How to cover a shooting or other chaotic event as a beginning journalist

After I ran Thursday’s post on the mass-shooting event in Michigan, a fellow journalism educator posted a note and a request:

I want to get your Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing to read your thoughts on covering shootings.
I teach near Philadelphia, the City if Brotherly Love, that surpassed an annual record of 500 people shot and killed—in 11 months. I am very sad a Temple University student returning from Thanksgiving weekend was shot twice in the chest in broad daylight by a 19-year-old who was trying to carjack him.
Whether shootings are individual or en masse, we must be sensitive to victims and families while seeking answers to curb the killings.
As I’ve said before, if someone asks for something, I will gladly blog about it, so here we go…
I teach crime reporting and breaking news as part of my junior-level reporting class, but I always include a caveat up front:

Reporting on things like shootings, hurricanes, car crashes and other sorts of mayhem doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of guidelines. I can tell you what I’ve done or what I’ve seen, but at the end of the day, how you react to something is entirely your own doing. While we can read press releases and talk about crime, you never know how you’ll react once you’re on the scene of something.

Until you’ve seen a man get pulled out of a thresher or stood 3 feet from a shooting victim’s dead body, you really don’t know how it will impact you in the short term or the long term.

That said, experience has been a pretty good teacher for me, as a crime reporter, a criminal justice editor and a student media adviser, so here is my best advice on how to work a shooting or other chaotic event for the first time.

We’ll look at what to do (or not do) during your reporting phase, your writing phase and your “afterward” phase.



Here are two key pieces of advice when it comes to covering these types of events:

Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you.

A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.

Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those efforts conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of a shooting or other similar event. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand.

You need to understand that the shooter might still be out there, which can be dangerous or deadly for you or other people. Even if the shooter is dead or captured, police are likely still in a state of high tension, looking for other shooters or dangerous devices. You wandering around where you’re not supposed to be can create serious problems for them and you might be mistakenly viewed as a danger to them or others.  Adrenaline and watching too many “journalism movies” can make us feel emboldened to break the rules to get a major scoop.


Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand up against a burning building to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out.

Whatever is going on around you, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.


Use official sources when possible: When we talk about privilege in law, what we are talking about is the right to quote official sources, who are acting in their official capacity, without fear. This generally applies to judges rendering verdicts, congress-folks making proclamations from the floor and probably the pope. In some cases, it also applies to law-enforcement officials and fire folks who are working the scene of what’s going on. Relying on those folks can keep you out of trouble if facts turn out to be less than accurate.

(The law can get squishy here, so it’s always wise to check the rules.)

Even if the law itself isn’t providing you with a shield, interviewing these folks can be better than relying on witnesses or participants when it comes to the big-picture items. Regular folks get rattled when a shooting occurs or a car slams into a wall in front of them. They’re pumping adrenaline and freaking out, so their version of reality isn’t as solid as a crime scene investigator who has seen all this before. Even more, officials tend to have more of the entire picture in hand before they speak, which is beneficial to you as you try to make sense of this.

(Again, this doesn’t mean you won’t get screwed over by the officials at some level, especially if they’re hiding something. However, you can REALLY get screwed over if a regular citizen decides to accuse someone of murder on live air. Yes, that actually happened…)

Engage in empathy during interviews with those involved: Trying to interview someone who is the victim of a shooting, a bystander/would-be victim of a shooting or those who are essentially collateral damage (family, friends etc. of a victim) is a ridiculously difficult proposition.

It can feel ugly and vulture-esque to bother people who just went through a chaotic and traumatic event. In some cases, a reporter’s desire to get the story can get them to push sources for information and exacerbate the trauma. Some publications have lousy editors who lean on reporters to dig into the situation with grace and dignity of frisking a dead body for valuables.

I have had a number of interviews in which I’ve had to approach a family member or friend of someone who just died or was injured in a terrible way. In one case, it was the family of a 13-year-old boy who was accidentally shot by his best friend. In another case, it was the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died after slamming her car into a tree while drunken driving. The first family wanted nothing to do with me; the second talked to me at length. Neither was a pleasant experience.

Empathy and caution go a long way to making this less painful for everyone involved. I tell my students that we’re like waiters at a fancy cocktail party who walk around with hors d’oeuvres on a tray: We offer people something and if they don’t want it, we walk away quickly and politely.

The best example of how to think about this came from Kelly Furnas, a professor of journalism, who was advising student media at Virginia Tech during the 2007 campus shooting. More than 30 people died during an attack in which a student opened fire on campus. Furnas and his staff at the Collegiate Times had to not only cover the story, but eventually write obituaries for each of the fallen.

A quote he gave me years ago still sticks with me:

“The students I talked to were terrified of the fact that they would need to call these families and I said, ‘You don’t assume that these families don’t want to talk.’ That’s a very important thing to these families to tell the story of their son’s or daughter’s lives. That’s a very important thing. A lot of people not only want to do it, but expect to do it.”

He said the students were told to do their best and just give people a chance to speak. If they were outraged by the reporter’s questions, the reporter was to apologize and walk away.

In the end, however, very few people rejected the request for an interview, he said.

Don’t bail out on your duty to report because you are afraid of what people might say. Give them the chance to say no before you do it for them.



Primary Writing Advice

The duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish: When you are working against the clock, trying to break news and pushing back against competitors and social media folks, it can feel like the weight of the world is on you to get SOMETHING out there.

In the olden days, as in before everyone could be online in 3 seconds after they saw something, we could hang on for a bit before having to produce content for public consumption. Broadcasters got the 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts to inform folks. Print journalists could wait until press time to get the best version of reality, or update things between editions.

Today, you are live 24-7, so it can feel like you’re always under pressure to convert whatever you gathered into something for the public.

In the case of chaos, you need to balance that urge against your journalistic training to be accurate above all else. Fast and wrong isn’t doing anyone any good.

If you don’t have something you feel is accurate, supported and clear, don’t pump it out there and figure you’ll fix it later. You can always publish something later. Once you toss something out there, you can never really get it back.


Additional Writing Advice

Play it straight: You are likely living through an emotionally turbulent situation, one unlike anything you’ve faced to this point in your career. Your emotions can run the gamut of fear and anxiety to the sense that you’re about to write the Greatest Piece of Journalism Ever ™ so it’s time to shine.

There’s a reason we teach you the Driver’s Ed Rules of Journalism, namely so that when faced with something completely out of the ordinary, you can rely on your training to do things right. This is one of those times, so don’t overdo anything.

Tell the people what happened and why they care in the most direct way possible. It’s what good pros do:

A 15-year-old opened fire at his Michigan high school Tuesday, killing at least three people and wounding eight others, authorities said, in what appears to be the deadliest episode of on-campus violence in more than 18 months.

Don’t start slathering on adverbs. Don’t hype it with opinions. Don’t turn this into a narrative lead that shifts the focus toward “dig my writing” and away from what happened.

Tell people what happened in the most direct and clear way possible, based on what you can prove.

Speaking of which…


Stick to the facts: In the film “And the Band Played On,” researchers at the CDC are trying to pinpoint the cause of a strange malady that is killing primarily gay men. Their quest to identify the AIDS virus as well as its cause and spread had the virus  hunters relying on a simple mantra: “What do we think? What do we know? What can we prove?” Unless they could hit the “prove” stage, they refused to state something publicly with certainty.

This approach is a good one for anyone covering chaos, especially something that continues to unfold, like an active shooter situation.

If you can stick to the facts and the material provided to you from reliable sources, you can keep your readers informed and avoid spreading misinformation. If you don’t know how many people were shot, don’t guess. Don’t rely on terms like “arguably” to cover over your limited knowledge, saying things like “This is arguably the worst shooting in U.S. history.”

Say only what you can prove at the time, and that also means taking care with how you are stating something.

For example, police can say something like, “The shooter is no longer a threat.”

OK, does that mean he’s been captured? He was killed? He ran out of bullets? Also are we sure the shooter is a “he?” (Make sure in the reporting phase to check these things, as well as other details before publishing.)

Good work on the front end and sticking to what you know on the back end can lead to simple statements like: “Police Chief John Smith said the shooter, a 15-year-old male student at the school, is ‘no longer a threat.'”


Attribute everything you can: One of the key things you should note in the Washington Post lead was the attribution. Even though “authorities said” is vague, the rest of the story was able to fill in specifically who those authorities are and why we should trust them.

I always try to make the point that attributions are like anchor points when you’re climbing a rock formation: You might not need all of them, but it’s better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. I also note that I’ve never met anyone who has been fired or sued for over-attributing, but more than a few people have ended up on the short end of the stick for under attributing.

When you are writing a story like this, it’s important to look at each statement you type and ask, “Says who?” If the answer is a specific person, include that in the attribution (County Coroner Jill Smith, Police Chief Doug Jones, Superintendent Raul Allegre etc.). If the information is more general, as in you got the same story from multiple people or documents, make that clear as well (Several police officers said the hallway was littered with spent shell casings from an AR-15; Court documents state Principal Helen Carter repeatedly filed reports with the district on this issue; An email chain between the boy’s parents and teachers show that while school officials were worried about his behavior, the parents said ‘Guns are part of his life, so back off.'”)

If you DON’T have a specific source or collective source, where did you get this stuff and how sure are you that it’s right? That’s where people usually screw up, because they assume they know more than they do and they fail to look it up or find a source worthy of attribution.

If you can’t find a source worthy of an attribution, wait until you can before you publish it.


Have someone else read it before it goes out: After you read and reread and reread something again, you can find yourself blind to your work. You also probably cut and pasted a half-dozen things in a half-dozen spots and then undid at least half of that. By the time you think you’re done, you lack any sense of what is actually in there and what you SWEAR you wrote instead.

A fresh set of eyes are a godsend in this kind of situation.

An editor or a colleague who hasn’t read this before will give you a good chance of catching things like if you swapped the name of a victim and the shooter or if you skipped a first reference to a source. It’s something worth doing because you want to make sure you’re right.

My personal stupid thing was that I always got the day wrong for every story I did. For reasons past my understanding, I always wrote that something happened Monday. Didn’t matter what day, week, month or year something happened, I always made it a Monday.

I caught a lot of those on second or third reads, but it was usually up to my editor or a colleague to ask, “Are you sure this happened on Monday?”

Again, you can’t beat a fresh set of eyes.



Never assume you’re done reporting: The thing about chaos is that it doesn’t operate on a schedule. It doesn’t show up as expected or finish up neatly at the end of an hour, like a TV crime drama. You have to make sure you’re frequently checking in to see what’s going on and if you’re still telling people the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Whatever was right as rain at 9 a.m. is completely wrong at 2 p.m.

The arrest that happened last night turned out to be a case of mistaken identity the next morning.

An early body count ends up being much larger or smaller than once was thought.

Assumptions become facts or become worthless as police continue to investigate.

I remember once following up on a story for a fellow reporter who had filed and gone home after her shift was done. The story was about a toddler clinging to life after falling into a creek. The whole story was about hope and prayer and this boy’s will to live. She was a great reporter and a great writer and this was one of those amazing stories she always told.

My job was “just to make sure” if something changed, so about 10:30 p.m., I called the hospital to get an update that might or might not make the paper.

The PR person was kind of half talking to me and half talking to someone nearby when I heard her say, “So… We can tell him then?”

The kid died five minutes earlier when they took him off life support.

I asked about four really bad questions, that ended up having this woman shouting at me something like, “Everything possible was done to save this child’s life!” (which sounds a lot better in print without the anger in her voice). As she’s talking/yelling, I wrote “KID DIED” on a legal pad and held it up for my editor who was across the room.

He saw it and came rushing over as I finished the interview.

“Oh shit,” he told me. “You have four minutes to rewrite the story.”

Long story short, it got done and we got it subbed in for the first edition of the paper. I didn’t get a byline, but I got a hell of an experience and a valuable lesson: Chaos doesn’t operate on your schedule. Make sure you’re constantly checking in.

Engage in self-care activities: One of the easiest things to forget when you’re in the middle of a chaotic event is that you are human and that things do affect you. The job allows you a kind of shield against feeling things or coming to grips with what you’re witnessing at the time.

Don’t kid yourself. You’re taking a beating, whether you know it or not, and you need to heal yourself a bit.

The truth is, you will see things that will gag a maggot, horrors that will haunt you for years and truly inexplicable acts that have you asking “Why?” more times than a 4-year-old after ingesting a pound of sugar. Those things DO leave a scar, whether you want them to or not. They’re there, whether  you realize it or not.

You will need to do some serious self-care activities to keep from sustaining serious damage.

This can be simple decompression things like clearing your mind or coming to grips with things you’ve seen or written. It can be talking through your feelings and emotions with colleagues or looking for things that can help you reset your mind and body.

These things can also include therapy or professional help. Acknowledging and coping with what your work has done to you does not make you weak or soft.

It makes you a human being who wants to take care of their own needs before they can take care of their audience’s.


The 3 A’s of self-editing for the big picture

Editing your own work can be extremely difficult because if you didn’t think it was right in the first place, you probably wouldn’t have written it. Add that to the fact we have spell checks, Google and more, we tend to think that we’ve got everything covered.

That is, until someone else reads it, finds 138,025 problems and we end up looking like idiots.

Throughout the process of editing, you should be looking for all errors, large and small. (A post that says, “Make sure stuff is spelled right” or “Always check your facts” is a tad reductive at this stage of the semester. That said, I’m still seeing those kinds of errors, so do both of those things first and then come back to this post.)

Beyond keying in on the basics, you should also spend some time looking at the bigger picture when it comes to the value of the story. Since students like to get all A’s, here are a few A’s to consider when looking at a story.

Accuracy: You want to make sure that you’re not just fact checking but accuracy checking the bigger sense of if this is actually accurate and representative of reality.

For example, the statement “Vince Filak has been an owner of two professional sports teams” is factually accurate: I own a share of Packers stock and when the Cleveland baseball team went public back in the late 1990s, I had 10 shares of that as well. I was “an owner” of two teams, both of which were professional teams. (Although some days with Cleveland, it wasn’t always the case.)

That said, this isn’t really representative of reality because it leads people to believe I might have been in an owners box, giving Jerry Jones grief over the play of the Cowboys.

When you read through your work for accuracy, ask yourself, “Could someone conceivably misinterpret what I’m trying to tell them?” If so, try to rework it to better represent things in an accurate and clear fashion. Just because something “sounds good,” it doesn’t follow that you should keep it as is.

Advantages: Journalists love being first to provide people with information. “The big scoop” drives many people in the field to push for big stories. In most cases, those stories don’t mean as much as the everyday stories that can impact people’s lives. Valuable content can also be lost in stories amid a sea of glib quotes and tortured prose.

This is one of the more difficult things about self-editing: You tend to get really deep into the topic, to the point in which you forget that your readers are getting this for the first time. They don’t know all the stuff you do, nor do they have a strong sense of why they should care. To that end, you want to make sure you are highlighting key advantages in the story you are writing.

During your self-edit, look for ways to tell people “This matters to you because X!” or “Here’s why you should care!” Look for ways to showcase those advantages for your readers.

Accessible: The reason people go to a website, pick up a newspaper, thumb through a magazine or use any other form of media is to be engaged, entertained or educated.  The only way any of these things can occur is if the reader can understand the material itself.

In the self-edit, go back through and look at every term that you think your mom or your kid brother wouldn’t understand from the jump. If the jargon is unfamiliar to them, it might be unfamiliar to your readers.

That doesn’t mean you’ll cut every term that doesn’t make sense to common folk. You will often write for readers who are as attuned to a topic as you are, if not more. That said, you should question the degree to which your audience can follow along with what you’re trying to say before you just let the abbreviations and “inside baseball” terms slide by.

If they can’t read it easily, they will go elsewhere for their information. Shape your stories so they reflect the vocabulary, knowledge base and tone you expect your audience to embrace. Make your stories good reads, and people will continue to consume your content.

Throwback Thursday: The horrifying revisions of my textbooks: Chapter by chapter, shooting by shooting

A school shooting in Oxford, Michigan this week left four dead and seven others wounded. A 15-year-old boy named Ethan Crumbley is charged with murder and terrorism, after he was accused of exiting a school bathroom with a handgun and firing it repeatedly at his classmates.  News reports state that Crumbley’s parents were at the school earlier that day, discussing the boy’s disturbing classroom behavior with school officials.

In looking for a throwback post today, I just searched “mass shooting” on the site and found an unfortunately large number of posts I’d written that included that term. There were pieces about how the Pitt News covered a shooting at a local synagogue. There were pieces regarding the Virginia Tech and Las Vegas shootings. There were “how to cover this” explainers for people involved in breaking news of this type.

The piece I picked out, however, was the piece I forgot that I had written. When you write a textbook, they tell you not to pick such specific types of examples that you won’t be able to update a second or third edition easily with a fresh version of it. In other words, if you’re pinning a whole section of a chapter on this one time this one thing happened that likely will never happen again, you’ll be in trouble.

What I found in looking back, unfortunately, is that I referenced a number of mass shootings in my texts and that I never seem to run out of fresh examples. If you don’t believe me, read on and also realize that four years after I originally posted this, I had forgotten about a lot of these incidents myself. And I know that I’ve updated both books without missing a beat when it comes to fresh shooting examples.

I find that heartbreaking.


The horrifying revisions of my textbooks: Chapter by chapter, shooting by shooting

The first draft of what would become the “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing” featured a sample chapter written in 2008, discussing at length the Virginia Tech shooting. I was pitching a reporting book to another publisher when the rep for that company asked for two chapters that could help her sell the book to her acquisitions committee.

Kelly Furnas, then the adviser at the student newspaper at VT, had done a session at a student media conference about his newsroom’s efforts in the wake of the attack. I knew Kelly through friends and helped book him for that session. I also was able to talk to him after the session for this chapter, assuming that the magnitude of this event would never be equaled.

It turned out I was wrong about that, much to my continuing dismay.

The arguments of when is the right time to discuss broader issues are beginning to emerge in the wake of Monday’s attack in Las Vegas. So are the calls for all sorts of regulations, restrictions, restructuring and more. It is hard to see the carnage wrought upon the citizens of this country and remain dispassionate or above the fray when it comes to the continually evolving topic of attacks like this one.

As a reporter and then an editor and then an adviser, I always believed in the simplest of ideas when it came to covering something like this:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Provide facts and let them speak for themselves.
  • Don’t try to oversell it.
  • Just let the readers know what happened.

This blog isn’t a podium or a pulpit, nor will I use it to advance whatever agenda or whatever “side” some displeased readers would disparagingly note I must be on as a professor, a journalist or whatever other label was convenient.

That said, it struck me tonight as I thought about the morning post that the two books featured here, “Dynamics of Media Writing” and “Dynamics of News Reporting and Writing,” catalog the expansive nature of violent outbursts, here and abroad. Even more, they do so in a way that shows me something exceedingly painful: My continual endeavors to update these volumes in a meaningful way as they relate to these horrific events is an ongoing, losing effort.

After a few years of discussions, the book in which the Virginia Tech shooting story was included did not come to fruition. The proposal was scuttled when the publisher decided to “go another way,” corporate-speak for “we didn’t really think this was worth the time.”

About three years after that happened, I met a rep from SAGE while at a journalism convention. I was looking for a book to use in my writing across media class, while Matt was trying to convince me to write one instead. In writing the pitch, I built two chapters for him, one of which was on social media. I included a reference to the Aurora, Colorado shooting, in which a gunman shot up a theater during the midnight showing of the Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.” The point there was not to show the magnitude of the attack, but rather what can happen when people are inept at social media: The hashtag used (#aurora) to keep people abreast of the unfolding situation was co-opted by a fashion boutique to promote the Aurora dress.

After reviewing the pitch and the chapters, Matt came to the conclusion that I really had two books: one for general media writing and one for news reporting, so he signed me to both. This was 2014 and I had already written several chapters for each book. Almost by accident, I had layered in references to additional shootings.

In my initial discussion of the importance of geographic referents in the audience-centricity chapter, I tried to explain how a reference to a “Cudahy man” who had killed six people at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin drove me to a fit of anxiety. My mother taught grade school and middle school in that town for 40-odd years at the time, so I feared some level of connection between Mom and a monster. (As it turned out, there was none as he had moved to the area more recently. In addition, the whole explanation was overly complicated, so I cut it during one of the draft chapters.)

In the reporting book, I referenced the Charlie Hebdo attack in my discussion of hashtags. In the media writing book, I included a reference to Sandy Hook in discussing magnitude. In a law chapter for one of them, I discussed the Boston Marathon Bombing and the “Bag Men” cover that essentially libeled two guys who just happened to be at event.

At one point, I added and cut references to the Northern Illinois shooting, in which a grad student killed five and injured 17. I knew the DeKalb area, as my grandfather had been a police chief there for years and I had interviewed for a job there about four years before the shooting. The adviser at that student paper was also a friend of mine at the time.

I remember thinking when I cut it that it was because it hadn’t been “big enough” for people to easily recall it. It galls me to think that five dead and 17 wounded could be prefaced by the modifier “only.” Unfortunately, it was accurate: Sunday’s attack in Las Vegas had fatalities ten times that one and injuries scores and scores beyond that attack.

Somehow, and I honestly don’t know how this happened, I was between edits or editions of both books when the Pulse nightclub shooting happened in 2016. I could find no reference to this in any draft chapters and it defies logic that the murder of 49 people somehow slipped past me or didn’t make the cut in one of these books.

However, in finalizing the Reporting book, I ended up coming back around to the story Kelly Furnas told me all those years ago. I was building a section on obituaries and realized I never actually published the story he told me about how his staff wrote literally dozens of obituaries for a single issue of the paper. He had long left VT, but I found him and got his permission to finally publish this incredible explanation as to how his extremely green reporters gritted their teeth and met this challenge.

That book is currently in press and is already out of date as a result of the attack in Las Vegas. However, the Media Writing book is in the completed draft phase of a second edition, so this information will likely supplant some previous horrifying event and make the cut. At the very least, I’m going to include the Jack Sins incident to outline the importance of fact checking, even when it feels almost slimy to do so.

In looking back, it’s not so much the number of these incidents or the magnitude of them that disturbs me in an inexplicable way. Rather, it’s that I have recounted these events not by impacted memory but rather a search through my hard drive, using key terms like “shooting,” “dead,” “killed” and “attacked.”

Each time I added one of these “recent events,” it was fresh, clear and horrifying. As I review them now, it is more like looking through a photo album that provided refreshed glimpses and renewed recollections of vague people and places.

Each incident wasn’t so much of a “I’ll never forget” moment as a “Oh, now I remember” one.

The Junk Drawer: Thanksgiving Leftovers Edition

At least I don’t THINK we’ve stored extra turkey in here…

Thanksgiving is a time of family, friends and food for most people. For us here at the Filak Farm, it’s “At least we didn’t end up going to the emergency room this year,” kind of day. Not to get too deep into the details of weirdness for us here, but let’s just say my Boy Scout training came in really handy this year and that burning plastic smells terrible.

Since leftovers are the course du jour these days, here are a few bits and bites from the past couple weeks.

From the “Know Your Audience” department:

We were supposed to have Thanksgiving dinner with my brother-in-law’s family, but the kids all came down with some sort of strange virus at the last minute. I called my mom to see if we could slide in by her house, and she and dad were overjoyed at having us.

I felt bad that we were basically doubling the number of people who were coming to dinner, and told mom that I was worried we’d make it so she wouldn’t have enough food.

She admonished me in the best way possible: “Vincent, get real. We’re Polish.”

And then I remembered our family motto: “If you leave a party we throw and you’re hungry or sober, that’s your fault.”

After all were fed to bursting, everyone still had leftovers to take home and mom basically filled her fridge as well.

It was a good reminder to remember my audience.

Speaking of which…

From the “Oh, buddy, did you knock on the wrong door” department:

I get that when you’re trying to launch some quasi-innovative project, you tend to blanket email everyone with your “special TV offer,” but when I got this one, I just had to laugh:

Let’s have fun with this:

  • Telling a textbook author that people find textbooks “expensive, bloated, and unengaging” has the same internal logic of telling someone you meet at the bar, “Damn, are you ugly! Wanna dance?”
  • I went to find this company’s “proven track record” of doing what it says it does. It’s a pretty short record and a pretty short track.
  • The bolding and underlining of one line really brings home the point that he’s not trying to sell me a textbook. I would really hope not, given his assessment of textbooks. This has the same internal logic of when you’re eating with someone and they say, “Dear GOD, this tastes terrible! Here, you try it…”
  • Spoiler alert: I did not sign up for my introductory meeting. Go figure.

This wasn’t the first time we covered something like this on the blog, but it bears repeating: Know your audience before you pitch something to the folks in it.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice-cream-related litigation

If you want to find an amazing story that goes way, way, way down the rabbit hole of the quest to get McDonald’s to have functional ice cream machines, here’s a piece from Wired that is truly amazing.

The author goes digs deep into court documents regarding an ongoing battle between a tiny startup company, a soft-serve-machine manufacturer and the fast-food giant itself over who can tell franchisees how to fix an ice cream machine. It also digs into potential corporate espionage:

Now the discovery documents from Kytch’s lawsuit seem to confirm Taylor’s specific attempts to replicate Kytch’s features, contradicting a statement it sent to WIRED in March that claimed that “Taylor has not imitated Kytch’s device and would have no desire to do so.” They show that in a May 2019 email, Taylor vice president of engineering Jim Minard—since promoted to chief operating officer—asked another Taylor staffer to “please buy a [Kytch] kit and provide me a written evaluation on the hardware and software.” Minard added in the email, “Seems we might be missing something in our approach to our connected equipment.”

Yet one more good reason to stick with Culver’s Custard.

For your “reading pleasure”

While in an Arizona bookstore a couple weeks back, I came across a book that warmed my heart:

I’m a huge fan of properly executed partial quotes, which is why it drives me batty when people use them in the dumbest possible way. Bethany Keeley’s collection of misused quotation marks is a total keeper, and still available on Amazon.

And finally…

From the “Do you know your ass from a plant in the ground?” department:

A student from my Mizzou days posted this notice about her work as a copy editor:

In case you’re not quite clear on this, here’s a quick John Oliver segment to help you out…

Good luck on your run to the finish line of the semester.

See you tomorrow.

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

Freedom of the press isn’t everywhere

So, you wanna be a journalist?

American journalist Danny Fenster has been freed from prison in Myanmar, according to a Myanmar military official and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who had been on a private humanitarian visit to the country.

Fenster’s release comes just days after the former managing editor of Frontier Myanmar — an independent news outlet that covered current affairs, business and politics — was sentenced to 11 years in prison by a military court in Myanmar.

The ability to cite the First Amendment or use the law to require government agencies to release documents can seem like standard fare around here. It’s great that we have these rights and that we have access to organizations that will help us stand up for them as well.

That’s not the case everywhere, as Fenster was one of about 120 journalists detained in Myanmar this year after a governmental coup.

According to CNN, 47 remain in prison.

Throwback Thursday: Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

I was working with a student today who was having some difficulty with her writing. In spots where she had a hard time trying to say what she meant, she’d reach for some obscure term or complex phrase that would make a dictionary blush.

“Let me guess,” I asked. “You don’t want to screw something up, so you’re trying to force the issue a bit here, right?”

She nodded, “It felt forced, but I didn’t know how to fix it.”

“OK, let’s just pretend it’s you and me sitting here having a soda or whatever. Tell it to me that way.”

Immediately, she was able to untangle the tortured prose and hit the nail on the head. “Why was that so easy?” she asked.

“Because you’re not trying so hard. Just write it like you’d want to read it.”

With that in mind (and in honor of nth edition of really obtuse book chapter reviews I got last week), here’s this week’s Throwback Thursday post:

Use simple language and reach your readers where they live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is ‘pole-dancing girlfriend’s monkey’ properly punctuated?” and other weird things to ponder on a Tuesday

As noted many times before, whenever something weird happens in media, friends tend to hit me up with a “Did you see this? Thought it would be great for the blog!” message.

They are always right.

Let’s get into it.

Sometimes, a headline completely sells a story:

A friend sent this along last night with a note: “Just wanted to make sure you’ve seen this headline…

I hadn’t but I’m glad he shared.

Not a huge fan of “allegedly,” as we’ve noted before, but other than that… I’m reading this thing.


When people tell you to “shut the f*** up,” I’m not sure this is what they mean:

The spelling error is bad, but it could have been worse: “Thank you for your copulation.”


This is spondifferious in its censoriousness and its ridiculousness

A friend sent this to me with a note: “Discuss?” My take: When you sound like someone mocking Mike Tyson’s speech pattern, maybe you should rethink your approach to whatever it is you’re doing.


If you say it three times, does Beetlejuice’s cousin, Improvejuice, show up?

A former student sent this along from a press release she was working off of:

Press release from the university, it was the second sentence:

“The Golden Eagles improved from 2019 as they improved their team average from 30:50.31 to 29:49.95, an improvement of over a minute.”

Think they improved? 

I don’t know… Can you tell it to me in a more concrete fashion?


And finally…

That’s DOCTOR LORD “FILAK, YOU A-HOLE” to you, pal!

I don’t know what Facebook has done to its algorithms, but I’m getting a lot of weird suggestions lately. A female friend I knew well in high school had a birthday recently and it suggested I send her a “BUTT-wiser” towel as a thoughtful gift. It also decided that apparently I needed to up my self-importance game a bit, so it suggested this:

I bet all the Scottish lords who shop at Costco get some serious respect from the sample ladies…

Have a good rest of your day

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

Aaron Rodgers, COVID-19 and the tale of three advertisers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 last week, a revelation that had media folks scrambling on multiple fronts. First, the news and sports journalists were trying to figure out exactly how that happened, give Rodgers’ statement back in August that he was “immunized.” Then, the advertising media had to make some choices about what to say or do in regard to this revelation.

On the news front, a video from August regarding Rodgers and his immunization status began circulating.

In addition, Rodgers went on the Pat McAfee podcast show and, to put it as neutrally as possible, covered a wide array of topics. He stated his decision was connected to the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He stated that he worried about what the vaccine might do to his fertility. He pulled out the “my body, my choice” argument, blaming a “woke mob” and “cancel culture” for his current predicament.

He also explained how, despite having an NFL-grade medical staff that could practically turn any player into a cyborg after entering the “blue tent,” Rodgers turned to a more trusted medical authority for his health, namely podcaster Joe Rogan:

Rodgers also said he spoke with Rogan about treating COVID-19 after testing positive for the virus earlier this week.

“I’ve been doing a lot of the stuff that he recommended, in his podcasts and on the phone to me,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been taking monoclonal antibodies, ivermectin, zinc, vitamin C, D, and HCQ [hydroxychloroquine]… And I feel pretty incredible.”

Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic drug championed by vaccine skeptics that has not been approved for use to treat COVID-19 by the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I can’t speak for any other part of the world, but here in Wisconsin, this has been all anyone has talked about. President Joe Biden could have reversed climate change, solved world hunger, developed a cure for every disease on earth and rescued six kittens from a hurricane this week and up here it would still be, “Joe Biden has gotten a couple things done this week, but OUR TOP STORY is: Will Aaron Rodgers be out for TWO games due to COVID?”

As fun as it would be to poke at all of this from a news perspective, its the second issue we raised earlier that will be at the core of the post: What were advertisers tied to A-Rodg doing in the wake of his COVID revelations and how much sense did it make?

One of the easiest calls was from Prevea Health, a Wisconsin-based medical company, which quickly cut ties with the QB:

Another local company, Bergstrom Automotive, continued to run advertising featuring Rodgers throughout Sunday’s NFL coverage, including the Packer game.

This is a shot of the Bergstrom ad talking about hearing “no” and how at Bergstrom, it’s great because of “no haggling” and apparently, “no worries.” The irony here is a bit thick, even for me.

On a national level, the key ads of interest came from State Farm Insurance, which has been running a campaign featuring Rodgers and his supposed-to-be-on-field-foe-this-week Patrick Mahomes. The running gag of the “Rodgers Rate” versus the “Patrick Price” has included Mahomes as a “typical sneakerhead” and Rodgers as an “aspiring singer song-writer.” Both ads ran during the games, although the mix seemed to heavily lean toward Mahomes.

As of this posting, the insurance company hasn’t made any definitive statement about its relationship with Rodgers, other than to say it wasn’t going to comment about his COVID situation.

So let’s break down what makes sense and why in regard to these choices:

The reason most places pick someone to be a spokes person for that organization is because the person represents something the brand wants to represent. If you’re doing ads for a tough, rugged brand of clothing, you probably want to pick bull riders or construction workers. If you want to do ads for something dainty and elegant, you want to go with twig-sized super models.

Prevea dumping Rodgers was as easy of a call as it was for Kansas City to dial up every blitz on earth to freak out Rodgers’ replacement, Jordan Love. This is a healthcare organization that is impressing upon everyone to get vaccinated. The fact Rodgers misled people as to his vaccination status was bad for the brand, as was his decision to take medical advice that involved a horse-deworming medication. Keeping him on board for any reason doesn’t not fit with the healthcare brand.

Conversely, I imagine I’ll still be seeing a lot of Aaron Rodgers on Bergstrom Automotive ads around here. First, his COVID status doesn’t impact the brand. An automotive sales organization doesn’t have to take a stand on this issue, so kind of letting this ride doesn’t undermine the brand.

Second, a lot of folks in this more conservative portion of the state will likely thing BETTER of him for his decision to push back against rules “trying to out and shame people.” Michael Jordan once famously noted that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” a comment he later clarified as being in jest, but he stood by the principle in terms of not pushing in one direction or the other politically. Bergstrom is kind of over a barrel here in that regard: Keep Rodgers and tick off people who think he lied and is a medical whack job. Fire Rodgers and tick off people who aren’t all-in on vaccine mandates. Right now sitting still and quiet is probably the best move here.

State Farm is the one oddball here, in that it’s an insurance company selling products that protect the autos, homes, health and lives of its members. In one sense, the current campaign is about how cost-effective the product is, regardless of who you are. The “Rodgers Rate” and “Patrick Price” ads focus on value more than anything else, so it’s not like they have Rodgers taking COVID shots in the ads, only to have accidentally duped the audience.

That said, having something based on protection keeping someone on the payroll who got COVID after skipping out on what medical professionals call the best protection against the virus could seem incongruent at best.

Watching what happens over the next several weeks should be interesting in regard to Rodgers. As one former coach used to say, “You’re only as smart as your won-loss record,” so this could be a situation where a deep playoff run could turn this into a “misunderstanding regarding Aaron’s vaccination status.” If he ends up blowing out a knee or something, someone will find a way to make some “off to the glue factory, horse-pill boy” memes as the team “looks forward to the Jordan Love era.”




“Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do:” Award-winning sports reporter Ryan Wood discusses his in-depth examination of the NFL concussion settlement’s impact on former players

Ryan Wood, a Green Bay Packers beat reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, covers the day-in, day-out elements of NFL football in the league’s smallest outpost. 

He worked the sports beat at the DeKalb (Illinois) Daily Chronicle, where he covered Northern Illinois University athletics. He also covered the athletic programs at the University of South Carolina and Auburn University before taking on his current job covering the Packers. He has earned multiple awards for his reporting on the team as well as his coverage of the retirement and hall-of-fame moments of players.

Sports journalism requires heavy reliance on quick-hit social media posts and deadline-pounding stories from games, something Wood has perfected over his time in Green Bay. What he thought might be another quick-hit story turned into one of the longest ones of his life: an 18-month reporting journey into the NFL’s concussion settlement with former players and how the league was dodging many players’ claims. His reporting took him from former players and league offices to lawyers and concussion experts to fully understand what was happening with this settlement.

Wood was nice enough to submit to an email interview to give us an inside look at how the story started, what he dealt with throughout the process of building it and some tips on how student journalists can do some quality investigative journalism on their own.

You mentioned when you shared this on social media that you thought this might be a quick story, but it quickly evolved into something that took 18 months of your life. How did you find this story and how did it evolve to the piece that you published?

“The story found me more than I found it. Seems the best stories tend to do that. I was on the phone with an NFL agent at the end of April, just after the 2020 draft, when the Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round. A story like this was the furthest thing from my mind, but then I got an email forwarded from my editor. It was just a tip that Jim Capuzzi, the son of then-88-year-old former Packers player Camillo Capuzzi, was having difficulties with the NFL’s concussion settlement.
“My first reaction was that there must be something this family was missing. I certainly did not expect it to become a story, much less one that would engulf 5,500 words and 18 months of my attention. I would simply send an email and get an answer, I thought. I emailed Carl Francis, communications director for the NFL’s player association. This seemed like an issue the NFLPA would be interesting in helping solve.
“When I did not hear back, that was my first sign there was something more here.”
The thing that I noticed was the number of former players who spoke at length with you about their personal issues, their struggles after they retired and their battles with the NFL. How did you get these people to agree to work with you and what did you do to establish trust with them, especially after they had all of those rough experiences in life? 
“In reporting, the most important ingredient for cooperation is one word: motivation. A source must be motivated to help. What’s in it for them?
“These former players obviously had a great deal of motivation. They felt like the NFL and claims administrator BrownGreer was not paying money they were owed. The more I spoke with former players and their families, though, the more I came to realize the thing they wanted almost as much as the financial assistance is to be listened to.
“Many of these retired players feel like they’re living in the dark. They’ve gone from adulation, from playing inside stadiums packed with tens of thousands of fans, like modern gladiators, to the obscurity of retirement. Most of them are dealing with significant health issues, sometimes health issues they don’t even understand, and the realities of their situation are unknown to the public. I think they trusted me to tell their stories because I was genuine. The same thing with lead attorney Christopher Seeger giving me 20 minutes on the record.
“I approached this story from a genuine interest in understanding and being fair to every side, and I think that goes a long way when people feel like they’re not being listened to.”
The NFL is a key player in this and yet they didn’t seem all that interested in participating. What steps did you take in trying to get an official league response and how did the league treat your requests? Also, have you received any blow back from anyone attached to the NFL after the piece ran?  
“It took a lot of persistence to get a league response. I first emailed NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy on a Tuesday, 13 days before my deadline, and gave him one week to respond. (I needed a few days to factor in for story revisions after the response.) I called the next day and left a voicemail. I didn’t get a response to the email or call, so I sent McCarthy another email on the ensuing Monday. That email consisted of key reporting details included in the story on how the NFL/claims administrator was treating claims. That email was followed by an immediate phone call, which McCarthy answered.
“We discussed the story while he read the email, and he said he’d do what he could do given legal restraints. McCarthy sent me a statement of several paragraphs the next day, meeting the deadline I had given him. I included the key proponents of that statement in the story.
“I have not received any blow back from the league. I think the reason is because the story fairly presents their side. The interest of fairness is why I sent the followup email. I wanted the NFL to have a chance to respond to the reporting in this story before it was published, not after. That email, I think, was the key to getting a response.”
We’ve had a lot of chatter about how sports reporters and political reporters and others at the highest levels have to “play the game” to get scoops or to avoid being ostracized.  Did you ever consider the ramifications of going after a piece like this or worry about how it might impact your day-to-day work with the Packers or the NFL?  Did you think, “This might get me into some trouble and it might not be worth it” for your career?
“That thought never crossed my mind during the entire 18 months. I’m not really wired that way, for one. Our job is to speak truth to power, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“But the biggest reason is because I know I have firm backing from my employer. I’m blessed to work at a newspaper committed to doing journalism at the highest level. So I never had to be concerned about backlash.
“A thought that did occur to me early on was that this story was entirely about the NFL, and not the Packers. This issue went above any team to the league level. So I also didn’t have to worry about any blow back from the Packers, who I work with on a daily basis. Not that it would have changed how I reported the story in any way.”
Were there any key moments in the reporting process where you started to see a bigger piece develop? Anything that made you start to realize how big this was and why the story mattered?
“After I did not get a response from the NFLPA, I spoke to lawyers. I got a referral to one lawyer, who gave me referrals to a handful of other lawyers, and the web started to grow.
“What makes this story special is that it falls on a rare cultural cross section of sports, legal and medicine. That’s a lot of factors to weave into one story. I knew the sports, but I needed to understand all the intricacies of from legal and medical perspectives. I knew nothing about the concussion settlement when I started reporting the story, so that was the first step.
“To become an expert, learn from the experts. It was basically like going to school. Those initial conversations were lengthy, at least an hour. I think my longest phone call was more than three hours. What the attorneys were telling me made it clear there was a big story here.
“As for why the story mattered, it was very simple. People needed help and weren’t getting it. Every now and then, we get the privilege and obligation as journalists to help people who can’t find it anywhere else. It’s what makes journalism a service. Those opportunities make this job quite rewarding.”
What advice do you have for student journalists and journalism students who might want to go after a bigger piece like this? Are there any things you found that were really helpful or things you would caution them against?
“Don’t eat the elephant in one bite. A project like this can feel impossible at the onset. You’ve got to start somewhere. A phone call. Another phone call. Just keep going.
“No story in my career has stressed the value of patience more than this one. Reporting a story 18 months can be very rewarding at the end, but it’s exhausting to reach that point. There were moments I had doubts whether the story would ever be published. I constantly questioned whether it would be worth the time investment. So I think it starts there, at the emotional level.
“In terms of reporting, it almost works the opposite. Cast the widest net possible, and narrow it from there. I wanted to speak to everybody: players, family members, lawyers, physicians. Every conversation ended with the same question: Who else do you know that would be good for me to speak with? That’s a critical question for reporters taking on a project like this. The people you’re speaking with sometimes know better than you who else to talk to.”
Anything else you want to say? Anything I missed?
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize the necessity of working with a great editor. The industry has devalued editors over the past decade, but this story more than any in my career emphasized the important role they serve to quality journalism.
“There’s no chance this story would have gotten off the ground without the work of my editors. I was fortunate to work with two superb editors over these 18 months. It started with my sports editor, Robert Zizzo. He helped me believe in the story, keep patience when the reporting took longer than I wanted, and was important to one of the most crucial elements, crafting a narrative through the reporting.
“It moved to the desk of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative editor Sam Roe midway through. With Sam, I rewired the story. The analogy we used was keeping the structure of a house, but removing all the appliances, furniture and floors, and then refurbishing it. A major revision to the story was for it to be told through the perspective of players. Initial versions were too heavily reliant on reporting from lawyers. I think the final copy personalizes the story, helping make a dense topic digestible.”

Word choices matter (or why a judge thought people who were shot to death couldn’t be called “victims” of the shooting)

Journalists must have a decent vocabulary to make sure they can communicate effectively to an audience. To assist my students in this regard, kids in my Feature Writing class have been required to smell or feel a mystery substance without being able to see it. They then have to generate 15 words that describe the sensation accurately and clearly.

(If you want to see the “Feel it” Lab or the “Smell it” Lab in action, feel free to click on those links.)

The point I was trying to make in those lessons was that distinctions in verbiage convey specific images to your audience. There’s a difference between “sticky” and “slimy”  or between “cool” and “cold.” In taking a whiff from the mystery bags, students found themselves debating among  the terms “scent” and “odor” and “stench.”

Distinctions like this can make the difference between a vivid word picture and a fuzzy mental image, but really can’t do much harm to the readers or the field. A recent court decision in Wisconsin, however, demonstrates how word choices can literally shape opportunities for justice.

Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for his actions during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August. 2020. Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them, as part of a collection of citizens who came down to “monitor” the civil unrest that occurred after police officer Rusty Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times as  Blake was getting into his SUV. Rittenhouse is currently on trial for these shootings and the judge in the case made a specific requirement as to how participants in the case should refer to certain people involved:

During Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial on homicide charges, prosecutors must refer to the two people he fatally shot — Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber — and one he wounded — Gaige Grosskreutz — as Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Huber and Mr. Grosskreutz, or the people who were shot, or as to Rosenbaum and Huber, the decedents.

They may not be referred to as victims.


Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger countered by seeking to bar defense lawyers from calling the men “looters, rioters, arsonists or any other pejorative term.”

While looting, rioting and arson occurred in the two nights before the shooting, Binger argued that unless there’s specific proof Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz were engaged in any of those actions, and that Rittenhouse had seen it, the labels are even more “loaded” than what judge ascribes to “victim.”

Schroeder was not swayed.

We have seen this problem before in how certain words can lead readers to have certain emotional reactions. The most famous one is this comparison of people during Hurricane Katrina trying to survive by scrounging for supplies. While the caption on the photo of the Black man shows him “looting,” the caption for the white couple has them “finding” supplies.

In both cases, people were taking items necessary to their survival from places without paying for them (primarily because everything was destroyed or abandoned at that time, and nobody showed up to run the register at the local convenience store). However, the “looting” tag carries with it a criminal vibe while the “finding” tag seems to indicate the people just were walking around and discovered the stuff under a pile of leaves on the sidewalk or something.

Feminist scholars have long noted the incongruity in language as to how men and women are described. A few common pairings include:

  • Women are “pushy” while men are “assertive”
  • Women are “bossy” while men “take charge”
  • Women are “stubborn” while men are “persistent”

We could go on for days, but the point is that language matters in how we tell stories. Here are a couple hints to improve your word selection when it comes to potential biases in language:


WOULD YOU USE THE DESCRIPTOR OF THE SITUATION WAS REVERSED?: One of the key ways to determine fairness in language or description is to turn the tables and see if it still works for you. My favorite example comes from Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” in which one of his teammates notes that he wouldn’t mind the papers referring to him as “the black first baseman” if only they would refer to his counterpart as “the white first baseman.”

The same is true of descriptions like “the female mayor” or “the woman CEO” and so forth. Calling attention unnecessarily to an attribute that you wouldn’t flip the other way is clearly an indicator that you might want to rethink that descriptor. I can’t remember seeing headlines about “the white quarterback” or “the male company president” and I bet most of you can’t either. Same thing with references to a “straight wedding” or a “cis gender politician.”

This doesn’t mean all descriptors of any kind like this should be ignored or eliminated. What it does mean is that you should think about why you’re doing what you’re doing and see if it makes sense.


DOES THE TERM HAVE A LOADED MEANING?: I can’t think of any time I’ve heard someone described as “a looter” or “a rioter” and had a positive reaction to that person. Those terms carry with them some negative baggage.  Conversely, I’ve seen an array of meanings ascribed to the term “clowning around” that range from bright and happy to racist.

Calling a member of the city council a “bureaucrat” can be technically accurate, as that person is a governmental figure, but it also brings up an image of someone who cares more about laws than people or who obstructs important actions by adhering to the letter of the law.

Calling a new policy a “reform” can be technically correct, as it will reshape the legal landscape in regard to the the way something is done, thus re-forming something. However, the term carries with it a positive meaning that leads people to believe something is a good idea. For example, a plan to cut benefits to working parents who are operating just above the poverty line can be deemed “welfare reform” and seen in a positive light.

The one I just saw that made me think was “unskilled labor.” In a post on this term, someone noted that all labor is skilled. If you took Bill Gates and stuck him with a road construction crew, he would be as lost as can be. If you took Jamie Dimon and put him in charge of a Naperville McDonald’s during lunch rush, he would probably end up with a crowd of really angry people and some severe grease burns. The term “unskilled labor” is meant to diminish the value of what certain people do and thus make it easier to discount them or pay them less.

All sorts of terms have a particular angle on them, such as “pro-life” for people who are against abortion rights, to “anti-death,” to people who opposed capital punishment. The question you need to ask is if your choice of words is providing bias or giving favor to a particular side of a debate.


DOES THAT WORD MEAN WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS: Whenever I’m writing and I’m half guessing at the meaning of a word, I’m mystically transported back to eighth grade and hearing my mother’s voice yelling from another room, “Look it up!  You’ve got a dictionary in there!”

Systemic Racism: “I Don&#39;t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means” – Crafted For All

We talked about this a bit during one of The Junk Drawer posts, where a reporter talked about this lead and word choice:

MILWAUKEE — In the immediate aftermath of a legendary performance to close out the 2021 NBA Finals and win a championship for the first time in his career, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo declared that he signed his five-year, supermax contract extension prior to the season because “there was a job that had to be finished,” and that staying in Milwaukee meant doing it the “hard way.”

Aside from the 83 other problems we noted, the use of the word “aftermath” is wrong, given that it  means “the consequences or aftereffects of a significant unpleasant event.”

I still love the student who finally learned after years of using “penultimate” to describe something that was super-extra ultimate, the word actually meant “second to last.”

The point is to know the meaning of the word before you use it.

That’s an important point I hoped I emphasized in that penultimate paragraph.