Crime doesn’t pay: Some newsrooms decide to stop running click-bait mugshot galleries

From Poynter and the Marshall Project:

Online mugshot galleries, where news organizations post rows of people who were arrested, once seemed like an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and an opportunity for more advertising dollars.

But faced with questions about the lasting impact of putting these photos on the internet, where they live forever, media outlets are increasingly doing away with the galleries of people on the worst days of their lives.

Last month, the Houston Chronicle became the latest major paper to take that plunge. At an all-hands staff meeting, the paper’s editors announced their decision to stop posting slideshows of people who have been arrested but not convicted—and who are still presumed innocent under law.

The media outlets discussed in this piece by Poynter aren’t cutting ties to mugshots like this, as editors note in the story:

The paper will still use booking photos when they have news value. Lorando said the paper does not generally remove or edit stories that were accurate when they were published.

A criminal mugshot is like any other tool in your journalistic toolbox: You want to use it for the right reason and be able to explain how it helps your audience understand the story you want to tell. I know that I’ve run more than a few mugs with stories I’ve done or encouraged students to include them with stories at student papers I’ve advised.

In one case, a man suspected of drunken driving ran over a young boy who was on a bicycle. The man tried to speed off with the kid stuck under the car, dragging the boy for several yards. Neighbors in the area came running out to stop the guy and get the kid help.

Then, they turned on man, dragging him out of the car and beating him bloody. The mug shot of this man told a story of a person who was both an accused criminal as well as a victim of a crime.  We felt the image added perspective to the situation. This was especially true when the police were looking for people who were involved in the beating, only to find that nobody in the area saw anything…

Another beating story ran at the Ball State Daily News, in which six female students at the school dragged another woman out of a party and attacked her. The police described the beating as “deplorable.” We ran all six mugshots across the top of the paper to showcase who was involved. I can still see the smirks on two of these women’s faces, looks that seemed to say, “You can’t touch me. My Daddy has the world’s best lawyer.”

The mugshot is a public record, and as such, you have a legal right to use it. However, this is where the ethics of journalism come into play and you need to ask yourself if you SHOULD use it.

A few key questions to ask before using a mugshot, or running any kind of content for that matter, might include:

  • Does this add value to the story I want to tell for my readers?
  • Will my choice do more harm than good?
  • What are the potential ramifications of my actions, particularly ramifications that are of a long-term variety?
  • Why do I want to do this?
  • What is the best counter-argument to the choice I want to make right now? Is it good enough to flip the argument?

 

 

Joker vs. Milker: A localization story from the Dairy State

Good localization stories have several key elements in common:

  1. They are timely, often surfacing as an “in the wake of the news” piece.
  2. They are valuable to local readers in a clear and specific way. (In other words, it’s not a “President unveils middle east peace plan; Area high school students say it won’t work” story.)
  3. They deal with things that could or have actually happened. (I once had to write a localization about what would happen if Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Federation, were to die in office, based on a hunch an editor had that he would. Yeltsin survived his term and lived a decade longer.)

During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Joaquin Phoenix took a rather circuitous route through his thoughts, deciding that it would be a good time to crap-talk the dairy industry, among other things:

We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. Then, we take her milk, that’s intended for her calf, and we put it in our coffee and our cereal, and I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up.

Less than a day later, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Rick Barrett turned around this localization for his Dairy-State readers. It’s a great example of knowing an audience, touching on a key topic of interest to that audience and getting a good story together in the wake of the news.

Let’s break down some key things that you probably want to emulate if you need to localize the topic.

Start with the lead:

Dairy farmers are pushing back against an Oscar’s award acceptance speech by actor and vegan activist Joaquin Phoenix who claimed that farmers are cruel to cows and newborn calves.

It’s a straight-up inverted pyramid lead that nails down both the local angle (dairy folks) and the tie to the national story (Oscar speech, ripping on farmers). It doesn’t try to do too much, it makes the point and then it moves on. It also avoids trying to be cute with something like Dairy farmers “having a beef” or “having a cow” about this.

He then moved into a good bridge as well as some key background, before sliding back into the local angle:

The performer, who on Sunday night took home the Best Actor award for his role in “Joker,” used his speech to rip on the dairy industry and the breeding of cows.

“We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth we steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable,” Phoenix said. “And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”

That didn’t go over well with dairy farmers.

The experts do a good job of explaining WHY they think the actor was wrong and HOW the cow/calf situation works based their experiences. This is done with good quotes and solid paraphrases that don’t fall victim to jargon:

A newborn calf is taken from its mother, about 20 minutes after birth, but it’s for their own safety, said dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County.

“If that mom had manure on her, we would risk that calf, our best genetics on the farm, getting contaminated with Salmonella, E. Coli or Listeria, along with Tetanus and all the other stuff that hangs out on the farm as well,” Hinchley said.

 

Barrett used quality reporting to cover his bases in outlining the story. Check out the sources for this:

  • dairy farmer Tina Hinchley from Dane County
  • dairy farmer Carrie Mess from Lake Mills
  • lan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation

In probably a couple hours (given that this story was posted by 12:30 and that Phoenix didn’t make his statements until about 10:30 the night before), Barrett got three good people with a background on the topic to speak intelligently about this. In addition, he wove in quotes from the Oscar speech and reporting on previous elements of Phoenix’s life.

The piece closes well with a decent closing quote that has both a sense of closure and the potential to look ahead:

“We have a free country, with freedom of expression, but we do wish that Joaquin Phoenix would talk with us, rather than at us, because if he did he would learn a lot about the commitment that dairy farmers have for animal welfare,” said Alan Bjerga, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation.

“This isn’t the first time he has made remarks like this, but it gets more prominence because it was in an Oscars speech,” Bjerga said.

Overall, the story is short (About 530 words), well structured and chock full of information. It ties a local interest to a broader concern and it provides background context as well.

In short, it’s a textbook example of how to build a great localization piece.

 

Dinner with Hitler: How a Q&A with a college newspaper became a national story and an ethical dilemma

While interviewing Grand Valley State University’s new offensive coordinator, the sports editor of the student newspaper threw in the kind of softball question that hundreds of journalists had asked before:

KV: So you graduated from Drury with a degree in History, you’re a history guy. If you could have dinner with three historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? And I’m ruling out football figures.

MB: This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler. It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.

Morris Berger’s answer to Kellen Voss’ question drew national attention to the school, the football program and Berger. It also forced the staff of The Lanthorn to decide what was the best way to handle a story that was quickly becoming a hot potato.

“When you have a Q&A especially, the piece is meant to be raw and personal,” Lanthorn Editor In Chief Nick Moran said Friday in an email interview. “We don’t edit answers and the questions asked help give a glimpse into the source. So when I first saw it, I certainly knew it was an odd, questionable answer, but we ran it with the rest of the piece. Honestly, when we first saw it, our thought was, ‘Why wouldn’t we run this?'”

Moran, a third-year student double majoring in multimedia journalism and communication studies, works with a staff of about 45-50 students at The Lanthorn to cover GVSU’s campuses in Allendale and Grand Rapids, Michigan. In most cases, the coverage doesn’t receive much attention outside of that area, but he soon came to realized that this time, things would be different.

“We first knew it was bound to take off somewhat on Sunday night when Fox 17 ran an online story and broadcast segment on it,” Moran said. “When Fox 17 runs a story here in Grand Rapids, the other two local outlets are going to cover it too. So we knew it would at least get views in the Grand Rapids area, but then it grew. The Detroit Free Press called, making it state-wide. Then we saw it on ESPN, YahooSports, Barstool and more. Then the national media reached out, like the Washington Post, CNN and the Huffington Post. Eventually, it even went international with the Guardian covering it as well.”

Along with the attention came mounting pressure on the publication. An official in the athletic department asked Moran and his staff to pull the story or at least cut the line about Hitler. Initially, the paper acquiesced, something the staff outlined in its explanatory editorial later that week:

When confronted by a university official in a position of influence, the “student” portion of “student journalist” kicked in first. In a lapse of journalistic vision, we removed the portion in question. We quickly realized that was a mistake.

Moran said he worked with his staff and his adviser to determine the best way to decide if The Lanthorn should go back to the original version or stick with the edited version. After discussing the issue with multiple people, including some journalism professors, Moran had the original piece put back on the website.

“From the get-go, I was sure we had to reinstate the piece to its full version,” Moran said. “The support and wisdom around me provided me with the rationale to back up my gut-instinct and the confidence to stick with it.”

The university suspended Berger, pending an investigation into the comments. Berger later resigned, saying he “expressed regret” over the comments he made regarding Hitler.  At each stage, The Lanthorn was at the forefront of the coverage.

“I’m very proud we had the chance to scoop some major outlets,” Moran said. “It was an opportunity for us to show the community, state and country that student journalists can tango with even the professionals.”

Moran said while some outside of the GVSU community have posted negative comments, people on campus have been generally supportive of the paper’s stand.

“In my journalism classes at the very least, a lot of students respected the decision we made to stick to our guns on keeping the comments in the Q&A,” he said. “We’ve even heard from administrators that we made the right call, with the president sending us a letter to assure us.”

“We’re incredibly fortunate to be part of a university that respects freedom of press so openly,” he added. “I know this isn’t the case everywhere.”

Moran said the lesson learned here is to make a decision that can be supported and stick with it.

“As young journalists, we should have an idea of what is the right thing to do, or maybe an organization you work for has those standards,” he said. “In our case (and maybe yours), the ‘student’ portion of ‘student journalist’ may react first, but if you assess the situation as an ethical, professional journalist, there’s time to remedy that. In doing so, be transparent. Your audience may not appreciate if you made a mistake, but many of them will respect you acknowledging it and correcting it if you explain the process.”

 

 

 

4 Things Beginning Journalists Can Learn From the Steve King vs. “Success Kid” Mom Story

Bloch Head shot

Emily Bloch of the Florida Times-Union has long been one of my favorite journalists because of her news sense, her ability to understand an audience and her unyielding dedication to her craft.

Back in 2018, we wrote about how Bloch broke major news about several Florida politicians breaking the law by taking pictures of their ballots and posting them on social media.

In a strange twist of irony, the story ran the same day she was officially “restructured” out of her job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She spent her “two-weeks notice” banging out that piece, something I still don’t think I’d have the intestinal fortitude to do.

Between then and now, she did freelance work before taking an education reporter position at the Times-Union.

And she’s still hitting home runs with her work, like Tuesday’s piece about a local mom threatening to sue Iowa Congressman Steve King for using her son’s photo in his campaign efforts.

Laney Griner was on Facebook when she received a notification. She was tagged in a post. It’s not a new occurrence for her. A photo she took of her son, Sam, 13 years ago, became a commonly used meme.

Success Kid,” as it’s been deemed online, features a then-infant Sam, staring straight on at the camera, clutching a fistful of sand. The meme has been widely used over the years, Sam’s withering stare being featured by Coca-Cola, the White House and President Barack Obama’s administration, to name a few.

But last week, when Success Kid was featured in an ad for Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, Griner wasn’t having it.

Her attorney sent the congressman a cease-and-desist letter early Monday, requesting the meme featuring Sam be removed from all platforms associated with King as well as for a public apology. By Tuesday, the post was taken down.

Bloch’s story is a great one for many reasons, but here are four things you can learn from her efforts on this piece:

READ PAST THE HEADLINE: Here’s the head that ran on the top of Bloch’s story:

KidHead

If you read the lead of Bloch’s story, you can see how this isn’t accurate:

A Jacksonville mom is threatening to sue an Iowa Congressman for using photos of her son to raise money.

Griner sent King a cease-and-desist letter, which means she’s telling him to knock it off or she WILL sue him. As the update to the story notes, King pulled the “Success Kid” memes from his ads, so the letter had the desired effect.

“There’s a small percentage of folks who don’t understand copyright law, and, of course aren’t reading the whole story that are peeved,” Bloch said in an online interview Wednesday. ” ‘Does she sue everyone that uses the meme?’ She’s not suing. ‘Should I delete my posts that use the meme?’ Obviously not.

(As we’ve pointed out a dozen or more times here, a lawsuit isn’t a lawsuit until it’s filed.)

When you run into a story on any platform, it always bodes well for you (and anyone else) to read beyond the headline. In trying to crunch a nuanced concept (cease-and-desist letter) into headline specs, sometimes a shorter, but inaccurate, word shows up (sues). Always give something like this a deeper look, or at least read two paragraphs into the story.

FIND THE LOCAL ANGLE: Bloch said she saw the story in the Washington Post’s “Morning Mix” and the word “Jacksonville” caught her eye. While every other outlet was focusing on King and the meme, Bloch saw the local angle and figured this would draw her readers to the story.

So in 2013 a bunch of local outlets actually wrote about him, but then it died down again…,” Bloch said. “In 2013 I wasn’t living in (Jacksonville) yet, so them being local was news to me.”

Bloch’s nose for news is important, but so was the idea that this story is more important to local folks who don’t just know of “Success Kid” as a meme, but rather as Sam, the local kid who became an internet legend. Even though other people had touched on the local angle before, both the time that had passed and the time peg of the cease-and-desist letter made for a good reason to punch down a local story here.

“Like I said, everyone wrote about them being from (Jacksonville) in 2013,” Bloch said. “So unless you’re an editor, you had no clue. So most of my Twitter feed is ‘I HAD NO CLUE SUCCESS KID WAS FROM JACKSONVILLE!'”

 

ASK. IT CAN’T HURT: Bloch could have easily written this story without an interview. The court documents have plenty in there for her to quote and plenty of people have written extensively on the meme and King, so she had no shortage of background from which to draw. However, she decided to take a shot at an interview.

“(I) immediately found the mom’s twitter account and DM’d her,” Bloch said. “Did the interview that afternoon.”

Bloch was able to get a good, strong local explanation from Griner about her experiences with the meme as well as why she wanted King to cease and desist. If you compare Bloch’s story to the national ones, you can see how this not only localized the story, but helped it make more sense, as Griner spoke like a human being, not like a legal document.

The lesson here is that it never hurts to ask for what you need. Griner could have said she was too busy or that everything had to go through her lawyer. She also could have just ignored the “local press,” given the reach of this story. However, she was willing to talk to Bloch that day and really push the story forward for local and national readers.

It’s always easy to assume you can’t get an interview or someone won’t want to talk to you. Give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen in most cases? Someone says “No,” which means you have no more and no less information than you did before you asked.

A GREAT STORY CAN BE A SIMPLE ONE: When I saw Bloch post this, I immediately sent her a handful of questions like an over-excited toddler who saw Santa for the first time. Her reaction seemed to be one of gracious bemusement:

“(It’s) not a sexy story, but hey, they’re not always sexy,” she wrote with an “LOL” to make her point.

I’d like to disagree on that point. It’s an amazing story for about a half dozen reasons:

  • It’s local (Let’s not belabor that, but it’s worth noting. If it’s in your backyard, you should own the story.)
  • It engaged and informed the audience (Her Twitter feed proves that point, as people are starting to realize this kid is in their area, something they didn’t know before.)
  • It grabs most of the FOCII elements: Fame (King and the meme), Oddity (A mom threatening to sue a congressman over a meme featuring her son is likely rare), Conflict (King vs. Griner) and Immediacy (The story was out shortly after the letter was filed).
  • It’s a simple, fun read. (Bloch didn’t try to blow this thing up into some sort of epic battle over copyright or layer on legal precedent. She just told people what was going on in a way they’d understand it.)
  • It inspired additional ideas in her. (In chatting about this, we talked about how old Sam is now, if he’s known around school as this kid, how life has been and so forth. She mentioned wanting to check in on him in 10 years. We then talked about maybe a high school graduation story in five years when he turns 18. Then, I stopped bothering her so she could go do actual work instead of dealing with me…)

I’m sure there’s more here, but the point is, you don’t have to catch the governor of your state funneling cash from the state budget to oversee a human trafficking and drug ring to have a great story. If you can develop a sense of wonder and a nose for what makes things interesting to other people, you’ll have plenty of great stories like this and keep readers wondering what you’ll write next.

Jim Lehrer’s rules matter now more than ever

You’ll Never Shame TMZ and 3 Other Impolite Observations on Kobe Bryant’s Death and Breaking News

KobeLAT

The death of Kobe Bryant led to a massive outpouring of media coverage, social media mourning and public grief over the past 24 hours. For my money, the place that did the best job of this was the L.A. Times, which dedicated multiple pages to the former Lakers star. It covered the accident, mourned the loss, didn’t sidestep the ugly (even a photo from his “rape allegations press conference” made the inside page) and generally did a good job on a breaking news piece. The layout and headline treatments also reminded me why when it comes to a huge story, newspapers still can do it the best, regardless of circumstances.

(If the LAT is like any other newsroom I’ve ever worked or visited, I’m betting it was a pretty sparse crew on staff when all this took place on Sunday morning. Getting this kind of “flood the zone” coverage on a weekend in today’s gutted newspaper world says a lot.)

One thing that emerged in this breaking news cycle was to what degree the gossip news site TMZ was derelict in its duty as journalists when it published the news about Bryant about an hour after the incident. Officials chastised TMZ for its “very cold” approach to this, noting that families and friends of those who died had yet to be notified personally before the news broke. TMZ, for its part, has yet to respond to that aspect of its reporting, but it continues to publish on Bryant after breaking the story.

While it seems that professionals and the public alike are having a go at TMZ for its role in this situation, here are four thoughts that, while probably impolite, are both accurate and worth considering:

You’re never going to shame TMZ: Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami took their shots at TMZ, noting that the publication was “extremely disrespectful” and “very cold” for reporting Bryant’s death this early. Others in the media also took to Twitter to add their condemnation of the decision to publish the information about an hour after the sheriff’s department received notification of the crash. Talking heads all over the place continue to cluck about how “this kind of publication makes us all look bad” and how TMZ “isn’t real journalism.”

Here’s an unfortunate reality: TMZ couldn’t care less.

This publication has made its bones (pardon the pun) on reporting the deaths of celebrities. It was first on the spot for the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Prince. It ran the Ray Rice “punch in an elevator” video, showing the former NFL player laying out his fiancee with a single swing and then dragging her limp body down the hallway.

Even more, here are a couple screen shots of things they ran just before the Bryant story broke:

CardiBTMZShoutingTMZ

And those were just two of the better and yet SFW ones available. Sleaze, mayhem, celebrities and death is what they do. A bit of side shade on Twitter from an undersheriff isn’t going to bring those folks around to the world of buttoned-down journalism.

Trying to make TMZ feel guilty is like trying to humble Kanye: It might make you feel superior to try, but it’s not going to work.

Most media folk won’t admit it, but they would have done it too: It’s easy for people who DIDN’T publish this first to say what they WOULD HAVE DONE if they HAD gotten the information first. It’s hard to say for sure what they ACTUALLY would do if put in that spot.

The old-guard media folks, who had three broadcasts or two newspaper editions a day, had more of a luxury to wait than current journalists, for whom a minute might be 58 seconds too late. Even more, I’ve seen what people get like when they get an exclusive story or find themselves at the front end of a scoop-able story. There’s not a lot of sober reflection and deep thinking involved, and far too often, people let the desire to get it first beat down their sense of human decency.

I’m not saying we SHOULDN’T aspire to being more humane in what we do. It’s just that the gap between the hypothetical and the actual is often a lot wider than we would like to believe it to be, especially when the actual makes us look bad.

(If you don’t believe me, watch about six minutes of a show like “Temptation Island” where “committed” couples explain how they’d never, ever, ever, EVER break up. In three minutes,  Blake has left Ashlynn in the room to go make out with Trevor’s fiancee, JayCee, in the hot tub.)

The first story I saw was on another media site (not TMZ) that posted about 20 minutes after the TMZ news broke. Additional news outlets were also cranking out stories shortly after, each falling back on that original “as first reported on TMZ” notice.

(It’s amazing how quickly they all swept those stories away and those early notices once they could get their own sources and after everyone decided to pile on TMZ. If you look on various “mainstream” media outlets now, you’ll find no reference to how TMZ got there first, unless it’s to chastise TMZ.)

What I didn’t see, and might never see, is a timeline that tells me when the officials notified the families of the people involved alongside the information of when each media outlet published its breaking news story.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that TMZ wasn’t the only media outlet to push out a piece before everyone’s family got the word of the crash. That’s not to say this was appropriate, but it is worth noting that a lot of the “holier-than-thou” outlets clucking about the disgraceful state of TMZ probably ran as fast as possible to grab second place in the race to report the story.

The police couldn’t care less about the media 98.9% of the time: Both Villanueva and Murakami have a point: It’s better if the safety officials can do their jobs and notify people before the media does. However, and I can say this based on personal experience, if you are a media professional waiting for police, sheriffs, state highway patrol folk or other officials acting in an official capacity to tell you everything you need to know, it’ll be like waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last week.

If you look at the stream of stories on CNN, for example, you’ll notice that it identifies pretty much everyone on board. Even after those stories ran, the sheriff declined to confirm the identities of those people. If you check out the sheriff’s department social media even today, the IDs aren’t posted. You have people responding to the tweets and posts with more information than the sheriff is willing to divulge.

Journalists know that the police will release information in whatever time frame they feel to be appropriate and that in most cases, you’ll get more info seeking other sources. As much as the police have often said to journalists, “I know you have a job to do…” they also don’t make the journalists’ job a priority. At best, they see the media as something to deal with like paperwork and jock itch: annoying, problematic and part of the curse of being them. At worst, well… I’ve heard the phrase “the F—ing Media” so often from cops I know that I honestly wondered if we’d created a new branch of journalism. (Y’know, like the Space Force…)

This isn’t to say that journalism is more important than the work of police or firefighters or first responders or anyone else who runs toward danger to help people in trouble. It’s not. However, pretending that if the TMZ people had just waited five more minutes until the police called them and said, “We’ve notified the family, so go ahead” everything would have been fine is disingenuous and borders on laughable.

Did this actually happen? I have come to the conclusion that being a “non-denominational skeptic” places me in the awkward role of asking questions people don’t like to hear. However, in journalism, we’re taught that if your mother says she loves you, you should go check it out. Therefore, here’s the question:

Did Bryant’s family (or anyone else on the chopper’s family) get the news of the death from TMZ?

Murakami’s tweet seems to say so:

“I am saddened that I was gathering facts as a media outlet reported … Kobe had passed. I understand getting the scoop but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones. It’s very cold to hear of the loss via media. Breaks my heart.”

I can’t find any reference in a post, a note, a tweet or a story that says this actually happened. I saw press releases from various organizations, tweets from tons of people and at least two dozen stories on various “respectable” media sites, but I could not find a single statement that would corroborate this. TMZ isn’t saying anything, either, on this topic. (If I missed it, feel free to email it to me via the contact page. I’ll give you the credit for showing the world I’m a dipstick.)

You can easily respond to this with a “That’s not the %@#^%ing point, Vince!” statement, and I get that. However, consider these two equally valid concerns:

  1. If we’re not into the accuracy of facts when they fit the point we want to make, what the hell are we doing in this job? Sure, I get the idea that it would be horrible if I died and my wife got a call like this:
    “Hello, is Mrs. Filak home?”
    “This is Mrs. Filak..”
    “Yeah, not any more… This is TMZ asking for a quote about the death of your husband five minutes ago.”
    However, if we’re going to let the sheriff’s folks use “couldabeen” BS about TMZ’s actions to make a point, why not let them go all the way? Why not have them invent the tears in the eyes of the other Bryant children, as they heard the news on TMZ? Why not let them slather on the details of how Vanessa Bryant got the alert from TMZ mere seconds before her phone rang with the news from the sheriff? The point is, if something is accurate, use it. If not, don’t let people use you to perpetuate something that is not.
  2. As much as this was an easy slam for the sheriff’s folks to make, kicking a publication like TMZ, it wasn’t meant for TMZ alone. This is the media version of a brush-back pitch, in which the sheriff threw a fastball on the inside part of the plate. The goal of a pitch like this is to let the media think long and hard about digging back in the batter’s box.
    TMZ is gonna TMZ. We’ve established that. However, when the L.A. Times or the Orange County Register or the Pomona Tidbit or whatever else is out there gets a tip like this, the sheriff and his colleagues in law enforcement hope this kind of incident will get them to slow up or pull a punch. In most cases, the media outlets will react with a higher level of discretion than TMZ, I would imagine, but simply putting the thought of “we might be the bad guys” in the media’s head is enough to cause some concern. It’s like how people tend to drive slower once they see someone else getting pulled over by a cop.
    In a speeding case, it’s probably a good idea. Here? It might be a toss up.

An attribution-verb word search for beginning journalism students

Professors are always looking for exercises to help their students learn important lessons. After my introductory media writing class had a few “issues” with properly attributing quotes, I decided to put together this handy little word search. Feel free to steal it and use it:

SAID

Let’s just say that Wednesday was a trying day…

Hope the rest of your week goes well.

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

CNN settles with Covington Catholic Kid over “racist confrontation” that turned out not to be

While we were on break, a story we covered last year got an interesting update. CNN settled a lawsuit out of court with Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandman, regarding its coverage of his interaction with a Native American drummer on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last year.

Sandmann sought $275 million from CNN over its coverage of the confrontation he and his classmates had with an elderly Native American man while visiting Washington, D.C., on a school trip in January of last year. The amount of the settlement was not made public during a hearing at the federal courthouse in Covington on Tuesday, according to a local Fox affiliate.

In case you forgot, Sandman was in D.C. as part of the “March for Life” rally to protest the legal state of abortions. While outside the Lincoln Memorial, he and other Covington Catholic students appeared to be in some sort of row with another group that was shouting at them. Nathan Phillips, an activist there as part of the Indigenous Peoples March, stepped between the groups and drummed as part of an attempt to diffuse the situation.

(Or at least that’s the best version of a synopsis that I can provide, given that it seemed every media outlet wanted to have its own angle on this thing.)

Video of Sandman and Phillips standing nearly nose to nose went viral, as it seemed everyone with a Twitter account and an an internet connection studied each frame like it was the Zapruder film. To some Sandman was “smirking” or “mocking” or in some other way demeaning/threatening Phillips. To others, Sandman was just standing there, looking like an awkward high school kid.

At the time this happened, we wrote about it here and here.

One of the key problems associated with the situation for me was that general folks on social media, and media professionals as well, saw this incident as a way to represent a “larger truth” about everything from white privilege to toxic masculinity.

Each time, I poked back saying, “Yes, you are right that those things exist and they are bad, but how do you KNOW it was THESE KIDS who did what you are accusing them of doing?” Each time, I got the, “You don’t understand and you’re wrong” answer.

Well, on at least one point, I turned out to be particularly prescient:

So in other words, “What I just stated as a fact doesn’t really have to be a fact if it represents the broader truth I want to call attention to.” My friend noted that this isn’t really a problem:

I also saw in more than one video that those students were wearing MAGA hats mocking that Native man. They may or may not be the same boys who were harassing women, but it fits as a pattern of behavior in the same area on the same day with the same type of attire. Sometimes we can look outside and say it’s raining without having the National Weather Service confirm it.

My concern, however, is that the original post explicitly stated these are COVINGTON STUDENTS. Whether they are or not doesn’t make the “rape” kid’s words any more or less offensive, but if you state something as a fact, it damned well needs to be one. That’s doubly true if you’re a journalist and/or if legal action could come into play.

I doubt the rain would sue for defamation if you called it “drizzle” or the National Weather Service would sue if you didn’t get verify that this wasn’t “mixed precipitation.” However, I could easily see a kid’s parents or a school file suit if you’re wrong on this one.

And although a settlement doesn’t mean anyone necessarily admitted guilt, it does mean the defendants were worried enough about their position to cry “Uncle.”

Teaching the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism

The guy who taught me driver’s ed at the “Easy Method” school was a balding man with a ginger mustache and sideburns to match. He told us to call him “Derkowski.” Not Mr. Derkowski or Professor Derkowski. Just Derkowski.

I remember a lot from that class, as he basically beat certain things into us like the company would murder his children if we didn’t have these rules down pat.

Hands on the wheel? 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.

Pedals? Release the brake to go, release the gas to slow.

Feet? One foot only. We were required to tuck our left foot so far back into the seat that we could feel the seat lever with the heel of our shoe.

Seat belt? You touch that before you touch anything else in the car or you fail the test. (Or as one of my dad’s friends told me just before the exam, “Get in the car. Put on your seat belt. Then, have your mom hand you the keys through the window.”)

There are a dozen other things that still stick with me, ranging from the left-right-left view of the mirrors to the probably-now-unspeakable way to look behind you when backing up. (“Put your arm across the back of the seat and grab the head rest like you’re putting a move on your girl at the drive-in,” he told me once, I swear…)

After 30 years behind the wheel, I still can’t shake some of this stuff, and most of it is still really helpful. Do I use it all the time? No. (I’m sure the man would be having a stroke if he saw me eating a hash brown, drinking a Diet Coke and flipping through the radio all at the same time while flying down Highway 21 at 10 over…) However, it was important to have that stuff drilled into my brain so that I knew, when things got iffy, how best to drive safely.

When I had to drive 30 miles up I-94 in a white out, in a 1991 Pontiac Firebird that had no business being a winter car, you better believe I abided by the gospel of Derkowski.

I had my hands in the right spots, I was looking left-right-left before a lane change and I treated those pedals like I was stepping on puppies (Another one of his euphemisms, I believe; “You wouldn’t stomp on a puppy!” he’d yell at someone who did a jack-rabbit start or a bootlegger brake.)

It took two hours, more than four times what Mapquest would have predicted, as I slowly passed among the littering of cars and semis that had slid into ditches and side rails. Still, I got there alive.

The reason I bring all of this up is because with the advent of another semester (we still don’t start for two weeks, but I figure you all are up and running), many folks reading this blog will be teaching the intro to writing and/or reporting courses. That means in a lot of cases, students will be coming in to learn how to write the same way I came into that driver’s ed class so many years ago: All we know is what we have observed from other people.

My folks were good drivers, but even they were like lapsed Catholics when it came to the finicky points of the rules: Five miles over the limit was fine, seat belts were pretty optional and one hand on the wheel did the trick. Outside of them, the world looked like a mix of “Death Race” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Gunning engines at stop lights, squealing tires, the “Detroit Lean” and more were what I saw.

Students coming into writing classes have been writing for years, so they figure they’ll be fine at it. They also figure writing is writing, so what’s the big deal if I throw 345 adjectives into this hyperbolic word salad of a sentence and call it good? Nobody ever said it was a problem before…

The students need some basic “rules” pounded into the curriculum, repeated over and over like a mantra, to emphasize the things that we find to be most important to keeping them out of trouble in the years to follow. Mine are simple things: Noun-verb-object, check every fact like you’re disarming a bomb, attributions are your friend, one sentence of paraphrase per paragraph… It’s as close to a tattoo on their soul as they’re ever going to get.

It’s around this time I often get into random disagreements with fellow instructors about this stuff. Some are polite, while others react like I accused them of pulling a “Falwell Campari” moment. In most cases, the argument centers on the idea that there aren’t really rules for writing or that “Big Name Publication X” writes in 128-word sentences or that paragraphs often go beyond one sentence, so why am I teaching students these “rules” this way?

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how best to explain it, but here’s it is: I’m teaching driver’s ed for journalism.

In other words, you will eventually be on your own out there and you won’t have your instructor yelling at you about where your hands are or if you looked at the right mirror at the right time. You probably won’t die if you drive without your foot all the way back against the seat, nor will not maintaining a “car-length-per-10-mph” spacing gap lead to a 42-car pile up on the interstate.

In that same vein, you won’t automatically lose a reader if your lead is 36 words, or confuse the hell out of them if you don’t have perfect pronoun-antecedent agreement. Libel suits aren’t waiting around every corner if you don’t attribute every paragraph and if you accidentally (or occasionally deliberately) tweak a quote, you won’t end up in the unemployment line.

However, if the basics get “The Big Lebowski” treatment up front, there’s no chance of those students being able to operate effectively when the chips are down. (There’s a reason the military teaches people to march before it teaches people how to drive a tank.) Until those basics are mastered, the students will never know when it’s acceptable to break a rule or why it makes sense to do so.

Of all the things I remember about Derkowski (other than that godawful straw cowboy-looking hat thing he wore) was that even though he enforced the rules with an iron fist, he could always tell us WHY the rule mattered and WHY we needed to abide by it. Say what you want to about the items listed in my “this is a rule” diatribe above, but I can explain WHY those things are important in a clear and coherent way. Even if the students didn’t like them, they at least understood them.

Sure, over the years, the rules change (Apparently 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock is now a death sentence…) with AP apparently deciding to keep all of us on our toes almost to the point of distraction. We adapt to them as instructors and the ones that are most germane to the discipline, we write into our own version of gospel.

We also know that we’re not going to be there to press the point when a former student at a big-name publication uses “allegedly” in a lead. (That doesn’t mean we still don’t. Just ask any of my former students and they can tell you about conversations we’ve had about quote leads and lazy second-person writing.)

I tell the students once they get off of “Filak Island,” they can do it however they want or however their boss wants. (I also tell them to ask their bosses WHY they want to use allegedly or randomly capitalize certain words. In most cases, the answer is silence mixed with “duh face,” I’m told.) However, my job is to teach them the rules of the road, and I think that’s how a lot of us view things in those early classes.

I will admit, however, that it’s fun when I hear back from a long-graduated student who tells me how they can still hear my voice in the back of their head when they’re writing something. (It’s even more fun when they tell me how shorter leads or noun-verb attributions are now the rule at work.)

If we do it right, enough of the important things will stick, they’ll revert to the basics when in danger and they’ll be just fine, even without us there to pump the brakes.

5 important things that get lost in the mess that is the “Richard Jewell” movie

After reading Tracy Everbach’s excellent review of, “Richard Jewell,” the Clint Eastwood film that looks at the 1996 Olympic Centennial Park Bombing, it became clear that the film missed the opportunity to provide a new generation with important lessons.

In the wake of the movie’s release, multiple groups have dialed in on the film’s key failures. The discussion of how Kathy Scruggs, and by implication female journalists, was portrayed has people upset with the trope that women trade sex for tips in journalism. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has spoken out about the Scruggs issue, as well as how the movie fails to show that the journalism the paper did that helped turn the tide in Jewell’s favor.

I have long used the Richard Jewell story as an example of what can happen when “EVERYBODY KNOWS!” becomes, “Um… Whoops…” in journalism.

I show, and will continue to show, the ESPN 30 for 30 Short “Judging Jewell,”as it covers the case from all angles, including having representation from the AJC. It’s about 30 minutes and it’s worth the time. So is the “60 Minutes” piece on Jewell from 2002:

 

I have not seen the “Richard Jewell” movie yet, so I can’t say what it actually did or did not do. What I can say is that the film’s approach has enough people upset about the issues listed above (and a few others) that several key things got lost along the way:

 

It wasn’t one reporter or one publication that created this clustermess: The focus on Kathy Scruggs and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution makes the media coverage feel like a game of one-on-one between Scruggs and Jewell. It wasn’t even close to that.

The Olympics were in town and you had participants from 197 countries present. That put thousands of journalists in that area at the time of the bombing, thus leading to a giant pack of TV and print reporters chasing one big question: “Who did it?”

Pictures and video taken outside Jewell’s mother’s apartment had photographers, videographers, reporters and more swarming the area as Jewell went to work the day after the attack. As the FBI showed up to interview him, and later to search the apartment, the media was all over the place with all sorts of equipment. (In one interview, Jewell said there were at least five satellite trucks in the apartment’s parking lot.)

(Scruggs wasn’t even the only reporter from the AJC to be on the story. In a review of the news coverage that came out after the infamous, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb,” story, I found nearly a dozen names of journalists attached to stories about the attack.)

People everywhere seemed to be piling on. Entertainers and tabloids called Jewell, “Una-Doofus” and “Una-Bubba,” a reference to the recently captured Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. This was a global story.

To pin any one thing on any one journalist or one publication is more than a stretch. As Henry Schuster, a former producer at CNN, noted, “This thing just goes nuclear.”

 

Attributions matter, so use them: The courts that heard Jewell’s cases against the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed statements made in several articles in which Jewell was identified as the key suspect in the bombing. In a 2011 Appeals Court Ruling in favor of the AJC’s reporting, the court noted:

On July 31, in an article entitled “`Hero’ denies planting bomb,” the AJC reported that, “[i]nvestigators now say… they believe [Jewell] placed the 911 call himself.” Likewise, in the same August 4 article referenced in Division (III)(A), the AJC stated that “[i]nvestigators have said they believe Jewell … phoned in a warning to 911.”

Again, we cannot agree with Jewell that the challenged statements are actionable. Although the July 31 article repeats the opinion of investigators who reportedly believed that Jewell may have placed the 911 call, it includes within its text the factual premise of that reported opinion.

In other words, the reporter properly attributed the information to an official source, who was acting in an official capacity, thus giving the paper protection against a claim of libel. (This concept is often referred to as “qualified privilege.”) Several other sections of the court’s ruling note similar attributions protecting several of the paper’s other stories.

This is one of the many reasons why I often write “SAYS WHO?” on statements my students make in their stories and why I’m a major pain in the keester about attributing information to a source. It can keep you out of a hell of a lot of trouble.

 

You are a reporter, not God: The one story I kept looking for was the original piece Scruggs and fellow reporter Kent E. Walker published in that July 30 “Extra” edition of the paper that declared, “FBI suspects `hero’ guard may have planted bomb.” I noticed it wasn’t mentioned in the appeals and it wasn’t in the archives I had access to. Jewell stated in multiple interviews that this was the piece that really started the entire whirlwind of controversy about him.

After paying for access to the AJC’s archives, I found it and I could better understand why he thought so. If attributions are like armor and shields against an attack, this story was butt-naked. Consider the first three sentences:

The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.

Richard Jewell, 33, a former law enforcement officer, fits the profile of the lone bomber. This profile generally includes a frustrated white man who is a former police officer, member of the military or police “wannabe” who seeks to become a hero.

This whole opening gives me hives, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one afraid of it. CNN actually read the paper’s piece live on air, making absolutely certain to be clear they were just telling people what the AJC reported.

Who made up this “profile?” How was it conceived? How many other people might “fit” that profile? Who says Jewell is “frustrated?” A “wannabe?” Not a single sentence here is attributed to anyone, least of all an official source acting in an official capacity. Also, by not having ANY attribution, the story reads as if the paper itself is saying the guy is not only the focus of the investigation but he fits the profile of a bomber.

Journalists only get away with those kinds of statements when they are of the “water is wet” variety, so when the AJC states this, it’s like, “Water is wet, the sky is blue and Richard Jewell, a man who ‘found’ a bomb, fits the pattern of the kind of guy who would plant one.”

In a case study of the AJC’s coverage, the author notes that the managing editor, John Walter, made the decision not to attribute the information:

Walter decided that Scruggs should use what the paper calls the “voice of God” approach when it came to attributing the information. The voice of God approach means that the paper would not attribute the story to unnamed sources. Rather it would take the responsibility on itself, implying that not only has the paper learned these things, but vouches for their accuracy.

As Walter explained later, he didn’t think attributing the story to unnamed sources “was fair.” The reason, he said, is that “once you start introducing sources, then you can have those sources do anything you want. They can speculate wildly. And so I felt safe, I felt better without that word in there.” In other words, if the paper took the responsibility itself, because it had multiple sources and was confident it was right, it was more authoritative than if it hung it on some anonymous source who might or might not be someone with real authority.

 

A couple things:

  1. I have always found the “Voice of God” approach to be stupid as hell, as it essentially says, “Look, just take my word for it. I’m a journalist and I know stuff.” It removes possible protections you might have and it really does put the media outlet at risk for anything that might go wrong.
  2. I reread Walter’s explanation a dozen times and found it to have the same internal logic as saying, “I smelled gas in a dark room and I didn’t feel safe not knowing where it was, so I felt it was important to light a match and see what I could find.” It reminded me of the way in which our student newspaper editors at Ball State would say stuff like, “Oh that photo/graphic/story is way to bloody/naked/unproven to run in the print paper. Just stick it online.”
  3. You’re not God. You’re a journalist. Act like it.

Again, this wasn’t just the AJC who decided to play God when it came to laying out information. NBC, which ended up settling out of court with Jewell, ran several pieces in which Tom Brokaw took on the “Voice of God,” including one particular exchange he had with Bob Costas, live on air:

“The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case, in their language. They probably have enough to arrest him right now. Probably enough to prosecute him but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There’s still some holes in this case.”

Brokaw explained to Mike Wallace in a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview his reason for making the statement he did on air. It sounded like a word salad that a drunk puked onto a passing bus:

Brokaw later in the interview said that he had multiple sources in high places in law enforcement telling him they were focusing on Jewell.

Fine. Then say THAT:

“I spoke with multiple law enforcement officials who said Jewell is the primary suspect in the bombing. They also told me they plan to arrest him if and when they get enough evidence together to convict him of the bombing.”

How hard is that to say?

In short, don’t let a sense of either self-importance or general knowledge get in the way of nailing down your facts. If you have a “water is wet” fact, tell it to me straight up. If it’s a “Vince Filak is a great professor” fact, you need an attribution on that thing because, God knows, a lot of folks are going ask, “Says WHO?”

 

A key court ruling about Jewell’s status made a huge difference: Lost in the argument about the accuracy of the reporting was the courts’ decision that Jewell was viewed as a limited-purpose public figure. The initial court ruling, as well as the 2001 appeals court decision, explained why this mattered:

The central issue presented by this appeal is whether Jewell, as the plaintiff in this defamation action, is a public or private figure, as those terms are used in defamation cases.   This is a critically important issue, because in order for a “public figure” to recover in a suit for defamation, there must be proof by clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of the defendant.  Plaintiffs who are “private persons” must only prove that the defendant acted with ordinary negligence. Jewell contends the trial court erred in finding that he is a “public figure” for purposes of this defamation action.   We disagree.

Had Jewell won this point, all he would have needed to show to win the case was that the AJC should have done a better job than it did during its reporting on him. His standing as a limited-purpose public figure meant he had to prove actual malice, which means that the paper knew what it was doing was wrong and did it anyway because the folks there wanted to mess with him.

Private citizens get a lot more protection than public figures in a lot of ways. For example, journalists have frequently reported on allegations that President Donald Trump cheated on his wife with a porn star and then paid her $130,000 to keep it quiet. As a public figure (and maybe the MOST public figure in the United States), this kind of stuff is fair game for journalists.

If I, as a private citizen, were to cheat on my wife like that today, the first time the media would be justified reporting on it would be in my obituary that would run the day after Amy found out about it, or in a story about her being charged with murder.

 

Regardless of who was right or wrong, the Jewell case is an important cautionary tale: The movie has a lot of stakeholders trying to shore up their positions: The producers, the AJC, other media outlets, the FBI, Jewell’s family/attorneys and more. When that happens, we tend to find ourselves arguing about what kind of bark is on the tree in front of us instead of seeing the entire forest.

The FBI was under pressure to get this situation resolved, but folks who dealt with the Jewell investigation knew that some agents cut corners they shouldn’t have. In several interviews, Former US Attorney for the Northern District Kent Alexander noted that the FBI tried to trick Jewell into admitting things he didn’t do under the pretense of creating a “first-responder video.” Alexander and journalist Kevin Salwen outline a lot of this in their book, “The Suspect.”

The AJC didn’t settle its case while other outlets quickly folded and paid off Jewell. The paper was convinced it reported the news in a legitimate and legally protected fashion and the courts agreed. However, the folks at the paper stated, in retrospect, that there were issues in how everything came together in the reporting. Former Senior Managing Editor Bert Roughton explained in his “Judging Jewell” interview that he still isn’t entirely comfortable with the way attributions were or weren’t used, as well as some of the choices the paper made in terms of phrasing.

Last month, Roughton wrote a first-person essay about the movie, the book and his own experiences and it really does leave journalists and journalism students with something to take with them every time they ply their trade:

For the rest of my career, however, the lessons of the Jewell story remained with me. The most important one is that journalists must never forget that we are writing about flesh-and-blood people whose lives may be changed forever.

We owe them our best work.