The Four-Word Interview (a throwback post)

A ton of stuff is happening right now, with the launch of the “Filak Furlough” tour, the removal of a college media adviser at Ashland University for teaching his kids “too much investigative journalism” and the general chaos of keeping up with the journalism world. We’ll get to all of that stuff next week (or at least some of it…).

In the meantime, today’s Throwback Thursday post looks at the simplest of interviews and why it worked. It’s also an opportunity to commemorate the anniversary of me making what I call “the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, other than getting married to Amy,” namely, purchasing this beauty and learning to love life.


The Four-Word Interview

(The subject of a four-word interview.)

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

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

“’68.” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it easy on the guy. He’s dead. (Or why AI shouldn’t be allowed to write obituaries)

We’ve bandied about the various pluses and minuses here of letting artificial intelligence do our work for us. Whether it was the complete lack of quality writing or using incorrect synonyms, there have been a few amusing moments here and there. Some argue this is a disgrace while others are in the “the AI is getting there, just be patient” camp.

That said, I think we have officially hit one thing we can all agree on: AI shouldn’t be writing obituaries. Case in point, this piece on former NBA player Brandon Hunter:

The headline kind of says it all in terms of why nuance matters. In some cases “dead” and “useless” are easily interchangeable:

“The flashlight is dead.”

“The flashlight is useless.”

In a case like this, however, we shouldn’t be swapping those words, and they actually do create harm. I’d hate to think of what Hunter’s family members thought when this popped up in the news feeds. Also, nothing says, “We don’t think your loved one matters,” like letting a computer take the wheel on the obituary. (MSN has since removed the story, but it lives on in screen shots and the wayback machine.)

That’s to say nothing of the godawful writing this thing did, from the line “performed for the Boston Celtics” (Was he doing a Mr. Bojangles routine at halftime or something?) to the line about how he was “handed away at age 42.” (Still not as bad as the “Maris traded to the Angels” obit headline, but pretty close…)

As with most things, we shouldn’t let the machines do all the work without at least checking on them from time to time.

Do you know the way to Inexperienced Bay, Wisconsin? (And why we’re still not fully ready for AI journalism)

I could have sworn this was a joke, but it looks more like Microsoft’s attempt at AI journalism:

(I did the screenshot because I swear this is going away when someone figures it out…)

In case you need translation, the “writer” was referring to the “Green Bay Packers,” apparently assuming the word “green” to be a synonym for “inexperienced” instead of the color/proper noun. It’s also interesting that Jaquan Brisker is apparently playing “security,” as his listed role is “safety.” In football parlance, that’s the player who is the farthest back on the field as a last line of defense against an offensive score, not Paul Blart, Mall Cop.

The “author” also had a few other moments of comedy gold:

Final season, the Bears had the worst document within the league at 3-14, and it earned them the highest decide in April’s draft.

(Translation: Last year, the Bears had the worst record in the league at 3-14, earning them the top pick in the April draft.)

That commerce netted them DJ Moore, who has been one of many recreation’s extra productive large receivers over the previous couple of years…

(Translation: That trade got them DJ Moor, who has been one of the game’s most productive big time receivers…)

Aside from the terrible use of a thesaurus, the “writer” manages to string together some truly godawful sentences that are either nonsense or just run-on messes. The conclusion of the piece captures all that is wrong while giving me a new “phrasing” moment that I’m sure I’ll be using in regular conversation:

However regardless of how a lot Inexperienced Bay and Chicago might battle, their rivalry will at all times be a spark of pleasure for his or her respective fanbases.

EXERCISE TIME: If you’d like your own “spark of pleasure,” dig around on this site (or any other AI disasterbacle of a website) and pick an article for translation. Not only will it help you better understand what’s wrong with AI, but it will also help you sharpen your own writing through word choice and improved clarity.

(h/t to Jason McMahon of the Madison area ink-stained wretches for posting the original.)


Filak’s getting furloughed, so let’s have some fun with this…

This was expected, thanks in large part to the media coverage that explained UW-Oshkosh was going to be $18 million in the hole this year. That said, this wasn’t the best email to get before a holiday weekend:

(If you’d like to see a master course on sterile jargon, enjoy reading Patient Zero here…)

All faculty members are getting some degree of furlough, while the folks who are in the academic staff, administrative staff and other non-tenured spots on the campus await layoffs and other levels of anxiety-provoking announcements.

(Some of us sat through an hour-plus event that included the explanation that to close our $18 million budget deficit, the university would be using the $5 million remaining in its surplus fund, furloughing faculty to save $3 million and then relying on $1 million in cuts. Even my journalism brain realized something was wrong with that math.)

Given my use of humor to deal with darkness, the jokes on this have come fast and furiously through my brain:

  • “Welcome to UW-O, home of the furlough!”
  • “It’s UW-Furlough, where the customer comes… into an empty office at least a few days this month.”
  • “You can’t spell furlough without F-U!”

I also liked the line of “You are not to  be performing any work for UW-Oshkosh” as I’m trying to imagine the enforcement mechanisms that will be employed:

(Sound of SWAT officers kicking down my front door, annoying the dog and scattering the chickens)

Cop: “Filak! Are you GRADING PAPERS? Hands off that laptop now!”

Me: “No! Officer! I swear, I’m just surfing for porn!”

Cop: “Yeah… you BETTER BE!”

In any case, this isn’t a pity party for me but more of an opportunity to go out Irish-Wake style on this thing, so here’s what I’m pitching:


I’ve basically got 11 days to kill, so let’s do something positive with those.  I’m putting out the Bat Signal for anyone out there who is teaching journalism at the high school or college level, anyone running a student media outlet at any level, any group of students who need help in journalism or basically anyone who is looking to take advantage of a journalism professor/blogger chimp with a desire to help you in  any way I can while making a mockery of the system.

I am ready, willing and able to do pretty much anything you want me to do for your classroom, your newsroom, your student media organization or whatever for one of my 11 furlough days.

  • You want me to hop on a Zoom call and teach a topic? Fine.
  • You want me to drive out to your school and meet with students to do some brainstorming for the next issue of the student publication? Totally cool.
  • You want me to come out to your student media conference and teach a dozen sessions on stuff that people want/need? I’m there.
  • You need me to go through resumes, cover letters, copies of your student newspaper, last year’s yearbook and your relatively weak “break-up poetry” from sophomore year? Sure… Hey… Let’s do it!

In addition to that, I’m willing to kick in the following things:

  • A blog post about whatever we did, promoting your place and giving the readers a nice bit of information they can use in their own classroom/newsroom/journalistic lair
  • A copy of the latest edition of any of my textbooks. (I’ve got your choice of Media Writing, News Reporting and Writing, Media Editing and Exploring Mass Com, all of which are suitable substitutes for Ambien.)
  • One of my personalized, hand-burned wooden baseball bats for your office or classroom

(I’ve done some pretty cool bats…)


And, if I sell out the tour on all 11 dates, I’m getting T-shirts with your class/team/organization as an official tour stop.

So, what do you need to do to get in on the hustle? Hit me up via the contact page linked here and tell me the following things:

  • Who you are, what you do and where you are located
  • What you want me to do for your class/group/organization
  • When you want this to happen, as apparently I can only take a certain number of furlough days in a certain set of pay periods for reasons past my understanding
  • How you want to do this (in-person, on Zoom, via the Pony Express, whatever)
  • Why you want to do this

Let’s turn a truly stupid thing into something awesome for you and your folks, which I think Is the unofficial motto of this blog.

Blog lines are open. Operators are standing by.


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


Three tips to help you think harder about your word choices as a journalist

(EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re back for the year, applying the new model for the blog with the Wednesday post being about writing and/or reporting. If you missed Mass Com Monday, you can find it here. Please continue to  send suggestions for improvement  or lists of things you need covered here. — VFF)


Students have often told me that when they are writing a story and they hit a lazy patch, a dumb phrase or something else that doesn’t make for good copy, they hear my voice in their heads, barking at them to fix it.

I, too, have a voice like that in my head and it belongs to Cliff Behnke, the former managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. Even today, decades since I last saddled up at a terminal in that newsroom, Cliff still scares the hell out of me.

He had the ability to parse words in such a way that made you feel horribly inadequate for not seeing your failings before he did. I can still remember the first experience I had where he did this. I had written a caption for a photo that noted there were “89 different model railroad train layouts” at the expo center.

Cliff made the point that, of course they’re different. Could I imagine if there were 89 of them and they were ALL IDENTICAL? So why bother with “different?”

That kind of insight became a big part of my writing, not just in shedding the word “different” (another one of Cliff’s peeves was “new” as in “They built a new school.” Has anyone ever built an OLD school?), but also in learning to challenge every word I wrote, and more than a few of them that I read. Take this headline from Deadspin for example:

Sexual assault is a horrible, terrible, absolutely no-good thing, so do we need the word “disturbing” to describe the details? I really went through pretty much every iteration of any potential detail I could think of to find one that wouldn’t fit in the realm of disturbing. I came up empty.

The headline could have used any one of a dozen other relatively meaningless words that could draw in a reader. For example, the writer could have gone with “shocking” details that might involve some really weird stuff this idiot tried as compared to the more banal details like he reeked of Polo and drove a Tesla. At least in that case, we wouldn’t have a “new/different” kind of situation here.

With that in mind, here are a couple hints on how to challenge your word choices in journalistic writing:

Addition by subtraction: In the case of “new” or “different” or “disturbing,” you find that the word really doesn’t add anything by being there. No  one would think they built an old school, had 89  identical model railroad layouts or had some fun and exciting details about a sexual assault. Thus, feel free to eliminate the word.  Occasionally, when I challenge a word in this  fashion, I go back to this scene from “A Few Good Men:”

“I felt his life might be in danger…”

“Grave danger?”

“Is there another kind?”

If you lack the internal level of sarcasm to make this work on a daily basis, I’m sure you have a  friend, colleague or definitely a professor of journalism who can help you sharpen that part of your personality.


I do not think that word means what you think it means:  Looking up words is always a good idea,  as not every definition fits the intended meaning. I’m sure one of my students would like to have back about two years of his music reviews in which he kept using “penultimate” to mean “super-extra-ultimate” when it really means “second to last.”

However, I’m even looking at words that people tend to use interchangeably that can add opinion or shift the truth of an issue in an unforeseen way. Consider the words “change” and “improve.”

Both can be true,  but they don’t mean the same thing, even if people involved in a situation kind of wish they did:

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will change the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

“Mayor John Smith said the construction will improve the traffic flow along Interstate 21.”

An improvement always presupposes change. That said, a change CAN be, but isn’t NECESSARILY an improvement. EXAMPLE:

CHANGE 1: Your landlord has installed a set of handrails on your staircase to make it easier and  safer for you to get into the house. 

CHANGE 2: Your landlord has removed the steps from your house and replaced the lawn with a moat full of starving alligators.

Clearly, both change your housing situation, but only one is an improvement.Keep an eye on words that couch reality like “development,” “benefit” and other such things that really need a look to see if they’re really just a “change” kind of thing.


Go back to the Holy Trinity: Most of the reason we get into a jam in writing is because we don’t have that solid noun-verb-object core that makes for the start of a strong sentence. If you can start with those three elements, most sentences will dramatically improve.

Even more, the quality of each element can eliminate the need for those ineffective descriptors that we’ve discussed above.  In the Deadspin headline you get “Details emerge from complaint” as your noun, verb and object elements. “Emerge” makes it sound like something out of a sewer-monster horror movie at best. “Details” couldn’t be more vague if you tried.

Stronger focus on the noun-verb-object structure could really make for a stronger headline:

Texans’ minority owner sexually assaulted women through groping, digital penetration, court complaint states

If that feels too forward, you could go with something a little less active and a little more tame:

Texans’ minority owner accused of sexual assaults, including digital penetration and groping a woman through her underwear

Think about how concrete your noun can be and how vigorous your verb can be. In some cases, if you have to go with a weaker verb, adding clarity and value to the noun and the object can draw the readers into the piece.

The University of Wisconsin Madison is right that the First Amendment protects the speech of racist idiots, but that’s not as bad as it seems

THE LEAD: My alma mater made the news this week for all the wrong reasons:

A video of a University of Wisconsin student using racist slurs and references began circulating on multiple social media platforms Monday.

The video showed a white UW student using racial slurs and expletives directed toward the Black community. Others could be heard laughing at the rant in the background of the video.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some media outlets have named this person and identified her as a UW-Madison sophomore. The U has only confirmed she is a student, and various other outlets have not verified her name. I couldn’t independently verify the person’s name, so I’m not using it. Restraint is the better part of valor in cases like this.)

SEE IT NOW: Here’s an “edited for TV” version of the video:




  • Mnookin is right about the First Amendment and the way in which it protects even the most odious speech. Governmental agencies cannot be curtail or punish speech, with a few notable exceptions, such as if the speech contains a true threat or falls under the fighting words doctrine of inciting imminent lawless action.
  • The second scenario clearly doesn’t apply here, as she wasn’t inciting a group to do something violent. As for the first one, not to appear glib here, but unless people viewing the video could realistically believe this student could become a ghost and haunt them, while forcing them to “pick cotton” until they died, it doesn’t apply either.
  • The First Amendment provides both the disease and the cure in this case, in that the best way to deal with bad speech is through more speech.
    • The students who have written on various platforms, expressing their outrage and sadness, are availing themselves of their right to speech and press.
    • The students who gathered to let the school know they aren’t happy with this student or the school’s response are availing themselves of their right to peaceably assemble.
    • The students signing the petition that demands this kid get the boot from Badger Town are relying on the right to petition the “government” for redress of grievances.
    • This is how this kind of thing is supposed to work.

DYNAMICS OF WRITING FLASHBACK: Sadly, this isn’t the first time the blog has looked at a situation like this. In 2019, here at UWO, a student posted images on Instagram to “out” several other students who had a whiteboard filled with slurs and a swastika flag in their home. At the time, we touched base with legal eagle Frank LoMonte for a walkthrough on free expression and what was likely to happen to the students who “expressed” themselves in this fashion.

DOCTOR OF PAPER HOT TAKE: I’m not in favor of suppressing speech at any level, even when it comes to terrible speech like this. It’s not that I like the student’s speech (I clearly don’t) but I know that if we start suppressing speech based on content or viewpoint, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes after YOUR content and viewpoint or MY content and viewpoint.

Therefore, what happened is abhorrent, but the backlash that has ensued illustrates a point many people truly don’t understand when it comes to the First Amendment: Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech.

That said, here are some things to think about regarding this situation that aren’t being talked about right now:

  • The university is wrong when it says it can’t boot this kid out of school.
  • Whether the university decides to bounce this kid or not, the outcome will be the same.
    • If I had to guess here, I’m thinking the U is running clock on this situation, hoping to get to the end of the semester and then figure out its next move. I don’t like that kind of mealy mouthed approach to dealing with this, but I also understand that the U might consider it the safest way forward from a legal perspective.
    • At this point, this kid has to know there is NO WAY she’s coming back to this campus in the fall, given the fallout she’s already faced. As more places confirm her name, it’s going to be everywhere and she’s not going to be able to escape the consequences of her stupidity. Think about every time a TA calls roll in a class and all the heads turn knowingly in  her direction. Think about who the hell is going to want to be her roomie next year. She’s headed somewhere else.

KEY TAKEAWAY: As frustrating as it is for ANYONE who thinks, “How the hell can this university let this racist idiot stay here and let her racist stupidity slide?” (And, I count myself among those feeling frustrated), I think a key thing to remember is that the First Amendment works.

  • Nobody stopped her from posting her stupidity, thus, her free speech rights remained intact.
  • The free speech reaction from seemingly everyone on this side of the planet regarding her stupidity has brought the issue to the forefront in a way that is forcing people to deal with the situation.
  • The continued pressure brought to bear in reaction to this student’s stupid expression is likely to create the proper outcomes:
    • The kid is catching hell from every corner of the universe.
    • The kid is likely to be “gone” from school.
    • The school is likely to further solidify its position against people who behave like this.
    • The message of, “We’re not there yet,” when it comes to issues of race is once again highlighted.
    • In light of all of this, the university is going to have to pony up more time, resources and education to deal with this issue.

In the end, all of this is the result of speech and the protections afforded to it in this country.

A Resolution to Cardi B’s False Light Lap Flap Suit and a Reminder to Be Careful in Taking Stuff off the Internet (A Throwback Post)

I apparently haven’t been paying enough attention to Cardi B these days, as I managed to miss the jury verdict in October related to “tattoo-gate” and her album cover I’m still not allowed to show you:

Rapper Cardi B didn’t violate a man’s right of publicity by transposing his back tattoo onto a model for the racy cover of her 2016 mixtape, a California federal jury said Friday.

Kevin Brophy Jr. initially sought $5 million for the transposition of his distinctive full-back tattoo onto the back of another man suggestively performing a sex act on Cardi B on the cover of “Gangsta Bitch Music Vol. 1.” A jury disagreed, apparently accepting the rapper and reality TV star’s argument that the 2016 cover for her first mixtape was transformative fair use.

In December, a judge denied Brophy’s appeal:

“The jury had an ample basis for its verdict. For example, the jury could have reasonably concluded that the back tattoo on the model on the mixtape cover at issue in this suit was not sufficiently identifiable with Brophy to constitute misappropriation of his likeness or depiction in a false light. Because the model’s face is not visible, identification based on facial appearance is impossible,” Judge Carney wrote.

Even more compelling, he wrote, was the small part the tattoo played in the overall composition of the cover art.

That said, Brophy isn’t giving up. In January, he attempted to revive the suit, arguing that the original trial had significant problems with it.

The first of these alleged prejudicial errors of law involves Brophy Jr.’s purportedly being “deprived of his fundamental and substantial right to cross-examine Cardi B at trial.” Ahead of this trial, the court determined that “each party would have two opportunities to examine each witness,” per Brophy Jr.’s motion.


Regarding the second of the above-noted “prejudicial errors of law,” the filing likewise takes aim at the court’s alleged decision to exclude evidence from Cardi B’s separate defamation trial. The “Up” artist won the latter (albeit as a plaintiff) with the same trial counsel as in the tattoo suit, and Brophy Jr. says that the defamation matter’s claims “are strikingly similar to the claims in this case.”

I still have no idea how he didn’t manage to pull a false-light claim out of this, other than the idea that the model didn’t look enough like him to make people think he was the “model.” Either that, or he couldn’t prove that reasonable people would find it “highly offensive” to be considered the “lap friend” of Cardi B on that album cover.

In any case, here’s a look back at how this all got started and a couple good lessons that still stand up, regardless of who ends up winning…



Cardi B’s “Invasion of Privacy” prequel gets her sued on allegations of invasion of privacy (and two things you can learn from this debacle)

Trying to find fresh and relevant cases involving “misappropriation” or “false light” claims of invasion of privacy can be difficult.

Thank God for Cardi B.

A suit that is headed to trial later this year will determine if the rapper engaged in both of these acts when she included a distinctive tattoo on one of her album covers:

A federal judge in Santa Ana, California, has refused to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that a man’s distinctive back tattoo was used without his permission in a sexual picture on an album cover by rapper Cardi B.

U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney of the Central District of California refused to dismiss the suit by plaintiff Kevin Michael Brophy Jr., who sports a full back tattoo that shows a tiger battling a snake.


Brophy said his likeness was misappropriated in the photoshopped image in “a misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual way.” He alleges misappropriation of likeness or identity, violation of the right to publicity under California law, and false light invasion of privacy.

Based on the decency standards my editors have for me here, I can’t include a copy of the album cover (I tried adding it to a Facebook post on this and I got flagged for violating community standards…). I also can’t mention the title of the album cover or even EXPLAIN what it is that is happening ON the album cover here.

Just Google “Cardi B,” “album cover” and “Gangsta” and you’ll like find it.

Essentially, let’s just say that Cardi B is drinking a beer while the male model upon whom Brophy’s back tattoo has been superimposed is doing something where the tattoo is fully visible and the man’s face is not.

The concept of misappropriation is the use of someone’s image without their approval. A simple example of this would be if one of my students was running for student body president and thought my endorsement would be valuable to him. Thus, he grabbed a photo of me teaching and included it on his posters without asking for my endorsement.

False light claims tend to put two true things close enough together that people will see them as related, even if they’re not. In cases like these, the court is looking at the “gist” of the material to see if a falsehood is implied. For example, in Solano v. Playgirl, Inc., actor Jose Solano won a false-light suit after the magazine published his photo along with headlines implying he posed nude in the magazine, which he did not.

Some states, like Colorado, don’t recognize these kinds of legal nuances, rolling them instead into either general defamation or copyright claims, depending on what is at the core of the case. In other cases, the claims are without merit and get tossed quickly, leaving few true battles over who has the right to control a personal image.

In this case, it’s a daily double, in that the “misappropriation” claim of Brophy’s image (it’s a heck of a tattoo…) and the “false light” claim (that isn’t Brophy on the cover, but anyone who knows him and that tattoo would be hard-pressed to determine that on first glance) seem to fit the definitions perfectly.

The rapper’s legal team asked a federal judge to toss the suit back in December, arguing the album art was covered under a fair-use claim, in that the reworking of the tattoo into the piece made the work transformative. The court disagreed and the case will move forward to trial in the near future.

To say Cardi B is displeased with these allegations would be a slight understatement, based on her deposition:

“I’m really upset because I really have to be with my kid. All because of some bulls**t trying to get money and then $5,000,000. Are you f***ing kidding me? That mixtape didn’t even make, not even a million dollars.” Cardi added, “I got real lawsuits with real sh**, and I got to deal with this bulls**t. This is four hours long taking away from my time, my job, my motherhood.”

Ah, yes… If I close my eyes, I can almost hear my own mother’s voice uttering those exact words…

In any case, regardless of how this turns out, here are two key things you can learn from just watching this train wreck take place:

Permission for use solves almost everything: In reading through the coverage of this case and the depositions, it turns out the guy who designed the cover just Googled “back tattoo” and grabbed this one at random. (It also turns out he was paid $50 to build the cover, which could be the cautionary tale of “You get what you pay for,” I suppose.)

I would bet every dollar in my pocket right now against a pile of nothing that when this guy built the cover, he NEVER thought anyone would complain about their image being used in this fashion. The… let’s call it “up close with Cardi B”… nature of this image would likely be bragging rights for almost every human male on the planet, I would imagine.

In this case, he appears to have found the one guy with the one tat who didn’t feel this way. That’s why it’s important to ask people for permission to use their stuff. I could assume that any journalism outlet would LOVE to have its stories or photos or illustrations included in a textbook to illustrate how the true greats of the field operate. However, my publisher believes in covering its keester, so we have permission forms that get signed and stored.

Maybe Brophy is making a power play and could care less how he would be portrayed on an album cover, so long as he got paid. Maybe Brophy is truly a man who views this representation of him as “misleading, offensive, humiliating and provocatively sexual,” and is truly upset by this. Who knows? The key is that it’s his right to have his body portrayed as he sees fit, which is why this is going to court.

Permission would have made this much easier to figure out, so make sure you get it.

“But it’s JUST for X” is never an excuse: Somewhere in the sprawling field of asterisks that populate Cardi B’s quote above is the notion that the album only made $1 million, so to have to pay out $5 million is ridiculous. The problem here is that she’s not being sued for a portion of revenue. She’s being sued to penalize her for her actions.

The law can be more or less forgiving in certain situations, but it is the law. Therefore, deciding to steal something and then say, “but it was JUST…” isn’t necessarily going to keep you out of trouble. I can’t remember how many times I’ve critiqued a high school or college paper that basically stole an image and published it. (Writing “Photo courtesy of Google” didn’t make it any better.) When I pointed out how much trouble this could create, I got the “Well, it’s JUST for a HIGH SCHOOL newspaper. I’m sure people have better things to do that try to sue us.”

Maybe. But a) Is that a risk you want to take? and b) Is that the lesson you want to teach your students? (“Steal small, kids, and you’ll never have to take responsibility for it!”)

I’ve seen this happen both ways, with bigger news outlets stealing from student newspapers (One told my photographer, “You’re just a student publication. You should be happy we’re using your work…” Um… No…) and student papers stealing from the big dogs. Both cases are wrong and in both cases, you can get into trouble for doing it.

I’m sure this guy who got paid $50 to design this thing for one of the myriad women who would likely crash and burn on “Love and Hip Hop” was thinking, “I’m just doing this thing for beer money. No way anyone buys this stupid thing.” However, he hit big, so now everyone is paying the price.

It’s like speeding: Sure, you might get away with five over, but when the cop in Rosendale pulls you over for doing 31 in a 30, the “But I was just speeding a little!” excuse is not going to fly.

Elon Musk said he “learned a lot” from his SpaceX rocket explosion. So can media professionals.

You know you’re rich when you can have what equates to a multi-million dollar firework explode after four minutes in the air and refer to it as a learning experience. Elon Musk noted after his SpaceX rocket blew up that he “learned a lot” from the flight that lasted about half the time of the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want.”

As much as it would be fun to beat up on the guy who somehow turned Twitter into a place that has baffled Stephen King, a more valuable use of our space here might be to turn this into a learning experience for media practitioners across the spectrum.

Thus, let us begin with…

NEWS LESSON 1: When it comes to leads, just tell me what happened.

A friend and colleague sent me an array of leads as a reminder of what can happen when writers get too into themselves…

This shit is remarkable:

Washington Post:

SpaceX’s Starship lifted off the pad in Southern Texas and cleared the launchpad, its first milestone, but then began tumbling as it was preparing for stage separation and the vehicle came apart some four minutes into flight.



SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, took off from a launch pad on the coast of South Texas on Thursday at 9:28 a.m. ET, but exploded midair before stage separation.

SpaceX’s huge Starship rocket, the most powerful ever built, blasted off on an unpiloted maiden flight Thursday and successfully flew for more than two minutes before tumbling out of control and exploding in a cloud of flaming debris.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday launched its Starship rocket for the first time, but fell short of reaching space after exploding in mid-flight. No crew were on board.

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — The most powerful rocket ever built put on quite a show during its debut space launch.

As my friend noted, each lead seems to avoid the fact that a giant missile blew up and created quite a mess for people who were wondering if Musk’s effort would be better or worse than his work with Twitter.

The lesson here is simple. Just tell people what happened and why they should care in your lead. If you feel the need to wax poetic about a massive ship breaking free from the celestial bonds of Earth, go to a poetry slam.


NEWS LESSON 2: Completeness and clarity matter a great deal.

Shortly after the rocket turned into a flying junkyard, “think” pieces started to emerge about how this wasn’t really as bad as it seemed:

About four minutes after SpaceX‘s gargantuan rocket lifted from its Texas launch pad, it burst into a fireball over the Gulf of Mexico, never reaching space.

Though SpaceX hasn’t shared many details yet about what happened during Starship’s maiden voyage, one fact is known: It was intentionally ordered to explode.

This and several other stories noted that it wasn’t an unexpected explosion, but one deliberately set off by the SpaceX folks because of the risk of falling debris and other similar concerns for people on the ground.

That’s important to know, but it’s also worth noting that the REASON they blew this thing up was because the rocket had started to malfunction around that time. In other words, either way, this thing was not going to be a fully realized launch.

Both of these points are worth making clear right up front on stories that discuss the rocket, although it seemed like half the stories out there were doing some version of a “Ha Ha! Elon Sucks!” story and the other half were doing the “Oh, you simpletons. You do not understand the genius of Elon” stories.

Both are half true, in a way, but neither is clear or complete.


PUBLIC RELATIONS LESSON 1: Manage expectations

Dovetailing nicely with the info above, the first lesson good public relations practitioners learn is how to convey important information of interest to an audience in a transparent and direct way. In this case, that seemed to be lacking.

The follow up stories touch on how this taught people a lot, or how rockets fail a lot before they succeed or how they never really intended this thing to be totally successful. All of these things might be true, but the timing of those pieces is really terrible.

If you manage expectations people have for an event, you can better control the narrative  in terms of what people should expect or not expect. For the longest time, people got used to NASA tossing spacecrafts into the heavens with nothing but total success. Musk probably knew (I’m guessing based on what’s coming out now) that this wasn’t going to be that.

Rather than tell people, “Hey, this thing is going to be in the air about as long as it takes to blow $20 in a slot machine at the Las Vegas airport,” he didn’t mention what could happen. Thus, the reaction from pundits and suddenly all of the “we learned stuff” responses sound like trying to polish a turd.

Put it this way: If I go to the mechanic to get my car fixed and he tells me, “It’s going to cost $300 and take two hours,” that’s my resting pulse for expectation. If he comes in at $250 or it takes an hour and a half, I’m going to be thrilled. However, if he tells me it’ll cost $250 and will take an hour and a half, but instead it’s $300 and two hours, I’m going to be upset.


PUBLIC RELATIONS LESSON 2: Don’t give people a reason to mock you.

Perhaps the one thing people will remember most of this mess was the linguistic calisthenics that Musk and crew used to explain the rocket’s demise:

This approach to reality reminds me of the time that I covered the Mifflin Street Block Party, which devolved into fire, arrests and the destruction of a fire truck.

When I called the police to determine if they called a 10-33 (Riot in progress), I was told I shouldn’t call it a riot. I then outlined all of the stuff I saw there: A car burned to a shell, porches ripped to pieces, fires torching the street, kids screaming “f— the pigs” and more before asking, “If it wasn’t a riot, what was it?”

“It was a large, prolonged disturbance,” the officer said before hanging up on me.

A “rapid unscheduled disassembly” is not only jargon, but it’s clearly mock-worthy. I get that you don’t necessarily want to be this blunt in your assessment of the launch, but come on… You might have been better off going with “we had an oopsie” at that point.

If there’s one thing the internet is good at, it’s mockery. The last thing you want to do is softball it in for the folks out there who really enjoy roasting the hell out of you.


A helpful attribution word search for beginning writers (A Throwback Post)

Maybe grading too many intro to writing papers in a row has me punchy, but I often wonder if my voice is somehow only audible to dogs. After an entire semester of pounding single-sentence paragraphs of paraphrase, quotes as their own paragraphs  placement of attributions and more into my kids’ heads, I am only marginally surprised that none of it has stuck for most of them.

That said, if I have noticed one thing above all else, it’s an almost pathological fear of the word “said” as a verb of attribution. I’ve gotten “noted,” “explained,” “delineated,” “clarified,” “mentioned,” and “commented” list a few. The most frequent one that has become popular is “expressed.” When a student relies on this, I want to send this video back to them just to break the habit in a truly horrific way:

That said, for those folks who might prefer a little less mess, here’s a word search I made a few years back that might help students  find attribution verbs that are acceptable in journalism:


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:


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)

An important set of resources to help journalists responsibly report on suicide

I can’t remember a single newsroom in which I worked where we didn’t have to report on someone who died by suicide. I also can’t remember ever having a coherent, clear and logically developed plan on how best to do that.

Having to put together a plan on the fly  or trying to recall some arcane theory of what we were “supposed to do” based on newsroom mythology isn’t the best way to deal with this situation, but it was what we often did. Fortunately, things have evolved over the last decade or so, with some truly important work emerging to guide us as writers and reporters.

The folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison put together this amazing article through the Center for Journalism Ethics that explores this sensitive topic at length. The center also has produced a set of resources to help journalists report and write on this topic in an effective and humane fashion.

For some additional resources and insights, feel free to check out this post we did a while back, with some amazing insights from Nicole Bogdas, who spent time working in crisis intervention.


Journalistic Malfeasance Strikes Again: Another tragic tale of wasted youth (A throwback post)

A colleague who is advising a student media operation asked a question in an internet group setting after a kid on his staff admitted to fabricating a story for the publication:

Does anyone have any experience or policies to shed light on how such a person might be given a path to redemption?

The old editor in me says, “That’s it. Your journalism career is over.” But these days I see too many long-lasting severe consequences for young people who do dumb things, including criminal activity. TBH, I’m not really trying to open the philosophical debate here. I’m interested in options I can present to the student EIC, who will make the decision.

I thought about the question the guy was asking and put together what I thought was a pretty reasonable answer based on what he wanted to know: How do you give the kid a path to redemption? After I posted, several other folks chimed in with the idea that the kid SHOULDN’T get a path, given that this was likely not a one-off and that keeping the kid is borrowing trouble.

Truth be told, that’s actually the better instinct, based on a lot of things we’ve seen in the media world lately. We’ve covered this topic here and here and here where we had professional journalists get caught after years of making crap up. It’s never a one-time deal and the journalist’s whole career comes apart like when you pull a loose thread on a sweater once someone starts digging into the past.

The sad part was that the colleague updated us a couple days later:

Probably because of posts I’d read on this list about earlier situations, on Sunday I started emailing all the sources named in the reporter’s earlier stories. This morning, I started calling businesses where some of the sources allegedly worked. By lunchtime, there were several cases where no such person could be found to exist. After trying to come up with explanations for the first couple, the reporter finally admitted this had been a pattern. The reporter resigned.

This brings me to today’s throwback post, which looks at a similar situation involving a young reporter at USA Today. It’s not meant to “tsk tsk” people, but rather as a reminder, this kind of thing can happen to anyone in the right (or wrong) circumstances, so it is important to remain personally vigilant.



“It’s the first time you caught her.”

Stories of journalistic malfeasance are not incredibly rare, but they always sting. The most recent publicly noted case occurred over the summer, in which USA Today pulled 23 articles from its archives after an audit revealed quotes and sources were likely fabricated. The journalist responsible for those stories, Gabriela Miranda, began working for the media outlet in 2021. During the audit, she resigned.

Whenever a situation like this comes up, I think back to the first episode of the Netflix show “Ozark” and the issue of how to deal with someone who has cheated. The main character is involved with a drug cartel in a money-laundering scheme out of Chicago.

Del, the connection south of the border, makes an unexpected visit, accusing the laundering crew of stealing from him. He tells a story about his father’s grocery store and how his dad spotted a loyal cashier (a woman so close to the family, you call her aunt, he remarks) stealing $5  from the till one day.

She begged for forgiveness, saying she needed the money for a child’s medicine and that she’d never do it again. Del then asks each of the four men in the operation what his father should have done. Three of the men say he should forgive her, give her a second chance. After all, one mistake after 15 years of loyalty? The three men are brutally killed shortly after that. The fourth, Marty, doesn’t answer, but he manages to worm his way out of getting killed.

Later, Del asks Marty question again:

As much as people want to believe something like this was just a one-off, it rarely turns out to be the case.  After someone pulls on the first loose thread on sweater, others began to do so as well, and we see everything unravel.

The Gainesville Times, where Miranda worked for three months as a freelancer and a reporter, published a piece on her USA Today situation and audited her work. The paper stated it pulled only one story just to be on the safe side, noting Miranda had produced “only a small volume of work” for the publication.

Her college paper, the Red and Black at the University of Georgia began conducting its own audit of Miranda’s work after the USA Today situation came to light. That paper flagged 14 articles of concern of the 121 articles associated with Miranda. The publication then made the appropriate corrections or clarifications to six articles that didn’t pass muster after they were reexamined.

(If anyone wants to see perhaps the best example of transparency, thoroughness and honesty in the face of a potential disaster, read this write up on the Red and Black’s website that details the work the staff went through to address the problem. These folks essentially wrote the book on how to self-audit in a situation like this.)

To ask “why” is a pointless exercise. Each time a journalistic fraud emerges, we get a different story, none of which excuse the actions of the individual or fully satisfy the readers. It also provides us with an undeserved sense of superiority, as if “we” could never be capable of such a thing.

We all are.

Some of us deal with pressure better. Some of us grew up with a guilt complex. Some of us have a pathological fear of getting caught that keeps “bad things” in check for the most part.

But rest assured, not one of us is any less capable of cutting a corner or fudging a source. We just haven’t done it. Yet.

For journalists, journalism teachers and students who want to keep that demon at bay, go to the Red and Black and USA Today websites and look up the stories Miranda wrote in her brief journalism career. They are powerful, engaging and interesting pieces that run the gamut of social justice explorations to fun news features.

Now, just do a Google search on “Gabriela Miranda.”

Almost every link comes back to a story about her journalistic transgressions.