Throwback Thursday: It’s not our fault you’re bad at this: Law and ethics and “accidentally” public information

In honor of Constitution Day (Sept. 17), I dug up this look at the law from a few years back. This was written shortly after the Parkland shooting, when the courts ruled that the school district had to provide certain documents to journalists. The administrators did, but redacted certain information, which they had a right to do. However, they didn’t redact things PROPERLY, which gave the journalists the ability to see what they tried to hide, and boy… was that some serious stuff.

What I didn’t know at the time was that shortly after we published this, I’d find myself working with a former student in a similar set of circumstances. Alex Nemec had written about a professor who was removed from his classroom on the first day. He then sought records associated with that incident, a legal battle that end up just below the state’s Supreme Court. When the court dust finally settled, he got them, but the redactions were screwed up. What followed was a lot of the same things that happened here in terms of legal wranglings, but Nemec eventually prevailed.

This is one of the main reasons I always despise people who belittle student newspapers as “kids playing journalists.” Truth be told, journalists of all stripes and experience levels can find themselves dealing with the same kinds of serious legal issue.

Happy Constitution Day (tomorrow…)

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


It’s not our fault you’re bad at this: Law and ethics and “accidentally” public information

Journalists often use open records requests to shed light on things public officials would prefer remain secret. Courts often seek to balance the public’s right to know against individual privacy rights in determining which documents merit public scrutiny and which ones should be kept out of the public eye.

In some cases, courts or public information officials will try to “split the baby” on the release of documents through a process known as information redaction. For example, if a document contains information that meets the standard of public information, but it also includes information that should clearly remain private, record keepers can “black out” those private parts before releasing the documents. Here’s an example of what that might look like:


In the “old days, the copying and redacting process was often done with a thick, black marker and a photocopier. Now, since many of the documents are kept and shared digitally, records keepers use PDFs and some Adobe editing tools to do the redactions, which is what led to a clash between the Broward school district and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The paper requested documents pertaining to the school district’s interactions with Nikolas Cruz, the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, who killed 17 people at the school in February. The courts ruled that the documents should be released, but that certain information needed to be redacted, which the district thought it did.

However, when reporters downloaded the files and pasted the information into a word-processing file, they found that all of the redacted information was visible. They also found that the information in the documents painted a much different picture of Cruz and the school district than the public officials had put forth. Seeing this information as valuable and in the public interest, the Sun-Sentinel published it. The judge who ordered the release of the documents was not pleased about this, as she demonstrated in a hearing to determine if the reporters should be held in contempt of court: 

Scherer was not swayed. She threatened to restrict what the media can report, a practice known as prior restraint.

“From now on if I have to specifically write word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print – and I have to take the papers myself and redact them with a Sharpie … then I’ll do that,” she said.

At this point, let’s unpack a few things you might find useful or at least amusing:

  • The statement Judge Elizabeth Scherer issued about writing “word for word exactly what you are and are not permitted to print” is a bit scary and more than a bit unconstitutional. The courts cannot dictate content to the press in this fashion. It’s barely legal for your high school principal to do this, and that’s only through gross misinterpretation of one of the worst court cases in media law history.


  • In the video, the judge berates the publication for manipulating the documents by downloading them and then pasting them into another program, saying she had “never heard of such a thing.” Scherer is 42 years old, so computers have been around for much of her lifetime. It’s not like she’s Sen. Strom Thurmond, who lived to be 101 and once referred to a microphone as “the machine.” I have no idea how she never had to use a PDF before. In any case, just because you don’t understand how something works, it doesn’t follow it’s not standard operating procedure for the rest of the world.


  • She also made this statement: “You all manipulated that document so that it could be unredacted,” Scherer said. “That is no different than had they given it to you in an old-fashioned format, with black lines, and you found some type of a light that could view redacted portions and had printed that. It’s no different.”
    Right, and I know that more than a few of us have done something like this to try to figure out what was behind the black lines. In the days of typewriters, the keys made impressions on the page, which were still visible through the black marker. With toner (essentially plastic powder melted onto a page), the black of the text was different from the black of the marker, which allowed reporters to backlight the page and read the content. None of this is illegal.


  • I checked in with two legal experts about the issue of publishing information that was intended to be redacted to see what the law had to say about the topic. Both of them told me that it’s the record keeper’s job to redact the information he or she wants to keep out of the public eye. It’s not the newspaper’s job to look the other way. In short, it’s not our fault you’re bad at this. The law does not prohibit the publishing of this information.

What you should be concerned about is the ethical issues associated with publishing information in a case like this. This is where the balancing test comes into play, where you weigh the public’s right to know against an individual’s right to privacy. As one of the “legal eagles” explained to me:

Basically, I think it’s completely ethical for journalists to hold redacted documents up to the light (or, in the digital sense, to search for letters/words to see if they show up in the redacted blocks of text). In fact, I think our job demands us to find out as much info as possible (seek truth and report it, right?).

That said, I think ethics come in when it comes to publishing. It’s a bit like handling a leak — what distinguishes us from Wikileaks, besides the Russian control and efforts to undermine democracy of course, is that we make editorial decisions based on journalism principles and practices. So you’ll be balancing public need to know with privacy concerns.

So, as a reporter, you might not want to publish certain information you receive from a source or a document, such as the name of a crime victim or an unproven rumor. However, that’s a judgment call that rests with the journalists, not the courts. When you have the information, it’s up to you to determine what the public should know and what they probably shouldn’t. It’s a monumental responsibility, but that’s why journalists make the big money.

The paper saw within the documents a pattern of the district failing Cruz, as it denied him access to services he desperately needed. Reporting this information was within the best interest of the public, the paper decided.

Earlier reporting on this, done without those documents, was refuted by the superintendent, Robert Runcie, who called the coverage inaccurate and even “fake news.” Runcie and his colleagues sought to hide these failures and gloss over the district’s responsibilities and without those reports, the paper was at a decided disadvantage. This is why open records matter and why using the information within them can shine a light where it matters most.

The Junk Drawer: Taylor Swift Can’t Save The Cops edition

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.

Here’s a look at some screw-ups, stories and updates:

MAYBE JUST BE BETTER AT YOUR JOB? At the risk of creating anarchy with the title of this post, let’s tackle how Taylor Swift ended up in the middle of a controversy surrounding police officers in Alameda County. It turns out that, in addition to not understanding copyright law, the First Amendment and general common sense, at least one officer in this fine hamlet doesn’t understand how YouTube’s service agreement works either:

Last month, Sergeant David Shelby, an Alameda County Sheriff’s Department officer, was caught playing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” from his phone as he was being filmed by activists, in a move he said was done “so that you can’t post on YouTube.” The incident was the latest in a bizarre trend in which police officers play copyrighted music while they are being filmed by the public, in hopes of triggering social media antipiracy filters, which would theoretically get the video deleted. 

Aside from not doing what he had hoped it would do (keeping people from filming him and/or allowing YouTube’s “bots” to save him), Shelby actually brought more attention to his actions from both inside and outside of the police department. He is apparently not the only one who has tried this:

In the last few months, cops across the country have been trying this cute little trick for keeping their interactions with the public off social media: Playing pop songs over interactions with the public when they’re being filmed. One Beverly Hills cop played Sublime’s “Santeria” when he realized he was being live-streamed in February and another with the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and another in Illinois tried it with Blake Shelton’s “Nobody But You” in March.

They think that if the audio captured was smothered by a copyrighted song, posting it to sites like Instagram or YouTube would result in the poster getting smacked with a copyright takedown notice—and the platform would either remove the video, mute the audio, or ban the user altogether. In each of these cases, it didn’t work, and the videos remained online. People have a First Amendment right to film the police.

Shelby tried it, but it didn’t work: the video stayed up on the Anti Police-Terror Project channel, and now has almost 740,000 views.

It’s unclear what any of these officers were doing at the time that made them so worried that they were being filmed, but maybe THAT should have been the bigger concern. If you’re doing something so bad that evidence of it requires you to try to force illegal actions (copyright infringement) on other people to get away with it, that doesn’t say much for you.

On the other hand, I’m waiting for the first time some officer tries this with a Brittney Spears song, so this can start making the rounds again:

Speaking of outrage…

I AM FURIOUS AT… UM…: Journalism has two simple rules when it comes to telling a decent story:

  1. Tell me what happened.
  2. Tell me why I care.

Usually, people being upset with something leads to a pretty good answer to both of those stories. That said, it only really works if you let us in on what you know:

OK, Augusta McDonald might have been following the story, and the outrage, and the lawsuit, but maybe a couple people out there reading this thing (read: Me and Amy at least…) have no damned idea what happened, so how about filling us in? The photo of a basketball team (I think) with blurred faces and three smug looking weasels in red shirts isn’t helping here either.

I get that you don’t always want to give away the whole story in the promo like they do in “The Kentucky Fried Movie” but for Pete’s sake, give us a bit of a hint in either the head, the lead or the photo captions.

Speaking of things that are usually Kentucky-fried…

THE CHICKENS COME HOME TO ROOST FOR THE AP: Fred Vultee, a journalism professor at Wayne State University and eternal copy-editing god, was fond of telling folks that it’s just as easy to drown in 2 inches of water as is to drown in the Pacific Ocean. His point, in the editing realm, was that we should read every piece of copy carefully and fact check everything, regardless of how important we think it is.

I’ve often taken this a step further in explaining to students that it’s rarely the deep-dive, FOIA-driven, scandal-based investigative piece that ends up with problems or that costs journalists their jobs. It’s usually the small stuff that we either overlook, joke about or just make random assumptions on that tend to kill us.

A case in point is this article that shows how the Associated Press did the chicken industry wrong with its use of improper “chicken art” with a story on a corporate poultry merger:

When the AP distributed the story to all of its member news outlets, it also distributed a photo of an egg laying operation, rather than one of a broiler operation such as Sanderson Farms, or Wayne Farms, with which Sanderson Farms will merge.

And that layer operation photo was published on the websites of some of the nation’s major news outlets, such as USA Today, Financial Times, U.S. News and World Report, Boston Globe, and many others. Considering USA Today is part of the Gannett network, which owns over 100 daily newspapers and 1,000 weekly newspapers, its hard to tell how many readers saw this.

But the simple fact is that way too many people did. And my guess would be most of those people don’t understand that broilers and layers are totally different breeds of chicken and the operations are completely different.

Chickens are chickens, in their minds.

(Side Note: We have eight chickens at the ol’ homestead now and all I really know about them is how to build stuff like a coop, a “poultry palace” and a chicken run. Well, that and that it’s a major pain in the keester to try to catch them when Amy says, “Go make sure the chickens are in the coop for the night.”

If you ever want to visualize a humorous moment, imagine the author of your textbook cursing in the darkness while diving headlong after a pile of fleeing poultry, only to grab one by the leg and be beaten about the face with its wings.

You’re welcome…)

The thing that is important to understand here is not that the AP had some sort of fowl up (Sorry, I had to…) but rather that there are ALWAYS people out there who have niche interests reading your stuff and they are ALWAYS going to be upset when you screw up their beloved topic. For an earlier edition of the media writing book, I interviewed Meghan Plummer, who was working at the Experimental Aircraft Association as a publications editor. She told me stories about how she would get angry letters and emails when she’d mistake one kind of tail rudder from another in a piece or incorrectly note the year in which a plane was built or flown.

To some folks, planes are planes, but Plummer understood that these people have a passion for the topic and have come to expect that the material they read from an aviation publication will feed that passion. Keep those kinds of folks in mind when you’re writing about a topic, even if you couldn’t care less about it.

And finally, speaking of things you couldn’t care less about…

THIRD TIME IS THE CHARM: The Dynamics of Media Writing’s Third Edition has just pressed and is available for purchase at all fine textbook institutions (and I imagine free downloading already on at least three hacker sites). The update covers a lot of the crucial updates in the law, ethics, social media and web writing while doubling down on the basics that that still matter in all fields of writing.

It’s been more than a decade since I went looking for a media-writing text that treated each field of media equitably and honestly, if for no other reason than I was tired of having students in my class say, “I’m going into PR! Why do I need this stuff? The whole book is just news, news, news…” I can still remember the conversation I had with Matt Byrnie of SAGE at an AEJ conference that led to this book:

Matt: “That’s a great book! We don’t have it. You should totally write it.”
Me: “I don’t want to write a book. I want you to have someone write it so I can buy it from you.”
Matt: “You don’t understand. NOBODY has that book. That’s why I need you to do it.”

We scheduled a sit down for noon the next day where I would pitch him a concept. I remember doodling on a piece of paper from the Renaissance Hotel with ideas, rules and core concepts. When I showed it to him, he said, “We might have something here.”

I looked the book up at Amazon when putting this post together and saw this:

Number one new release in communications? Maybe we do have something here… And I’d like to thank all of you who read my stuff for making that happen.

Have a great week.


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

How to avoid letting a source’s memory lapses or outright lies destroy your stories

I’ve made a point of telling anyone who will listen that if they need ANYTHING from me in terms of content to help their students or their student newsrooms, all they have to do is ask. Thus, the following request came from a fellow journalism teacher:

Do you have any great lessons or content on how to analyze if a source, esp a source for a profile, is lying or misrepresenting information (either purposefully or due to memory erosion)?

It’s difficult to know for sure when someone is lying or if there are memory gaps that make for some problematic moments within the story you want to tell. As I’ve often told folks in my classes, it’s not always about being perfectly successful in your efforts when it comes to something like this, but rather avoiding the things that can really screw you over that matters most.

With that said, here are a few things beginning reporters can do to mitigate disaster when dealing with a source that might not have the facts 100% perfect:

GET A SENSE OF THE SOURCE: One of the primary reasons I tell students they need to conduct interviews in person is so they can capture more observational elements to add color and feel to their pieces. A good side benefit of being in person is you can get the vibe of the source and decide how much you really want to trust them.

Some sources are great at hyping themselves up like they’re trying to sell you the Bass-O-Matic ’76. Others do some great “humblebrag” stuff that really can sound like they’re important and vaguely decent people. In spending time with these people, you can find out who is likely worth trusting and who you can’t trust any further than you’d trust a pyromaniac at a gas station.

The one thing to understand is that there is a crucial difference between people who are full of crap and people who literally have lost track of things over time. Honestly, I have told a number of stories over and over again to the point that I’m not sure if they’re perfectly accurate, slightly altered or complete BS. (I am grateful, however, that I found support for the famous “Olde Un Theatre” robbery and the “Mraz, where’s Mrefund?” headline.)

I had one student who SWORE she wrote an obituary that had a particularly awkward headline on it. I found the piece, with the headline she described, and it wasn’t her byline. Maybe she wrote the headline, or edited the piece or something else, but it wasn’t her byline. This is why it’s important to fact check basically everything when it comes to people telling you stuff that you plan to use in your work.

Once you get that vibe, you can do more work with the questions you have and the level of insistence you enact when dealing with your questions.

IN GOD WE TRUST, ALL OTHERS MUST PAY CASH: Even in profiles, there is a benefit to becoming what I call a “non-denominational skeptic” about the information you received. Whether you like the source or you wouldn’t believe them if they came into your house, soaking wet, and told you, “It’s raining out there,” apply a similar level of rigor to your questioning. This is particularly important when it comes to things you really plan to focus on as part of your story.

Let’s say you’re doing a profile on a business person who turned his life around after a rather rough patch in his 20s and now helps ex-convicts find work. You likely are going to ask what was the turning point that got this guy on the right path, and here’s the answer you get:

“I wasn’t a good person back then. I was arrested for a series of burglaries back in ’85 around the Cleveland area. I was supposed to get 6 years, but the judge gave me 12 and shipped me off to Folsom prison, way across the country. Being that far from home, in a prison like that, well, it changes a man. About 50 prisoners were killed while I was there for those 12 years and I always thought I’d be one. I told God, ‘If I ever get out of here alive, I’ll make my life right for whoever else gets out of here.'”

Sounds compelling and amazing. Now, how much of that is stuff you NEED to check? A goodly amount:

  • Check arrest records from “the Cleveland area” in 1985 and find out if this guy was ever arrested.
  • Check court records to find out if he did get sentenced to 12 years.
  • Check prison records to find out if he went to prison, let alone Folsom
  • Check prison records (and others) to find out if 50 people REALLY got killed out there from about 1985 to 1997.

This is just smart reporting and it will help you fill in some of the key details about the source’s live. Also, the more of this you can verify, the better off you are. The less you can verify, the less you should trust this source.

Clearly, you can’t verify if he “wasn’t a good person” or if he had a conversation with God. (“Hello, St. Peter? Yes, this is Vince Filak with the Dynamics of Writing blog. Is God there? I need to confirm a conversation He had back in 1985 or so…”) But you can check out enough stuff to feel like you’re not getting fed a line.

TRUST, BUT VERIFY: Another key way to poke back at people is to show interest and engagement with their stories while offering them ways to help verify this information for you.

If you’re interviewing someone and they say, “I was amazed when I received my Silver Star for my tour in Vietnam, but I really was just doing the same job as everybody else…” you could check a database when you get done with the interview. However, you could also try this approach during the interview:

“That is truly incredible! Could you show me the medal? I’d love to see it!”


“Do you have any pictures of the ceremony? My editor would love to put something visual with the story!”

If the answer is yes, you’re in decent shape. If the answer is a dodge or something like, “Nah, I threw it away.” then you are probably going to want to push back a bit more with stuff like, “So where was the incident that took place that got you considered for the honor?” or “I would love to talk to anyone who was in your platoon at the time for more on this…”

In other words, you’re giving the person an opportunity to verify this stuff for you. If they can’t or won’t, tread cautiously.

WEIGH COST VERSUS VALUE: Journalism in a lot of ways is like catching sand in a sieve. You’re never going to catch everything, but you want to make sure you don’t lose too much of the small stuff or any of the big stuff. To that end, you want to weigh the cost versus value of the amount of work you’re doing on any particular fact-finding dig.

Let’s say you’ve got a source that was paralyzed from the waist down during a car accident in high school. After that, he went into a deep depression, but found God and now goes on speaking tours throughout the country to explain how to overcome obstacles in life. The source tells you this:

“I was driving a 1979 Ford Thunderbird with this great V-8 351 Cleveland in it when I had the accident. The truck that hit me mangled that car like you wouldn’t believe. I honestly feel that if I had been driving something smaller, I’d be dead.”

The guy shows you a picture of the wreck, so you can see what happened to the car. He’s clearly paralyzed or has been faking it well for decades. The opinion is his that he might have died in a Toyota Camry. is it really important to fact check whether that car had the 351 Cleveland engine in it or if it might have had a 302 or a 351 Windsor? Probably not.

Look at what matters most and make sure those things are solid. The random fringe stuff can be checked if you have time and if it’s easy. However, it’s not going to behoove you to go plowing through thousands of DOT and Ford Factory Sheets to figure out what engine landed in what car in a case like this.

RESEARCH BEFORE, FACT CHECK AFTER: The goal of quality research in advance of talking to a source is to make sure you ask good questions and that you don’t get turned around if the source tries to BS you. The goal of a quality fact check is to make sure what the source told you makes sense before you publish the piece.

You then can decide to what degree you want to keep certain bits of information and what degree you feel the need to actively fact check with in a story. Ted Bridis, a fellow journalism prof, shared this example with a bunch of us to outline the ways in which a “personal tale” can have enough bullcrap in it to fertilize the back 40 acres. The writer of the piece literally takes each element that this source outlines as “fact” and checks it out with people after the fact to show what is clearly not true and why it matters.

If you ask the right questions, you’ll find that many sources will try to snow you less, as it’s clear you aren’t coming to them fresh off a turnip truck. However, there are still people out there who will try to convince you that they were the one who convinced Lin-Manuel Miranda to go with Hamilton instead of “Aaron Burr: The Death Metal Musical!”

That’s where the fact check really comes in.

FIND OTHER PEOPLE TO HELP: I remember certain things about my childhood that might or might not be true. Some of them, Mom or Dad might have an angle on (and judging by how we kept pretty much everything I ever did in the file cabinet in my folks’ back room at the house, we might actually have physical proof of that thing).

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said you never scored a basket in your fifth-grade season. She still has all the box scores. You did almost foul out of nine games, thought.”
ME: “I’ll be darned. I swear I hit a basket at least once. Anyway, I’m sure that foul out thing is right, as I played basketball like Danny from ‘Grease’ that year…”

If you can get verification from people who would likely know, it’s probably a safe bet you can go with that information. If you can’t or the information seems to contradict, go back to the original source for verification:

REPORTER: “Hey, I was talking to your mom and she said she thinks that story about Mrs. Schutten screaming at your class was from fifth grade, not third grade. She said the woman taught you in both grades. I just wanted to know if you’re sure on what you told me.”
ME: “Oh, yeah… I forgot that she got us twice… After I had Sr. Kenneth in fourth grade, the beatings we all took from that nun basically scrambled my memory for some things…  Mom’s probably right, then.”

The goal of asking other people for things is to help solidify things that are important to telling your story. In some cases, you’ll have conflicting reports from key sources and it’s up to you to determine who you believe and how important those conflicting elements are.

A great example of this is in the book “Loose Balls” by Terry Pluto, where he outlines the wild life of the old American Basketball Association. He tells this one story about Marvin “Bad News” Barnes and how he missed a team flight to Norfolk, where Barnes and the Spirits of St. Louis were supposed to play the Virginia Squires.

Barnes blows off the flight and figures he’ll catch a later one, but it turns out he missed the last commercial flight to Norfolk. So he chartered a plane (something unheard of at the time) and got down there at the last minute. He shows up to the locker room with like 10 minutes to go before game time wearing a full-length fur coat, carrying a couple bags of McDonald’s burgers and a big smile. He opens his coat to reveal his uniform like he was changing from Clark Kent to Superman and declares, “Have no fear, BB (his nickname) is here.”

The story was verified by a number of people who all told essentially the same story. However, people deviated on one detail. During the game, the pilot supposedly showed up in the team huddle and demanded to be paid for the flight, so someone had to run back to the locker room and get Marvin’s checkbook so he could write the guy a check. The amount of the check varied widely from about $700 to more than $1,500, depending on who told it.

Pluto recognizes that the story perfectly captures the insanity that was Marvin Barnes and this team of weirdos. He knows that it is mostly true and pretty solid in its confirmation. He also knows people want to know what it cost to do this little stunt and that he doesn’t have the goods. He acknowledges that by including that information and the variations in his chapter. Something like that is easy enough to do if you have a few inconsistencies that don’t undermine the larger truth you’re trying to convey.

THE DUTY TO REPORT VERSUS THE DUTY TO PUBLISH: No matter how much effort a reporter puts into a story, there is never a guarantee that the story is absolutely right. Mistakes happen, memories fade, BS intrudes and more. The goal is to try to put forth the best version of reality, regardless of how difficult that is.

This is where we separate the duty to report and the duty to publish. As journalists, we need to ask questions and poke at facts to figure out what happened and why our readers should care. Not every effort we make in that realm will give us the results we feel comfortable with. To that end, we have to be OK with the decision not to publish something if we’re not 100% certain on the issue.

It’s better to have something missing or come up a little thin in a story than it is to publish something that is flat-out wrong.

A great example of this is an article Bethany McLean, a financial journalist, wrote in 2001 about Enron. The company basically had stock that just kept going up and up and up for no real reason and the company big wigs couldn’t explain to her in any meaningful way how money moved through the company. She knew something wasn’t right, but she wasn’t 100% sure of what it was.

In several interviews, she noted that there were several partnerships that were doing deals with Enron that appeared to be owned or operated by Enron executive Andy Fastow. She saw them disclosed, but she never mentioned them in her article. In the documentary, “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” she explained:

“There were these partnerships that were run by Andy Fastow that were doing business with Enron and they were disclosed in the company’s financial statements, but I didn’t mention them in the story because I thought, ‘Well, the accountants and the board of directors have said this is OK so I must be crazy to think there’s anything wrong with this.’ The story I ran was actually pretty meek. The title was “Is Enron Overpriced?” (because) in the end, I couldn’t prove that it was anything more than an overvalued stock and I was probably too naive to suspect there was anything more than that.”

She realized she had the duty to dig in hard on this. When she couldn’t make it work perfectly on the first pass, she understood that she didn’t want to screw this up, so she went with what she could prove.

As it turned out, the partnerships were a large component of a major financial fraud and the company was a house of cards, things McLean and others found out after she put out that first article. However, at the time, she couldn’t go beyond what she had, so she stuck to what she could prove and lived to fight another day.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Three myths students believe about their professors that hurt the students’ educational journey

I found this one from the “before times” when a student asking for an office visit didn’t require a nasal swab and six Sani-Wipes. Even though we are all still feeling the pressure and anxiety associated with the pandemic and the rules associated with teaching through it, I think this post still holds up for most of us.

If students could figure out this stuff quickly, they’d likely be happier (and in turn so would the professors) when it came to their classes and the educational outcomes associated with them.

Hope it helps as we continue to muddle through.

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



Three myths students believe about their professors that hurt the students’ educational journey

Myth 1: “I’m bothering the professor if I ask for help.”

A derivation of this myth is “Professors are too busy to help me.” Yes, we are busy people and, contrary to popular opinion, we do stuff outside the classroom, like research, meetings, service, meetings, advising, meetings and other meetings about meetings, we are never “bothered” by a real request for help.

The truth is, we see it as an investment for a couple reasons. First, we help you improve the specific assignment that troubles you. That makes life easier on us when we have to grade the assignment and we get to read a quality piece. Professors can fly through quality work, quickly sing your praise and then move on to the next thing, which is probably a meeting. Work that is lousy takes forever and a day to get through, as we correct every glitch along the way and ponder if we should chuck it all and become a long-haul truck driver.

Second, it’s an investment in future assignments. If we help you fix the mistakes now, chances are, you’ll avoid making those mistakes in the future. That means we won’t have to muddle through the grading process each time we read your work. It’s that “Teach a person to fish” approach to giving you an education.

Finally, it gives us a chance to make adjustments for the class. If you’re having a problem, you probably aren’t the only one having it. Thus, if you bring it to our attention, we’ll probably find a way to help you fix the problem and then share what we figured out together with the rest of the class. That improves everyone’s experience and makes life easier on us when we have to grade your papers as well.

In short, you’re not a bother if you have a real concern, so bring it to us and we’ll help you get through it.


Myth 2: “Professors like failing students.”

Versions of this include “This guy/gal gets off on being a harsh grader” or “Nobody gets an A in Professor Smith’s class.”

We don’t like failing students and we probably aren’t that thrilled when we have to give out even worse grades like a “D+.” (Why do we have a D+ as a grade option? Who thought it was a great idea to dress up a D? I can’t imagine going home with one of these to have my old man yell, “You got a D?!?!?” and having me respond, “No, Dad, it’s a D PLUS!”)

Contrary to popular opinion, professors don’t get cash bonuses or a set of steak knives if we meet some quota for failing students. In fact, it takes far more work to fail a student than it does to pass one. Think about that the next time you bomb out of a class.

Professors typically have two main gripes about student and grades:

  1. Some students just want the A or the B or whatever but don’t care about the knowledge, information or learning to go along with it.
  2. Some students figure A’s are like Halloween candy: As long as they show up and go through the motions, they should get it.

If you approach the professor for help by saying, “I need to get an A (or  a B or a C or whatever), so how can I do that?” what the professor hears is, “Look, I really don’t care about anything going on in this class other than what I need to get out of it grade-wise so that I can move on to something much more important than you and whatever crap is happening in your class.” However, if you ask for help with the idea of better understanding the material so that you avoid failure or a grade too low to keep your scholarship or whatever, we’re totally in your corner.

I believe that, for the most part, grades will result from the effort the students put in, so failure takes an awful lot in my class. In other courses, I’m sure the failure rate is higher because the stakes are higher. My wife, Amy, has taken nursing courses where people get smoked every semester with F after F after F, which always seems to me to be Draconian. That said, the stakes are much higher if you have a nurse who doesn’t know the material perfectly. The last thing I want to hear before being sedated in advance of a surgery is a nurse saying, “I think I gave him the right dosage, but I had a real easy grader in Med-Surgery…”


Myth 3: “Professors don’t care.”

This drives us nuts because so many of us do care. It also smacks of that whiny, self-indulgent, woe-is-me crap that everyone has said at a bar, three drinks after getting the break up call from our significant other. (Versions of that include, “Women are evil, man…” and “Men totally suck…”) Sweeping generalities mean to camouflage personal shortcomings don’t get the job done, and professors know that. We STILL say this stuff in other aspects of our lives. (“The reviewers who rejected my article don’t know squat about this field!” or “The sabbatical committee is playing favorites!” or “Chancellors are evil, man…”)

We all have our own version of this myth and it distracts us all from the ability to get stuff done. Early in my career, whenever I would get a rejection from a journal, I’d crumple up the letter up, throw it in a corner of my office, dump a bunch of stuff on top of it, curse and then start looking for jobs in the automotive mechanic sector. A day later, I’d pick it out of the stuff, look at it, crumple it back up and throw it in a different corner. By Day Four, I’d read through the comments, figure out which ones were legit, which ones were crap and get cracking on a revision. Eventually, I learned to trim that grieving process substantially…

There are always people who are a-holes for no good reason, who like pulling the wings off of flies and who just don’t care about you. In professor-speak, we call them “Reviewer 2.” However, the majority of your professors want you to be successful if for no other reason than they get to brag about you when you do well. (I’m still yakking about students who are at “major media outlets” that I taught introductory writing to, as if my “noun-verb” lesson was the only thing that helped them succeed in life.) They also want to see you have that moment where the light goes on for you and you “get it.”

That’s the ultimate payoff for most of us.

Couldn’t have said it better myself: How a great quote can grab your readers by the eyes

Direct quotes are an important part of journalistic storytelling. They allow the sources to speak directly to the readers in the sources’ own words, providing both information and a “feel” for the topic with the choice of their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, some journalists view quotes as just “meat” between the slices of bread that are “paraphrase” in their stories, and the writers care very little about the quality of that meat. Just because someone said something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a good quote. It’s our job to separate the trash from the treasures when it comes to that word-for-word component of our stories.

When you get great quotes, they can really grab your reader’s attention as they just nail the underlying concept of a story in a way that few other things can. Here is a series of quotes that fit the bill and that make reading the whole piece worthwhile:


“Showing up to a school with zip ties is not a way to solve a problem.”
-Vail Unified School District Superintendent John Carruth

The story behind this one comes from a story about the “mask battles” we have seen during the pandemic. An Arizona man was contacted by a school employee and told his son had to quarantine at home after being in close contact with a person infected with the coronavirus.

Instead, the father and two “other men” (the words “dudes,” “buddies,” and “idgits” would seem to be more on point here, but then again this is Washington Post) went to the kid’s school to demand the kid be taken back:

“Apparently Mesquite Elementary thinks they can break the law and act like the covid Gestapo,” the man wrote, referencing Nazi Germany’s secret police. “We will be headed over there shortly to disagree. Come join us because we won’t have this in OUR community!”

Later that morning, the father and his son arrived at the school. The other two men met them in the school’s parking lot, Carruth said.

In a live video posted to Instagram, one of the two men who joined the dad told his followers that they were about to “confront this administration” for “breaking the law.

“If necessary, we’ll do a citizen’s arrest,” the man said before showing off the “law enforcement zip ties” they brought.

So these three yahoos end up in Principal Dianne Vargo’s office, threatening her with arrest if she didn’t let the kid back in school. The whole thing escalated until Vargo left the office and called the police. The men, who moments earlier were so certain of the legality of their actions, left before the cops showed up.

In reviewing the incident for the Post, Carruth mentioned the need to model good behavior for kids and such, before delivering a great closing quote.


“I’m like Gerard Butler in ‘300.’ I’m in the hot gates at Thermopylae, holding the pass against the million-man Persian army.”
-Lawyer John Pierce

Quick question: He does know that Leonidas ended up with about 1,085 arrows through him at the end of that movie, right?

Pierce is the now-missing attorney for defendants associated with the Washington, D.C., riot on Jan. 6. Aside from his comparison to the leader of the Spartan resistance, he has offered up some insight as to how he planned to get his clients off:

A self-described pro-Trump populist, Mr. Pierce has promised, for example, to force the government to give him video footage of the Capitol for several days before and after Jan. 6, and has said he will demand information about every police officer working at the building that day. He has also vowed to subpoena hostile witnesses like Speaker Nancy Pelosi, ostensibly to learn what she may have known about security at the Capitol before the attack.

Without citing evidence, Mr. Pierce has said he intends to implicate the F.B.I. and the intelligence community by showing that the riot was something like a grand act of entrapment or an inside job. He has often talked about his cases with a conspiratorial zeal, painting himself as something like a lonely legal warrior out to save his clients from an overreaching government.

All of the words the New York Times puts together to explain and describe this guy don’t do half as good of a job as Pierce’s own quote does.


“The defendant stated he was trying to show off for his date. The female said she was screaming at him to stop, but he refused. This was their first date.”
– Police Report, Clearwater, Florida

Some of the greatest quotes ever come from police officers trying to explain something completely insane in a report that requires them to be clear, concise and even-handed in the description. (My personal favorite was a road rage incident in which the combatants “exchanged hand gestures,” according to the report.)

In this case, a 22-year-old man apparently eyed up a cop at a stoplight and then decided to lead the officer on a high-speed chase. The reason? He wanted to impress the woman riding on the motorcycle with him:

Police temporarily broke off the chase while Beverly darted through traffic, running multiple additional red lights and traveling “at well over 100 [miles per hour].” They were able to apprehend him at an intersection minutes later. Court records indicate that Beverly also refused to slow down as his date was “screaming at him to stop.”

The article did not note if the couple had planned a second date…


“Mr. Lee was incredibly stupid, felony stupid but, I think given the situation and the fact that he has absolutely no record I am going to listen to pretrial services.”
– Arizona Judge Rosemary Panuco

(“My client’s a moron. That’s not against the law…”)

Judges operate under what is called “absolute privilege,” which means they can say stuff the rest of us would really like to but can’t for fear of being sued. Thus, they tend to have some of the best quotes when it comes to summing up situations like this one:

Tucson police released surveillance video from a Suntran bus showing Zachary Lee just before he got off the bus and approached the police officer last Friday at 29th and Swan.

The video showed the sergeant’s vehicle parked.

The risk assessment form read, “According to the arresting agency, the defendant got into a verbal exchange with a Tucson Police Department Sergeant, who was conducting unrelated surveillance in an unmarked car.”

Mike Storie represents the Tucson Police Officer’s Association of which the sergeant is a member. He said the assessment is incorrect.

“Actually, there were no words exchanged. The sergeant was in a vehicle with the windows rolled up and never spoke to this person,” Storie said.

The video showed Lee using hand gestures. Storie said lee was throwing gang signs, shortly after that he added Lee began firing at the officer. Tucson police said they found a gun on Lee when he was arrested, and casings at the scene that matched the gun.

The judge in this case released Lee prior to the trial without requiring him to post bail, something that drew the ire of the prosecutor and the police. To explain her rationale as to why a man accused of trying to kill a cop could go home for the day, she relied on a pretrial report and a sense of the man’s own stupidity.

I don’t know what kind of judge she is, but I would love to interview her if these are the kinds of quotes she comes up with.

Throwback Thursday: Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

With a lot of folks starting the semester this week, instructors are going to be spending a lot of time trying to help students learn how to write leads.

A couple profs asked if I had any older posts I could pull up for a “Throwback Thursday” that might show what makes for some bad leads and explain why they’re terrible. I dug around and here’s what I’ve got from 2018. I updated the links to make sure you could still get the original material as well.

Hope this helps!


Just tell me what happened: Lead writing 101

The lead is the most important thing you will ever write in a story. It’s supposed to grab your readers by the eyeballs and drag them into the guts of your story. It’s supposed to explain who did what to whom in a clear and concise fashion. It’s also supposed to be between 25 and 35 words, lest it get wild and unruly. This is one of those skills you need to work on constantly, even if you are a pro.

Consider a few of the following leads and what went horribly wrong with them:


Lead 1: It’s the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational…

Hyperbole is the art of creating overblown excitement for no real reason. A straw man approach is the ability to set up a weak argument or premise that no one has stated so you can refute it and establish your point of view. If you put both of them in a lead, you have something like this story’s opening:

Delivering wheelchairs to disabled kids across the country from Bozeman may sound like a pipe dream, but it’s exactly what ROC Wheels does.

I don’t know much about Bozeman, Montana, but I’m guessing its entire populous doesn’t stay awake at night aspiring to deliver wheelchairs to people. Also, who says this aspiration would likely go unmet if my supposition in the previous sentence were incorrect? What is this “On Bozeman, Montana’s Waterfront?”


The author has overstated her point, and that’s just one problem with this lead. Here are two others:

  1. The story isn’t about ROC’s past. It’s about the launch of a new program involving veterans building and delivering chairs as part of a therapeutic activity. Thus, the lead is buried in the second sentence.
  2. The origin of the term “pipe dream” relates to the smoking of an opium pipe and the wild visions this activity evoked in people. Eeesh.

This is a clear case of what happens when a writer tries to do too much with a lead. Just tell me what’s going on and why I care: Veterans will build and deliver wheelchairs, an activity that helps the recipients as well as the veterans.


Lead 2: How can we bore people with a story about sex?

Question: How can a lead about sex toys be bad?

Answer: Like this.

Zach Smith had sex toys delivered to him at Ohio State‘s football headquarters in 2015, according to an online report Friday, raising more questions about the former assistant coach’s conduct while employed there just as the university prepares to conclude its investigation of the program and head coach Urban Meyer.

This 50-word monstrosity manages to pour a ton of random facts into the mind of the reader, like that treatment scene in “A Clockwork Orange.” Even more, the lead skipped several other elements of the report that were far more likely to grab the readers’ attention:

  • He spent more than $2,200 on this stuff, including on items named “WildmanT ball lifter red, candyman men’s jock suspenders (and) PetitQ open slit bikini brief,” none of which are the most offensive items he purchased. Plus, that’s almost twice what I spent on my first car…
  • His lawyer threatened the reporter over the publication of these documents and refused to engage in the premise that this was a legitimate story.
  • Smith apparently had a “photography hobby” of sorts, namely that he took shots of his genitalia while at work, including multiple photos believed to have been taken at the White House during a celebration of the team’s national championship.

I’m not saying you should always go with salacious details in a lead. The point is that if you pick a key element of a situation like this for the lead, don’t lose the thread as you try to weave in six other plot lines. This is a sports story, not a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.

LEAD 3: Something happened! Oh… you wanted more?

Here’s the lead on a story about a county conducting alcohol-compliance checks where you learn nothing more than what I just told you:

ENID, Okla. — Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and PreventionWorkz partnered earlier this month to conduct alcohol-compliance checks throughout the county.

This is a version of the standard “held a meeting” or “gave a speech” lead. It often shows up in sports reporting as well where someone will explain that Team X played Team Y on Friday or something. The problem with every version of this lead is that it fails to tell the readers the outcome of something. Instead, it simple explains that something happened. In this case, the writer could have focused on a number of things:

  • In the 25 random checks, four places sold alcohol to the underage person, down from eight sales in March.
  • In all of the cases, the clerks checked the person’s ID, but the four sales came from reading the ID wrong.
  • Of the four sales, one person had sold to a minor and been cited at least once before.

There’s also some information about upcoming legal changes that will require sellers to take a course in IDing people and such. Finally, the story noted that the authorities look to hit 100 percent compliance, but it never mentions if that ever happens. In any case, telling me an alcohol check happened isn’t telling me much of anything as a reader.

Lead 4: Here’s your lead. Guess the story:

Quote leads are always difficult for readers, because they lack context. Try this one:

“There is not a man under the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him.”

It’s a great line from a great man: Frederick Douglass uttered it in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” However, dropping it up at the front of a story doesn’t make it a lead.

Whether the quote comes from a source in the story, a movie, a poem, a song lyric or a famous person, as is the case here, the reader will likely be unable to determine the point of the piece. Quote leads are always dicey for exactly this reason: It feels like you were dropped into the middle of someone else’s conversation at a party.

By the way, you can find the whole story here and see how close you were to guessing the point of it, based on that lead.


Principal failure: Why public relations matters for school districts and how some places are really, really bad at it

Few organizations have a greater need for public relations assistance than do educational institutions. Between edgy parents, state oversight and a rotating stream of burnt out teachers, schools tend to have a need for a calming influence and a clear voice during turbulent periods.

I’ve dealt with a number of administrations over the years, primarily when someone does something dumb that infringes upon the free press rights of students, and I’ve found that if these folks just had someone to help them plan what to say and how to say it… well… they’d end up a lot better off.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong without some PR help:

My daughter is entering her junior year at the local high school, which had been looking for a full-time principal for about a year. Like everything else, the administration at the school was kind of in flux due to the pandemic. Eventually, though, the school hired someone for the job.
With school right around the corner, the parents recently received an email from the new hire at the school:

August 11, 2021

Hello Omro Foxes!

Welcome back to the Fox Den.

    I am Chris Fox, the new Principal of the Omro High School Fighting Foxes.  Yes, that really is my last name.  I am settling into the building and meeting new people everyday.  I look forward to meeting all of the outstanding students and their families as we begin a new school year.  We are going to have a great school year lifting each other to new heights and continuously improving.  The maintenance and custodial crews are working very hard to improve the building and put a clean new look into the Fox Den.  Teachers and staff are enjoying their summer but are very excited about meeting the students in their classrooms again.  We want to welcome all returning students and our new students to Omro High School.

The letter goes on to talk about new people in new places and all the great stuff we’ll be seeing this year. Overall, he seems like a nice guy, he has some humor (our mascot is the fox, so that’s kind of amusing) and he’s got some interesting background. This could be a good start to the year.

The next day, we get this emailed to us:

As a parent (OK, probably more because I’m a nosy journalist…) I was a bit perplexed that within a period of less than 24 hours, we went from “Hey I’m the new guy and I’m excited” to a tersely worded statement from the superintendent saying the “new guy” is now the “former guy.” So, I shot an email to Superintendent Jay Jones, asking what the heck happened, knowing full well he probably couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me anything. His response came on Aug. 13:

Good Morning Vince,
I am not allowed to provide the reason that Mr. Fox decided to resign. Mr. Fox has employee/personal rights that must be followed. He tendered his resignation this week and the board met last night and approved the resignation.
Jay Jones

In doing some basic math, I realized that if Fox sent his “glad to be here” message on Wednesday and the board approved his resignation on Thursday, that resignation was likely turned in before that initial message went out. At best, it was the same day he sent it. Regardless, his response made things weirder, not clearer, for me.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this, oddly enough. The principal who was supposed to take over my grade school when I was in eighth grade bailed on us just before the start of school to take a better job with more money.

So, I went to his LinkedIn page to see if maybe a rival school had ponied up a better gig and found this:

(A bit flummoxed, I sent a note to an Omro Facebook group, asking if anyone knew what was going on. Of the flood of messages I got, about one-third came from parents who asked the same thing, one-sixth made jokes about how this was somehow Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s fault and the rest chastised me for “starting the rumor mill” or being a general a-hole for digging into the man’s private life. )

I could continue to dig into this guy and this situation for days, trying to get someone to answer the basic “What the heck is going on around here?” question, but that’s not the point of this post. The point here is that there were several simple things public relations professionals could have done to help the school district cut all this off at the pass. Here are a couple of those things:

PLAN FIRST, WRITE SECOND: I have seen a number of these three-line press releases before from school districts, police folks and other organizations that should be hiring PR professionals. They come across like a Jedi mind trick: “We are making a statement. You will have no questions. Go back about your business with the innocence of a newborn kitten.”

That’s not going to happen, so you need to plan for it.

People are going to be upset, curious, nosy, worried and a dozen other things in a situation like this. We have lived through far too much to just let a statement like that stand without question. We also were just told a day earlier BY THIS GUY that he’s happy to be here and now he’s gone? Asking “What the heck just happened?” is a normal, human response that you should be ready for.

Public relations practitioners learn early to plan out a strategy for the entire lifespan of a crisis, or at least as much of it as they can easily foresee. They won’t make a move without understanding how that move will lead to three other things happening down the road. They come loaded for bear with answers and explanations that they can anticipate needing to provide after receiving questions and concerns from their audiences. Only THEN do they make a statement publicly.

Speaking of which…

BE TRANSPARENT: My buddy, Pritch Pritchard, used to tell me how hard it was for him to get his PR students to understand the antithetical concept that says people trust you more if you tell them everything that is happening in a crisis situation. Pritch was in the Navy for 25 years and did public information, so he also noted he had similar problems explaining that to people above his rank and pay grade as well.

The goal of PR, he explained, should be transparency. The more you hide something, the worse it gets.

To explain this to my writing students, particularly those who were going into PR, I once played the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue” for them. There’s a point in the song where part of it gets bleeped out:

We talked about all the things it could be and their imaginations ran toward the truly vulgar. As it was, what actually got bleeped out was the phrase “the S.O.B.” (A later version included the full version of that abbreviation.) They all seemed stunned that it could have been something that benign, which made my point that hiding (or bleeping) this thing only made the situation worse in the minds of the audience.

In bringing it back to PR and education, you will deal with a TON of concerns that parents have about what goes on at their kids’ schools, and rightly so. Those of us who are parents worry about what’s being taught, who the teachers are, what students are doing to each other, what rules are being violated, who might be bullying someone, if there’s vaping/sex/other terrifying stuff happening in the bathrooms and more. When someone up and leaves like this, our minds tend to wander to the most terrifying things that could be going on.

Not telling us anything gives our minds a chance to really kick into panic overdrive.

All we know is that Fox resigned. Did the board discover a dark secret about him or something he did and thus issue an ultimatum like this?


Or was Fox the good guy here? Was it Fox had a beef with a policy regarding masks and pulled out at the last minute? Was it a promise someone made to him that they reneged on and thus he did the only thing he could do? Did the board operate in bad faith, thus bringing into question its ability to hire the next-next principal?

Or was it something more personal? We’re in a pandemic, so everything is out of whack. Was it a family issue or a personal matter that he couldn’t deal with at the same time as being principal?

The mind can go in a dozen or more directions, but trust me when I say that literally 99.7% of the things that MIGHT have led to a resignation like this are far less problematic than the remaining one or two that jumped to the front of my mind immediately.

(And I’m not alone on this. I won’t repeat what I thought here, but when I laid this scenario out for a half dozen family members and friends, they each immediately jumped mentally to the same “EEEEWWWW” scenario that was in my mind. One response was great: “I’d CCAP the guy,” a friend said, turning our court record database search system into a verb. I had already done so. I found nothing there that would shed light on this situation. )

PR practitioners know that you want something like this dealt with quickly and in a way that restores the faith of the audience. This is where transparency serves the best interests of everyone involved. I understand there are rules and regulations, but transparency is crucial to keeping something like this from getting far, far worse in the minds of your constituents.

Which leads to the final point:

EMBRACE SYMBIOSIS: In the animal kingdom, symbiosis happens between different species that coexist in a way that can benefit each. The clownfish using the sea anemone for safety while the anemone receives nutrients from the waste of the fish is a good example. My personal favorite is the oxpecker and the rhinoceros:

In a case like the one involving the principal and the school district, a little symbiosis could go a long way in keeping both parties happy while reassuring parents of what happened here.

Sitting down together to plan out what they want to release, what they agree upon saying and how best to present this information to the public should be PR 101.

Fox has a legal right to say he doesn’t want the reason for his resignation to be released. That said, he might have been amenable to allowing the district to say certain things while avoiding other specifics in a press release to avoid any wild speculation. The district might be worried about what people would think if the administration said any more than the three lines in that press statement. That said, maybe getting permission to put a little more meat on the bone there would have helped the parents of the district be less fearful of what’s going on.

A symbiotic agreement on what can be said or how to best present what is clearly a weird outcome, couched in a series of odd moments, could benefit both sides, even as this relationship is clearly over. A good PR practitioner would find a way to arbitrate some sort of closure that would allow Fox the ability to exit in a “peace with honor” way while moving on to whatever he wants to do next, while simultaneously giving the district the ability to move forward in its next hire.

When it comes to public relations, it’s often about making everyone as marginally happy as possible. Good PR practitioners know that a truly quality solution benefits each player in the game. If only the practitioner’s client benefits, other stakeholders and member of the public can feel distrustful if they realize they’ve been duped. If the practitioner’s client doesn’t benefit, well… why is that client paying for this person’s services?

In many cases, practitioners serve as counselors, psychiatrists, arbitrators, surrogate parents and wise overseers for people who have become too involved in a situation to see the forest for the trees. It’s the practitioners’ ability to see what each move the client makes on the chessboard will result in six or seven moves later in the game that make these media professionals valuable.

At the very least, they can tell you what NOT to say that will only serve to make things worse, a maneuver that many educational institutions could really use help with.

Student media outlets provide great coverage of Hurricane Ida for their readers

Hurricane Ida bulled its way onto the shores of Louisiana on Sunday night, causing massive flooding and storm damage throughout the area. New Orleans in particular saw devastation, as the entire city lost power amid what forecasters are calling one of the most powerful storms ever to strike the U.S.

Amid the chaos, student media outlets are pumping out content to their audiences, touching on the “big story” scope of the issue, but also drilling down into things that matter directly to students on their campuses.

These publications understand the importance of knowing what’s going on at the college level, because while CNN and The Weather Channel are focused on mega graphics and drone coverage of devastation, students on those campuses want to know what’s open, what’s broken and where they should go to stay safe.

The students here are operating in less-than-ideal circumstances and are working to remain safe while still informing the people they serve. This is incredibly selfless and it’s also why it always infuriated me when “professional” media operatives or professors would note that campus media staffers were “just playing journalist.”

I don’t think the hurricane is taking it easier on these folks just because they’re college kids.

Take a look at some of the great stuff they’ve done in the past 24-48 hours:

Here’s a piece from the Tulane Hullabaloo that explains not only what the storm is doing to the campus area and what most concerns administrators:

A major concern of the Tulane community is the large tower crane overlooking several student residences on campus. In the Aug. 28 update, Tulane administrators provided insight into the status of the crane and its ability to withstand hurricane-force winds.

It also gives students information on how the school is handling the situation for students living on campus:

In an additional update posted to the Tulane University instagram page, off-campus students who feel unsafe were urged to come to the Lavin-Bernick Center prior to 8:30 AM.

This is the first time the LBC-Commons complex is serving as an impromptu housing arrangement for many students. 

The Maroon at Loyola University in New Orleans took a look at what students, faculty and staff were doing in advance of the hurricane, finding more than a few who opted to make a run for it:

Those who have experienced hurricanes in the past are especially sensitive to the shift in plans. Visual communications freshman Virginia Armstrong is from Puerto Rico and said she was without power on the island for three months after Hurricane Maria.

Seeing people gather water bottles and other essential storm supplies struck a nerve in her before she drove off Friday night with her roommate and suitemate to stay at a relative’s home in Jackson, Mississippi.

“The pain never really goes away,” Armstrong said. “It’s there. You live with it.”

At Louisiana State University, multiple student media outlets were covering the storm and it’s impact on the student body on multiple levels. Tiger TV, the broadcast outlet at LSU, has posted updates about class cancellation and statements from university officials.

It has also nudged students toward its Twitter account, where it continues frequent updates as to what is happening around the students:


The Reveille, which has served as the campus newspaper since 1887, constructed a “tick tock” style  set up on the front page of its website. This updates with key information as it becomes available, such as cases of storm damage, power outages and official announcements.

In addition, the staff continues to post breaking news stories on the site right underneath the website’s banner head, like this one on the cancellation of classes.

Aside from the breaking news and damage estimates, the publication managed to find some space to let people know about the status of the school mascot, a 4-year-old tiger named Mike. I would be willing to wager that this story tops all the others in terms of site hits today:

Mike the Tiger isn’t spending Hurricane Ida swimming in his pool or hiding under trees: he’ll be staying snug indoors and eating goat-milk popsicles until the high-speed hurricane passes through LSU’s campus.

I’m sure I”m missing some other good stuff out there, so feel free to add it in the comments.


Throwback Thursday: Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

With school starting up for most of us in the next few weeks, it’s looking a lot like another year of masks, rule changes, hybrid courses and other things. We’ve spent a lot of time building contingencies on top of contingencies, only to find that some last-minute administrative change has us going back to the drawing board.

What actually stopped me from having a full-on panic attack about the classes I’m still rewriting or the protocols I’m going to be following was a post someone made on an educators’ Facebook group. It went into how, despite the fact we’re all “totally normal” now, our students (and likely our colleagues) are still damaged and wounded by the past 18 months and counting. One person said he can’t remember seeing so many students just bursting into tears as he has this opening week.

In one case, it was because the zipper on her backpack got stuck and she couldn’t fix it. Something tells me, he noted, that wasn’t why she was crying, but the precipitating factor that finally unleashed her torrent of tears.

I went back to this post because journalism classes in general can be a traumatic experience, even when not accompanied by a pandemic (and a broken backpack) so I’d like to start the year thinking about how to keep the education and reducing the trauma. Also, since the people who ponied up for this are all professionals, I like reminding myself and my fellow educators that we weren’t always perfect at this. Or, as Johnny Sain was known to remark about Old Timers’ Day: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

Enjoy and have a great start to your semester.

Remembering that first journalism class: “I was scared out of my mind.”

I was recently on a panel that discussed student media and self-censorship. Most, if not all, of the people on the panel were former journalists and several people in the audience had made the transition to the field to the classroom. One theme that came up repeatedly was the way in which students “these days” didn’t have SOMETHING about them. It might be drive, it might be curiosity or it might be a skill. In any case, many of the people who spoke recalled that when THEY were students at THAT age, THEY had whatever it was that the students today seemed to lack in their estimation.

Me? I remember my first journalism class where I thought I knew everything. After working on one assignment, I thought I should go back home and work on that mechanic’s apprenticeship at the gas station.

The instructor was a former journalist, who was working on his Ph.D. He always graded in green because he said green was an affirming color. Well, he affirmed the crap out of me in that first assignment. The paper looked like a shamrock patch had thrown up on it. Arrows and lines were zigging and zagging all over the place like John Madden getting overly excited while using a telestrator. I figured I’d never make it in this business.

A few years later, I had a job at a good local paper, I had been publishing stories frequently and I was given the opportunity to teach that same “first journalism class” that the green-pen instructor taught many years earlier. When he found out I was teaching it, he called me to his office and handed me a file folder with one piece of paper in it: It was my first assignment, still green as a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago.

As I read through all that tortured prose, I remember telling him, “Wow. I sucked.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You were just new at this. When you go to teach your class, remember that in most cases, these students are going to be even worse than you were back then. You need to be patient with them and help them be patient with themselves.”

I thought about that moment after the panel. Maybe those folks were really great journalists since birth. Or, maybe the “Johnny Sain Axiom” on Old Timer’s Day applied here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

To get a better perspective on this, I asked the hivemind what the folks there could recall about their first journalism class, as in the first time they had to sit down and write for a course. The answers made me feel a little better about my initial experience and I hope they will give you a sense of hope as you start your semester:

This is from an award-winning journalist and professor who spent more than a decade at the Dallas Morning News. She covered the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas:

The class was full of typewriters. A grizzled old reporter from The Boston Globe taught it. He made us write an obituary on the first day. I got a C. I was scared out of my mind.

Here’s an ode to people who marched to the beat of their own drum from a former Wall Street Journal editor who now works for an Ivy League university as a social sciences writer:

My first journalism instructor in college was a longtime news editor at big metro papers. Along with lots of practical stuff, he taught me that desk editors — and particularly the good ones — tend to march to the beat of their own drummer. He was never on time to class — ever. He told jokes no on else got. He waxed on about obscure figures from his past jobs. But when the lead started flying, he was the guy you wanted in your foxhole. He taught me to appreciate all the weird, talented people newspapers attract.

A longtime photo journalist and college journalism professor had this take away: If your experience with your first journalism course isn’t perfect, don’t give up right away. Take another course or two before you decide that maybe truck-driving school is right for you:

My undergraduate writing Journalism professor was very intimidating. An older guy who had lots of real life experience. I can’t say as I enjoyed the class, but I made it through and went on to be a photojournalist for many years.

As the movie “Bull Durham” teaches us, in the major leagues, everyone can hit a fastball, so you’ll need to work a little harder to be “the best” (It also helps to have a curve ball.)

A former PR professional in the medical field who now teaches all forms of writing noted that her first experience in a journalism class made that concept clear quite quickly:

The professor asked everyone who was “one of the best writers” at their high school to raise their hand. Lots of hands went up. He asked us to look around. “You have competition, now. And not all of you can still be the best. Get used to it.” It was true – I’ve used that line in my classes as well.

The first writing class can be scary as hell for some people and a piece of cake for others. (One member of the hivemind told me that his class was a piece of cake as he was “ the college paper’s editor before I took J101. Doing the work before taking the class made the class pretty easy.” Score one more for getting involved in student media.)

You aren’t going to be the same writer going out of that class as you are coming in. Give yourself a chance to develop and work with the instructor to improve each time you try something. The more you practice, the better you will get.

One last story: One of the toughest women I ever taught was about to graduate and head off to a prestigious job at a top-flight newspaper. She was dogged, determined and relentless in her reporting. She was a disciplined writer and a demanding editor at the student newspaper. For some reason, the students were reminiscing about their first class in journalism and this woman spoke up:

“You know, you scared the shit out of me that first day,” she told me.

“Me? What did I do?”

“I really don’t remember exactly, but I remember just being freaked out of my mind,” she said. “I went home and cried for like two hours. I thought I’d never make it and I thought about changing my major.”

Go figure.

Yik Yak is back: Love it or hate it, this anonymous social media tool has value for journalists

Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app that drew heavy criticism for the horrifying crap its users posted, has returned after a four-year hiatus, promising new rules and better behavior:

Before shutting down, Yik Yak was the subject of hate speech and cyberbullying across high school and college campuses.

But with the newly launched app, the owners say they’re committed to taking a strong stance against threats and other abuse.

“On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information,” the company says on its website.

The app had a four-year run, starting in 2013 and closing in 2017, amid diminished use and criticism that it protected awful people and the awful things they said. The new owners have pledged to keep the anonymity the users loved while weeding out the bad actors:

We’re committed to combating bullying and hate speech on the Yik Yak platform by any means necessary.

On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information.

If someone bullies another person, uses hate speech, makes a threat, or in any way seriously violates the Community Guardrails or Terms of Service, they can be immediately banned from Yik Yak. One strike and you’re out.

I’m not sure how a model that says “Nobody knows who you are, but we can ban you if you misbehave” works, but I’m not a tech dude, so I’ll let that slide and believe it when I see it. Also, if we’ve seen anything over the past eight years, it’s a massive spike in misinformation, cyber-rage and online harassment, so I imagine the folks at Yik Yak will find themselves working like this when it comes to trying to stop the bad actors from getting through:


Prior to this reboot, I asked one of my media writing classes if they ever heard of Yik Yak or used it and I probably would have been better off asking them if they ever rode a penny farthing bicycle, given the blank stares I received. Apparently, four years is enough time to completely obliterate market awareness among the 18-24-year-old market.

However, when Yik Yak was at its peak, the staff members at the paper I advise followed it with an almost religious furvor. The paper ran the “Top Five Yaks” of the week on the entertainment page. I wasn’t a fan of the app or its approach to media, and I knew that for every “good” thing we got out of Yik Yak, there were at least a dozen awful things that I couldn’t believe people had the audacity to write. Still, there were moments that gave me hope this thing could work.

With all that said, here are some potential benefits Yik Yak can provide to campus journalists and journalism students with its return:

GEOGRAPHY IS FRONT AND CENTER: When I wrote the first edition of the reporting book, I featured Yik Yak because it touched on the audience element of geography, something few other social media platforms did at that time. While the other apps were trying to expand people’s reach to the farthest reaches of the globe, Yik Yak was keeping its users close to home.

The platform used a 5-mile radius to establish a local community, which was usually enough to capture a college campus and maybe even a few off-campus venues. Whenever someone in that range tossed out a “yak,” everyone in that zone could see it. Those people didn’t have to “follow” someone to see what they were saying or sort the posts into certain streams. This kept people abreast of what was going on all around them.

The benefit of this approach is that your geographic location follows you (or at least it did… We’ll see how this new version shakes out) while still allowing you to have a home base. Thus, you can see what’s going on around you when you visit a friend at another campus, while staying on top of what’s happening back home. It is the digital equivalent of reading a good local newspapers while you’re on vacation.

Geography is often the overlooked audience element, as demographic and psychographic information tend to be both easier to define and more relevant in a digital world. However, this app shows that world nearest to the user can matter a great deal.


BREAKING NEWS TIPS AT THE READY: When I groused about the return of Yik Yak on Facebook, one of my former editors reminded me, “That’s how I found out about the ricin kid.” UWO student Kyle Smith was arrested on suspicion of possessing the deadly substance in 2014, a story the Advance-Titan broke at the time. Follow ups that remain online show he eventually pleaded guilty to the crime and received a 40-month prison sentence.

Another said, “That’s how we found out about the dorm fires.” At the time, someone had set fire to multiple pieces of furniture in the laundry room of one of the residence halls. (That Advance-Titan story has somehow managed to disappear into the internet ether as well, but it was a big deal.)

I remembered both of those pieces and they were amazingly good ones, but I had forgotten we got the tips through “yaks.”

In flipping back through a few issues of the paper I kept from those days in the mid 2010s, I realized that Yik Yak alerted us to accidents on campus, police calls to certain buildings, those fires and, of course, the FBI swooping in on “the ricin kid.” Obviously, we did a lot more digging into each of those stories before publishing them, but they each had their genesis in Yik Yak.

To that end, it basically became a digital police scanner (and then some) of sorts for us. When someone “yakked” about something like, “WTF R all the cops doing @ South Scott?” we could run over to that residence hall and figure it out. We also knew that whatever people were yammering about on the app was happening within a bike ride of our office, so we could figure out what was going on and quickly decide if it merited coverage.


ANONYMITY DOES PROVIDE OPPORTUNITIES: I am fully aware of the dark side of the anonymity of Yik Yak. Professors have been threatened and sexually harassed in their own classrooms DURING CLASS. People have used the app to make racist statements and threats, with one even saying they would “shoot every black person I see. Users have threatened rape on too many occasions to count.

In short, I’m still not thrilled that this thing is back, despite general reassurances from the app’s new owners that this will be a kinder, gentler Yik Yak. However, now that the die has been cast, it’s probably worth trying to make chicken salad out of this chicken crap. And that starts with understanding the value of anonymity when paired with an easy-to-use platform.

Back in the pre-digital days, newsrooms often had a tip line, where people could call in about things that concerned them or that they thought people had the right to know. It could be a complaint about their landlord or it could be an allegation against a city official or it could be some truly whacked-out weird story that only made sense in the demented mind of the caller. Journalists were able to separate wheat from chaff and dig through these tips, many of which yielded important stories.

The distinction here is that the tip-line tips that failed to pass muster never saw the light of day back then, while Yik Yak is basically a full public display of EVERYTHING, including whatever racist, sexist, homophobic, terrifying crap some imbeciles decided to type up with their thumbs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t diamonds in the cesspool, so it’s worth digging around.

When granted anonymity and easy access to something that gives them a voice, people are more likely to be honest in exposing things that are problematic. Journalists often talk about how things like Larry Nassar’s behavior and Harvey Weinstein’s behavior were “open secrets” among people in their areas of employment, but nobody would put that information out for public display. The #metoo movement has its roots in the idea that sexual violence affected more people than anyone knew, but the survivors remained silent for fear of public identification among other reasons. The ease of use associated with social media allowed the hashtag to spread and more people to come forth without having to fill out a 23-page document.

Yik Yak has the potential to take those key elements and provide you with information about things happening around you that people otherwise wouldn’t say publicly. It could be that the track coach is skimming money or that a professor in the art department is “handsy” with certain students. It could be that a CA or RA is selling weed to people on their floor or that the security cameras at a residence hall have been broken for six months.

With most “hush hush” stories, once there is a crack in the foundation, other people begin to chip in their experiences and help bring the whole house down. A single “yak” could start that process or at the very least get you the thread you need to start digging into that story more deeply. Like all stories rooted in anonymous tips, you should make absolutely certain that you have fully reported the piece before it sees the light of day.

However, every story has to start somewhere. Maybe it’ll be on Yik Yak this time.