

(Side note: If anyone tells you they have a “weekend immune system,” they either a) have word-choice issues, b) need to spend Monday through Friday in a plastic bubble or c) are making some reference about their partying prowess like, “Don’t worry, bro… I can handle as much tequila as you can sling my way due to my weekend immune system!”)


thrown: Tossed, pitched or otherwise hurled. “The ball was thrown to the plate, but the runner was safe at home.”

throne: The thing kings and queens get to sit on. “The throne in Buckingham Palace is not as ornate as I would have imagined it to be.”

(Side note: “Game of Thrones” would be a lot different if it were “Game of Throwns.”)


customer: Person buying something. “The customer is always right, even if they’re being a total knob about it…”

costumer: A person or company that makes fanciful outfits for actors and actresses. “Janine spent five years on Broadway as a costumer for a prominent theater group.”


porpoise: An aquatic mammal that looks like a dolphin but is actually a small-toothed member of the whale family. “I wanted to go to Sea World so I could look at a porpoise.”

purpose: A reason for being. “I believe my purpose in life is to embarrass my kid in front of any boy, girl or creature she chooses to date.”


peak: The top level of an occurrence, or the highest elevation of a mountain. “Lamont ate four sandwiches before the race, so there’s no way he’ll reach peak performance.” OR “Alaina climbed to the peak of Mount Everest.”

peek: A quick glimpse of something. “I just needed to take a peek inside my kid’s room to realize the place was a disaster area.”

pique: Heighten or stimulate. “The package that came for her roommate served to pique Marlena’s curiosity.”


bizarre: Weird, strange, unexpected, abnormal. “When the superintendent jumped on the table and began to cluck like a chicken, the school board meeting took a bizarre turn.”

bazaar: A place in which goods are sold or traded, traditionally linked to Middle Eastern cultures. “To make money for his family, Abdul sold trinkets to tourists at the bazaar.”


ballot: A thing you use to cast a vote. “On her ballot, Maria selected ‘None of the Above’ for mayor.”

ballad: A slow, folksy song of a narrative nature. “Johnny Cash sang ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,’ on his ‘Bitter Tears’ album.”


Flamingo: A tall wading bird that is often pink. “I saw a flamingo while vacationing in Florida.”

Flamenco: A form of song and dance traditionally associated with cultures in southern Spain. “There are more than 50 types of Flamenco that experts have distinguished within the art form.”

Although I would like to say that there is no such thing as a “flamingo dance,”  it turns out that in one instance, it is the case. Enjoy:

“I’ve got to go. I’m being arrested.” (or every time a law enforcement officer violates the rights of the media, a journalist gets their wings)

The joke around the student newsrooms I used to advise was whenever someone called in and said, “I need help,” we would respond with, “The newsroom doesn’t pay bail money…”

So it was kind of a shock when I got this photo from Alex Crowe, a radio journalist who has contributed to the blog on several occasions:

Courtesy of Alex Crowe

With it, he wrote, “Good morning, Vince! Got my journalism wings yesterday.”

Crowe was in Milwaukee, covering a protest over the shooting death of 17-year-old Alvin Cole. Wauwatosa police officer Joseph Mensah killed Cole in February 2020, and on Oct. 7, the Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm announced there would be no charges filed in this case. Mensah had shot and killed two other people over the past five years in the line of duty and had been cleared in both cases.

“I was sent to the Milwaukee County Safety Building to interview protesters and gather pictures and video of the scene while people waited for a decision to be announced,” Crowe said in an email interview. “I witnessed a crowd that was mostly peaceful but became agitated as time went on. The Cole family and their lawyer were inside the Milwaukee County Safety Building for about two hours, and during that time the crowd began to grow and some people became increasingly aggravated as they awaited what they felt would be an unjust outcome.

“Finally, when the Cole family and their lawyer came outside, some protesters shoved a member of the media and pushed his camera off its tripod and onto the concrete. While the family’s lawyer was speaking, several protesters were shouting obscenities forcing some stations to cut the live coverage. Once the lawyer and family members were done speaking, the protesters began to march towards the interstate where several members of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office were waiting to try and prevent people from marching onto the highway.”

(Video courtesy of Alex Crowe)

Crowe followed the protesters to the highway ramp, where protesters were walking around the squad cars meant to limit access to freeway. Some clashed with officers and were subsequently tossed onto the hoods of squad cars. As Crowe and other media representatives took photos and video of these encounters, deputies from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department demanded that they stop following the crowd up the ramp and cease recording.

“There were simply too many people to arrest all at once,” Crowe said. “The protesters kept moving onto the highway. This had happened to me once before, during the protests after the death of George Floyd. During that experience, officers allowed protesters and media onto the highway, calmly stopped traffic and directed protesters and media members off at the next exit. This time, however, as protesters continued onto the interstate, a member of the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office turned towards myself and several other media members and ordered us off.”

One officer targeted Crowe, coming up behind him and placing him in handcuffs.

“I was on the phone with my boss when it happened and said ‘I’ve got to go. I’m being arrested,'” Crowe said. “Apparently my boss already knew that, because he was watching a live TV feed of the whole event back in the newsroom. I was able to remain calm because I knew that even if I were to be arrested and brought somewhere, they couldn’t charge me with anything and I would eventually be let go.”

The officer told Crowe to hang up the phone, before he confiscated Crowe’s recording equipment and patted him down for weapons.

“As we were walking, I explained that I was simply doing my job and that he had let the protesters go while targeting me,” Crowe said. “He told me he was sick of the media ‘thinking they can do whatever they want.’ It was at this time that another officer within the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office came over to us and asked which organization I was with. I told him and he ordered the other deputy to take me towards the back of the bank of squad cars, where no other protesters or media members were being held.

“He further instructed the officer holding me to uncuff me, give me my equipment back and let me go without any charges. The first officer begrudgingly did as he was told and let me go… I still don’t know why that single officer decided to go after me and insisted on bringing me away in handcuffs when he knew I was a member of the media.”

Once he was released, Crowe said he collected himself a bit and then went back to work, covering the protest.

“I called my boss to let him know that I was OK, then ran back to the highway area but this time on the other side of the fence, so I wasn’t on the road, I was in the grass on the other side of the highway,” Crowe said. “I found a place where about 20 officers were waiting on bikes to ride onto the highway if needed. I pulled out my equipment and started getting right back to work like nothing had happened.”

As far as advice for student journalists who might find themselves in similar situations, Crowe said knowing he was in the right and keeping his wits about him made a huge difference.

“I’m sure if I had made a big scene, the officers would have brought me downtown just for fun,” he said. “I just tried to remain calm and continually explained that I was a member of the media, that I had equipment in their hands that proved why I was there and that they could call my boss right away and get the whole thing straightened out. I just remained calm because I knew that eventually they would realize that I wasn’t lying and that they would be in a lot of trouble if they went through with processing and arresting a member of the media who was following every order given by officers on the scene. I would just tell students to remain calm and keep explaining who you are and who you’re with.”

Throwback Thursday- Journalism 101: Use the right damned word…

For some reason, a student wrote me an email and used the word “aight” in it, thus triggering a memory of this post. It’s not every day that I see someone using the wrong word in the worst way, but it probably is every other day at the very least.

Thus, consider this penultimate dictionary of languish to be a French benefit of reading this blog…

Journalism 101: Use the right damned word…

Nothing will make your journalism professor get twitchier faster than if you let spellcheck guide your writing. Just because something is spelled correctly, it doesn’t always stand to reason that you are using the right word.

Being wrong isn’t fun, but having to deal with people who are repeatedly wrong isn’t a picnic, either. After constantly running into a series “close enough” errors, I asked the hivemind for the most irritating gaffes they see on a regular basis, most of which drive them to ask, “Why can’t you use the right damned word?” Below are several areas in which folks noted errors that made them want to pour scotch in their coffee and bleach in their eyes:


The “there’s a difference between ‘astigmatism’ and ‘a stigmata'” category:

alot: Not a damned word

a lot: Either a whole bunch of something or a plot of land. “Jimmy was poor as a child and thus ate a lot of Ramen as he grew up.” OR “I want to build a house on a lot near Omro.”

allot: Give a portion of something. “The moderator will allot equal amounts of time to each debater.”


aight: Not a damned word

alright: Still not really a damned word.

all right: Everything is now all right, because you spelled it right.


apart: Not part of, or not together. “My parents got divorced, so they now live apart from one another.”

a part: A component of something. “My carburetor is a part of my Mustang.”


decent: Something that is passably functional. “Ellen did a decent job on her paper, but there’s no way she’s getting an A.”

descent: Falling or moving downward or a historic lineage. “The Millers found out they were of Hungarian descent.” OR “The descent from the mountain took the climbers longer than expected.”


definitely: Absolute certainty: “I definitely want to see the Milwaukee Bucks win an NBA title this year.”

defiantly: In opposition to with anger: “The toddler defiantly flung himself to the floor and screamed that he didn’t want to leave Chuck E. Cheese.”


diffuse: Spread out over a large area. “If you light that scented candle, it will diffuse the smell of coconuts and pine throughout the house.”

defuse: Remove danger or literally remove a fuse. “Archer had to get his turtle neck and wire cutters to defuse the bomb.”


eager: Excited in a good way; wanting to do something. “I was eager to get the Mustang out of storage so I could start driving it around town.”

anxious: Excited in a bad way; worried and fearful; experiencing dread. “I was anxious about getting the Mustang out of storage because I was worried it wouldn’t start.”


everyone: All of the people in a group; synonymous with everybody. “Everyone will have to fill out a new TPS form before the payroll department will issue checks.”

every one: Each individual person involved; followed by “of” usually: “I would like to thank every one of you who volunteered for my campaign.”

everybody: Synonymous with everyone; refers to all the people: “Everybody who wants to play cards tonight should be here by 9 p.m.”

every body: Each individual physical body. “Every body we found on the streets during the zombie apocalypse was missing at least one limb.”


fazes: Bothers or creates problems for someone. “Nothing ever fazes Corey Kluber when he’s pitching in the playoffs.”

phases: Created or completed in stages or components. “The office park was constructed in three phases over a five-year period.”


lose: The opposite of win. “When I play checkers with my father, I always lose.”

loose: The opposite of tight. “The knot in Zoe’s shoelaces was loose and quickly came undone.”


then: Something that happens next. “I drank six tequila slammers and then threw up.”

than: A word of comparison. “I like butter pecan better frozen custard than vanilla ice cream.”


The “This is really awkward if you screw it up” category:

incompetence: An inability to adequately complete certain tasks. “He claimed to be a great plumber, but after he flooded three houses, his incompetence was clear.”

incontinence: Lack of control over one’s bladder or bowels. “A stroke caused her incontinence, which forced her to wear adult diapers for the rest of her life.”


bowl: A food dish or a game involving pins, an alley and a ball. “Jimmy will always eat a bowl of cereal when he wants a snack.” OR “My father is the only person I know to bowl a perfect game.”

bowel: The intestine or the deepest part of something: “Jimmy ate too much cereal and had some bowel discomfort.”


prostate: A gland between a man’s bladder and penis. “Carl’s father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.”

prostrate: To lay flat. “The peasant will prostrate himself before the king to show his respect.”


jive: A form of slang that sounds amazing when Mrs. Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver” lets it roll.


jibe: In accordance with what one believes. “Bill said the moon was made of green cheese, but that doesn’t jibe with what I learned in my astronomy class.”



And then there are phrases that are just wrong:

All of the sudden: You mean “all of a sudden.”

Another words: You mean “in other words.”

Could of: You mean “could have.”

For all intensive purposes: You mean “for all intents and purposes.”

Thrown to the ground or Fell to the ground: This only works when that person or thing is outside. Otherwise, it’s “fell to the floor” or “thrown to the floor.”

I could care less: You mean you “couldn’t care less” as in you literally could not give less of a damn about something, regardless of how hard you tried.

And finally, you don’t get French benefits (like a nice beret or some good onion soup). You get fringe benefits, otherwise known as “perks” or “lulus” according the AP style book.


The CDC did NOT find the “overwhelming majority of people getting coronavirus wore masks.” A writer at The Federalist did. Here’s why she’s wrong and 3 tips to accurate reporting on scientific studies.

Students often ask why they need to take statistics for a degree in journalism. This article is Patient Zero for that answer:

The article comes from Jordan Davidson of The Federalist, an online conservative publication that covers a variety of topics, including politics, art and culture. Its previous coverage on COVID-19 has been labeled “pseudo-science” and criticized for its scientific content coming from “writers not known for their epidemiological expertise.”

Charles Bethea’s review of The Federalist’s coronavirus coverage, linked above, focuses more on the publication’s commentary. In Davidson’s article about masks, however, the content looks legit at first glance:

A Centers for Disease Control report released in September shows that masks and face coverings are not effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, even for those people who consistently wear them.

Davidson cites this data from the study to support that information:

A study conducted in the United States in July found that when they compared 154 “case-patients,” who tested positive for COVID-19, to a control group of 160 participants from the same health care facility who were symptomatic but tested negative, over 70 percent of the case-patients were contaminated with the virus and fell ill despite “always” wearing a mask.

“In the 14 days before illness onset, 71% of case-patients and 74% of control participants reported always using cloth face coverings or other mask types when in public,” the report stated.

This isn’t exactly what the headline or the lead says, but it does look impressive, and the quote from the study is accurately written. No chops, no rewrites.

The evidence against masks looks even more damning here:

Despite over 70 percent of the case-patient participants’ efforts to follow CDC recommendations by committing to always wearing face coverings at “gatherings with ≤10 or >10 persons in a home; shopping; dining at a restaurant; going to an office setting, salon, gym, bar/coffee shop, or church/religious gathering; or using public transportation,” they still contracted the virus.

So why is the CDC still yammering on about masks, despite this research?

Because this is a case of relying on an accurate study, reading only the parts that matter to the writer and reporting erroneously based on that. And this is why stats (and the ability to read them within research) matter to you as a journalist.

First, let’s look at the headline again, compared to what the study says. The headline says “overwhelming majority of people,” implying that everyone out there wearing a mask throughout the country (or maybe even around the world) is getting COVID-19 regardless of their masking. The study says that it examined 154 people who had tested positive at specific health care facilities and 160 people who had symptoms of COVID-19 but tested negative at those same facilities.

In other words, we’re looking at a sample of about 314 people. That’s a far cry from what the headline indicates. (More on this later.)

Second, Davidson cherry picks the data and does it in a way that I don’t think she fully understands. The authors of the study reported that 71 percent of the people who tested positive and 74 percent of the people who did not told researchers that they “always” wore a mask.

The first thing I noted in the chart Davidson posted was that the significance value meant to show differences between the groups was almost comically non-significant (p= 0.86), meaning the control group and the infected group were not statistically different in how often they wore masks. (For stat geeks interested, researchers usually only get excited about p values of .05 or lower.)

Davidson takes this to mean that the study finds wearing a mask or not wearing a mask makes no difference in COVID-19 illness rates. What the authors of the study see here is that there must be something happening differently between how these two groups are acting that ends up with one group positive for the virus and the other group not.

The analysis of the data in the study finds this:

In this investigation, participants with and without COVID-19 reported generally similar community exposures, with the exception of going to locations with on-site eating and drinking options. Adults with confirmed COVID-19 (case-patients) were approximately twice as likely as were control-participants to have reported dining at a restaurant in the 14 days before becoming ill. In addition to dining at a restaurant, case-patients were more likely to report going to a bar/coffee shop, but only when the analysis was restricted to participants without close contact with persons with known COVID-19 before illness onset.

In short, the key thing that the COVID people did that the non-COVID people did not do was go to restaurants and bars where they had to remove their mask to eat or drink, where they couldn’t properly socially distance and where they dealt with the presence of other people who had to deal with the same mask/distance problems.

Davidson argues that masks don’t matter because “the report suggests that ‘direction, ventilation, and intensity of airflow might affect virus transmission, even if social distancing measures and mask use are implemented according to current guidance'” even though that’s not what the report actually says. This quote is talking about restaurants and bars, where people without masks are potentially spewing the coronavirus into the HVAC system between maskless bouts of beers and wings.

At the end of the day, I don’t expect Davidson or The Federalist to care much about this. In fact, if they notice it at all, I’m quite certain the headline on their next story will be, “Liberal Commie Pinko Professor Uses Blog to Bully, Indoctrinate Students Against Free Thought.” However, for those of you who need to use research studies in your journalism writings, and you want to get things right, here are three quick tips:

Read the summary first: The one clue I got that told me Davidson might not really be all that interested in the findings beyond that they allowed her to say what she wanted to anyways, was that the authors actually did a simple findings box:

This is pretty clear in regard to what it was trying to say about masks, restaurants and COVID-19 transmission. Not every journal article will have this clear of a summary, but if the article has one, read it. If it doesn’t, most articles will have an abstract, which attempts to do the same kind of summary. You’ll need to read it a couple times carefully to get the gist of what it is trying to say, as most abstracts are written for other people in the field, as opposed to journalists who are trying to make sense of the article’s minutia.

The goal of reading the summary or the abstract is not to take the place of reading the study, but rather to help you understand what it is the study is doing, what it found and why it matters. That information can serve as a guide as you go forward.


Find sources and rely on them: Like most topics you will cover, you are probably not an expert on whatever that study is attempting to tell you. This is why we rely on sources for our stories instead of just telling people whatever we think is going on. A good place to start here? Probably one of the 20-plus authors who worked on the paper.

In most cases, it’s easy to find the authors, as they list their full names, academic association, workplace and even their contact emails with their papers. Some academics have no problem explaining their work in a simple way for journalists. Those who have difficulty are at least a starting point, in that they can either help you understand a little bit or they can point you to the author on the study who is better at this.

If you’re concerned that the authors of the study are going to BS you about what they found, find another expert in the field who would be willing to review the study for you. In most cases, if you work at a major university or in an area with a major university, you can find experts on campus in the area from which the study originated.

And, to be fair, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to people from both of those groups to get a better-rounded view of the study itself.


Understand how research works before reporting on it: I’m not going to pick on the author of this Federalist piece, but let me just say it took me about nine years of higher education, four years of statistics and half of an academic lifetime to be able to look at research like this and make at least heads or tails out of it. A poli sci major with a journalism minor, who graduated in May 2020 and has about 3 months of experience in pro journalism probably isn’t qualified to breakdown a major study with the level of certainty Davidson put into her article.

Giving most starting journalists a scientific study to write a quick-hit news story is like giving a bag of meth and an automatic weapon to a toddler: It’s not a great idea and even if they only figure out a little bit about what they have in their hands, it’s probably going to end poorly. And that’s if the writer is really trying to understand things, as opposed to just finding a great way to create a hyped headline.

Here are things you need to understand about research studies if you want to write on them:

  • They are based on small sample, which might or might not be capable of extrapolation to a larger population. Authors are very careful about explaining their sampling method and the broader implications to the public in their studies. The journalists who paying attention to that have a problem.
  • They often involve complex statistical measures that are interrelated, so you can’t just grab one number out of them and make it mean something.
  • They usually have a very narrow purpose. It might be to find out if using a particular additive in a diet soft drink will cause increased risk of blood clots among women age 65+ who have a preexisting kidney condition. It might be to measure the short-term effects of viewing violent television programs on preschool boys when provided with replication opportunities subsequent to viewing. Whatever the study, it’s never going to be something that can be immediately generalized to all people in all places doing all manner of different things.
  • They almost always come with caveats. In journal-speak, we call these “limitations” and they show up in the conclusion or discussion part of the paper where we tell other scholars, “Look, this isn’t perfect for the following reasons.” It’s up to the rest of the community of readers (and usually reviewers, prior to publication) to decide how serious these limitations are. In the study under discussion here, the authors list five key limitations, including the sample size, unmeasured confounding behavior (which basically translates to, “The sick people all might have been doing something else we didn’t ask about and that got them sick.”), the sample selection (only 11 participating facilities were involved and “might not be representative of the United States population.”), the patients being aware of their illness status and the PCR test used to classify them as having COVID-19 might be inaccurate. In short, this is about 813 miles away from a definitive headline.

If you don’t understand all of this before you write your story, you are really going to have a heck of a time being right with what you tell people.

So, if you don’t understand research at all, don’t report on it. If you have to report on it anyway or you’ll be fired, read the summary carefully and see if you can figure things out. If you can’t, talk to smart people who can help you figure it out. If that still isn’t helping, get someone else who works with you to help you out and share a byline.

You’ll do more harm than good if you put this stuff out when you don’t know what you’re talking about.